Inside India #7: Kashmir – paradise on Earth?

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

“If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” So reads a couplet by the famous Persian-language Indian poet Amir Kusrau. The verse is often said to refer to Kashmir, long regarded as the most beautiful region on the subcontinent, a favourite of Mughal emperors, so much so that Emperor Jahangir, when asked, on his deathbed, as to his most cherished memory, is said to have replied: “Kashmir. The rest is worthless.”

There is little doubt that, for those lucky enough to travel there, Kashmir is a land blessed with great natural beauty: flower-filled valleys, crystal clear rivers, and mist-shrouded hills. The region is famed for walnuts and saffron, for the hand-knotted carpets and silk Pashmina shawls found in its markets, for icy blue lakes and picturesque houseboats, for the legendary ‘wazwan’, the thirty-six course meal served to visiting kings, and the Hazratbal Shrine, believed to house strands of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair.

Today, Kashmir’s tortured political status is common knowledge. The state is made up of multiple administrations: Jammu and Kashmir lies under Indian control, Azad Kashmir is Pakistan-administered, and the Aksai Chin region is governed by China. 

What is not so well known is Kashmir’s fabulous past.

Legend has it that in 326 BCE, when Alexander the Great reached the limits of his expedition to conquer the known world, and there engaged in battle with the Indian king Porus, it was to the Kashmiri king Abisares that Porus turned for reinforcements. (Not that it helped him. Alexander won the Battle of Hydaspes, only to then be forced to turn back for home by his war-weary troops.)

The arrival of Islam into Kashmir marked a watershed moment. 

The Turkic-Mongol warlord Dulacha raided Kashmir and ousted the long ruling Hindu Lohara dynasty in AD 1320. Two decades later, a Muslim minister named Shah Mir established lasting Muslim rule in Kashmir – Mir founded a dynasty that would stretch from 1339 until 1561.

With the foundation of this “sultanate”, Kashmir began to attract Muslim missionaries, sufis, and scholars from across the Islamic world. In due course Islam became the dominant religion of the valley, influencing customs, habits, dress, language – Sanskrit all but vanished during this period – and culture.

The advent of India’s Mughal emperors: Akbar the Great, his son Jahangir, and his grandson Shah Jahan – gave Kashmir prominence in the new Islamic empire. The Mughal reign transformed Kashmir once again, with the building of numerous celebrated palaces, mosques, and gardens, none more famous than the Shalimar Bagh, lying just north of Dal Lake in Srinagar. (The bagh – or garden – was built by the Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan.) 

Following four centuries of Muslim rule, Kashmir fell to Sikh control, with the arrival of the one-eyed Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab (for the curious: he’d lost his eye to smallpox). The Sikh reign was marked by a series of anti-Muslim decrees, and draconian taxes. 

Sikh rule in the region was eventually succeeded by a Hindu nobleman at Ranjit Singh’s court named Gulab Singh. Singh became the first maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir after war broke out between the British and the Sikh Empire in 1845. During that first Anglo-Sikh War, Gulab Singh sided with the British and was rewarded with control over the region. 

During his reign Gulab Singh favoured a small but influential Hindu minority, the Kashmiri pandits (Hindus of the highest Brahmin caste, who, many years later, in 1990, would be forced to exodus the region en masse), leading to conflict with the majority Muslim population of the region. 

Things came to a head – and planted the seed for Kashmir’s modern woes – with Partition in 1947. 

Gulab Singh’s grandson, Hari Singh, was the reigning ruler at the time. Rulers of Princely States (as Kashmir was then designated) were encouraged by the British to accede their states to either India or Pakistan. At the time, Kashmir’s population was three quarters Muslim, many of whom wished to side with Pakistan. Hari Singh, a Hindu, was not convinced. To postpone a decision, Hari Singh signed a “standstill agreement” with Pakistan. 

However, following a guerrilla campaign of insurgents arriving from Pakistan in an attempt to force Hari Singh’s hand, the maharajah turned to the Indian government for help. The price? Accession of the state to the new republic. 

Hari Singh duly offered accession; India duly accepted.

A furious Pakistan responded by arguing that Hari Singh could not legally sign such an accession given the standstill agreement he had already agreed to.

And from that day to this, the two sides have quarrelled over the status of the region, including several wars, a long-running separatist insurgency, draconian local policing, regular military skirmishes along the so-called ‘Line of Control’, and lasting economic, social and political harm inflicted upon the residents of the region. 

Just over a year ago, things changed once again.

India’s Narendra Modi-led government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution – the clause that had given the state of Kashmir a degree of autonomy and many special privileges in its relationship with the country as a whole (including its own constitution and the right to bar Indians outside of the state from settling there). In essence, the Indian government has enacted its belief that Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India and should not be treated differently to any other state in the country.   

As the only Muslim-majority region to join India at Partition, the action has caused uproar in Kashmir, where mistrust of the government’s intentions is high. The government argues that by putting Kashmir on an equal footing with the rest of the country it will encourage investment into the region. Locals believe this is a way for the ethnic makeup of the region to gradually be altered.

One can only hope that the move is a positive one for the average Kashmiri, and that, in due course, the region – with all its natural beauty – once again becomes accessible to outside visitors. 

It isn’t only the Mughal emperors who would wish to appreciate India’s ‘paradise on earth’. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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