A Return Home: Exile, Friendship and Peace in Kashmir

By Shahnawaz Shah

 

The ambiance of the room grew cozier —  harmonious as we listened to the soft vocals and compositions of Rasa Javedani who had written the fitting words to the melodies that were then sung by Shakeel Shaan and myself.  The audience of old friends grew emotional in the atmosphere and we found it hard to hold back tears.  The song we chose to sing that night was one to express our love for the friends gathered that day, the friends who had left the Kashmir valley three decades back. Today I welcomed them for the first time on their return to their home of Kashmir.

It took twenty-eight years for such an historic reunion to happen. We had spent our teens together, enjoying school and college life and now we had the chance to recollect a time that we remembered as being full of joy, unaware of the divisive atmosphere that was brewing and which we in our innocence could not foresee.

The turmoil that erupted in Kashmir was sudden and spontaneous and with fewer  communication vehicles in those days our group couldn’t contact each other. Unfavorable conditions of the time forced many Kashmiri families (Pundit, Muslim and Sikh) to migrate far from their homes.  It was ten years before we were able to trace one another after this abrupt departure, all that while yearning to reconnect, especially to be together again in the homeland.   The idea to come together was sparked by a phone call and Rajesh Raina and I were determined to make it happen.

shahnawaz & rajesh raina
Enter L to R: Childhood friends, Shahnawaz and Rajesh Raina initiated the reunion. Shahnawaz works in the tourism sector in Kashmir and continues his work in supporting young people in reconciliation and social and environmental work. Rajesh Raina (on right) heads up an important news network of India. a caption

Even now as the situation in Kashmir is still ripe with violence and strife, such simple happenings as the reunion of a group of friends raises hope for others, hope of peace in the valley.  We must be able to imagine peace, to remember what it feels like.

We were inspired by a youth initiative in Kashmir called Ripples. It was an idea that came from the wish to see peace in my valley once again.  We believe that by bringing together those who longed for peace it will awaken the memories of a time when this vast area was the meeting ground of different spiritual traditions and people lived together harmoniously.  We want this feeling to spread.  Along this journey we met with the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a network of peacemakers led by women working for harmony and reconciliation. These women had been organizing and facilitating similar interactions and meetings between divided communities for many years and they took a deep interest in Kashmir after their first visit. It reignited some hope in me and we began to work together, mostly with young people, helping them create spaces of expression for their development. They had grown up amidst tension and conflict and had to know there was another way. We organized programs together with GPIW and invited some of these aspiring youth to come and dialogue with us and ask them what it takes to become true community leaders.

Although there had been many peace efforts by various organizations over the years, we felt our reunion was unique —  at the very least it was an emotional one. Some of those who had migrated were scared to return, imagining their old homeland will feel unfamiliar and the people harsh with them. To their surprise they experienced the same love and affection from their friends in the valley as in the past.  During our days together we visited old favorite places, ate our traditional Kashmiri foods, danced and sang. We sailed on Dal Lake for which Srinagar is famous. When it was time to take leave it was with tearful and moist eyes, visibly expressing the admission of their wrong perception about the reality. The truth is that the majority of the people of Kashmir still keep alive the real Kashmiriyat pluralistic values of simple and harmonious living.

In the Sufi spirit of friendship, the lyrics to the songs were intended to evoke the love and affection in our hearts… “oh friends your place and your glimpses are in our eyes always and your space is always here,  which you have to fill by coming back to your homeland!

These feelings lingered as everyone left. They left knowing that the Kashmir of their youth had not died and there was hope for a future without violence and fear.

group of friends

 

How Many Souls Did You Make Happy?

Ladakhi School girls at Mahabodhi Center
Ladakhi school children at Mahabodi Intl. Meditation Center              photo: Hiromi Niimi

 

It was more than 30 years ago that Swami Nirvanananda, an Italian student of agriculture and music, traveled to Puri, India, after having read the book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramahansa Yogananda. A book that transformed his life’s direction with Guru Yogananda Paramahansa serving as an inspiration and inner teacher. In India he met Father Marian, a survivor of the Nazi death camp of Dachau, who had started a village for lepers. Touched by the work of Father Marian and all that he witnessed in India, Swami followed his heart and embarked on a project to build a school for the children of the lepers’ families; even if the children were themselves healthy, they were not allowed to attend a normal school. This was the beginning of the Beatrix School and a life long journey that continues to this day – a journey of bringing education, simple needs and food to thousands of children in need through his Shanti Puri Friends Foundation

Following the completion of his first school, it was not long before more and more children asked to attend the Beatrix School – there was such a need and none of the children in the area had access to schooling. They were well aware that even a basic education offered them the chance at a decent life. After a few years a larger school was constructed that could take children from kindergarten up to the tenth class. Currently more than 900 children are studying there. Beyond academics, the schools are also rooted in spiritual principles with the children beginning each day with half an hour of yoga and meditation. This program of bringing in silence and movement had an immediate impact on the children, bringing a clarity that enhanced their learning abilities. The benefits extended through to their families and on into the whole community.

After the success of the Beatrix School, Swami opened other schools near Puri, in India. One at a fishermen’s village, and three other schools in more remote areas of Orissa. Those schools are solely for girls, being the most disadvantaged among the children. One school was built to offer handicapped girls an education alongside much needed physical therapy and rehabilitation. Another school was created to give shelter and educate homeless girls who had been living on the street. With nurturance and care a human being can flourish. Many of these girls are now married, have become mothers themselves and living normal lives.

In 2016 Swami Nirvananada joined GPIW and members of the Contemplative Alliance on a ten day journey to Ladakh in Kashmir. On a three day visit to the Mahabodhi Center, Swami was moved by the many children and elderly that Bhikkhu Sangasena, a Buddhist monk, was caring for there. The Mahabodhi community was in need of housing for more girls to be able to attend school and this prompted Swami Nirvanananda to send support for the construction of a hostel for two hundred additional girls who would not  otherwise have the chance to be schooled, many of them living in remote villages in Ladakh.

It’s remarkable that all this work could be accomplished by chanting devotional music all over the world. For more than 30 years Swami has been traveling across the globe, sharing his songs of love and devotion with many while collecting donations for these schools. He was gifted with a beautiful voice for a reason — and an ability to write melodies that move the soul. He might sing in English, Italian, German or Sanskrit but the real language that comes through is that of love.

Some may think that the measure of a life is: “How much did you love?” But truly the only question is: “How many souls did you make happy?” We are responsible for spreading joy and peace in this world becoming the humble instruments of Divine Will. ~ Swami Nirvanananda

Swami Nirvanananda 1