28/04/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Photoblog: Fanning The Flames Of Faith At Aishmuqam Torch Festival

Sameer Mushtaq

They are all bearing torches--the men, women and children. The flames cast the surroundings in a fiery hue, as the congregants gather at a shrine perched on a hillock. They are observing, with fervour and festivity, the urs of the 15th-century saint Zain-ud-Din Wali.

Every year, this festival is celebrated between the month of March and April. According to a local legend, it was on this day that the Sufi saint entered the deep cave for the first time for the purpose of meditation, bearing a torch to guide him.

The cave is situated in Aishmuqam village of Anantnag district, and is about 76km from Srinagar city. It is revered by Muslims and well as non-Muslims who are inspired by the saint.

Born to a Rajput Hindu family from neighbouring Kishtwar district, Zain-ud-Din Wali was known as Zia Singh in his childhood.

Born to a Rajput Hindu family from neighbouring Kishtwar district, Zain-ud-Din Wali was known as Zia Singh in his childhood. Information available at the official website of district Anantnag says Zain-ud-Din, before his conversion, was a prince and belonged to the family of the ruling Rajas of Kishtwar.

When he was a young boy, Zia was struck by a serious illness. As she searched for solutions, his worried mother came to know about a visiting mystic, Sheikh Noordin Reshi (the leading sufi of Kashmir), in her area. She met the mystic, who prayed for the relief of the sick child on the condition that after recovering from his illness, her mother would bring him to Kashmir. However, Zia's mother forgot her promise and the boy fell ill again. At this point, she saw that mystic in her dream who reminded her of her promise. She promptly took Zia Singh to Kashmir where both accepted Islam. Thereafter, Zia Singh was renamed as Zain-u-Din Wali and he submitted to the guidance of Noordin Reshi., who ordered him to move to the cave of Aishmuqam for meditation. When Zain-u-din reached the cave it was inhabited by snakes and other reptiles and he gently banished them from there and stayed at the cave until his death.

The festival also marks the beginning of spring and the start of the sowing season.

To commemorate that moment when the saint for the first time entered this cave, the people of Aishmuqam and other places in the vicinity (and beyond) celebrate this day by lighting torches in and around the premises and at villages in the periphery of the shrine.

Around the shrine, a makeshift village fair of sorts crops up, with vendors setting up stalls to sell merchandise.

The festival also marks the beginning of spring and the start of the sowing season.

Shrine officials say that during times of drought or natural calamities a special prayer is held inside the shrine to seek blessings


An old devotee sips tea in front of the railing on which votive threads--known locally as "daech--of different colours can be seen tied. Followers of the Sufi sect of Islam tie such knots at shrines while making a wish. If their wish is fulfilled, they return to untie their thread.


A Muslim woman holds the steel chains and prays before entering into the cavern shrine of Zain-ud-Din Wali. The saint lies buried inside the cave.


A Kashmiri girl ties a knot as she makes a wish.


Women wait in line for their turn to pay their respects to the Sufi saint.


A Kashmiri priest rests as devotees wait in a queue to enter the cave shrine.


An old man selling wooden torches (known as "laesh" or mashaal") waits for customers. Devotees throng the shrine every year on this date to burn mashaal, a formal inauguration of Kashmir's agricultural season. The event lasts till late in the evening as the believers pray and take out torchlight processions.


Shaving the heads of newborn babies is a Sunnah, or prophet's prescribed way, among Muslims. It is believed to help in the healthy growth of hair. Hair on the newborn baby's head is called "zaedd" in local parlance, and is usually shaved off within seven days of birth.


A Kashmiri Muslim devotee carries a torch as he climbs a hilltop near the shrine of Zain-ud-Din Wali.


Snack stalls do brisk business, with devotees fortifying themselves with local delicacies such as nader moenjih (lotus stem fried with a coating of gram flour), till kaedeh(dried peas fried with gram flour), poeraath (large puri) and halwa.


The march to the shrine.


As the sun sets, devotees start lighting up their torches. It is mostly the agrarian community which celebrates this festival at the shrine while chanting prayers.


A flicker of devotion.


Thousands of devotees from across the Valley throng this shrine to celebrate the urs of Zain-ud-din Wali.


Kashmiri Muslim villagers hold long torches as they commemorate the Sufi saint.


Villagers dance around a bonfire in celebration of the start of the sowing season.

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