Pandit of Kashmir

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Pandit of Kashmir

ETHNONYMS: Batta, Bhatta, Brahman, Saraswat


Identification. The Pandits are natives of the Kashmir Valley in north India. They belong to the highest-ranked Brahman castes of Hindu society. Among Brahmans they are identified as Saraswats. The two most commonly offered interpretations of this appellation are: Brahmans who live west of the subterranean river Saraswati; or Brahmans who are devotees of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. The Sanskrit word pandita means a learned man. Although Generally known as Kashmiri Pandits, they refer to themselves as Bhatta or Batta, which is the Prakrit word for "great scholars." There are no historical records of Pandits having come to Kashmir from elsewhere, though many lay observers have speculated about possible Jewish, Greek, or Persian origins.

Location. The Kashmir Valley is located approximately between 33°30 and 34°30 N and 73°30 and 75°30 E. It is famous for its scenic beauty. Surrounded by mountains of the Pir Panjal range, which rise up to 5,150 meters, the valley is 134 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide and is situated at an average elevation of about 1,500 meters. Many rivers, streams, and lakes provide a rich source of water. Kashmir is marked by a temperate climate with four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Much of the annual precipitation of about 66 centimeters is snow and the mean temperature for January is about 0° C. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 35° C.

Demography. When all Hindus are counted together (there are some non-Pandit Hindus also in the valley), they add up to 117,431 persons (1981 census) constituting about 4.5 percent of the total population; the rest are Muslims. According to unofficial estimates there are about 100,000 Pandits in Kashmir. Men outnumber women. Of the total number of Pandits, nearly 65 percent live in urban areas. While there are numerous villages inhabited by Muslims alone, there is no village where only Hindus live or where they outnumber Muslims.

Linguistic Affiliation. Pandits speak Koshur (Kashmiri), an Indo-Aryan language with pronounced Central Asian (Dardic) affinities. The Koshur that Pandits speak contains a larger number of words of Sanskrit-Prakrit derivation than the Persianized/Arabicized Koshur of the Muslims. The original script of the language, Sharada, is akin to the Devanagari script (of Sanskrit) but has fallen into disuse. It is now used only by priests for writing horoscopes or copying traditional texts relating to domestic rituals. The script in use in schools and elsewhere is Persian.

History and Cultural Relations

The first recognizable historical narrative of India, the Rajataringini (River of Kings ), composed in the middle of the twelfth century by a Kashmiri Brahman, Kalhana, speaks of the mythic origins of the valley in a sacred lake. Marine fossils found by modern researchers lend credence to the legends. According to the Rajataringini, early caste-based Hindu society was overlain by Buddhist elements but never completely displaced. Hindu dynasties continued to rule until the early fourteenth century when Islam was brought to Kashmir by kings and Sufi Missionaries from central Asia, Afghanistan, and Persia. Tradition has it that only a handful of families of Brahmans survived the twin processes of conversion and elimination. These were the ancestors of the Pandits of today. Kashmir was incorporated into the Mughal Empire in the late sixteenth century. The liberal religious policy of the Mughals led to a gradual reassertion of the place of Kashmiri Brahmans in their native land. Many, however, migrated out of Kashmir. It was in response to the request from some of these Brahmans that the use of the appellation "Pandit" as an honorific title was approved by the Mughal emperor in the eighteenth century. There are today localized communities of Kashmiri Pandits in many Indian cities. According to estimates, there is one Kashmiri Pandit outside Kashmir for every three living there. The Nehru family were Pandits.


In both urban and rural areas, Pandits live alongside of Muslims, receive goods and services from them in an asymmetrical relationship, but maintain social distance from them. The two communities do not intermarry or interdine with each other. The largest population of Pandits in any village is Between 500 and 1,000. There are, however, many predominantly Pandit neighborhoods, particularly in the urban areas. Everywhere in the valley Pandits live in strongly built brick and timber houses with gabled roofs. Each house normally has three stories and about a dozen rooms. A yard, a kitchen garden, a granary, and a cattle shed may be attached to it.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, rural Pandits were primarily dependent upon agriculture, the land being cultivated by the owners themselves or by their Pandit or Muslim tenants. Paddy, wheat, and maize are the main crops. Fruits and vegetables also are grown. Small-scale trade, shopkeeping, and civil or domestic service are additional sources of income. The traditional professions are priesthood, teaching, and the practice of traditional Unani (Greco-Arab) medicine. Pandits have never looked favorably upon working with their hands. All the village artisans (e.g., potters, blacksmiths, weavers) have been and are Muslims. Similarly, all menial services are provided by Muslim occupational groups (e.g., barbers, washers, scavengers). Like upper-caste Hindus elsewhere, Pandits consider cows and bulls sacred animals and every family that can afford it will have them at home. Ponies or horses also may be owned. Occasionally birds (parrots, mynahs) are kept as pets. Domestic cats are tolerated. Dogs, ducks, and poultrythough present everywhere (they are associated with Muslims)are considered polluting and are avoided.

Trade. The grocery store is the typical shop. Trade on a larger scale in timber, fruits, milk products, etc., is also practiced.

Division of Labor. Subcaste, socioeconomic class, gender, and age comprise the bases of division of labor. Priestly work is the exclusive responsibility of the subcaste of Gor. Landed aristocracy and families of noble lineage do not themselves work on the land. Domestic chores are clearly divided Between men (house repairs, grain storage, etc.) and women (cooking, washing, spinning, etc.). Children assist the elders.

Land Tenure. Land reforms enacted by the government in 1950 placed the ceiling on the ownership of agricultural land at 8.8 hectares. The rights of tenancy and the tenant's share in the produce are protected. Pandits employ fellow Pandits or more often Muslims as tenant farmers.


Kin Groups and Descent. Pandit kinship is based on a well-articulated ideology of patrilineal descent. The widest category (maximal lineage) of agnates is called kol. In theory structural extension and territorial dispersal do not affect it. In practice, however, both these factors are important. Genealogical connections are rarely remembered beyond half a dozen generations. If collateral spread is combined with physical dispersal, interkin interaction and ultimately recognition fade away. The rule of gotra exogamy is sufficient protection against even an unwitting breach of the rule that agnates within six degrees of cousinship must not marry. Gotra refers to the ritual identification of families. While all families bearing the same gotra name are not agnatically related, all agnates invariably belong to the same gotra. The gotra and the kol are categories and not groupings of kin. The principal kin group is the extended family (kotamb ), which has a core of agnatic kin, male and female, and includes the wives of the men.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms are of a descriptive type employing the following principal criteria of differentiation: gender, generation, and bilateral filiation. The only kin within two generations (ascendant or descendant) who are grouped together terminologically are the two sets of grandFathers and grandmothers. Age specification is achieved by prefixing words such as "older/elder" or "younger" to a kin term. Terms for Ego's spouse, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, parents' siblings, first-degree cousins, first-degree cousins once removed, and parallel categories of the spouse's kin provide the core of the terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Pandits consider marriage an indissoluble sacrament that binds two families and not merely two Individuals. Marriages are therefore arranged by families. Subcaste endogamy is a prescription, and within the subcaste the rule of gotra exogamy is normally observed. The preferred type of marriage is between completely unrelated families. Bride givers accept a deferential role for themselves and offer dowry to bride takers. Owing to the shortage of women, however, Marriages by exchange between bride givers and takers, though not well thought of, are about as frequent as the favored type of marriage. Very rarely a man may buy himself a wife, but such an arrangement is never publicly acknowledged. Relatively older widowers with resources resort to this practice. Traditionally widows did not remarry but in the last couple of generations some cases of widow remarriage have occurred, involving particularly young childless widows. Girls leave their parental home on marriage and go to live with the husband and his parents. If the husband is employed away from home, the bride begins her life as a married woman by living with her parents-in-law for about a year before joining her husband, who may however visit her at home. Occasionally, when a couple has no sons, they may arrange for their daughter (or one of their daughters, if there are several) to marry patriuxorilocally. Her husband then comes to live with his parents-in-law and looks after them. Since Pandits consider marriage a sacrament, the notion of divorce is absent.

Domestic Unit. The most important kin group of Pandit society is the household (gara, chulah). It is built around the three-generation minimal lineage. Every household has a History that is subject to the processes of augmentation (birth, adoption, marriage) and depletion (death, adoption, partition, marriage). Depending on the particular phase of the developmental cycle, a household may be either nuclear or extended in its composition.

Inheritance. Traditionally, property (land, house, cattle, fruit trees) goes from father to son, but it is now legally possible for daughters too to claim a share; they generally do not do so. In this limited sense dowry is treated as being equivalent to premortem inheritance, which it is not in principle. For purposes of ownership the household is a coparcenary. A man's sons have a right to equal ownership with him, on a per capita basis, in all his ancestral property; whatever he has earned and accumulated by his own efforts, without making use of anything inherited by him, is exclusively his property. The usual time for dividing property is after a man's death when his sons may no longer be willing to live together under the headship of the oldest among them. The widowed mother may serve as a cementing force: if she does so it is because of her moral authority and not because she has any property rights. The father has both. Occasionally, however, Household dissensions may occur during the lifetime of the father and property may be divided between him and his sons. On his death his share would be divided equally among the sons.

Socialization. The bringing up of children is the collective responsibility of the household. A child's own parents are not expected to take any special interestapart from breastfeeding of a child by the mothernor do they have any special responsibility. In fact, grandparents play the principal role in socialization. For about the first six years or so, gender differences between children do not have any particular significance for socialization. Thereafter girls become more intimately associated with older women and boys with older men. Nowadays all boys and almost all girls begin school at about the age of 5 or 6.

Sociopolitical Organization

Pandits consider themselves to be a community (gaum ) or "brotherhood" (baradari ). They are divided into two endogamous subcastes, Gor (priests) and Karkun (workers). Socioeconomic Standing and "noble" ancestry are important in the organization of social relations. For most goods and services Pandits are dependent upon Muslim artisan and service occupational groups. While these relations are governed by convention, the state too is increasingly involved in them as, for example, in the regulation of relations between landowners and tenants. Pandit society is fully integrated within the Political and law-and-order frameworks of the modern state. They do not, therefore, have any independent institutions of Political Organization or social control. As in any other society, however, public opinion and social pressures are important as instruments of social control. Public esteem (yash ) is a matter of deep social concern among Pandits; it is indeed a major cultural value.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As Hindus, Pandits exhibit a repertoire of beliefs that include the notions of dharma (moral conduct, duty), karma (action, fruits of action), samsara ("flow," reincarnation) , ashrama (stages of life), purushartha (instrumental and ultimate goals), prarabdha (fate), anugraha (divine grace), punya (meritorious action), and papa (moral evil). On a more abstract plane, they are legatees of the nondualistic school of philosophy known as Kashmir Shaivism. Rituals help people to relate to a hierarchy of supernaturals, ranging from local possession spirits, ghosts, and goblins, who cause illness and misfortune, to high Sanskritic deities (e.g., Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti) and regional gods and goddesses who are seen as being essentially benevolent.

Religious Practitioners. Householders are the practitioners par excellence of domestic rituals, whether these pertain to Sanskritic deities, locally recognized supernatural beings, or ancestors. While the performance of rituals is primarily the responsibility of men and women cannot be the principal officiants, the participation of the latter is nevertheless required in the roles of wife or mother. The presence of priests at Sanskritic rituals is essential.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies consist primarily of rites of passage (notably initiation and marriage rituals), rites for ancestors, devotional prayers, and pilgrimages. The annual pilgrimage to the cave of Amarnath (source of the Ganges) in the valley attracts pilgrims from all over India and from Nepal. In their worship of Sanskritic deities, Pandits follow the eclectic smartha mode. In domestic rituals they follow the school of Laugaksha.

Arts. The Pandit house is a well-designed building with carefully crafted wooden doors, windows, and ceilings. These are often embellished by carving, but this work is done by Muslim carpenters. Pandit women paint floral and geometrical designs on the facade of the house to symbolize domestic auspiciousness. They also chant auspicious songs at initiation ceremonies and weddings. Pandits have an old tradition of composing poetry, mostly devotional poems, and of group singing.

Medicine. Illness is believed to arise from a number of causes, physical as well as supernatural. Home remedies (mostly herbal brews and preserves) are combined with consultation with practitioners of traditional Unani (Greco-Arabic) and modern allopathic medicine. Priests and astrologers are consulted to determine supernatural and astral causes and to perform appropriate curative rituals.

Death and Afterlife. Deaths are classified as good, bad, or untimely. If one dies after successfully fulfilling legitimate worldly goals as a householder, without suffering a protracted illness or losing any essential faculties before passing away, then one is said to have "attained" the good death. The dead are usually cremated, though infants who die before they have cut teeth are buried. Cremation is followed by rituals spread over twelve days. These are performed to help the disembodied spirit to reach the "land" of the manes. There are daily "watering" and biannual "feeding" rituals for the manes. At the same time all except the most spiritually advanced people are believed to be reborn. To be freed from the bondage of rebirth and redeath is the goal of spiritual endeavor. Divine selection or grace is the ultimate source of such salvation (moksha ).

Postscript. The above description is more applicable to the Pandits of rural Kashmir than to those living in urban areas. The latter are basically similar to the former in terms of, for example, the structure of kinship and the nature of Religious beliefs and ceremonies. The character of economic life is very different, however, with the urban Pandits being Prominent in civil services, the professions (engineering, law, medicine, teaching), business, and even manufacturing. Their higher educational attainments contribute to higher Socioeconomic status. They hardly ever practice marriage by Exchange of brides. In fact, they look down upon that and some other practices and the manners of the Pandits of rural areas. Nevertheless, at the level of the community (gaum) or "brotherhood" (baradari), all Pandits, rural and urban, consider themselves as one people, related to Kashmiri Pandits outside Kashmir but distinct from not only the Kashmiri Muslims but also non-Pandit Hindus living in Kashmir.

See also Brahman; Kashmiri


Bamzai, P. N. K. (1962). A History of Kashmir. Delhi: Metropolitan.

Chatterji, K. C. (1914). Kashmir Shaivism. Srinagar: Research Department, Kashmir State.

Madan, Triloki Nath (1965). Family and Kinship: A Study of the Pandits of Rural Kashmir. Bombay: Asia Publishing House. 2nd enl. ed. 1989. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sender, Henny (1988). The Kashmiri Pandits: A Study of Cultural Choice in North India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.