Amidst Covid scare, hundreds of pilgrims paid obeisance at the famous Ragnya Devi temple in Jammu and Kashmir's Ganderbal district on Friday for the annual Kheer Bhawani mela, praying for peace in the union territory and for the pandemic to end.
The annual mela was held after two years as last year it was a low-key affair with only the ritual pooja taking place at the abode of the deity due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The mela, which attracts a large number of people, especially Kashmiri Pandits, from across the country, was cancelled last year by Dharmarth Trust of Jammu and Kashmir, which organises the festival, because of the pandemic.
However, this year, celebrations were held at the mela amidst chanting of religious hymns and sound of temple bells even as most of the devotees followed Covid protocols.
Nestled in the shade of mammoth Chinar trees in Tulmulla village in this central Kashmir district, the temple witnessed hundreds of devotees who made the journey from across the valley and Jammu region.
Filling the atmosphere with a religious fervour and brotherhood, devotees, walking barefoot, carried rose petals and offered tribute to the goddess as the chants of hymns echoed through the temple compound.
The devotees paid obeisance to the deity while offering milk and kheer (pudding) at the sacred spring within the complex.
It is believed that the colour of the sacred spring water which flows below the temple indicates to the situation in the valley.
While most of the colours do not have any particular significance, black or darkish colour of the water is believed to be an indication of inauspicious times for Kashmir. However, the water in the spring was clean and milky white this year.
This year, the devotees followed Covid appropriate behaviour and the authorities had made elaborate arrangements to check the spread of the infection, officials said.
They said the devotees were allowed inside the temple in small groups and were asked to maintain social distance.
The devotees expressed happiness over the celebration of the festival.
"It feels so good to be here after two years. Though, it is not like how it used to be, I am very happy that the mela is being celebrated this year and hundreds of devotees have come," Sandeep Koul, a Kashmiri Pandit and a resident of Habba Kadal area of Srinagar, said.
He said devotees offered special prayers this year for the pandemic to end.
"We prayed for the health and well-being for everyone. We pray this COVID endsoon and people resume their normal life," Koul, whose family did not leave the Kashmir valley with the onset of the militancy in 1990, said.
Another devotee, Hiralal Koul, said the Kheer Bhawani temple holds a great significance for the Kashmiri Pandits and the annual mela is a revered occasion.
"Kashmir, and especially Tulmulla, is blessed that the Mata Rani choose this place as her abode. We feel blessed to have come here especially because of covid (pandemic). This (COVID) has wreaked havoc and we prayed for this crisis (pandemic) to end and for the people to be able to live lives normally and happily," Koul, who paid obeisance along with his family, said.
His daughter, Anjana Koul, who lives in the US, said she prayed for the peace and prosperity of Jammu and Kashmir.
"I feel very happy. I live in the US and have come here after many years. I am actually very happy with the way everything has turned up and people are following all the SOPs. I prayed for the peace and prosperity for the state of Jammu and Kashmir," she said.
The mela is an annual feature of bonhomie between Kashmir Pandits and Muslims as the local Muslims have been making arrangements for their Pandit brethren.
The Muslims used to put up stalls every year outside the shrine and prepare Kheer (pudding) and other items for the use of devotees.
However, this year, owing to COVID, not many stalls were put up, even as langar and other arrangements were put in place.