The Meat of the Matter With Kashmiri Pandits

As vegetarianism makes steady inroads into the community, Kashmiri Pandits find their own culinary tradition coming under strain.

Lal Chowk, Srinagar. Credit:, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a sardonic joke shared among the Pandits of Kashmir and it relates to our singular obsession – the eating of meat.

The geography of our beloved Valley has demanded a severe carnivorous preoccupation, long before horses, then buses, and then airplanes made their way into Kashmir, bringing vegetables from the south throughout the year. Since the dawn of mankind, presumably, vegetables were a summer fancy. Don’t get me wrong, we LOVE our staple haak or collard greens, also called geilan in Chinese, our monje or kohlrabi and our ubiquitous fresh (and sun-dried for winter) turnips, squash and eggplants. But being carnivorous was a survival tactic long before all that, and is deeply ingrained in our psyche as a metaphor for life, love and happiness. We did observe Ashtami and other mandatory Hindu vegetarian strictures, but blithely ignored those we could. On such deprived days, my grandfather would say with a resigned sigh, “Okay, let’s have lunch, and let’s get it over with!” Even spiritual and religious old biddies felt no qualms in chomping on ear cartilage or marrow bones long after the meal was done, pulverising everything into a heap on the thali. No one batted an eyelid.

No surprise then that even for Kashmiri Hindus (all Brahmins to a man or woman, no satisfactory explanation so far), the prasad offering at our most holy of holies, Shivratri puja, was a charger piled high with rice, cooked lamb and fish, and a luscious raw fish in its entirety atop the pile.

After wintering with my itinerant army parents, my grandparents fled the plains for the Valley every spring, frightened by the alien whir of the ceiling fan, and also by the desire to celebrate Shivratri or Herath at home. One year, my father, posted as brigadier in Delhi Cantonment, persuaded his parents to stay with the lure that his regimental priest, a Sanskrit scholar, had promised to officiate. Thus it came to pass that we had the longest puja pravachan, or sermon, ever, and finally, to everyone’s immense starving relief, the prasad was called for. My grandmother emerged proudly with her standard Shivratri platter held aloft and presented it to the guruji. He, obviously a ferocious vegetarian, stared at the raw fish, shell shocked, then instantaneously leapt to his feet and beat the hastiest retreat ever evidenced in those military precincts, shouting “Traahi! Traahi! Traahi (Help! Help! Help!)”

A single instance of the many cultural disconnects that have had worse ramifications in today’s Kashmir.

My grandmother could not quite understand what she had done wrong. After all, she, and generations of Kashmiri Hindus, had taken whole raw lamb innards up to the goddess’s shrines as sacred offerings. One piece lamb trachea, lungs, kidneys, liver, were ordered and sent uncut and un-detached by our Muslim butcher as per the centuries’ old tradition, which he knew and respected well. Carried in covered wicker krenjuls, dripping with blood, these oblations were taken to Hari Parbat or Zeethyaar with pride and joy.

The sacred shrine of Kheer Bhawani, called Tulla Mulla by us, and a couple of other holy sites were the rare exception and ABSOLUTELY vegetarian. In fact, even the Muslim homes surrounding Tulla Mulla were vegetarian, though lately this is reported to have been dropped by some households, following the growth of Islamic insurgency in the Valley.

I never saw a pig in Kashmir, let alone pork, and the Muslims never ate beef. This mutually harmonious and respectful understanding allowed us to consume large quantities of the right kind of meat cooked as per our fabulous Kashmiri cuisine. Oddly enough, it was a violation of that unspoken taboo that indicated to me that something had gone seriously wrong with our Sufi life in the Valley. A childhood Muslim friend invited me to lunch on the green grass under the grand old chinar in her vast backyard, as she had before. Her stepmother, a contender in family politics and property, joined us. As we dug in, the stepmother informed us that the meat was bod maaz, big meat, beef. Pin drop silence ensued, but I continued as if I had not heard her, but also because I knew we were eating lamb. I know my lamb. The wretched woman failed to sabotage the lovely lunch my friend had organised, but the fact that she could even say this openly, in the middle of a meal, spoke of a loss of innocence and provocative brazenness that I had not witnessed before, ever.

Last year on my visit to Kashmir I was stunned by the sight of beef carcasses in butchers’ shops in Srinagar. Obviously they were not expecting Pandit customers to return to the Valley anytime soon. When I remarked upon this change to my companion, a Muslim, he said “We never touch the thing. It’s these low caste fellows who eat this stuff.” No comment from me, but somehow his discomfiture comforted me a little.

When militancy and betrayal finally led to the flight of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, it did not happen overnight. Things changed slowly but surely. A creeping vegetarianism from the rest of India had been taking hold in the Valley albeit to the dismay of most of us. Beleaguered Pandits began to feel a kinship with the Hindu forces who sympathised with their increasingly marginalised existence in the Valley, where Islamic fundamentalism was also ripping at our centuries-old symbiotic fabric.

Which brings me to the joke mentioned at the beginning of this piece, sorrowfully narrated by one of our inner city relatives. Like so many of us, he was not comfortable with the pan-Indianisation of our unique Kashmiri culture, he had long railed against Kashmiri songs in Doordarshan style. But he was most vociferous against sacrificing an entire day, namely Tuesday, to vegetarianism, a new-fangled enterprise in Kashmir. He could see us losing our way of life, and eventually our entire Kashmiri existence.

Lamenting the loss of Kashmiri home and hearth he said, “They say that this was going to happen. When they started taking cottage cheese and collards and fruits to our goddess as offering, she was pissed off at the vegetarian gifts. She said, ‘Go! Go live in those parts where they eat all these things.’ ”

And we have and we do.

All, except a handful who have doggedly stayed on, despite all.

Sudha Koul is author of The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir.

  • Rohini

    Sad to hear about the life in Kashmir and her experiences!! HOwever, none of what is written about non-veg in temples is particularly unique to Kashmir. Many Shiva and Devi cults used to sacrifice animals till it was banned by the govt in many states (animal rights!)
    For e.g, the kali temple from which Calcutta gets its name sacrificed animals. In Southern Indian villages, small temples STILL have annual festivals where animal sacrifice happens and people cook the meat after offering it to the goddess.

    Anyone who says that Hindus are pure vegetarian are wrong.The diversity of prayer and cults and beliefs include all sorts of practices and cannot be put into a box. e.g., Aghoras until they were ‘outlawed’ by our very enlightened govt.
    Yet, we have the animal rights activists targeting Hindu animal sacrifices. – I don’t see the logic in asking them to accept meat and yet destroying the very rituals that make meat a part of their diet. If I want a freshly killed animal that I believe I sacrificed to my god (say Shiva), and I have every right to believe whatever I want as I kill that animal to eat, who are these intellectuals to ban me from it and then expect me to eat cold, old, frozen meat from a supermarket? harebrained, if you ask me.
    So, no, do not blame those who are vegetarian – blame the activists and the govt for the change in such rituals.

    Some of the other things that struck me:
    The viciousness of the friend’s mother – shocking. But I’ve had similar experiences with set of Pakistani ‘friends’ – mostly to do with trying to stealthily get you to eat beef (for some reason, this seems to be important to some of them, and seems to give them a high!!) little realizing that it really doesn’t matter all that much!

    Another point that struck me in the excerpt is the fallacy of ‘Muslims have no caste’! I have argued that EVERY religion in India follows caste….but we have the ‘holier than thou’ attitude of Muslims in India. Whereas, the truth on the ground is something quite different.
    ***When I remarked upon this change to my companion, a Muslim, he said “We never touch the thing. It’s these low caste fellows like vatals (Bhangis) etc. who eat this stuff.”****

  • Sandip Mitra

    While I like the article, I really cannot fathom what “Mainstream Vegetarian Hinduism” signifies. It is good to know that like the much trumpeted “national mainstream” there also is “mainstream HInduism”; and that brand of Hinduism is vegetarian. This in my opinion is a wrong ‘classification’ of Hinduism. It is better to say that some Hindus are vegetarians. In fact, as far as I know, the vegetarians among the Hindus are outnumbered by their non-vegetarian brethren of the same religion.

    • Rohini

      VEry good point. The media is completely losing the plot and it’s all getting to be a bit too bizarre.

  • kapil

    You are taking about a completely unrelated topic.
    I’m a Hindu atheist, didn’t believe the dogma surrounded around cow meat. Untill I visited some rural (northern) Indian villages, and saw cow(bos indicus) are like a family members. First hand experience of the cognitive ability of the indigenous breed and their relationship with the owners. It’s quite similar to Christians not eating Dog meat. Does Bible say anywhere don’t eat Dog? Just like stray dogs we have stray cows. There meat is taboo although people don’t care if she eats plastic etc. But then their are people who care a Lot about the abandoned cows.
    Well my perspective has not changed about allowing whoever wants to eat whatever. But now I totally empathize the other side’s views. Yet violence is completely unjustifiable.

    • Rohini

      Yes, many old people of my parents generation indeed take the cow as Lakshmi and take ‘seva’ of the cow very seriously. I know of many who go everyday to the nearby cow shelter near my parents’ home and actually feed the cows. It’s a trip those folks make without fail, eve or morn.
      This is serious work, seva, so those who are arguing about not seing why the cow is holy, or how people don’t care for them, don’t know on-ground realities. And it’s THESE folks, who really caree for the cow, who would be horrified to know of the gaurakshaks etc. YOu are right – They will never condone it.

  • Rohini

    Happy hair splitting. I hope you didn’t miss the wood for the trees, in your zeal to make a very ‘relevant’ point.

  • Rohini

    Matty, it is clear that the HIndus are helping their Muslim friends by warning them against meat that is not halal…isn’t that what friends should be doing?

    And if you have a problem with my comment, deal with it. Go chew a few nails.

  • Rohini

    “What if the animal I need to be sacrificed happens to be a Holy Cow?”

    Sure, go ahead and sacrifice a cow where it is legally allowed. In India, killing a cow is banned in 24 states. Doing so will land you in jail, as will killing a camel or any number of other species.
    Good luck with exercising your ‘rights’ to indulge in illegality.

  • Rohini

    Yes, 100%, agree with you.

  • Rohini

    Yes, 100%, agree with you.

  • Rohini

    See, this is the problem with your keyboard warrior type. NO real life experiences, all from the internet. You proceed to place people in a black or white box, tie it up with neat ribbons, impute imagined characters and motives to them, and then orgasm by proceeding to berate this imagined ‘beast in the box’ that YOU’ve just made up in that deluded offal-store called your mind.
    It’s all very amusing!
    Those old folks made this country, went through tough times and are now doing whatever gives them peace. You are going to teach them lessons on democracy and neighbourliness?
    You sound demented with your hyperbolic language…grow up, kid.

  • Rohini

    Matty, I love you are amusing, you afford me a few laughs each day – your ilk, i.e.. You concede I am educated – which is more than I can say about you. Get a brain, get an education, get some independent opinions. Then, we can talk. Till then, adieu, my friend.

  • Rohini

    Matty, you say – **The reason why cow-slaughter is banned in “24 states for the last 60 years” and may cause “blood-bath 2-3 states” is Hindu Fundamentalism – Plain & Simple! **

    Without directly insulting you as an idiot, I shal give you some facts which may make you see yourself for the mental, uneducated, troll that you are.
    1. Nehru and his Congress Govt, along with Ambedkar(the fathe of the constitution) brought in the laws against cow slaughter post independence. PEr you, Nehru, Ambedkar and the founding fathers & mothers were ‘religious fundamentalists’ ? You are also implying hIndus who worship the cow and want its slaughter to stay banned are fundamentalists? Which indicates you use the word without knowing its meaning because it sounds soo coool and with it.

    2. Ever heard of the Directive Principles of State Policy? Perhaps not, given that you use outrage, and hyperbole in the absence of knowledge.
    It is Part IV of the Indian Constitution. There are 52 of them and no. 48 is given verbatim for your consumption below.:

    48. Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry.-

    The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.

    Now,Matty, may I humbly request that you go and create hot air from your posterior aperture somewhere else, and not on my comments? Thank you for your consideration.

  • Rohini

    I don’t think epicureans (whoo, only those who eat beef are epicureans??) have a fundamental right to the meat of a cow. Do without it in India, like people do without horse-meat in the US (banned recently because Americans have cultural associations with the horse), pig meat in the ME (religious reasons), dog meat in the US, Europe (cultural ban) etc and whale meat in most parts of the world (cultural ban). In the UK, people are not allowed to take the eggs of birds and in South Africa, you are not allowed to eat certain sizes and species of fish in certain times of the year..Many more examples like that.

    Or eat carabeef – Mr. Epicurean.
    So, if you happen to travel to other parts of the world, live there, experience life outside your little internet world, you will see that such things are par for the course across the world.

  • Rohini

    This comment is unfortunate. She is not blaming anyone, she is an ordinary person writing about her experinces as an Individual.

  • paanpaa

    Look at the reality, people care more about TV shows for crying out loud.

  • paanpaa

    umm.. I was pointing out the difference between ‘freshly killed’ and sacrificed. You go to Calcutta, it’s a veritable dump.