Book Extract: Being Kashmiri

The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini explores three vital questions in relation to the discourse on Kashmiri selfhood: What is history? How does a land become a homeland? And how arecultural identities formed? The book reinterprets Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and combines testimonies of art, script, material culture and linguistics to jettison the image of an isolated and insular early Kashmir. Below is an excerpt from the chapter titled ‘Imagined Landscape: Myth, Memory, and Place-Making’ printed with permission from the publisher

The Rajatarangini defies any formulaic understanding of literary cultures and how they relate to the spaces they represent. For one, here is a self-consciously regional account rendered in and through a quintessentially trans-regional language, Sanskrit. What is more, this happens in the absence of ‘literarization’, or beginnings of the composition of literature, in the vernacular tongue, Kashmiri. Pollock spoke of a process of vernacularization wherein, from the turn of the 2nd millennium CE, the emergence of regional kingdoms or ‘vernacular polities’ all over the subcontinent was accompanied by the rise of their local languages as literary or poetic languages, imitating yet displacing Sanskrit kavya everywhere. The point is that this did not quite happen in Kashmir.

To explain briefly, the beginnings of literature in Kashmiri are somewhat hazy, that is, literature understood in a formal written, creative–narrative and aesthetic sense, such as kavya, as different from scripture or treatise. To begin with, extant compositions in Kashmiri from the premodern period are sparse. Moreover, the earliest ones are two philosophical expressions of mysticism: the Mahanaya Prakasa, a treatise on Shakta worship from the 13th or 15th centuries CE, and the celebrated saint Lal Ded’s Shaiva vakhs or ‘sayings’ of the 14th century, which were purely oral. Neither, therefore, qualifies as literature in the sense in which Pollock spoke. According to BN Kachru, Avatara Bhatta’s Banasura Kathaāfrom the 15th century is perhaps the earliest specimen of an aesthetic kavya in Kashmiri. However, it remained a solitary affair, hardly followed by other such works. We do not see therefore the emergence of a full-fledged literary culture in Kashmiri taking over from Sanskrit kavya as we see happen, for instance, in Kannada, Bengali, or Awadhi in the early medieval period.

Among the historical reasons for this could be the fact that in Kashmir one cosmopolitan literary culture, Sanskrit, was followed by another, Persian, which took over as the language of the Kashmiri court, administration, education, and elitism, sometime after the tumultuous Central Asian and then West Asian incursions, and subsequently the Mughal conquest of Kashmir, between the 13th and 17th centuries. Scholars report that Kashmiri remained low in prestige and did not enjoy any professional or aesthetic status all through the very centuries of the medieval period that vernaculars in other parts of India were born and flourished. Sample the sentiment as late as the 19th century in this verse by a Kashmiri poet, Lachman Raina, writing in Persian:

Writing verse in Kashmiri is groping in the dark.

If you would shine as a candle flame, write in Persian verse;

You would merely waste your talent if you write in Kashmiri.

For you would not the jasmine hide in a nettle bush,

Nor edible oil and spices waste on a dish of mallow wild.

But times have changed and Persian is no longer read;

and radish and sugar loaf are relished alike.

What is intriguing, however, is that even after Independence in 1947, it is Urdu, and not Kashmiri, that was adopted as the state language of Jammu and Kashmir, continuing a long history of the state’s dissociation from the vernacular. The most recent linguistic scholarship suggests that today we are witnessing a move towards ‘the demise of the distinct symbol and roots of the Kash-miri linguistic–cultural identity in favour of the non-native code, Urdu, which could emerge as the primary linguistic identity in the near future’.

Be that as it may, though it definitely is one of the two earliest extant articulations of a Kashmiri territorial self-awareness and identity, the Rajatarangini was not vernacular literature emerging in imitation of the universal Sanskrit literary culture, a phenomenon Pollock labelled as the ‘cosmopolitan vernacular’;  instead, it was a case of the cosmopolitan as the vernacular. This dual nature and function of Sanskrit in the Rajatarangini— local yet universal—is important to emphasize since the text does not see them as mutually exclusive identities to sport. In fact, the cosmopolitan seems to have been constitutive of the local in Kashmir rather than sharply demarcated from it. Indeed, Kalhana may also have espoused a regional consciousness that aspired to transcend the narrow limits of a ‘vernacular polity’. Further, the distinct exteriority evident in the indigeneity of Kashmir’s cultural identity.

This then points to the cultural fallacy involved in maintaining that languages, and relatedly cultural affiliations, could be only one or the other. Specifically for the purpose of this chapter, the apparent discrepancy between vernacular subject and cosmopolitan medium is of the essence: it is a key to identifying the regional and trans-regional traditions and influences that went into the making of Kalhana’s Kashmir. This chapter proceeds with the understanding that the interplay between the universal and the particular frames the literary composition of Kashmir as a space/place.

Layers of landscape

Much of this literary portrayal would constitute what Diana Eckin an all-India context has called ‘imagined landscape’: myths, stories, and associations built around natural forces and natural features — mountains, rivers and their confluences, lakes and springs, fields and embankments, swamps and precipices, storms and floods — which generate a sense of place and region, and a rootedness in the land. These myths could be local lore or they could be derived subcontinentally from Epic and Puranic archetypes, weaving together gods, demigods, kings, peoples, and places. They filled out and lent tradition to the land that was Kashmir, anchoring and orienting its people not only to their own physical world but also willy-nilly to the moral that inhered in these constructed and preserved memories. The practice of landscape, then, encoded the realm with meanings and embedded it with cultural knowledge. On the strength of the Rajataranginiīand its 7th-century predecessor, the Nilamata Purana, on which it deeply draws, it is possible to say that true to the pan-Indian pattern, mythology and geography in Kashmir were ‘a joint imaginative and descriptive undertaking’. Geographical knowledge was ‘grounded in the mythical apprehension of the world’s meaning and order’ even as myth-making itself was resonant with the natural/geographical markers of the land. And since geographical awareness comprises a sense of regional identity, the Rajatarangini enacted Kashmir as a region in these ways.

While the connection between myths and regional identity-formation is not new and has been documented for various parts of the Indian subcontinent, it is not so in the case of the representation of Kashmir in the Rajatarangini where, the occurrence of myths in the narrative has tended to cause much consternation among historians and other scholars who view it as a disruption of the text’s otherwise historical character and spirit. In this context, the phenomenology of Kalhana’s mythicized rendition of Kashmir as a landscape needs to be noted and emphasized: as we will see, the immediacy and specificity of the natural elements of Kashmir with which he puts together the spatial imaginary constitute a vivid materiality. Therefore, a constant interweaving of the two discourses, the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’, the topographic and the mythic–narrative, is on display. And that is not all. I shall further argue towards the close of this chapter that adding a third layer to this tapestry of literary signification is the Rajatarangini’s imbrication of the political in its geographical excursus.

It can be argued that objective history has had perhaps less to do with a sense of regional belonging than subjective traditions and associations, such as not only myths but also legends and stereotypes about the land and its people that gain currency often precisely through textualization. That the Rajatarangini displays this tendency, specific to it as a kavya, for conjuring the distinctiveness of Kashmir has received little scholarly notice. I refer to the use of rhetoric and imagery at various points in the text in a manner highly evocative of the local and the folk. This is significant even from the point of view of literary history since it involved the invention and deployment of descriptors, similes and analogies which were, as we shall see, unique to the Kashmiri context. This should qualify the image of kavya as a reified literary genre rigidly wedded to stock conventions and figures. The Rajataragini is a splendid example of how Sanskrit adopted and adapted local motifs, locales, and content to a trans-local poetics and served as a vehicle of regional literary expression. And, true to the potent concerns of a politico-literary medium, the Rajataranginiī in the process also inaugurated and sustained a critique of local politics. Let us see how.

Mapping the land

In the Rajatarangini, there is an identifiable sense of chronicling a distinct spatial unit or region (desa, mandala) with which the author identifies himself and his protagonists. This is achieved by means of certain practices of place. One such practice is emphasizing belongingness through the use of terms such as svadesa (one’s own land) and janmabhumi (one’s birthplace). It is also effected via statements on the specialty of ‘this unique land’ and the enumeration of its extraordinary features in various ways. Also asserted in the text are the twin notions of ‘one’s own country’ (svadesa) versus ‘the country of others’ (videsa).

Kalhana deploys several markers of this place but does not attempt to spell out the boundaries of Kashmir since those seem to be a given in the text, coinciding as they did with an intermontane valley. That there were cognizable boundaries, however, is undoubtable from references to the frontier of Kashmir (kasmiradvara), to approaching, entering, or exiting the territory of Kashmir, as also to a distinct people called the Kashmiris as opposed to those of neighbouring territories including Rajapuriī(Rajouri), Darad (Chitral and Gilgit), Bhauttas (Ladakh), Trigarta (Kangra), Campaā(Chamba), Madra (Punjab), and Darvabhisara, and wider afield, as distinct from the Turuskas, Khasas, Tuhkharas, and the like. As a character is made to say, ‘“This is my land, this is alien land (svadesoyam videsoyam),” such is the urge in the minds of beings due to habitual residence, the association of ideas, and the practice of exclusion.’ Of course, the borders of the kingdom also shifted in minor ways from time to time as a result of war, especially to encompass parts of Rajapuri, Lohara (north Punjab), Campa, Trigarta, Bhautta, Urasaā(Hazara), and Udbhandapura (Ohind, NWFP), but expansion of influence rather than of territory was perhaps the more lasting result.

Broadly, the text brings with it a sense of the land of Kashmir being the one traversed by the Vitastaā (Jhelum) river. A river allows people to conceptualize as a whole the land across which it flows. It may also permit subdivisions. Thus we hear of Kashmir demarcated into the northern valley (Kramarajya or Kamraz in Kashmiri) and the southern valley (Madavarajya or Maraz) of the Vitasta, a designation in use until today. Indeed, in the Rajatarangini the markers of the space of Kashmir seem to be nebulous natural phenomena that exhibited a certain omnipresence and influence in the Valley. The foremost of these are the waters of Kashmir, a recurrent element in one form or the other in the text.

Water is the originary motif in the heavily Puranic cosmogonic account of the Valley that the Rajataranginiī replays. Following the account in the Nilamata, it speaks of the Satiīsaras or lake of Sati, the ‘land in the womb of the Himalayas filled with waters for six manvantaras’. This primordial lake, when drained by the gods at the behest of sage Kasyapa, and rid of the resident hydel demon, Jalodbhava, came to be the site where the mandala or kingdom of Kashmir was founded. The very name ‘Kashmir’ is said to carry within it the syllable for water, ‘ka’, so that water then is seen performing a metonymic function for the land. (Fascinatingly, the lake drainage myth has been found to occur with variations all along the Himalayas, from Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, including Nepal.) This is the first of several myths in Kalhana’s narrative relating to the physiography of Kashmir that combines geology and tradition. We know that the geomorphological formation of the Valley did occur from an ancient lake, evidently a memory preserved in myth.

Moreover, the Valley did not drain out completely and a number of residual seasonal lakes and pools, known as nagas, have remained in Kashmir. Therefore, in the Rajataranginiī too, Kashmir is described as ‘the resort of the nagas’, ‘the territory which is under the protection of Nila, supreme lord of all the naga s (tutelary spring deities), whose parasol is the swelling Nila kunda (spring; modern-day Verinag) with the flowing waters of the Vitasta for its staff ’. The river Vitasta herself is associated with the goddess Parvati whom she embodies, in a classic illustration of Puranic transformation of stock mythological material to fulfil a local situational context. Further, Anne Feldhaus has pointed out that the imagery of a river as a human or divine body serves to bring together various places along the river in a conceptual unity.

The first taranga then proceeds with the casting of a bird’s eye over the physiography of Kashmir. This is a selective and suggestive survey held up by poetic claims, not a cartographic one, but evocative and effective nonetheless. Kashmir’s identity with mountains is declared in a straightforward way. It is called ‘the country magnificent with its mountains’. Mountain ramparts are described as the arms of Kashmir stretched out for safeguarding the nagas, and the king of Kashmir is, in turn, described as the ‘guardian of the mountains’. This would count not simply as a naturalistic reference but also a symbolic one, since mountains are typically imbued with mythic sanctity in India.  As Eck writes, the transposition of Himalayan peaks from the north to other parts of India was/is a widespread motif of sanctification. For Kashmir, however, no such transposition was needed; the Himalayas and the northern direction were already features of the land. Asserting this claim to sacred terrain would then ring particularly true for Kashmir and simultaneously serve to create a sense of place. Thus, the Rajatarangini says: ‘In the three worlds the earth, the producer of jewels, is worthy of praise, and on it, the North, the direction of the lord of wealth; there again the mountain, the father of Parvati [Himalaya] is praiseworthy and within it, the country of Kashmir.’ Elsewhere it is claimed: ‘To the mighty Gonanda, king of Kashmir, the [northern] direction, of which the dazzling Kailasa is the smile and the tossing Ganga the scarf, rendered homage.’