The Ganju family are among 500,000 Kashmiri Hindus who were forced to flee their native land because of terrorist acts committed against them.
“We Hindus were threatened,” said Chandramukhi Ganju, who left Kashmir with her family in 1989. “We had to run from that place.”
Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim, has been bitterly contested since the British granted India independence in 1947 and the land was split into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In the late 1980s, an Islamist insurgency backed by Pakistan emerged, seeking to end India’s control over the disputed territory. Kashmir suffered more than 50,000 dead in that conflict. According to Ganju, the terrorism turned Kashmiri Hindus into refugees in their own country, which lies north of India and east of Pakistan.
“There are people living in camps over there,” she said.
Those who fled have not returned out of fear; their population is scattered all over the world. About 4,500 families call the United States home, including 70 in South Florida, according to Ganju. Kashmiris have merged with their new societies and cultures but their own, Ganju said, is vulnerable of being forgotten.
“Our culture is in danger of extinction,” she said. “Our children will have no idea of who they are and where they have come from.”
To keep their culture alive, in April 2013 Ganju and her husband Deepak Ganju formed Preserve Our Heritage, a nonprofit based in Miami Shores doing business as Kashmiri Hindu Foundation.The Kashmiri Hindu Foundation itself is based in Pleasanton, Calif.
Preserve Our Heritage’s mission is to promote and preserve Kashmiri culture and heritage through music, dance, drama, art, cuisine, literature, history and the humanities. It aims to showcase the “richness of Kashmiri culture and interact with other cultures.”
“We wanted to educate the community about our culture,” said Ganju, cultural affairs director for Preserve Our Heritage.
Trained as a lawyer, she works for the Florida Department of Children and Families. Deepak Ganju started his own business that supplies equipment to fire sprinkler companies. He is also managing editor of Shejar magazine, a monthly e-magazine that he and a colleague started about five years ago focused on Kashmiri Hindu topics.
“I don’t get paid for that,” Deepak Ganju said. “It’s a voluntary community service we do. We spend our own money to run the magazine.”
In addition to topics, the magazine also covers Kashmiri Hindu people.
“We highlight our own people who do well in their fields,” he said.
Former North Miami mayor Andre Pierre named the third Sunday in November “Kashmiri Hindu Heritage Day” and the organization holds annual events at the North Miami Public Library.
“Different types of people come to library so it’s good exposure,” Chandra Ganju said.
In 2012, Pierre presented the city’s proclamation to Pandit Gopinath Raina, senior editor of Shehjar Magazine amid the traditional Shankh-Naad, the celebratory sounding of a conch shell, by Ganju.
Preserve Our Heritage and its event also received support from U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, the County Board of Commissioners and North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau, who attended the event Dec. 7.Ganju said the heritage day events have three purposes: to keep younger Kashmiris abreast of their native language and culture, for members of different cultures in the county to represent themselves and so the different groups can learn about each other.For example, while Christmas and New Year have come and gone for most people in South Florida, the two holidays are still on their way according to the Kashmiri calendar.
Shivaratri, Christmas in Hindu, takes place in February or March. The different months are because the Kashmiri calendar, which follows a combination of the lunar and solar calendars called the lunisolar calendar, changes every year depending on the position of the moon.
The gift exchange exists in shivaratri as well and giving gifts to children is called herath kaarch.
Ganju and other Kashmiris will celebrate navreh, the Kashmiri new year, on April 4.
To bring in a new year Kashmiris prepare a plate made of bronze or steel filled with an assortment of items they deem necessary for survival and to help deliver a good year. Some of the items on the plate are cooked rice, yogurt, milk, almonds, salt, flowers, a pen, a coin, a small mirror and a new calendar, among other things.
“We welcome the new year with these things to bless us with prosperity,” Ganju said. “When we wake up on new year’s morning, first thing we see is this plate.” One of the main aspects of Kashmiri culture is its cuisine, which is dying, according to Ganju said. Chandra and Deepak Ganju have two children who were 4 and 5 when they left Kashmir for New Delhi. They lived there until 1993 when they moved to Miami.
“Our kids get exposed to other communities, which is OK, but nobody is cooking what we cook,” Chandra Ganju said. “My daughter is eating American food and her taste buds are changing.”
She believes that through cooking people of different cultures can learn about each other. She also believes that cooking Kashmiri cuisine is another way of safeguarding the culture. That is one reason why she published a cookbook, Koshur Saal: Traditional, Quick and Easy Kashmiri Cuisine in 2009.
“It’s not just a cookbook,” she said. “It has a purpose of preserving our heritage.”
To preserve her culture Ganju writes dramas as well as recipes. She said she writes them in a way to involve Kashmiri children so they can learn about their native culture. The dramas, which they put on at annual Kashmiri meet-ups, are stories about the everyday life of Hindus in Kashmir all told in Kashmiri, their native language.
“How my grandmother used to talk to me and feed me,” Ganju said. “About social issues and how we handled those issues.”
A social issue Kashmiri children, parents and grandparents have to handle in the United States is adjusting to American culture. Deepak Ganju said Miami’s mix of cultures made adjusting easy. His wife on the other hand said adjusting was not that easy for her, and that it can be painful for Kashmiris from her parents’ generation. Therefore she writes her dramas like comedies.
“When our parents come here it’s hard for them to adjust,” she said. “They feel like they are in jail; they don’t taste food.”
She also said it’s hard as a parent to raise children since they are not from the community.
“Having a boyfriend here is OK, but where we come from it’s a no-no,” Ganju said.
“We are like cultural orphans. You don’t want your child to feel alienated but at the same time it is important to preserve our heritage.”