Saturday, June 3, 2000

A grave mistake
By Kavita Bhargava

SHE was one of the most beautiful women of the Kashmir valley .Also called Zooni , Habba Khatoon was an exuberant poetess whose songs are still sung in the valley. She inspired many Kashmiri women to express their feelings in the form of verse. Such was her charm that renowned film-maker Muzaffar Ali had started making a film on her life. Unfortunately, this film could not be completed.

Habba Khatoon lies ignored in her tomb near Athwajan on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. The entire structure is in a dilapidated condition and there are hardly any visitors who come to pay a tribute to this legendary poetess. Even if somebody halts at the national highway and proceeds to tread the stairs leading to her tomb, he is regarded with suspicion by the army jawans who are using one side of the tomb structure as a base for their UMGs and LMGs.

Legendary poetess Habba Khatoon’s tomb: A story of neglectHabba Khatoon was born to a poor peasant Abdi Rather and his wife Janam, in Chandhaur village in the valley on the bank of the Jhelum in 16th century. It is said that a wandering Sufi mystic baptised her on a moonlit night and gave her the name Zoon (moon in Kashmiri language). There is no mention as to when she became Habba Khatoon. Zooni grew up to be a beautiful girl and under the guidance of her Sufi mentor began to compose lyrics. She also had a beautiful voice in which she sang her own compositions . Her songs soon became popular in the surrounding villages.

  According to the legend, one day the elder son and heir apparent of King of Kashmir Sultan Ali Shah Chak, Prince Yusuf Shah Chak, happened to pass by the village when he saw Zooni. The crown prince heard her sing and fell madly in love with her. Without knowing who he was, she also fell in love with him. Yusuf Shah stayed in Chandhaur longer than he should have and soon the village was abuzz with rumours of a dalliance between Zooni and the stranger from Srinagar. Her parents forced her to marry a carpenter, Aziz Jan, of a neighbouring village. Though married, Zooni refused to allow her husband to consummate the marriage. She was thrashed and thrown out of her home and made to live in the sheep pen in the courtyard. After a while, she ran away during a snow-storm to her parent’s home. Aziz refused to divorce her and accused her of committing adultery with Yusuf. Zooni appealed to the sultan. In his court, Yusuf Chak made a dramatic entry, revealed his identity and denied having physical relations with her. She disproved her husband’s charge of adultery by proving that she was still a virgin. The Sultan decreed the divorce but refused his son the permission to marry Zooni. Ignoring his father’s order, Yusuf eloped with Zooni to Gulmarg and married her.

Meanwhile, Mughal armies ordered by Emperor Akbar to annex the valley proceeded to march against the Sultan. One of the Sultan’s officers who had been bribed, killed him in a polo match. Prince Yusuf Shah Chak rushed back to Srinagar to take over the reins of administration. He proved to be a weak ruler who spent more time in his harem with Zooni than in organising the defence of his kingdom. When the Mughals were at his doorstep, he led his army against them but was captured. The story brought to Srinagar was that he had fallen in battle. Zooni heard of the calamity on a cold winter night. She picked up her infant girl and went out into the snow. Nobody knows what became of her except that there is a tomb of Habba Khatoon and her child near Chandhaur.

Today, Zooni’s tomb, situated some 20 km from Srinagar city, wears a deserted look. The elevated structure , which was in fact three graves made of stone, is being used by security forces as a vantage point to keep a vigil on the national highway.

Just outside the tomb is a junk shop. Otherwise, there is hardly any population around the tomb. Though the locals know that the tomb is of Habba Khatoon, little care is being taken by them to maintain it.

The army jawans patrolling the highway from this structure (they have also made a picket on it) informed that an old lady comes here sometimes and puts some flowers on the three graves. They, however, were unable to give any information and were not aware that these were the graves of Zooni and her daughter.

If one believes the legend, according to which Zooni and her infant daughter lie buried here, mystery still shrouds the presence of third grave. No one has been able to give information about the third grave.

The state government has also not taken any care to maintain the tomb of Kashmir’s famous poetess. In fact just below these three graves, lies the grave of Kashmir’s famous poet Mehjoor. It also lies in a state of neglect. Mehjoor’s grandson Abdal Mehjoor, broadcaster and former BBC Hindi Service announcer and producer, himself got a structure constructed over his grandfather’s grave.'' No one is interested in maintaining these important tombs", he said informing that Mehjoor had expressed a desire to be buried near poetess Habba Khatoon’s tomb.

If the government does not initiate efforts to maintain these tombs, there is every chance that even local people will forget about the legendary beings who had contributed significantly towards Kashmiri literature.