To give Kheer Bhavani a try on the day of Dussera seemed a splendid idea. About 20 km from Srinagar, the ancient temple, steeped in legend, is one of Hinduism's holiest shrines in Kashmir.
I was not to know this, but apparently Dussera is not a special day in Srinagar like in eastern India or Mysore. Nor is Vijayadashami celebrated in Srinagar after the north Indian fashion where Ravana is sent up in smoke amidst a burst of firecrackers denoting Lord Rama's triumph over Lanka's ruler of legend.
So, all was plain routine at this lovely temple set amidst splendid trees at Tulmulah village, not far from Ganderbal town.
But, what an uplifting routine!
In the spacious divine chamber sat the chanting priest, surrounded by typical puja (ceremonial worship) paraphernalia.
There were just four of us in prayer mode. The numbers would increase within a few minutes as a troop of Bengali tourists arrived. But what caught my eye was an old gentleman in deep devotion, thumbing through a book of prayer, right to left. The slim volume was indeed in the Perso-Urdu script.
I accosted him outside, at the prasad stall where a steaming katora (metal bowl) of delicious kheer (milk and rice pudding) was on offer. Pandit Prithvi Nath Bhan, 84, now lives in Jammu, but is visiting his village for a month. He had stayed on for 10 years after the outbreak of militancy in 1989, but moved eventually after his wife passed away.
"Urdu is the only language I know and all our prayer books are available in the script," the old Pandit said. He appeared surprised by my obvious question about language and religion.
Tulmulah, as indeednearly all of Kashmir today, is almost entirely Muslim now. I asked if there was any resentment at all among his former neighbours about the temple standing so magnificent and full of impressive dignity, considering that Kashmir has been such a scalding cauldron in recent times.
"None",he said. "And why should there be? This was not that sort of place. The troubles began only after the '87 election and when Pakistan got involved."
Of course, Kheer Bhavani is guarded by a Central Reserve Police picket and its men also hand out the prasad.
Takingleave of the elderly gent, I walked across the wide yard to collect my shoes. Not much earlier, the man looking to people's footwear had been sitting beside me just for a short minute and looked every inch a Kashmiri Pandit. I asked him his name and he said amiably, "Ghulam Mohammed".
I had to ask after the bearded youngster selling pictures of Hindu deities right inside the temple precinct. He turnedout to be Muslim. I was told this was his livelihood and that he had no other business.
Themoney is not at all bad, he said. Other than in winter, about 300 devotees show up every day on average.
Thetemple did shake a bit with the killer earthquake last Saturday, but there is no damage of any kind. I cleverly tried to ask a few local devotees if they thought this was a sign of divine sanction, and if the devastation caused by the quake elsewhere in the Valley denoted God's retribution.
Theyshook their heads wondering about what I was asking.
Later, my driver, a devout Muslim who is serious about his Ramzan fast, said the tremors in Kashmir were on account of "nafarmani" (disobedience of God's will).
PM at the UN