Kashmir: A Forgotten History – V

So thoroughly Indic was Kashmir’s foundational history and so crucial was Kashmiri participation in the subcontinent’s affairs in the longue durée.

Published: 22nd October 2021 12:15 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd October 2021 01:50 AM   |  A+A-

Houseboats in Kashmir.

Houseboats in Kashmir.

In this series, we have attempted to redress the glaring academic and political neglect of the longue durée historical identity of Kashmir. We have delved into essential aspects of 2,000 years of her formative history, which show that Kashmir was historically never isolated or insular, as she is made out to be, but incredibly open and cosmopolitan; and she was overwhelmingly Indic in her genesis and composition rather than ‘unique’.

In the previous four parts, we saw how early Kashmir’s archaeology, historical geography, linguistics, writing systems, political formations and even demography were dynamically shaped in sync with other regions of India—a connected history long silenced and conveniently forgotten by the rush to separatist politics. It is no wonder then that for the first two millennia, Kashmiri culture—art, religion, philosophy and literature—also resonated with the Indic and vice versa.

Thus, as John Siudmak has shown, Kashmiri stone art or sculpture, in every one of its stages from the 4th century onwards at Bijbehara, Baramulla and Pandrethan, displayed a constant and concrete synchronicity with Gupta, post-Gupta and Pala art styles of three centres thousands of miles away, namely, Sarnath (UP), Udayagiri (MP) and Nalanda (Bihar)! The shared idiom was possibly because of itinerant artists from these places coming to work in ateliers in Kashmir. This repertoire included all-India icons such as the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Trimurti, Vaikuntha Vishnu, Ekamukha Linga, Maheshvara as Bhuteshvara, many-armed Durga Mahishasuramardini, Ganesha, Kartikeya, and Matrikas like Indrani and Chamunda, complete with ensigns like yagnopavit (sacred thread), vanamala (garland) and vahana (vehicles).

In fact, did you know, even the beautiful iconography on standard Kashmiri gold coins, right from the Kushanas (2nd century) and Kidaras (5th century) for the next 1,200 years (!) depicts Shiva with his trishula (trident) on the obverse and a seated Sri Lakshmi, lotus in hand, on the reverse, a formula familiar from other North Indian dynastic issues as well.

Famed Kashmiri bronzes, preserved in the monasteries of Ladakh and Tibet, also show the influence of the late Buddhist Pala school of Bihar and Bengal. Fascinatingly, the Rajatarangini narrates how King Lalitaditya (8th century) brought back with him to Kashmir from Magadha (Bihar) colossal Buddha statues gleaming in bronze, strapped on the backs of elephants—a local memory of a momentous transfer of artwork that evokes the artistic and religious interconnectedness of the two regions.

Indeed from the very beginning, Kashmiris worshipped the same deities as the rest of India, be it Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu or the Buddha. It is Kashmiris who took Buddhism to China and Central Asia on the one hand, and esoteric Shiva Advaita (Kashmir Shaivism) to the Deccan on the other. While preserving their own special rituals, Kashmiris observed all the same festivals as the rest of India, be it Ganesh Chaturthi (Pann), Shivaratri (Herath) or Janmashtami (Zaramsatam), even as the Devi remained central to Kashmiri selfhood.

It is no wonder then that, dedicated to Shakti-Saraswati, the Sharada temple, at present lying derelict in PoK, was once thronged by devotees from as far as Bengal in the 8th century and was listed by Al Biruni in the 11th century as among the top three shrines of all of Al Hind (India). And till today, some Hindu prayers in the South include the invocation sharadadevi kashmir-pura-vasini namostute (salutations to the goddess Sharada of Kashmir). Premodern Indic connectivity, and Kashmir’s role in it, are truly mind-boggling!

This is perhaps best captured by the tradition of the great 8th century seer-intellectual Shankaracharya’s three tours of philosophical conquest across the length and breadth of this country. Each time, setting out from his home in Kaladi, Kerala, he consciously chose none other than Kashmir—again the Sharadapeeth, the seat of all learning (sarvagyapeeth)—as the fitting culmination of his scholarly travels. The ancient Shankaracharya temple at Srinagar still stands witness to this epic visit as also to the astonishing centrality of Kashmir to the imagination of South India and vice versa.

And finally, not to forget the long line of virtuoso Kashmiri grammarians like Patanjali; poets like Kalhana, Bilhana, Somadeva and Kshemendra; linguists and rhetoricians like Vamana, Udbhata, Mammata and Anandavardhana; musicologists like Sharangadeva; and philosophers and yogis like Utpaladeva and the doyen Abhinavagupta: These scholars from the Valley revolutionised Sanskrit literature, ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, virtually monopolising the intellectual scene across the subcontinent from the first into the second millennium CE. Their works circulated widely and were studied as learned models as far as, again, the deep South, something that a scholar has colourfully described as saffron in the rasam!

So thoroughly Indic was Kashmir's foundational history and so crucial was Kashmiri participation in the subcontinent's affairs in the longue durée. How did this happen if Kashmir was never a part of India? And yet thousands of lives have been lost over this question! I believe the erasure of this history from living memory is the root of disinformation and conflict in the Valley. The Kashmiri today may not know from where they come and what their rich Indic legacy is, thanks to the fallacious identity discourse of the separateness of their land—a discourse that has done great epistemic violence most of all to the Kashmiri community, severing them from their own, very proud past.

However, history cannot be wished away simply because it does not suit politics. Instead, it is perhaps precisely in the reclamation and acceptance of her plural, open and cosmopolitan histories that the path to peace and reconciliation in Kashmir may yet lie.

(The writer is the author of ‘The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini’) 

Shonaleeka Kaul

Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University



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  • Bharati

    Last para - if wishes were horses....... Where in the world have the momins ever accepted ''peace and reconciliation'' with kafirs?
    11 months ago reply
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