Why do Kashmiris hang bottles filled with coloured water?

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By Tanveer Ahmad Khan and Wasia Hamid 

In May 2019, we noticed for the first time the presence of hanging coloured bottles when we traveled in a public bus from Kashmir University to Khan Sahib, Budgam, for data collection for our research work. On the way, we found a large proportion of hanging plastic bottles filled with coloured water in city areas and villages. As we witnessed such a scene for the first time, it attracted our attention and curiosity led us to gather some reliable information about it. We tried to investigate it and asked a lady sitting next to us,  “Could you please tell us why these bottles are hanging there?” She replied politely, “I think children hang them for fun and play.”

Nevertheless, we became curious to know more. Both of us got our phones and started surfing on the internet. We couldn’t hold our laugh when we learned that in many places of India like Kolkata, Rajkot, Hazaribagh, Amritsar, and Jharkhand people hang bottles. They believe that these hanging plastic bottles filled with red/blue coloured water would shoo away dogs from their doorsteps. These coloured bottles are kept so that dogs would not pee near the gates, and on the vehicles. That was the most common explanation offered in all the news articles we could find on the internet. However, what fascinated us more was the fact that these bottles were not only hung on the gates, but also in orchards, shops, trees, and outside houses. We decided to have a glimpse of our surroundings to see if people resorted to similar activities. However, we had to gradually abandon this line of enquiry because of our busy schedule.

In the middle of May-2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the idea of unearthing the curious case of the hanging bottles was reborn. We decided not to let the opportunity go waste this time and started our research to find answers. We observed the hanging of plastic bottles in almost all areas of central Kashmir, both rural and urban. These bottles are used as guards to monitor or control life-events or happenings, and the custom has grown internally. The only difference we could found was in the places where the bottles were hung. We started talking to people who hung such bottles in their respective areas. Both personal and impersonal interviews were conducted by the authors while maintaining a proper physical distance. The interviews took over a month, and we stopped interviewing after the data was accumulated from the participants through theoretical sampling. In total, ten participants were interviewed, and the responses of three participants were excluded from the discussion due to the replication of their responses.

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After interviewing the participants, especially women, we came to know about the diversity of superstitious beliefs in Kashmir associated with the hanging of plastic bottles filled with different coloured water. We also noted that after ten days, water was changed, and fresh coloured water was placed in them. The plastic bottles are filled with turmeric, chilly powder, and Arun (Waze Rang) and mixed with hookah water. We came to know how Kashmiri people managed to manipulate the idea into other areas apart from using it to keep dogs away.

Conflict and COVID-19 have become other reinforcing factors in endorsing these superstitious beliefs across central Kashmir. People still remember that the famine of 1877-79 had resulted in an enormous loss of life due to poverty and the absence of medical facilities. They were left then and are left now to the mercy of pirs and Hakeems. The most recent Rural Health Statics Report (2017), released by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has exposed a miserable situation of services in peripheral hospitals of J&K. Peripheral and rural hospitals in J&K have meager facilities and lack essential infrastructure, posing difficulties to not only patient care but also to doctors and other staff members. Therefore, to avoid hardship without proper medical facilities, most Kashmiris turn their attention towards superstitious beliefs. To lessen the impact of Covid-19, social distancing, restrictions on visits to healthcare institutions and traveling have been put in place. Thus, people use both means to overcome the crisis. However, superstitious beliefs remain dominant in Kashmir. In Kashmir, the disorder has become the order, superstitious beliefs the religion, and science the curse. Here, people believe in such false notions to get relief from the adversities of life. In pursuit of relief, superstitious beliefs have found a revival in the Kashmir Valley. Although the government has been campaigning against these evils through electronic and print media, no such effort has been undertaken by the authorities in Kashmir.

Scholars like  Eva Delacroix and Valerie Guillard define superstition as “beliefs and practices that have no religious nor scientific foundations and which lead people to think that certain facts (external events or one’s own actions), or objects can bring good or bad luck, or be signs announcing positive or negative consequences.” In the Indian context, Jayapalan argues that “superstitions constitute a fundamental part of India’s rich culture and are today of course deeply rooted in people’s beliefs.” Edgar Thurston Cle, in her ethnographic work, concludes that shopkeepers first began to use rings of soda bottles to ward off an evil eye or as a good omen for agricultural production. In India, the most common superstitions are black cat crossing the road, the broken mirror as a bad sign, no cuttings of nails at night, fasting for the sake of god’s happiness, curd and sugar before exams, not to sneeze while someone is leaving, no head-bath on Thursdays or Saturdays, and no entry in the kitchen during menstruation. Other than these, numerous superstitious beliefs that affect the lives of ordinary people all over the world have not yet received attention. Maneka Sanjay Gandhi held that all ritual animal sacrifice is based on superstition: for example, the pigeon slaughter at Kamakhya, the goats killed daily in the Devi mandir in Kolkata, the buffaloes killed by the Gurkhas during Dashera, the lambs thrown from mountains in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to wipe off fear, anger, bad luck, and jealousy. Such forms of beliefs arise out of ignorance, misinterpretation of science, and by attaching credence to superstition. In reality, none of this has any rationality behind them nor do they bring luck. 

Kashmiri people are no exception to these superstitious beliefs. Muhmmad Amin Malik reported that the Kashmiris believe in fortune-tellers, lucky charms, numerology, wearing of amulets, tying black thread on the wrist or neck. The most prevalent superstitions in Kashmir are visiting the pirs, faith-healers, imposters, for considerations like good luck, money, luxuries, treatment of diseases, getting rid of Jinn, and other divine blessings. Vinayak Razdan narrates superstitions among pregnant women who believe that an unborn baby would bear a mark during an eclipse. Similarly, if an owl hoots on a tree, it is taken as a sign for the birth of a boy; if the baby is born with hands open, he is considered to be lucky. While such traditional beliefs have deep historical roots in Kashmir, what is emerging now is entirely new and different from the traditional ones. These new superstitions have emerged in the post-enlightenment, post-conflict, and in the period of the pandemic. During this period, people in Kashmir have assigned a significance to the hanging of coloured water bottles with the belief that it would protect them from the evil eye, coronavirus, crackdown, and encounters, and as a way to stop wayward dogs from peeing on the wall, on gates, and stored paddy grass. However, nothing is known about how such practices have flourished in Kashmir. None of the participants was aware of the origin of this culture of hanging bottles filled with coloured water.

It must be noted here that women in Kashmir have often attributed extraordinary power to these practices, as it becomes evident from the following excerpts of their interviews. 

“We were very much fed up of the dogs that, for the whole day, slept outside our main entrance gate and made the surrounding area dirty. We tried several means to get rid of this problem but failed every time. Then we learned about this bottle solution, and it worked. We have suspended two bottles, one on each side of the gate, one filled with red-coloured water and another with purple colour,” narrates Yasmeena (name changed). 

Haleema (name changed): “The COVID-19 cases are multiplying, causing frustration among the masses. In the absence of treatment, I found relief from the fear of COVID-19 by hanging a bottle (filled with water brought from Shrine) on the wall. My belief in such practices became stronger when two persons from the neighborhood came positive, and my family was safe due to the hanging of water bottles. It is working against coronavirus. I tested it.” 

Zamrudha (name changed): “I am hanging red bottles at different places in my surroundings. Sometimes, I hang the bottle on the front gate and sometimes on the trees. I hang them with the belief that the army would not enter our house, and these bottles provide me some relief with the belief that neither encounter nor crackdown would happen.” 

Dilshada (name changed): “We are living jointly in a two-story building where we have kept the horns of ram (male sheep) to protect us from the evil eye. However, with day to day violence, we have placed an empty bottle on the roof of our house to protect our male folk from the torture and frequent arrests.” 

Zeenat (name changed): “For the last two years, the apple production in our orchard has been almost zero.  Once I was discussing it with one of my relatives, she told me that it could be due to the evil eye. I then went to my father, my father’s people believe that he has spiritual powers, and asked him to breathe on the water so that I can use to cast the evil eye away. I have hung almost five to ten bottles with water on apple trees in our orchard so that it yields good production again.”

Meema (name changed): “My husband works as a builder and achieved great success. Recently we constructed this house, and when we shifted here, no one from our family was keeping well. Everyday someone used to fall ill, thus creating a depressive atmosphere in our family. I know people around us are jealous of us, and that is why this thing is happening. Then one day, my daughter saw on the internet that bottles with coloured water are used to remain safe from evil spirits and people’s envy. That is why I have also hung two bottles on the front wall of our house. I don’t know whether it will work or not, but I hope it works.”

Nadia (name changed): “Dogs, cows, horses usually enter our vegetable garden. They eat vegetables and make them dirty. When I heard from one of my neighbors that they hung bottles on their entrance gate so that dogs will stay away, I got an idea. The next day I mixed food colour into water and filled many bottles with it. Then I went to the garden and hung the bottles on four sides with the help of the barbed wire. The idea worked, and I am amazed.” 

Waheeda (name changed): “Although many people in our village have kept coloured water bottles on gates for dogs, we have kept them to protect ourselves from evil eyes.”

These testomnies of Kashmiri women are evidence that superstitions are deeply rooted in rural and urban Kashmir. However, what differentiates the idea of the hanging of bottles in Kashmir from the rest of the Indian states is the diversity of beliefs and emotions attached to them. In Kashmir, the hanging of bottles serves multiple purposes, which is not the case with other states of India. But what is significant is how integral there superstitions are to people’s everyday lives.

The existence of such superstitious beliefs has hindered our progress and simultaneously challenged our scientific temper and knowledge. In his remarkable work Discovery of India, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped that the lack of scientific temper would be eliminated in independent India only when people learned to make their own decisions rationally. However, it has not materialized till date. At the societal level, social activists, reformers and the government must campaign through newspaper, magazine, television advertisements to banish such superstitious beliefs and promote scientific knowledge and rational ideas. People must be made to realize that mere hanging of coloured bottles would not save them from any calamities. The continuation of superstitious and mythical approach toward handling the pain of conflict and the uncertainty of the pandemic questions the rationality and scientific approach of the civilized people in Kashmir.

Bio:
Tanveer Ahmad Khan is currently engaged with research at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. His work has been published by the internationally acclaimed publishers like Sage and Routledge. He specializes in sociology of exclusion, sociology of work and occupation, economic sociology, traditional occupational groups, and qualitative sociology. Email: tanveerkhan101.tk@gmail.com

Wasia Hamid is doing her research at the Department of Sociology, University of Kashmir. She has contributed research work in Sage, Palgrave and Routledge. She is keenly interested in studying death rituals, religion, health issues and living experiences of Kashmiri women. Email: syed.wasia@gmail.com

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