April 29, 30
Anantnag, Jammu & Kashmir
A UNIQUE SPECTACLE TAKES place every year between March and April at Aishmuqam in Anantnag, 76km from Srinagar. As the sun sets, signing off with a 'lights out', a flickering, flaming red line climbs the hillock, ending in the cave shrine of Sakhi Zainuddin Wali. Men and women, young and old, carry wooden torches—called lashi in Kashmiri—and climb the incline to celebrate the annual urs (festival) of the 15th century sufi saint.
“The Zool festival is a commemoration of the time when Zainuddin, bearing a torch, entered the cave for meditation,” said Fayaz Ahmed, an official of the Wakf Board that manages the shrine.
Legend has it that Zainuddin was originally Zain Singh, a Rajput prince from Kishtwar in Jammu. When a young Zain fell ill, his mother approached Sheikh Nooruddin, the most revered sufi mystic of Kashmir, who was then on a visit to Jammu. Nooruddin prayed for Zain, and asked his mother to bring him to Kashmir after he was better. His mother agreed, but later forgot about it. After a while, Zain was again taken ill. His mother then saw Nooruddin in a dream, and she rushed to Kashmir with Zain. From then on, both mother and son became disciples of Nooruddin, who renamed Zain as Zainuddin.
Zainuddin, it is believed, meditated at Mandian and Sopore for some time. He moved to Aishmuqam on Nooruddin's orders. When Zainuddin arrived at the Aishmuqam cave, he found it to be inhabited by snakes. He gently banished them from the cave and spent the rest of his life in meditation there. The snakes, it is said, migrated to Phurupujan, 16km from Aishmuqam. Local residents say the snakes of Phurupujan are not poisonous, and are often served milk by the shepherds.
The Aishmuqam cave was turned into a shrine following Zainuddin's death. “Zainuddin had told his disciples that when his funeral prayers are held, everybody should perform ablutions afresh before his body was lowered into the grave,” said Ahmed. “After his death, people followed his command. But when they returned, they found the body and a portion of the coffin missing.”
Ahmed said one of Zainuddin's disciples, Baba Shamsuddin, then saw him in a dream, where Zainuddin told him that he had not disappeared but was present at the cave. “The disciples then converted the cave into his mausoleum,” said Ahmed. “There is a graveyard above the cave, where 18 of his disciples are buried.”
The shrine offers a panoramic view of the villages below, on either side of the road that leads to the scenic Pahalgam, 20km away. Apart from the torch procession, some male devotees dance around a bonfire during the festival, while others offer prayers and seek blessings of Allah. Some devotees make a wish, tying votive threads at the shrine. Many families also bring newborn babies here for the head shaving ritual.
The hillock comes alive during the Zool festival, with many stalls selling eatables, miniature wooden torches for children and votive threads of different hues (locally called dache) popping up. Shrine officials, too, put relics associated with the saint on display, including a loaf carved out of wood that he would lick whenever he was hungry, a stone rosary, bow and arrows that he used when he was a prince, a portion of the coffin, a wooden rod (assa) and wooden sandals.
The festival is also celebrated to mark the beginning of the sowing season, which is why farmers throng the shrine in large numbers. People from other faiths, too, visit the place to take part in the celebrations.
Though there is a flight of stairs leading to the shrine, the government is now planning to build a cable car to carry devotees, especially the older and disabled ones, to the shrine.