Representational Picture

Naagrai khatsao aadam chaalee

Bael poore nun drav trovness ghah

Zaat heveth go tass Heemalee

Maehav gots baalee cheon deedaar

                                                                                                                Shams Faqir

As you would have no doubt observed, there is an obsession with lineage in the tale. Heemal is a princess. Naagrai is a king, if only of serpents. When Naagrai lives a second life as a human child, he does so as the son of a Brahmin, Soda Ram. This preoccupation with pedigree is a very Brahmanical idea. Brahmanism is Hinduism in its purer, older form when it did not have to engage with modern ideas of democracy, freedom and equality of opportunity. While Hinduism is a 19th-century adaptation of Brahmanism, various Brahmanisms had locally developed over thousands of years before that in different parts of the subcontinent, with their own gods, goddesses, villains and rituals. However, there were some similarities between all the different kinds of Brahmanism. A fundamental tenet of Brahmanism is that birth governs one’s entire life, from the work one is engaged into the person one is allowed to marry. This is called the caste system. It is in sharp contrast with the Islamic belief that one’s actions determine one’s life. Anyone can become a king, or an imaam of a mosque or a cobbler, and one can marry anyone outside one’s close relations. The accident of birth is not allowed to chain a person for their entire life. For example, while an ataar can marry any person under Islamic law, a gandhi (a caste in the western subcontinent involved in the trade of aromatic substances, you could say a Gujarati ataar), could only marry certain castes, and not a Nehru (who were Brahmins).

This is not to say that the Brahmanical belief system does not concern itself with good deeds. It does, but whereas Islam tells us that human beings have been given only one life on this planet, Brahmanism asserts that life and death are a cycle, even a vicious cycle. Islam preaches that life on Earth is a test, if human beings perform good deeds and Allah is pleased with them, they will be sent to heaven on the Day of Judgment, but if they indulge in bad activities, they will burn in hell. Brahmanism, on the other hand, preaches that if a soul performs good deeds, it will keep being reborn as a better being, till it attains the form of a human being (or a savarna, one of the three upper castes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishvas), where it has the chance to attain nirvana—freedom from the cycle of life and death. There are, therefore, two crucial differences between Islam and Brahmanism on this point. One, Islam recognizes only one life on Earth while Brahmanism avows multiple lives. Two, Islam does not link good deeds with following one’s birth station—the occupation into which one is born—while in Brahmanism, following the caste system and varnasharam dharma is a basic requirement for moksha (freedom from life and death).

So, to sum it up, while justice, meezan in the Islamic tradition, is a reaffirmation of the belief that all human beings are created equal, in Brahmanism, it is Dharma—order (of the caste system) that human being must follow.

Now, if we examine the tale of Heemal–Naagrai carefully, we observe that it has elements which render themselves to both a Brahmanical as well as anti-Brahmanical readings. Naagrai was from the serpent race, so his love and marriage with an Aryan Kshatriya princess was a coming together of two races, and an act of undermining the existing social order. However, even though he was a serpent, he was the king of serpents, so could be “restored” (or considered) as a Kshatriya within the Brahmanical Order. It was not necessary that he grows in the Brahmin household of Soda Ram, but that certainly helps his Brahmanical restoration. If he had grown up in, say, in a cobbler’s home, the tale would contain an account of ritual purity (disguised as good deeds or bad times, for examples of which you can watch any Hindi film where a son is lost, stolen or gets exchanged at birth)3  before he could be restored.

On the other hand, in future readings and reinterpretations of the classic tale, it might be interesting to examine how serpents obtain their kings. If any serpent could prove his mettle and become a king and if that was how Naagrai became a king, then the story can also be restored within the Islamic tradition.

Similarly, while death is final in the Abrahmic tradition (the religions which recognize Ibrahim as a prophet, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), in the subcontinent, in Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain traditions, the idea of cycle of life and death and the related idea of reincarnation make death somewhat insignificant. You can see that in many versions of the tale of Heemal–Naagrai, there is the idea of being brought to life again after death, and there is also the idea of shapeshifting (shifting from one life form to another) but there is no metempsychosis (transmigration of a soul from one body to another) in any of these versions. Metempsychosis is essential for particular Brahmanical readings of the tale; shapeshifting is a universal motif of folklore across continents and civilizations. So the shapeshifting, too, can be restored in an Islamic and other non-Brahmanic readings.

Then there is the reference to Heemal committing sati. In one version, the pigeon couple in the forest is actually Shiva and Parvati, the Hindu god and goddess. If that is what you want to do, it is more difficult to deBrahmanize such motifs, but it is not impossible.

As to the question of the propriety of such conscious reinterpretations, let us return to the metaphor of attar. The world has changed. Making perfumes has become more a science than an art. There are people who oppose this. They find various justifications for their opposition. For example, many Muslims consider perfumes haraam because they contain alcohol. It does not matter to them that the alcohol perfumes mostly contain is methyl alcohol, not fit for human oral consumption, and not ethyl alcohol, a component of sharaab. It does not even matter to them that perfumes are meant to be applied on clothes, not to be drunk. Some people cannot make the mental transition between an attar and a perfume, and are left behind to compost in the past.

Anyway, opposition to anything new and the nostalgia for a purer, better past is the baggage and the burden of defeated cultures and civilizations. It is up to us to decide if we want to choose that.

Within the tale I have narrated here, you would have noticed that there are many variations and differences. These variations are like bookmarks left by many generations in the original tome of the tale. There is nothing which stops us leaving our own little notes in the margins of history.

What would happen if we were to change the characters a bit? If, instead of Soda Ram, Naagrai’s adoptive father’s name was Saad Rahim? If, instead of a Brahmin, he was a waatul or a dasil? If Naagrai was originally a waaze of snakes and not their king? If Heemal was the daughter of a wealthy bazaz, who refused to marry her to Naagrai because he was poor? How will such changes make the tale different? Would its essence be lost? That too, I leave for you to discuss and debate.

Representational Picture

I want to conclude by proposing my own reinterpretation of the tale. Naagrai is the king of springs. Come to think of it, is the water table not the king of springs? Heemal is the surface realm of trees, agricultural fields, rivers and, of course, human habitat. Water emerges from the springs in Kashmir to meet the surface. There is a bond of love between the surface of the earth and the aquifers in tal-pataal. Life on the surface in Kashmir, human beings, animals and trees, will not survive without the water from the aquifer. In turn, if the aquifer is not replenished by the water which percolates from the snow and rain falling on the surface, and the glaciers and water bodies garlanding the vale, the springs will die. Thus, the Naagrai of the aquifer and the Heemal of the surface are deeply in love, and will live and die together.

Water is life. Water is everywhere; in the sky; on the surface in the form of the rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands of our beloved Kashmir; under the surface in the form of the aquifers; and in our very bodies and the bodies of our fellow animals and plants. Water holds everything together. As the poet Shams Faqir goes on to say in the poem a stanza of which I have quoted at the beginning of this tale:

Aabas watsaayess panni anwaarea

Aabee aabas karith miltsaar

Dael yelli neenass taam nues gataalee

Mae hav gots baalee cheon deedaar

 Aabee aabas karith miltsaar. Water holds water together.

Will you, dear friends, help maintain this bond between the water on the surface and under the ground? Will you help Heemal and Naagrai live, or will you let them die?


  1. Amitabh Bachchan starred in several such movies. Watch, for example, Namak Halaal or Parvarish. You can also watch the 2015 and 2017 blockbusters Bahubali or read the novel Midnight’s Children.