Like many other parts of the country, the Bhairava cult has been popular in Kashmir since early medieval times. Rooted in esoteric as well as folk-religious culture of Tantric Shaivism, Bhairava is conventionally conceptualized as a fearsome and wrathful form of Shiva, personifying an “irate and infuriated state of mind”. The term also applies to emanations, manifestations and attendants of Shiva as well as consorts of Bhairavis.
Etymologically, the word Bhairava is derived from Sanskrit “bhaya” + “rava” (= Bhairava), with “bhaya”meaning fear or panic and “rava” meaning tumultuous sound. Thus in its elemental form the term “Bhairava” denotes “cosmic resonance of a frightful utterance”.
In non-dual Kashmir Shaivism, the word “Bhairava’ has a somewhat different connotation. The great Shaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta has given six interpretations of the word. Carrying the conceptual meaning of Bhairava as personification of a horrifying reverberation a little further, he says that Bhairava is one who frees us from the fear of the cycle of births and rebirths. According to him, Bhairava is one who constantly maintains, sustains and creates the world (“bharana, ramana , vamana”) and sounds the mantra of Self-consciousness. Thus in Kashmir Shaivism the term “Bhairava” implies the Highest Reality or “Supreme Being”.
In his anthropomorphic form, Bhairava is an awe-inspiring deity with ferocious demeanour. He is depicted with his hair disheveled, and with serpents as his ornaments, wearing a garland human skulls. In his hands he carries frightful weapons.
Conventionally, Bhairava is also worshipped as a protective and guardian deity who is custodian of domains and defender of territories. Great curative powers are attributed to him and it is believed that he can cure chronic diseases and can fulfill mundane wishes in no time. He also relieves his devotees from miseries instantly. On the spiritual plane, meditating on him can help in God-realization and achieving knowledge and liberation.
As a protective deity, the dog is Bhairava’s mount or pet animal because of its natural instinct for watching and guarding.
Kashmir has a number of sanctified shrines dedicated to Bhairavas in their role as custodians of the land and guardians of the quarters. In the early town planning of Srinagar (then Pravarpur or Pravarsenpur) by Pravarsena II (112 CE to 172 CE), the city was divided into eight wards sheltered by a group of eight Bhairavas whose shrines were located in different parts of the city. The Rainawari and Dal Lake areas were under the tutelage of Vetalraja Bhairava (which was in news recently for an attempt at appropriating its land). Sathu Barbar Shah, Amira Kadal and Ganpatyar areas were had Anandeshwara Bhairava as their patron deity, his temple still standing at Maisuma near Dashnami Akhara. The left bank of the River Vitasta, Habba Kadal and Doodh Ganga areas formed another circuit which was looked after by Tushkaraja (or Turushkaraja) Bhairava (the area was appropriated by local Muslims with a big mosque having been built on its premises). At the confluence of Doodh Ganga (now a dirty drain) and River Vitasta there is another sacred spot dedicated to the worship of Bahukhatakeshwara Bhairava. This Bhairava spiritually guarded Safa Kadal (left bank) and Chhattabal areas (the shrine was openly grabbed by local Muslims during a function several years back, with the Pandits’ complaint to Sheikh Abdullah being of no avail). On the right bank of the River, the areas comprising Ali Kadal and safa Kadal and Hari Parbat was sanctified by Purnaraja Bhairava. The areas of Fateh Kadal and Zaian Kadal on the right bank and the whole of what was known as Bohri Kadal was guarded by Mangalraja Bhairava whose shrine is situated on an island opposite Dilawar Khan’s Bagh and is marked by a large mulberry tree. The Zaina Kadal area on the left bank of the River was presided over by Jayaksena Bhairava and the area beyond it by Vishvaksena Bhairava.
Annual and bi-annual firs were held at all these sacred shrines, which were an integral part of Kashmiri Pandit religious life before the exodus. An interesting aspect of the these shrines was worship of non-iconic animistic features like the mulberry tree which was dabbed by vermilion and marked with sacred signs. another aspect of Bhairava worship in Kashmir, as in other parts of the country, was the offering of animal sacrifice (usually a ram) to appease the deity.
Many more Bhairava deities were also worshipped throughout Kashmir with their shrines dotting different parts of the Valley. These include Nandikeshwara Bhairava whose famous shrine is located at Sumbal