Quest for Kashmir

Print edition : June 22, 2018
The book is a milestone in the study of the region in South Asia and the most authentic statement yet on the origins of the Kashmiri identity.

asti svasti sukhasthare (sthale?)

punya kashmira mandale

shahabhadeno rajendrah

srimat pandava vamshajah

(Hail! In the place of happiness,

the sacred country of Kashmir,

lives King Shihab-ud-din,

born in the line of the Pandavas.)



I AM reminded of these lines from the Kother inscription of Sultan Shihab-ud-din of Kashmir (r. 1355-73 C.E.) as I sit down to review Shonaleeka Kaul’s new book, The Making of Early Kashmir. This verse in simple Sanskrit is a miniature prashasti (eulogy) of the Sultan. It is less ornate than prashastis from other parts of India, but the claim that Shihab is a descendant of Pandavas is by no means modest. At the same time, nothing about the verse is original to Kashmir. The genre of prashasti, the legend of Pandavas, and the ruler’s faith, Islam, were all imported.

What is distinct to Kashmir is its breath-taking landscape, where these diverse traditions from countries near and far intersected to produce a regional tradition that had a stamp of its own. How this historical process unfolded before 1200 CE is the subject of Shonaleeka Kaul’s book.

The subject is not easy to engage with, especially in the troubled times that the valley of Kashmir is currently passing through.

The problems that Kashmir presents are formidable. The Pakistan-sponsored demand for secession is only one of them. Secessionist forces have the support of a section of the Indian intelligentsia that argues that Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. The “justification” for this claim is sought in history, which as it turns out, is the ground on which battles over identity claims are generally fought. The Making of Early Kashmir is, then, more than a disinterested work of scholarship. And, even if it wishes to advance such a claim, thousands of Kashmiris and large sections of Indians concerned about the future of Kashmir will receive the book as a political statement.

Shonaleeka Kaul’s exploration is pioneering in several ways. Most of these, I am afraid, are likely to be lost on non-academic readers, who are destined as it were to bring with them their ideological baggage over the current political imbroglio. In spite of this challenge, the author gives us a rewarding piece of scholarship. If it lets the reader down, it is only because of its brevity, which is in fact so startling as to leave brevity itself gasping for breath.

Shonaleeka Kaul’s is primarily a study on the making of a region. Although historians have directed attention to the study of regional processes for half a century now, the question of how a region itself evolves in history has drawn little attention. There is consensus that the process is not older than the later half of the first millennium C.E. The tendency often noticed is to make an assessment that approximates the view, which Bhairabi Prasad Sahu has summarised thus: that regions were the products of interactions that local traditions had had with Brahmanical ideology.

Kunal Chakrabarti’s Religious Process: The Puranas and the Making of a Religious Tradition lays out the contours of this process in the context of Bengal. Sahu, Chakrabarti, and other historians of comparable conceptual persuasion place emphasis on the content and the context of the process. Shonaleeka Kaul focusses on the ideational component in the making of regional identities, which enables her to approach the question from a new theoretical vantage point.

A glacier in the snow-clad mountains of Khalsi, 120 km from Srinagar. What is distinct to Kashmir is its breath-taking landscapes.   -  K.R. Deepak

Her work is based on a hegemonic 12th-century text, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, and the history of its reception in Kashmir. Rajatarangini has been represented as a work of history for nearly two centuries now, but Shonaleeka Kaul rejects this view in favour of the text’s self-representation as a kavya. She alleges that the demands of modern historical methods made on Rajatarangini has led historians to accept such sections of the text that are in sync with their methods, and criticise as legendary or mythical the parts that fail their tests. Her critique is informed by the theses of Hayden White and others that literary texts and historical narratives are not mutually exclusive genres but projects that serve the same end of narrativising temporality.

With this theoretical hindsight, she looks at the ways in which Rajatarangini plotted time against the landscape of Kashmir as its geographical template. She identifies morality as the question that informed this emplotment of time. Kalhana, the author argues, approached “Kashmiri history as a laboratory of morality” (page 52). Here, “ethics more than chronology determined the classification of kings” (ibid). In this scheme of things, the moral has greater truth-value than the real or factual. The moral is in other words the determinant of historicity.

“In emplotting Kashmir’s past around the principle of moral order, he (Kalhana) narrativised it, and it is in narrativising the past that he historicised it, by lending shape and meaning to a vast swathe of time and the innumerable historical figures and events entailed by it” (page 58).

Shonaleeka’s Kaul’s critique of the existing approaches to Rajatarangini is based in large parts on their failure to recognise the text’s moral-as-truth approach to the past.

Rajatarangini is a Sanskrit text defining a vernacular region. Such texts are known from other parts of the subcontinent, but the trend generally noticed is that the definition of the region occurs in texts composed in vernacular languages.

In his influential thesis, Sheldon Pollock has argued that the use of vernacular languages for literary expression began with the emergence of powerful regional states after the ninth century C.E. This in effect led to the replacement of the age of Sanskrit cosmopolitanism by what he has identified as the vernacular millennium.

Shonaleeka Kaul notes that this transition did not occur in Kashmir, as Sanskrit cosmopolitanism was replaced in the 13th century by Persian cosmopolitanism (page 64) and not by a vernacular literary tradition. This experience of the cosmopolitan enjoying exclusive privilege in defining the vernacular or the regional warrants more attention than Shonaleeka Kaul has paid it, for it might hold the key to understanding how the regional identity of Kashmir evolved between the 12th and the 18th centuries.

The narrative in Rajatarangini is overlaid on sensory images of the landscape, with motifs of water, mountains and snowfall, as well as floods, snowstorms and famines, “bringing an unmistakably sensorial and experiential dimension to it” (page 87). These motifs do not occur merely as geographical descriptions but serve to draw “the physiography of Kashmir that combines geology and tradition” (page 71) by the semantic associations they have with local legends. Invoking their mythic sanctity (river as a human or divine body, page 72, mountain as protectors, page 73, snowfall as quasi-divine justice, page 78) enables Kalhana to present a “combined claim to piety and pleasures for the land” (page 88). Note the emphasis on piety ( punya) and pleasure ( sukha) in the verse from the Kother inscription cited at the beginning.

The landscape imagined here is “pristine, holy, spiritual” (page 98), but Kalhana’s emphasis on ethics has its corollary in strife, civil wars, insurrections, corruption, excessive taxation, and hunger strikes (pages 96-7), which make the landscape “set off against the unholy and troubled contretemps occurring therein” (page 98).

Kashmir's identity

The identity of Kashmir that Kalhana constructs through the events he recounts bring to light the vibrant contacts that the region had with other parts of the subcontinent.

Migrations from distant countries, such as Madhyadesha, Aryadesha, Dravida, Lata and Saurashtra; pilgrimage of Kashmiris to Prayaga, Banaras and Gaya; the arrival of pilgrims from as far as Gauda to the Sharada Peetha of Kashmir; and military, matrimonial and other forms of engagement with regions such as Gandhara, Gauda, Tamil Nadu (pages 119-24) influenced everyday life, religion, literary practices and statecraft to a profound degree. Material remains occurring in the form of the Northern Black Polished Ware pottery, and silver and copper punch marked coins of the Mauryan era endorse Kashmir’s long-standing contacts with other regions.

Contacts with Punjab date back to the Neolithic and Harappan times, and archaeological evidence “indicates not only long-standing contact and exchange between the two cultures from the 4th millennium BCE onwards, but also gradually, by the end of the third millennium BCE, the emergence of the outlines of a common pattern of material culture across the valleys of the Vitasta, Chenab, and Ghaggar-Yamuna” (pages 128-9).

These contacts were strengthened in later times, and “from the 6th century BCE onwards, commercially, politically, and culturally, there is strong material evidence to gauge not only the continuing and shaping relationship between Himalayan Kashmir and the non-Himalayan plains of Jammu and Punjab, but also, and probably via this relationship, the considerable integration or, to use the word popularised by the concept of connected histories, the entanglement of Kashmir in the material and ideological affairs of the rest of the subcontinent, or certainly a large part of it” (page 132).

Shared communication

Mediating this process of connected histories, Shonaleeka Kaul argues, was the Sanskrit language, which, as it turns out, did not have an already existing linguistic tradition in Kashmir to displace. In the shared world of historical experiences that unfurled across time, Sanskrit arose as “an instrument less of hegemonisation and more of a shared communication” (page 161).

This “foundational cultural choice,” as the author calls it, “was not happenstance or an isolated exercise. It can be understood against the backdrop of the intense variety of material and symbolic entanglement and connectivities that we saw between Kashmir and the rest of the Indic subcontinent from the mid1st millennium BCE until Kalhana’s own time. Be it in matters of politics and war or trade and commerce or education and art or religion and philosophy.

This has been obscured by the misplaced scholarly emphasis so far on early Kashmir’s geographic isolation on the one hand, and her putative proclivity to non-Indic cultural influences, on the other” (page 161). We know that “the misplaced scholarly emphasis” that Shonaleeka Kaul speaks of is not innocent or unconnected with the ideological persuasions that inform the current demand for secession or self-determination in the region.

The ruins of the Sharda temple in the Neelum valley in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The identity of Kashmir that Kalhana constructs through the events he recounts bring to light the vibrant contacts that the region had with other parts of the subcontinent.   -  LUV PURI

The work is a major corrective to the historical claims advanced in support of this demand. At the same time, it places before us aspects of the making of regional identities that we cannot evade any more. The message Shonaleeka Kaul has for historians of the region is loud and clear: our understanding of the making of regions in the Indian subcontinent will remain far from complete without exploring how language and the world of literature shaped them.

In this sense, The Making of Early Kashmir is a milestone in the study of the region in South Asia. And it is the most authentic statement yet on the origins of the Kashmiri identity.

Manu V. Devadevan is, Assistant Professor of History, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

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