Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Unaware of the tragedy that happened to his family, five-year-old Rohit Koul played in the courtyard while his three elder siblings sat in a dimly lit room of their house in Lavdoora village, in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
The children have not spoken much after their mother, Baby Koul, died three months ago due to chest disease. Nearly a year ago, their father, Maharaj Krishan, also died a natural death.
Muslim neighbours gathered at the home to offer emotional support to the Hindu children.
At a time of strained Hindu-Muslim ties in India, this unity in a remote village in divided Kashmir is exemplary.
Polarisation between the two communities has hit the country as right-wing groups engage in violence against Muslims because of their food and other social habits.
In April 2017, a Pew Research Center’s study ranked India the fourth-worst country for religious intolerance out of 198 nations.
Indian-administered Kashmir is a Muslim-majority Himalayan region with Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities, but living in harmony.
But the area divided by India and Pakistan had its share of tensions in the early 1990s, when turmoil forced many Kashmiri Hindus, known as Pandits, to abandon their homes and seek shelter in neighbouring Jammu and other parts of India.
|Orphaned children of Koul family in their house in Levdoora [Sameer Mushtaq/Al Jazeera]|
According to one study, Kashmir had 140,000 Pandits in the early 1990s, but that number was reduced to 19,865 by 1998.
The Kouls are one family that decided to remain. The warmth and support demonstrated by their Muslim neighbours after Baby Koul’s death vindicated their choice.
‘Like our own’
To pay tribute to Baby Koul, villagers of differing faiths gathered to perform her last rites according to the Hindu tradition.
“Baby Koul and her husband raised their children while fighting poverty. Their death shocked everyone in the village. These children are innocent and losing parents in less than a year is a catastrophe for them. Their parents were young and very gentle,” Sameena, a local woman, told Al Jazeera.
According to villagers, the children are reluctant to go with their relatives because “they get much love from their neighbours”.
The children were not emotionally ready to talk to this reporter because their mother died just a few days earlier.
“Villagers have helped the family and we will keep doing this. They are like our own children and we will not let them suffer in any way,” resident Ghulam Nabi Dar told Al Jazeera.
The example of Hindu-Muslim togetherness displayed in Lavdoora village is not isolated.
|Mehjabeena has created this mud house on the piece of land, which was donated by the Hindu neighbour [Sameer Mushtaq/Al Jazeera]|
During Amarnath Yatra, Muslims help their Hindu brethren to undertake the annual pilgrimage in the snow-capped mountains in southern Kashmir.
Earlier this year, villagers in Sumbal in Bandipora in north Kashmir cleaned the premises of a Hindu temple to perform puja (prayer) on the occasion of Maha Shivratri, an important festival for Pandits.
The acts of kindness have also been reciprocated by Hindus. Last November, a Hindu couple greeted the procession marking Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, by distributing candies to Muslims as a symbol of love and affection. A video of the Hindu couple handing out the candies went viral on social media.
In Mattan, the houses of worship for Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are just a few metres apart.
Ramji, 60, is a priest at the temple in Mattan. “We share a good bond with our Muslim and Sikh brothers. We take part in each other’s festivals. We also attend funerals when someone dies in Muslim neighbourhood,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Tral area of Pulwama, which has been at the centre of anti-government protests in the last two years, also has Sikh population of 8,165 as of the latest census of India living happily with 98,632 Muslims.
“We never feel differences with each other. We are always there for each other in good and bad times. They even attend funeral prayers of militants,” Faizan Ahmad, a student from Tral, told Al Jazeera.
Mehjabeena lives in a village in the Quazigund area. Twelve years ago, her husband abandoned her with two children. She returned to her home to live with her father for several years.
However, being poor, her father could not feed the family and she started living in a rented accommodation. “I used to wash clothes and dishes of the people to pay the rent and feed my family,” she said.
Then a Pandit, Brij Nath, donated a piece of land to her where she built a one-room mud-brick house with the help of her father.
“I have lived in the village with her father and there was the association of oneness. I gave her a piece of land as she is very poor and has no place to live,” Nath told Al Jazeera on the phone.
Generations of cooperation
In October last year, a church bell rang for the first time in 50 years at Holy Family Catholic Church in Srinagar. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus inaugurated the bell weighing 105kg.
According to village elders, examples of communal harmony have been passed on through the generations.
“Kashmiri culture is a mix of three religions – Hindus, Buddhist and Muslims – which has come from our ancestors,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri poet and social activist.
“Temples have bells hanging at their entrance. Similarly, we have chains at Sufi shrines in the valley, which is a cross-ritual. We had some Hindu artists who have written Na’ats [poetry in praise of the Prophet] while there are Muslim artists who have written kirtans [divine Hindu songs].”
But Zareef accused politicians of trying to create barriers between the different communities.
“Our thoughts have been divided. We had oneness in Kashmir culture irrespective of religion,” he said.