Mekhal Ritual of Kashmiri Pandits

By Dr. S.S. Toshkhani

SS Toshkhani“Mekhal” is what the Kashmiri Pandits call upanayana or yajnopavit (sacred thread investiture) and the whole range of ceremonies connected with it, though wearing the mekhala or the girdle of Munja grass is only one of them. How they came to use the word for the whole samskara is not clear. But it seems that at some point in time it must have been for them the most important part of the sacred thread investiture ceremony as it stressed the vows of celibacy and purity of conduct as an essential prerequisite for the initiate to go to the Acharya to learn. Actually, upanayana, with which it has become synonymous, was in the beginning an educational samskara which was performed when the teacher accepted to take charge of the student and impart necessary education to him. According to Dr. Rajbali Pandey, it was made compulsory to make education universal. Slowly it began to loose its pure educational sense and assumed a ceremonious character with the investiture of the sacred thread, which took place at the end of the yajna performed to mark the initiation and became the main ritual. In course of time the boy initiated with the Gayatri mantra to enable him to read the Vedas, was regarded as having acquired the status of a dvija or ‘twice-born’.

Whatever the case may be, in Kashmir the samskara, whether called “mekhal” or yajnopavit, became a package of about twenty-four samskaras from vidyarambha or learning of alphabets to samavartana or the end of studentship. Interestingly, these include elements from even the prenatal samskaras like garbh-adana and siman-tonnayana. Even kahanethur (namakarana) and zarakasay (chudakarana or the first tonsure) if not performed at the prescribed time can be combined with it. This has made mekhal or yajnopavit a prolonged affair lasting for hours together. However, it is the wearing of the sacred thread to which the greater significance or sanctity is attached. That may be so because it has come to be regarded by the Kashmiri Brahmans, as by Brahmans elsewhere in the country, an essential symbol of their Hindu identity.Let us have a look at some of the peculiarities of the samskara as performed by the Hindus of Kashmir. According to Laugakshi, the upanayana ceremony of a Brahman boy should be performed in the seventh year from birth or in the eighth year from conception, that of Kshatriya in the ninth year and that of a Vaishya in the eleventh year: “saptame varshe brahmanasyopanayanam navame rajanasya ekadashe vaishasya”. This differentiation between the ages of the initiates, however, has no relevance for the Kashmiri Hindus today as there was hardly any Kshatriya or Vaishya left among them after the advent of Islam in Kashmir. Optional ages have also been prescribed in the Grihyasutras in case of exigencies, the time limit for a Brahman boy being sixteen years. As the samskara has become purely ceremonial today, even this extended time limit is hardly adhered to and it is performed at a convenient time, generally a few days before marriage.

A uniquely Kashmiri and an essential preliminary ceremony performed a day or two prior to upanayana (and also marriage) is Divagon. The etymology of the word ‘divagon’ is not clear but it is probably derived from the Sanskrit ‘devagamanai, meaning ‘arrival of the gods’. The ceremony is performed for invoking the presence of gods, especially Ganesha and the Sapta Matrikas or seven mother goddesses, to bless the initiate or the boy or girl to be married. It begins with a ritual bath, called kani-shran, which is given to the initiate by five unmarried girls, pancha kanya, four holding a thin muslin cloth over his head at its four ends and the fifth pouring consecrated water with a pitcher. These days usually the officiating priest himself pours the water.

A havan is performed on the occasion amidst chanting of mantras by the presiding priest with the initiate offering oblations while facing the east. On the eastern wall, the motif of the kalpavriksha, supposed to be the abode of the goddesses in Nandanavana or the Garden of Paradise is painted with lime and vermilion. The kalpavriksha or the ‘wish fulfilling tree’ has a shatchakra (hexagon) made at its base symbolizing Shakti, and the drawing is called divta moon or the ‘column of the gods’. At about the same time khir is prepared and poured into seven earthen plates called divta tabuchi or ‘the plates of the gods’. Roth of rice flour and monga varya or fried cakes of ground moong are placed over the khir. The plates are consecrated with mantras and offered to the seven matrikas after which the khir with the moong cakes are distributed as naivedya. At the end of the ceremony, ladies take the seven earthen plates in a procession to river for visarjana. They go singing hymns and folksongs in the praise of the goddesses and praying for the long life and happiness for the initiate.

Another typically local feature that literally adds colour to the ceremony is krul – a vine scroll painted on the outer door of the house. This is usually done by the paternal aunt of the boy who executes the design of flower-laden creeper in different colours on a white background. As the design is being executed with the sacred symbol Om at the top, ladies assemble outside and sing auspicious songs. A dish called veris distributed with rice flour rot is among all present.

Though painting the krul- krul kharun as it is called in Kashmiri- is sort of ritual art denoting auspiciousness, it has all the elements of folk art. In fact, it is one of the few Kashmiri folk arts still alive.

The divagon over, the yajna for Upanayana is performed much in the same manner as Hindus elsewhere perform it. A jyotistambha or jwala linga with a shatchakra base is drawn at the head of the agnikunda, with a rectangular configuration showing ayudhas like the mace, trident, bow and arrow etc. topped by a pataka. To the west of it seating arrangement is made for the officiating priests, the chief of whom is called ‘tsandra taruk’, literally meaning ‘the moon among the stars’. The tsandra taruk sits on a special seat and leads the reciting of the mantras and also monitors the proceedings of the yajna. The child to be invested with the sacred thread is taken under the canopy where his father lights up the sacred fire. Then his hair is shaved off by the barber – in the ordinary way if he has already performed his zarakasay.

Then he is given a bath and made to wear a snana-patta (loincloth) kept in its place by a cotton cord called atya pan which is tied round his waist. He is also given an upper and lower garment dyed in saffron or yellow colour so that he is dressed up like a Brahmachari. The Grihyasutras though prescribe that the clothes of a Brahman initiate should be of kashaya or reddish colour. The ceremony of offering clothes to the Brahmachari is described in detail in the Laugakshi Grihyasutra along with the Vedic mantras to be recited on the occasion.

Kalasha Puja is performed before the actual ceremony of Upanayana starts. The kalasha, a pitcher filled with water, vishtara (shoots of kusha grass ) and walnuts, is an important ritual object full of symbolic significance. It is consecrated by making shrichakra and swastika marks on it with vermilion (sindoar) and placed on an ashtadala kamala (eight-petaled lotus) drawn with lime or rice flour on the ground at the ritual site towards the east and on the left side of the agnikunda. Kalasha Puja is a prolonged affair as the kalasha is said to contain the entire heavenly vault and is the seat of all the gods with Vishnu occupying its mouth, Rudra its neck, and Brahma its bottom. The group of matrikas is known to reside in the middle part. Indra, Kubera, Varuna and Yama all reside in it. Within the kalasha the planets and the gods are bonded together and above it there are seven naga deities guarding it. The kalasha is worshipped with flowers and rice grains (arghya) and the presence of all these deities is invoked with appropriate mantras so that the day is auspicious for the yajnopavit ceremony that is about to be performed. Kalasha Puja begins with the hymn ‘ Omkaro yasya moolam, portraying the Vedas as a wish-fulfilling tree (kalpavriksha) and praying to it for protection. In fact the Puja is performed at the beginning of all major rites of Kashmiri Hindus.

Mekhala-bandhana or maunji-bandhana is in itself a most important ritual related to upanayana performed in the process when a girdle of the Munja grass is tied round the waist of the Brahmachari (called “mekhali maharaza” in Kashmiri). Laugakshi and his commentator Vedapala elaborately describe this rite. Some symbolic acts take place before the guru (the officiating priest) takes charge of the initiate to be. The teacher makes the Brahmachari to go round the sacred fire and to place his foot on a stone, asking him to be firm and steadfast. Then he touches the heart of the pupil uttering the words: “Into my will take thy heart; my mind shall thy mind follow; in my word thou shalt rejoice with all thy heart; may Brihaspati join thee to me” (“mama vrate hridayam te dadami mama vachenekavrato jushasva Brihaspatih tva mayanuktak mahyam”). After this the Brahmachari takes curds thrice and approaches the teacher to be initiated. At this the teacher ties the girdle round the waist of the boy with the words: “Here has come to me, keeping away evil words, purifying mankind as a purifier, clothing herself by power of inhalation and exhalation, with strength this sisterly goddess, the blessed girdle: “pranapanabhyam balamabhajanti sakha devi subhaga mekhaleyam”.

The mekhala or girdle in the case of a Brahman is to be made of Munja grass and at the end of upanayana is to be replaced by a cotton girdle, but as this grass does not grow in Kashmir, a girdle of Kusha grass or of cotton is tied. And strange though it may seem, the rite is increasingly being discarded even though the yajnopavit ceremony continues to be called mekhal.

The decks are now clear for the main and the most important rite – the investiture of the sacred thread. In Kashmir, wearing of the sacred thread was essential not only for initiating a young boy into Brahmanhood by teaching him to recite the Gayatri mantra but also an essential prerequisite that made him eligible for marriage. Yajnopavit, it must be noted, continues to be retained as one of the most important rituals because of this reason also. The astrologically chosen auspicious moment is, however, generally strictly adhered to. The boy takes a few steps to the north and it is his father who first puts the three cords of the sacred thread round his neck, which is then replaced by the set of three cords which the priest makes him wear with the mantra “yajnopavit am paramam pavitram”. In the meanwhile the boy is made to look at the sun. He is to put on another set of three-folds on being married -one for himself and one for his wife. While the father of the boy has a definite religious role to play, the mother and other close relatives gather around him with the ladies singing auspicious songs to make it a colorful occasion socially and everyone rejoicing and having a sense of participation.

There are some features, peculiarly regional in character, which are introduced at this stage. In one of them, to which we have referred earier, the ladies of the family enact a performance closely resembling simantonnayana. With the help of mulberry twigs (instead of Udumbara) husbands of these ladies put through the locks of their hair strands of narivan or protection cord in a manner that they dangle alongside the strings of their dejihors. It is believed that this helps newly married women to become mothers soon.

Another peculiar feature is the tekytal – the figure of the shrichakra over a rectangular configuration painted with vermilion or saffron paste on the top of the ladies’ headgear. As an option the design may be cut out on coloured or golden paper and pasted on the headgear. Tekytal shows show deeply Shaktism or the Mother Goddess cult has influenced the social and religious life of Kashmiri Pandits.

Yet another interesting and typically local feature in the Yajnopavit ceremony of the Pandits is varidan. Varidan is a kind of hearth specially made for the occasion by the potter, having thirty-six holes on which thirty-six sanivaris or small earthen vessels are placed for cooking rice for rituals purposes. The thirty-six holes correspond to the thirty-sx categories mentioned in the Shaiva texts as the basic constituents of the manifested world. As the sanivaris are very small and are filled only ceremonially, rice is cooked separately also in a large pot to serve the ritual purpose.

Having worn the sacred thread, the Acharya gives him specific instructions about how to wear the sacrificial cord on different occasions. He then gives him a deerskin to wear, Laugakshi prescribes: “anah-anas-yam vasanam charishnu paridam vajyajinam dadh-eyamiti vachayannaineyam charma brahmanya prachh-ativaigyaghram rajanyam rauravam vaishya”. That is, the skin of a black deer should be given to a Brahmana for wearing as an upper garment, the Kshatriya the skin of a tiger and the Vaishya that of a Ruru deer. Today the skin of a spotted deer is obtained for a Brahman boy for ceremonial wearing, the other two castes virtually not exsiting among Kashmiri Hindus. Dr. Rajbali Pandey quotes the Gopatha Brahmana as saying that “the deerskin was symbolical of holy lustre and spiritual pre-eminence.” It inspired a Vedic student to attain the spiritual and intellectual position of a Rishi”. At the time of receiving the deerskin, the Brahmachari is made to look at the sun with the mantra tachchakshur devahitam”.

The Acharya (priest) now hands over a staff to the Brahamachari so that he may set upon his journey as a traveler on the path of knowledge. Laugakshi prescribes that the staff should be of Palasha wood for a Brahman: “palasham dandam brahmanaya p-rayachchhati”. As Palasha wood is not available in Kashmir, the Brahmachari is given a staff of the mulberry wood, which is readily available. But today what the priest hands over is a staff in name only; actually it is a twig which has no utility, except ceremonial, the modern student no longer going to the forest to study.

Having equipped the initiated with a girdle, deerskin and staff (which were considered necessary for the Vedic student going to study at his Acharya’s place), the Acharya now imposes five commandments on him: “A Brahmachari art thou.

Take water. Do the service. Do not sleep in the daytime. Control your speech”. Vedpala, the commentator of Laugakshi Sutras explains service (karma) as serving the Acharya, studying the Vedas etc.

Repeating five verses from the Vedas in which the Seven Rishis and the gods are requested to stimulate his (the brahmacahri’s) intelligence, he is made to repeat a sixth verse also which is a yaju about milking the sweet milk of the Vedas.

At this point the Brahamchari is to be shown the reflection of Agni or the burning sacrificial fire in a pot of ajya or clarified butter. This is called ajya darshan, which has been distorted to ‘adi darshun’ in Kashmiri. According to Laugakshi’s prescription, it is to precede bhiksha or the round for alms. Siting in front of the sacrificial fire with his face towards the east, the Acharya is to teach the most sacred Savitri mantra in the Gayatri metre (and therefore known as the Gayatri mantra) to the Brahmana pupil, reciting it three times-”first pada by pada then hemistich by hemistich” and last of all the whole verse so that he is able to learn it properly.

Vedarambha, or the beginning of the study of the Vedas and vidyarambha, or learning of the alphabets, are both mixed up in the present way of performing the sacred thread ceremony. What happens is that after offering him the panchagavya or the five products of a cow (cow dung, cow’s urine, milk, curds and ghee), the teacher (impersonated by the officiating priest) makes the Brahmachari write some words on a thali in which finely powered mud is scattered. The words generally written on this occasion are “Om svasti siddham” or “Om namah siddhaya” (Salutation to the Siddhas). The script in which this was originally written came to be known as the Siddham or Siddhamatrika script, an earlier form of Sharada. The teacher would make the child read what was written and explain its meaning to him. It may be noted that in Kashmir vidyarambha was regarded as a part of upanayana and not a separate samskara. The rite has, however, almost gone out of vogue now.

It is now that the Brahmachari gets up to ask for alms (bhiksha) for the Guru, which in effect means to collect money for the officiating priest. The first person he is supposed to approach according to the Kashmiri custom is his maternal aunt. Observing the necessary decorum has to address a lady he approaches for alms with bhavati bhiksham dehi, abid habi” (“Venerable lady, give me alms”) and a man with “bho bhiksham dehi, abid hasa” (“Venerable Sir, give me alms”). The etymology of the Kashmiri word ‘abid’ is, however, not clear. Some say it is the Kashmiri form of the Sanskrit word ‘abheda’, but though phonetically plausible, this does not sound convincing.

To conclude the yajna, the priest summons everyone for the last ahuti, offering a handful of a mixture of soaked wheat grains and flowers. This is called athiphol, literally meaning a handful of grains and is to be offered as oblation. Everyone makes a beeline to receive the athiphol, making it sure that he or she is present during the samapti or the concluding moments of the day-long yajna. Hymns for the pacification of the gods and the planets are recited in a chorus led by the priests and there is a clamour for offering the athiphol into the fire as soon as the priest pronounces the last “svaha”. The priest then sprinkles water from the kalasha on everybody present and distributes the walnuts as naivedya. The water thus sprinkled is called ‘kalasha lav’ and the walnut as ‘kalasha doon”.

What is most interesting is that samavartana or the sacrament marking the end of the “student career” of the boy and his “return” home from the house of the Guru is treated as a part of the Yajnopavit ceremony. It is assumed that the boy invested with the sacred thread has completed his “studies” and has come back to the family. This is regarded as a very important period in the boy’s life as he is now supposed to be ready to share the responsibilities of the world and get married. In accordance with the spirit of Laugakshi’s ordain-ments, the boy Invested with the sacred thread is given new clothes and shoes to wear instead of the brahamachari’s garments. A muslin turban is tied round his head. He is made to stand on the vyug or a colourful mandala. Someone, usually a young friend of the initiate, or mekhali maharaza as he is called in Kashmiri, holds a parasol of flowers over his head. He is then taken in a procession to the riverbank for snana, the ceremonial bath as a snataka (one who has completed his studies). There, the priest, who also accompanies him, gives him instructions about washing the sacred thread and performing daily rites like the sandhya etc.. He is also taught how to offer libations of water to gods and ancestors. After this he returns home in a procession. In the meanwhile, ladies sing auspicious songs and perform a special dance in a circle, the origin of which could go back to centuries. This is a unique feature of the celebrations.

The yajnopavita ceremonies do not end with the samavartana. On the next day a small homa known as ‘koshal hom’ (Skt. ‘kushala homa’) is performed to thank the gods that all has ended well.