Nomadic Muslim devotees throng a forest shrine in disputed Kashmir

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BABA NAGRI, India (AP) — The road to the Baba Nagri forest shrine in Indian-controlled Kashmir was a colorful spectacle. Tens of thousands of men in vibrant attire, henna-dyed beards and brightly colored headdresses crowded the Muslim shrine, located at the foot of a mountain, last week to pay their respects.

Worshipers raised their hands and shouted out their wishes. Some also tied multi-colored threads around the trees at the shrine, representing their prayers.

The shrine to Mian Nizamuddin Kiyanwi has its origins in the 19th century and provides free meals throughout the year to the devotees, most of them from Kashmir’s nomadic pastoral community. Devotees believe that their wishes are fulfilled in the shrine.

Kiyanwi, originally from Kashmir, migrated to the Hazara region of Pakistan’s present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the late 19th century. There he was guided by a Sufi saint and later returned to Kashmir to preach Islam. After his death, the shrine was built as a mark of respect for him – an expression of the region’s unique ties to Sufism.

Abdul Razaq, a devotee, said he has been visiting the shrine since he was six and feels blessed by paying respects there.

“I remember as a child we had to travel a lot on foot, but things have changed and today we can reach the shrine in a day,” he said.

Another devotee, Mohammad Farooq, who is blind, said: “It would have been great if I could have seen things for myself, but I find peace when I visit the shrine.”

Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in its entirety by both, is a Muslim-majority region.

Rebel groups have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence since 1989, a cause supported by a large number of Muslims in the disputed territory.

The region has been embroiled in civil wars for decades and the shrine, including hundreds of others dotted across the landscape, is and remains much more than just a spiritual refuge for Muslims.

Many worshipers find these shrines a rare space, far removed from the region’s ongoing political tensions.

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