Tulmulla: Thousands of devotees on Tuesday thronged the temple of Ragnya Devi, a revered goddess of Kashmiri Pandits, to celebrate the annual festival of Kheer Bhawani.
Nestled in the shade of mammoth Chinar trees in this village in central Kashmir`s Ganderbal district, the temple witnessed massive crowds of devotees, most of them Kashmiri Pandits, who made the journey from across the country.
Walking barefoot, the devotees carried rose petals and offered tribute to the goddess as men took a dip in the stream close to the shrine.
"I am so happy that I came here. I prayed for peace and harmony. I was glad to see young boys, both Muslims and Hindus, making arrangements for the festival of the Mata," said Santosh Kaw, a Kashmiri Pandit who is visiting the temple after 27 years.
Kaw, who lived in Chanapora locality of Srinagar, left the Valley for New Delhi in 1990 at the peak of militancy.
"This is a festival of Hindus but what I saw here is an example of brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims," said Raj Kumar, another Kashmiri Pandit, who was born in Srinagar`s Karan Nagar locality but moved to Jammu.
As devotees jostled with each other to move closer to the main temple complex, the chants of hymns echoed through the temple compound.
With the improvement in the security situation in Kashmir at the turn of this century, the confidence of the Kashmiri Pandits saw a boost with more members of the community paying occasional visits to the Valley.
This is evident from the rising number of Kashmiri Pandit devotees attending the Kheer Bhawani festival every year, with more than one lakh attending the festival last year alone.
The Kheer Bhawani is an example of the communal amity between Hindus and Muslims in the Valley as the latter take an active part in making arrangements every year.
In the outer compound of the pantheon, stalls set up by local Muslims sell everything needed to perform the rituals of the festival.
`Puja thalis`, the plates carrying commodities offered as tributes to the goddess, are prepared by Muslims, who place them in the nearly two dozen stalls that dot the outer compound of the shrine.
Mugli, a local Muslim woman with a worn face and wrinkled hands, is a living testimony of the communal harmony that this village has lived through.
When Kashmiri Pandits left the Valley in 1990, it was Mugli and others Muslim villagers who began to prepare `puja thalis` for the few Hindus and Pandits who would visit the temple.
"Only few would come during those days, but over the last seven (or) eight years, huge number of people have begun to come," Mughli told a news agency.
Mughli said this year the rush of devotees was "a little less" than it was last year.
"Last year there was no space even to walk," she said.
Close to noon, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah along with state Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather visited the temple and took stock of the arrangements.
Inside the compound, an elderly Kashmiri Pandit woman reminisced about the times when her Muslim neighbours would share dinner with her family and when her Muslim neighbours pleaded with them not to leave Kashmir.
The conversation, like many others happening in the main compound of the temple, soon turned into an emotional recollection of the past.