Monday, August 18, 2014

On Kashmir | The Land of Myths and Mysteries

Surprisingly, this small landlocked jewel between mountains, finds itself influenced by not just Islam and Hinduism, but also lores from Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.

Gautam ka jo watan hai, Japan ka haram ahi
Isayi ke aashikon ka chota jerusalem hai
Dafan jis zameen mein islam ka chasham hai
Har phoool jis chaman ka firdaus hai, haram hai
Mera watan wahi hai, mera watan wahi hai

The abode of Gautama, is a sacred place for Japanese
Small Jersusalem for lovers of Jesus
Buried is there, the glory of Islam,
Every flower of this garden is a heaven, a paradise,
That is my motherland, my native land

Mughal Emperor, Jahangir's profound exclamation of Kashmir as Paradise on earth has since found a cozy place in travelogues and narratives of this land. Much has been written of the landscape of Kashmir and its similarity with the lavish description of the promised-land in the Bible yet there is more than mere visual appeal that it possesses. There is something enigmatic about this land, that has across centuries, attracted faiths and carriers of the divine message, causing it to earn the name Pir Wari (literal meaning- a bowl of saints).

Kashmir, as Stein describes it, is a 'white footprint set in a mass of black mountains', carefully cut off from the outside world. This little piece of land has been carved out and tucked away, yet over the years outsiders have found their way into this pleasant landscape and stayed to rule the indigenous people. Each of these got with them their own customs, traditions and populace. The language of a region tells the tale of its inhabitants and like the people, Kashmiri or Koshur, is a fusion that continues to mould to this day. Traveller accounts of Hiuen Tsang and Alberuni claim it to be a great seat of learning with people eager to gain knowledge. For a place that invited so many, and accepted with ease, great history and grand lores are inevitably packed into every nook and corner.

Venetian traveller Marco Polo writes about Kashmir, a province inhabited by a people who are 'idolaters with a language of their own’. ‘They have,’ writes Polo, ‘an astonishing acquaintance with the devilries of enchantment; insomuch that they make their idols to speak. They can also by their sorceries bring on changes of weather and produce darkness. (..)Indeed, this country is the very original source from which idolatry has spread abroad.'

Lawrence, who wrote an elaborate document on the Vale of Kashmir, makes an interesting remark about the general nature of Kashmiris much in line with Polo's observation. ‘The Sunni Musalmas of Kashmir are still Brahmans at heart,’ he says.  ‘The religion of Islam is too abstract to satisfy their superstitious craving (..) They like to gave on the saints old clothes and turban and to examine the cave in which he spent his ascetic life.'  Polo further testifies this by saying, 'There are in this country, hermits who dwell in seclusion and practise great abstinence (and) strict chastity,(..)so that they are regarded by their own folk as very holy persons.' Both were surprisingly accurate.

As a group of people, we live in fables, and talk in tales. We love our stories. Cut off from the rest of the world, in this multicultural, multilingual potpourri of customs and traditions we spin our own yarns to live by. We have myths to explain everything; moths here are spirits of the dead and each house has its own guardian angel. We even have our very own creation myth. Our idioms have stories to them, as do our proverbs. Our curses are graphic, and there is a vast list of un-translatable words, lacking English counterparts often making it suffocating to try and explain life to an outsider. The thing with fables however, is that they are interesting taken with a pinch of faith. Once you accept there being an eternity's worth of knowledge beyond your grasp, you can open yourself up to mysteries and immerse in the stories. Believer or not, you must engage with the lores of faith that have traversed this land to fully understand why it has been a blessed place; an exalted one for many faiths, across many centuries.

In this Valley of Saints, more than the faith itself, it is the stories we spin around it and the saints that we revere through it, that attract us to it.  We love our saints because we love our stories. For a land whose history begins in legend, this is hardly surprising.

The Rajtarangni, which gives Kashmir the distinction of being the only region of India which possesses an uninterrupted series of written records of its history dating back beyond Muslim conquests, begins with a mythological explanation of how Kashmir came into being.
In what was once the great lake of Sati-the Satisaras, today lies the legendary, paradisiacal valley of Kashmir. Jalodbhava or the water born demon inhabited this immense lake and caused the whole land to be laid to waste since humans couldn't cohabit with demons. The Gods tried but failed in their attempts to annihilate him. Then one day the sage, Kashyapa on hearing of this distress devoted himself to religious exercise and penance. As an answer to his prayers, the holy triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva appeared to aid him.  Vishnu assumed the form of a boar, struck a mountain at Varhamul(present day Baramulla) and the lake rushed out through this. The wily demon however, took refuge in the low ground near Srinagar. To counter him, the Goddess Sharika disguised as a myna (a hari in Kashmiri) dropped a pebble on the demon and as it fell, the pebble grew and buried the demon under it. Today, there lies a mountain, ubiquitous in all glorious photographs and drawings of the Dal Lake. This mountain, the one behind which the sun shyly hides every day at dusk, is called the Hari Parbat (or the Myna Mountain) and gets its name from this myth. The Persian name for this mountain, Koh-e-Maran or the mountain of the snake, is a telling of how this myth found acceptance into the Muslim narrative.

Kashmir too, gets its name from Kashyapa, who is also the grandson of Brahma and one of the Saptarishis in Hindu literature. On the shore of the lake Satisar, was said to be Parvati's abode. After cleansing the land of demons, Kashyapa prayed to Shiva for Parvati to cleanse this newly created land. Striking his trident to the ground, Shiva beckoned Parvati who gushed forth as the river Vitasta or Vyeth. To this day, the Vyeth flows across Kashmir, cleansing it as the celebrated river Jhelum.

Standing tall between the Jhelum and the Dal is the temple called Shankaracharya on a mountain commonly known as the Takht-e-Sulaiman or the Throne of Solomon. Originally thought to be a Buddhist temple, it now is an active Hindu one with a shivling placed inside it. Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu philosopher is said to have visited it, giving it its name. How Solomon penetrates into the nomenclature is still a mystery. A prophet common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, oral tradition says that King Solomon reached the Kashmir Valley and through his wisdom aided the people of Kashmir by successfully regulating the Jhelum river; the mighty task of Kashyapa is attributed to him by some. Others however, dismiss this as heresy claiming Takht-e-Sulaiman to be a common name for flat-topped mountains in Central Asia.

As an early a seat of Hinduism, Kashmir switched to Buddhism under Ashoka and then back to Hinduism under his son. Emperor Kanishka  made Kashmir the seat of Mahayana Buddhism and erected numerous Buddhist viharas. Hiuen Tsang travelled to Kashmir for the fourth Buddhist Council that convened here. Chinese travellers are said to have spent years in the valley on a pilgrimage to holy sites and in studying Sanskrit. Buddhism fell in 9th century and the present day Shaivite and Vaishanava faith got popular.

Lawrence spoke about the Kashmiri's fascination for the sacred and the relics that tie one to the faith. It is this that invites so many here. Islam spread in Kashmir primarily through the advent of Sufi saints in the 13th Century and has had a strong hold since. In Srinagar also lie strands of hair of the Prophet Mohammed. The story of how the hair travelled is a long one involving a family feud and exile of a custodian of the holy shrine in Medina, its passing down through generations, trade of the hair to a Kashmiri merchant, Aurangzeb testing it for authenticity and finally it being enshrined in Hazratbal in Srinagar with the Bandey family being its custodian.

Having spoken of two prophets of Abrahamic religions, three more await their turn for they too, are tied to this land with stories.  Moses and Jesus, founders of the largest and most prosperous religions communities of the world, are also the two we know least about. Tales and conjecture say they both lie buried in Kashmir.  To examine this claim we must trace its origins to a separate one; one that calls Kashmiris the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. First suggested by traveller Albiruni who wrote of how only Jews were earlier allowed to enter Kashmir, the theory got picked up by later Europeans travellers.  Lawrence, Bernier and Younghusband, have written about the 'Jewish cast of faces' of the Kashmiris and the characteristic hooked nose. The Hebraic nose, the love of money and getting better than the other seem to be amongst the physical and temperamental characteristics the Jews have in common with the Kashmiris. The first Israelite prophet, Solomon and his presence in the valley, isn't a surprising connection then. What strengthens these claims is also the similarity in the names of places that appear to in the Bible to those in Kashmir. The striking similarity between the languages, Hebrew and Kashmiri detailed in many books is another hint.

With this supposable evidence in front of us, and the story of Moses and 40 years in wilderness at the back of our mind, we can try and link the two. The time in the desert was actually that of travel from Central Asia to Kashmir. Moses, along with his tribe arrived in Kashmir but as the legend goes, wasn't allowed to enter the Promised Land. His alleged tomb, in harmony with the legend is situated on a mountain in Bandipora (earlier Bethpur) on a reddish hill, right outside the valley. The names of the hillocks and villages around correspond to those in the Bible. This small community who point out the grave of Moses also claim to have never faced a calamity because of this divine presence around them.

Oral testimony based on hand-me-down tradition, tells us of the tomb of Yuz Asaf, a prophet, that lies in Srinagar. This prophet came here 2000 years ago and rests in Rozabal today. Historians, using their deduction and timeline analysis, concluded that the only probable candidate to claim the name, Yuz Asaf, seems to be Jesus. A new proposition thus emerges suggesting that Jesus travelled to Kashmir to spread his message to these lost tribes of Israel that came to inhabit this land with Moses. He, therefore, did not die on the cross.  One reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls from 1947, suggests that after taking him down from the cross Jesus was wrapped in linen and ointment applied to his wounds. Scientific groups having studied the shroud Jesus was wrapped in, conclude that he was alive and bleeding fresh blood when wrapped in it. Wounded, yet alive, Jesus is said to have escaped in disguise and travelled to Kashmir. It is said that sometime during travel, Mary passed away near a hill on Rawalpinidi. She lies buried there in an area named Muree, eerily close to her own name.

A third prophet, Noah, though not buried here is said to have his descendants living here. A good portion of the Kashmiri population constitutes of boatmen or hanjis. Though a thriving community, they are viewed as uncultured and landless as they live in shikaras, dongas and houseboats. Whether this claim is another tale romanticizing their landless plight or has actual facts to it, is something that like the rest of the myths above, will quite possibly never be known.

Some of these stories fall into place with each other, with geological evidence and historic research. However, to hope for concrete evidence is taking faith too far. For now, we can enjoy tales and revel in the fusion that emerges from them. It isn't everywhere you see that Hindu Brahmans find Buddha a part and parcel of Lord Shiva, Muslims find themselves Brahmans at heart, and Brahmans gladly relish their meat like the Musalmans. We are strange, yet we've inhabited this land full of stories, spending our days telling tall tales which survive to this day.


  1. get a new history teacher and stop reading books where you have read all this! :) a kashmiri advice to lil sister

  2. Thank you for the advice, Anonymous. However, I'd love to do that if this piece had anything to do with history at all. I'd advice you to re-read it and see how all it talks of is myths and myths as we know, are hearsay.

  3. Strange that you're missing the elephant in the room. Plus the Kashyapmir is a myth not a historical fact. You need to go beyond these cooked up theories and talk to the real people.

  4. Please re-read the comment above. Never denied it being a myth. The recorded history begins in a myth like I said. I have a certain fondness for cooked up stories, or lores as you say, so I think I'll stick to what I do. I find them very fascinating.

  5. Thank you sister for bringing up such a perfect blend of various theories about Kashmir. Certainly, a jot worth reading.. Kudos