FAR FROM THE DEEP DIVIDE | A Muslim has been taking care of Shiv temple at Gulmarg for the past three decades

  • UBEER NAQUSHBANDI
  • Publish Date: Jul 1 2019 3:17AM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 1 2019 3:17AM
FAR FROM THE DEEP DIVIDE | A Muslim has been taking care of  Shiv temple at Gulmarg for the past three decadesPhoto: Kashmir Ink

It is among those places which could perhaps be found in Kashmir alone. It is a place where Gita shloks and Quranic verses have been resonating in air. It’s the practice that is being followed at Shiv temple located at Gulmarg for almost a century now.

Over the past three decades, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh has been doing everything possible to keep this syncretic culture afloat at the meadow of flowers, discovered by a Croatian architect Michael Adam Nedou in 1880. Gulmarg’s mesmerising beauty had left the Croatian fascinated, while he was travelling from Murree hill station, now on other side of Line of Control (LOC) to construct a palace for Gujarat’s ruler of that time.

Popularly known as Maharani temple, it was built in 1915 by Mohini Bai Sisodia, who was wife of Jammu and Kashmir’s Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. It was here at this temple that queen Sisodia used to worship during the days, when royal family used to spend some leisure moments at the meadow. Subsequently, the temple came to be known as ‘Moneshwar Shivalaya’ and was looked after by Kashmiri Muslims.

Many across the meadow remember Ahmad Bhat being the first Muslim caretaker of the temple. Later baton was passed on to Sheikh’s father Ghulam Rasool Sheikh who took the care of the temple for over 40 years.  In 1980s, the responsibility of handling the temple affairs was assigned to Sheikh and ever since  he has been performing his job selflessly.

On a sunny afternoon, as mild breeze blows over Gulmarg from snow clad Afharwat mountains, tourists   from plains in India currently under grip of intense heat wave are enjoying some respite. Many are taking a ponnyride into the hills.

And many in ones and twos are climbing stairs towards the temple, visible on all sides across the meadow. Among them, many tourists with their protruded bellies are trying hard to climb the temple stairs amid heavy breathlessness. However, with spirited zeal to have their  darshan visible in their eyes, they make it on top of the temple hillock, where a short statured man sporting a salt and pepper beard sitting near a ramshackle hutment watches them silently.

For a moment Sheikh’s eyes lit up seeing a devotee  come to seek his help. The moment he comes to know it is about his interview, his shoulders turn meek and he answers: “Not possible”.

“I am here in service of humanity. We are all humans. How does it make a difference that I am taking care of this temple? If not me, there would have been some another,” says Sheikh,  60, in a polite tone, while his young son nods in agreement.

However, after  some persuasion Sheikh agrees to talk.

Sheikh’s tryst with the meadow began when he arrived here as a teenager from his non-descript  Dandmoah, a village some six kilometres away, to work as a small-time tourist guide in 1980s. Sometimes he had to work as a labourer to work on the Tourism Department’s building infrastructure at Gulmarg during that time. While, at times he worked as ponywalah to eke out his living.

“It was at the time when insurgency had broken out in Punjab that I came here. During that time there used to be a pujari (priest) Babaji Jiya Lal Khuroo here. Probably he had seen me growing up here. May be Babaji was impressed by my hard work and dedication. I also used to frequent  here, since my father used to work as caretaker of the temple with him before me,” says Sheikh.

One fine day, priest whom Sheikh refers to as ‘Babaji’ called him up. ‘Beta tum ye Bhagwan ka ghar sambhal lo. Bada pune ka kaam hai (Son you take care of this house of God. You will get rewarded in the hereafter). Sheikh recalls priest having told him.

Without much thought, Sheikh agreed and both started handling the affairs of the temple happily. While Hindu devotees thronged the temple for worship, Sheikh a devout Muslim, also used to pray in its premises. “It’s what Kashmir was and continues to be,” says Sheikh while pausing with a gleam in his eyes.

Sheikh also started getting a monthly honorarium for his services which were fixed by Dharma Trust, run under the aegis of JK’s last Sadr-e-Riyasat and last Dogra ruler Hari Singh’s son, Dr Karan Singh.

“I was doing service of humanity, besides earning a few bucks for my family as well. What else you want in life”.

Sheikh  absolutely loved his job. That was until 90s. When death and fear began ruling the streets in ‘valley of saints’, dynamics of Kashmir’s landscape changed fast. The changed winds also swept across the meadow. One fine morning in 90s, remembers Sheikh, Babaji told him that he is going to his home in Srinagar for few days, never to return again.

“Something seemed changed in him. I could understand what it was then”.

After few days, when Sheikh’s Babaji didn’t turn up, he decided to check at his home all the way in Srinagar’s old city at Barbarshah. “I was told that he had already left. I frantically tried to reach him, but couldn’t. Six years down the line I came to know that he had died in Delhi”.

In shock, Sheikh had an option to switch to something else and move on in his life. But  he decided to work at the temple only. “If I would have left it, it would have meant end of Kashmiri ethos. The land of ours is known for something. Our land is known to uphold virtues of honesty and credibility. I took it as a test.  Otherwise, elements spreading venom against Kashmir could have got shot in their arm to disgrace us. That I never wanted to happen”.

Subsequently, Sheikh along with his family shifted to a hutment adjacent to the temple, where he still resides, to ensure the temple hymns  continue to resonate in the meadow.

Though influx of devotees was pretty less during those turbulent years, Sheikh  recalls the memories of yore at the  temple.

One such memory was of famous Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna shooting famous song ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar Kanta Lagai na Kankar…’ for his movie ‘Aap ki Kasam’ and another was when Manoj Kumar had arrived in the meadow to shoot for famous love story ‘Ek Phool Doo Mali’. Sheikh seems unaware about  films such as Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Jab Tak Hai Jan’, ‘Haider’ and ‘Yeh Jawani Hai Dewani’, which had some shots from the meadow.

“I lived with memories. But one thing I always wanted to know was why Babaji left all of a sudden and without informing me”.

Few years back, a woman arrived at the temple. “She had tears in her eyes. She stayed here for long time. She strolled the premises of the temple as well. There was something strange about her. I could sense it”.

Later, when Sheikh asked the woman’s whereabouts, tears also welled up in his eyes. She was Babajee’s daughter Pooja who had grown up in the meadow when she was a child. That day when Sheikh asked Pooja that why they had left suddenly, she answered that the fear had been instilled in the family by elements who took advantage of the crisis then. “However, I could now feel that it has vanished altogether now. Peace has arrived to stay here,” Pooja said.

As sun goes down, Sheikh  hopes that   “an everlasting peace” returns to Kashmir.