Like in all Central Asian countries, the days and nights in Kashmir engage in a game of maazrat not witnessed in the tropics. During the summers, the evenings set out an elaborate dastarkhaan for the sun, grab it by its arm and do not let go, as if telling it, “Muone marrun chu, aaz behiv toih yeth.” The sun cannot leave before making a promise that, “Ba khoda chem zaroori kaem, bu yim bae pagah subhai, koker baangi, wallah.” And it does. Consequently, the days bulge, with daylight spreading between before five in the morning and after eight in the evening. During the winters, the night puts on a Kosher burqa and goes door-to-door in the evenings and mornings, delivering titbits of warmth, intimacy and wisdom, so that people have no reason to step out of their homes with the frequency of summer. As a result, darkness starts to pull a blanket over 5 o’clock in the evening and does not pull it down before 7 o’clock in the morning.
Under the canopy of winter’s enormous burqa, a million stories twinkle like stars, and we can see and meet beings which are invisible to us in the blinding light of the day. Today,
we are going to reacquaint ourselves with some of these creatures.
Who among us is not afraid of the yechh, that singular character whose plural has the same spelling? This terror of winter nights has great powers of transmogrification. In its natural form, it is a feline creature slightly larger than a cat. It can be recognized by its frightening eyes, which glow in the dark—a foreboding, intense greenish blue glow. It can also be recognized by its startling, screeching yowl, which we call “yecch baarav”. It always yowls two-and-a-half times in a single instance. It is said that hearing such a scary sound at night is enough to freeze one’s blood. For this reason, anyone who bawls like nobody’s business is said to be uttering yecch baarav.
But yechh are not all blood-curdling shrieks and hair-raising eyes alone. Some of the idiosyncrasies associated with them, while still being dangerous, are also tinged with humour. For example, yecch are very fond of throwing kãgere at people. In fact, kãger pelting is their favourite thing to do. But if a yecch were to approach people in its natural form, they would naturally try to run away and not give it any opportunity to empty a kãger on their head. So it has devised a sly trick. It lurks in the vicinity of the entrance of a house; and when an opportunity presents itself in the form of, say, someone leaving the house to offer sham, khoftan or fajr nemaz, it shape-shifts into that person and enters the house. Then it asks one of the unsuspecting inmates to give it a kãgeri josha. No sooner is a kãger passed on than red-hot charcoal pieces start flying in the general direction of the hapless victim.
For this reason, you must always ascertain the identity of a person who has just entered the house before giving them a kãgere wushnear. The way to recognize a yecch, even in a human form, is to check the top of its head. A yecch always wears a headgear called fiss. The headgear is, in fact, fez, a short, cylindrical, peakless, red, felt hat from Asia Minor. Many years ago, a yecch brought it back with him when he returned to Kashmir after living for many years in Turkey. Since a Koshur, whether a yechh or a human being, must mispronounce foreign words to make them ours, the yecch started to call the fez fiss. By and by it moved on from being a mere fashion statement among yecch. It became the very symbol of decency, part of their basic dress code, without which they feel naked, like pheran is for us Kosher human beings.
So, if a yecch ever enters your house and you, being the intelligent person you are, recognize it by its fiss, do not let it know that you know the truth about it. Keep making excuses about not handing over a kãger to it, until you can quickly scoop the fiss off its head. Once you have obtained the fiss, rush to the nearest krenjul or paej (anything made of wicker) and put the fiss under it.
Yecch are partisans of the Devil. It is said that once the Devil wanted to tempt an honest farmer away from his prayers. The farmer saw right through his guile, but did not let the Devil know. Instead, while the Devil was trying to convince him to watch a Hindi movie, the farmer put a krenjul in his lap and told him to fetch water from the stream and then they would watch the Hindi movie together. It is said that the Devil has not returned to the farmer’s house ever since. This incident has made all yecch fearful of anything made of wicker.
Once the fiss has been deposited safely under the said krenjul or paej, the yecch will plead and plead to return it. It will promise to do anything for you in return. Since it has great magical powers, it can help you make almost any wish come true. But never give back the fiss. If you do, it will quickly undo everything it has done for you and then throw a kãger at you to boot. So, when you are done with a yechh, simply hand it a wicker basket and ask it to fetch some water from the nearby stream.
Do creatures like yecch exist in other parts of the world as well? The answer seems to be in the affirmative. The closest phonetic relatives of yecch are the Tibetan Yeti and sub-continental Yaksha. Although yecch would seem like a phonological contraction of yaksha, but actually it is the yetis that bear more resemblance with the yecch. Yetis are large humanoids whose thick fur is covered with ice and snow. They live in caves and attack human beings on contact. The only commonality between yakshas and yecch is that both have a dual-nature. However, while yakshas are basically frivolous with a dark side which emerges occasionally, yecch are essentially dark and evil and only occasionally might indulge in some comedy. In North America, a similar creature exists in the form of sasquatch, made famous by American pop culture as the Big Foot.
In fact, creatures like yecch have existed in all parts of the world since the time of Enkidu, maybe even before that, but we don’t have the records. Who is Enkidu, you ask? Well, Gilgamesh was a powerful king of Mesopotamia and when his people prayed to the God that he was too harsh, God sent a minion named Aruru who made Enkidu from water and clay as a rival force to Gilgamesh. Enkidu was a wild person in the beginning, he lived away from civilization and was hairy and cumbersome. Later, after many clashes, he became a great friend of Gilgamesh. In fact, they became such thick friends that when Enkidu died of illness many years later, it affected Gilgamesh so much that he went on a long and difficult journey to try and defeat death itself and attain immortality.
Since that time, basajaunak, fauns, jinnaat, ogres, pucks, qaree, satyrs, yakshas, yokai, yerens, yetis, and many, many such creatures have populated the Earth. Our yecch are not alone.
Now there are some know-alls who say that yecch do not exist; that they are mythical creatures and figments of our ancestors’ imagination. They say, for example, that though yecch sightings are well-documented, there is no definite proof in the form of photographs, videos etc. They also point out that science has not been able to prove the existence of yecch or the phenomenon of transmogrification. Further, they ask sarcastically that if yecch do really exist, why is there no mention of female yecch? Are the male yecch born of breaking stones? Finally, they argue that since yecch do not live in communities or localities which we can visit or contact, it is only because such places do not exist.
Actually, these clever clogs do not understand the meaning of existence. Existence is not confined to what we can observe or prove; that would make us stupid and hardly any better than the plants and animals which these smart alecks themselves never tire of branding as less intelligent than us. Existence is imagination. Whatever we can imagine exists. The sensory perceptions of our body are too limited to actually present a decent overview of reality. Our imagination is the real home of reality.
This does not mean we should discount facts and observable reality. We should make most of our day-to-day decisions on the basis of hard facts and we do, but, at the same time, we must keep pushing the limits of our imagination to discover newer realities.
Facts are, therefore, like a concrete road, we can see it in front of us and walk over it, but imagination is like a compass, it seems magical but it correctly guides us to wherever we want to go.
But even if one were to take these toffee-nosed brainiacs serious for a moment, and concede that yecch exist only in our imagination, what would that imply? What mental states or emotions would yecch be a symbol of in that case? Do they represent our fear of darkness, especially the cold, pitch-black winter nights orphaned of both their parents—the moon and the snow? Is the purpose of the parable of yecch and the kãger to serve as a warning against people entering a home from outside, even if they look familiar, as if to say, “Beware! The Outside is perilous, sinister secrets and foreboding figures prowl about in it, and it changes people, even loved ones”. Similarly, is the story of fetching water in a krenjul only to give people confidence that they can deal with the waswas of Devil? Are yecch sightings hallucinations resulting from mild hypothermia and exhaustion? Are yecch (and similar creatures) our close relatives that took a different evolutionary path by preferring brawn over brains? Or are yecch the Kosher variant of the archetype of the Wild Man, a mental link between civilization and the natural world? Well, use your…er… imagination to figure out answers to these questions.
To me, the greatest symbolism associated with yecch has always been this: The name of yecch is a close derivation of the sub-continental yaksha, their body and behaviour bear similarities with the Tibetan yetis, and their dress comes from the Turks. They embody three great civilizations, the Turkic-Central Asian, the Indic and the Sino-Tibetian, like Kashmir itself.