Folk-tales encapsulate our unrecorded past and listening to them enables us to go on a sort of a voyage of self-discovery. These tales connect the past with the present, showing us glimpses of our forefathers, their passions and prejudices, joys and heartaches, their sufferings and sorrows. Being their latest editions, we, of the present generation are keen and equally curious to meet them and listen to them. Brushing off these tales as cheap and puerile stuff will deprive us and our coming generations of rich source material of our social history and cut us as under from our cultural mores and traditions.
The characters in these tales are thumb-nail sketches, hurriedly drawn, as it were, but their outlines are recognisable. The situations are down-to-earth though somewhat constricted in scope and development. Having travelled over the centuries from the mouth to the ear and again from the ear to the mouth, the stories have, surprisingly, retained their charm even to this day. Some sparkle with wit and humour while others end up as tragedies, mostly comedies, all evocative of our own times, now long past.
Repository of Ethos
Folklore, legends, ballads, fables, mythological stories and even proverbs are repositories of the ethos of a particular ethnic group, shaped by its cultural uniqueness, regional geographic limitations and political vicissitudes over the times, but the themes and messages are universal. We may, if we like, sift the realities from the supernatural elements or intervention of divine personages and fairies and elves which have found their way in these tales, but these do not in any way garble the basic essentials of the cultural mores of the specific group. After reading these tales, a picture emerges, crisp and clear, of the tapestry of the life of those ages. Lest we lose touch with our own cultural heritage, currently known as ‘Kashmiriat’ whatever that stands for, an attempt is made to retell these tales, retaining their original form.
The tale of Bib Garazmaej
To begin with, the tale of Bib Garazmaj that follows will surely be told on the occasion of the annual ‘Pann’ in Kashmiri Hindu households, which falls in the lunar fortnight of Bhadoon (August-September), by the matriarch of the family, to those present at the Pooja. The tale is an emphatic assertion of the intervention of divine mercy in the reversal of misfortunes of those who have faith and submit but inflicts terrible retribution to those who are haughty, arrogant or non-believers. The characters in this tale, mother and daughter, a specimen of simple rural folk, wallowing in extreme poverty and misery on the one hand, and on the other, a king, haughty and credulous, are painted in simple black and white with no sophistication. Fortune takes twists and turns with sudden jerks and everything turns green after a long drought.
Long, long ago, in a certain village, situated at the foot of hillock on the outskirts of the city of Srinagar, Kashmir, there lived a woman with her unmarried daughter. There in the village, no one was poorer than his neighbours and as the saying goes, each family had a bit of land and livestock – under their nails and in their hair. But this woman (no name has been assigned either to the woman or to her daughter in the tale) was so poor that life for her had become a purposeless endurance and an agony that showed in distorted mouths and famished eyes of both, mother and daughter. In fair weather, they would collect firewood from the nearby jungle and by selling the same keep off the wolf from the door which had broken down long ago.
It was the month of Bhadoon. On a Sunday falling on Vinayak Chaturthi, while in the jungle collecting wood, they saw some smoke curling up at some distance. Curious, they approached the place and there found a small group of men, women and children baking/frying ‘Roths’ (sweet cakes). Both mother and daughter sat at a distance and observed with interest prayers being offered to goddess Bib Garazmaej by the group. They were surprised when some cakes were offered to them also by way of ‘Prashad’. On enquiry, they were told that whosoever celebrated ‘Pann’ on Vinayak Chaturthi, the fourth day of lunar fortnight of Bhadoon with devotion, goddess Bib Garazmaej blessed him or her and rid her devotees of all troubles and misfortunes.
Mother and daughter on reaching home were lost in thought. Both were united against their common enemy – hunger and poverty and both had found the magic wand to overcome it. But the lack of means to celebrate the function brought to their hearts feelings of shame, impotence and despondency which belong to the persecuted and dispossessed. Dogged persistence and perseverance sometimes are born of these emotions. Not wanting to let go the auspicious day, they went to the royal stables the same day and after collecting some horse-dung, washed it and sieved it. Thus, they were able to collect just a handful of grains of wheat. Lambent pleasure at this find goaded them on and presently they were able to bake a small ‘Roth’ which is called ‘Kanknivor’ and other cakes they made of cow-dung. Surrendering their will entirely to the divine power, they covered the cakes with a piece of cloth and bowed their heads to Bib Garazmaej, the divine mother, offering grass for flowers. Lo and behold! When they uncovered the cakes, they had all turned into gold.
Mother and daughter now turned the corner and the tide in their fortunes led them on to the golden gates of the palace of the King of Kashmir (again, no name has been assigned to him in the story), who, bewitched by the beauty of the girl offered himself as a suitor. The mother was too happy to refuse the proposal and the marriage was celebrated with royal pomp and show.
On the next Vinayak Chaturthi, the lady, now that she was the chief queen, sought permission to celebrate ‘Pann’ from the King, who promptly granted the request. After the Pooja, Prashad was sent to the king, who was sitting at that time in the company of lesser queens. These queens were jealous of the new queen and found the opportunity as Godsend. They told the king to throw away the cake as the pooja smelt of witchcraft meant to harm him. It was only due to her black magic that the new queen was able to attain such an exalted position. The credulous king was convinced and in a fit of rage threw away the ‘Prashad’ and even trampled upon it.
Swift retribution followed. A rebellion by the army dethroned the king, who found himself behind bars. The poor queen escaped to the village to her mother and was back to wherefrom she had started. Mother and daughter sat like lifeless cargo at the threshold of their hut remembering goddess Bib Garazmaej in their hour of distress.
The King saw goddess Bib Garazmaej in a dream whose angry countenance was too much for him to bear. The apparition rebuked him for showing disrespect to the holy ‘Prashad’ – a grave sacrilege committed by him. The King begged for forgiveness and was told to celebrate ‘Pann’ with reverence which alone would atone for his sin. The king sent a message secretly to his queen, who promptly performed Pooja, soon, with the help of his loyal soldiers, the King was able to snuff the rebellion and restore his power over his kingdom.
Here the story ends.
May the omnipresent Goddess Bib Garazmaej restore us our honour and self-respect, our homes and hearths the way she in her charity, benevolence and kindness did to the king.
If we accept the existence of Evil as a fact of life which we cannot explain, surely we must accept God’s mercy which too descends upon us mysteriously.
– An article by K. N. Kaul