Not very long ago, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti gave an ultimatum to the Centre, saying it only had three ways to keep Kashmir: Return Article 370 along with interest, talk to Pakistan, and address the Kashmir issue. “If they (Centre) want to keep Jammu & Kashmir with them, they have to restore Article 370, hold dialogue with Pakistan, and resolve the Kashmir issue,” she said.
Mufti is not alone. The Abdullahs — currently both Farooq and Omar, and in the past the late Sheikh Abdullah — have perfected the art of running with India and hunting with Pakistan and China. Till 2014, they were an integral part of Lutyens’ Delhi, projecting themselves as nationalists, but the moment they found themselves out of power, they took a drastically opposite stand, going to the extent of seeking China’s help to restore Article 370. Interestingly, the Abdullahs’ fascination with China is not new. In 1965, the year India was busy fighting Pakistan and within three years of the disastrous 1962 war with China, Sheikh Abdullah went to Algiers to secretly meet the then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai.
Hearing the discourse of the Valley-based politicians who claim the ownership in Kashmiri politics primarily because they are fortuitously born in the right genetic pool, one can sense an air of condescending disdain in their voices. They make us believe that they are entitled to rule Kashmir; that Kashmir is with India just because they are with us! You cut them loose and this part of the country is as good as gone. Really?
Politically, the Narendra Modi government called their bluff, especially after 5 August 2019, when Articles 370 and 35A was revoked, taking away the special rights from the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir. However, there has been no intellectual challenge to the big question. It is as if India has no other connection with Kashmir, except the delayed accession of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir with India by Maharaja Hari Singh. That the Valley has nothing to do with the Indic civilisation. So, whose Kashmir is it anyway?
History, however, tells an altogether different story. A story where Kashmir is not a peripheral part of the India narrative. It, in fact, for most part of the ancient times, before the marauding forces from the west pushed the valley’s entire creative forces into a survival mode, heralded India’s cultural, literary and religious blossoming.
Kalidas regarded Kashmir as “more beautiful than heaven”, while Kalhan called it “the best place in the Himalayas”. As the legend goes, the valley was originally a lake which was created after a part of Sati’s dead body fell in Kashmir during Shiva’s cataclysmic dance (tandav), creating the Satisar lake. The places where other body parts fell, came to be known as Shakthi Peethas. One day, a great sage (rishi) called Kashyap arrived and he drained the water and thus emerged a beautiful valley out of the lake. The Rishi was so enchanted that he invited saints and scholars from other parts to populate this valley, which got named after its founder, Kashyap Rishi, as Kashyapsar, Kashyapmar or Kashmir, meaning the house of Kashyap.
Interestingly, the legend of the great lake finds geological support. From the evidence found at the mountain, it is seen that the boats were once moored there. “Holes bored into the big boulders for tying the boats are seen even today. One such boat-holder is seen at Nobugnai, a place near Shopian. This place is sacred to the Hindus,” writes CK Gariyali in her book Kashmir: The Land of Kashyapa.
Given this association with Shiva and Sati, the region has historically been a hub of ‘Kashmir Shaivism’ (though Buddhism too found its base here and from here it made a massive influx into Central Asia), which looks at ‘ultimate reality’ as one pure consciousness transcending across the universe. It describes Shiva as universal consciousness and his creative and cosmic power as Shakti. Such had been the spiritual-cum-intellectual aura of Kashmir that even Adi Shankaracharya, after his visit to the valley, conceded the predominance of Shakti in his Advaita philosophy. So much so that he composed poems in praise of the Goddess, such as Saudarya Lahiri and Sharada Bhujana Stotram.
Legend has it that when Shankara arrived in Srinagar, his entourage camped just outside the city. They had raw food, but they could not cook as they failed to make fire. The next morning, a Kashmiri girl came to their help. Pavan K Varma recounts this incident in Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker: “Taking two pieces of wood, she rubbed them while chanting a mantra, and the spark that emerged from the friction lighted the fire. The wood, the girl explained, is Brahman. The fire that sprang forth from it is Shakti, the power inherent in Brahman.”
Varma also tells us how Adi Shankara entered into a shastrarth (debate) with a Kashmiri woman on the concept of Shakti. “The debate lasted for 17 days, at the end of which Shankara conceded defeat. This apocryphal story signifies his acceptance of Shakti worship, and his association with tantric interpretation of Advaita philosophy.”
A girl teaching Adi Shakara the crux of Shakti and Shiva, and a woman defeating him in a shastrarth point at the intellectual and cultural apogee Kashmir had reached and the freedom women enjoyed at that time. There’s a tendency to overlook all this to say: “Oh! But these were only a few women belonging to the elite class!” If you tend to believe it, just pick a book by Kshemendra.
Khemendra, who? In a country where we know more about Shakespeare than Kalidas, who incidentally hailed from Kashmir and composed some of his best works in the valley, this query may not come as any surprise.
Kshemendra lived in Kashmir in the 11th century CE, and among his many books, Samaya Matrika, one of the finest satires in Sanskrit, brings alive the vibrant society of Kashmir through its women characters — an attractive courtesan and her shrewd keeper. With its crisp narrative, fast-paced action and gender defying roles of women, one may be faltered to think the story is based in the 21st century.
So, Samaya Matrika talks about women who “move about freely in society. They inherit property and litigate in courts. The heroine is a rich cattle owner at one time, and the irresistible widow of a gentleman at another. She is also, by turns, a roadside mendicant’s companion, a living goddess and a soothsayer. Her career displays awareness of the world outside Kashmir,” as ace translator Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar writes in the ‘Introduction’ of the English version of the book. Can one expect today’s women to be so adventurous, independent and free-willed?
Ancient Kashmir had perfected the art of amalgamating mind with money, culture with material prosperity, and literature with architecture as astounding as the Martand temple. No wonder, the region is believed to be the abode of Saraswati (Sharada), while at the same time Srinagar is dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi (the term Srinagar itself means the city of Lakshmi).
There’s a fascinating story about the ancestors of Kashmiri Pandits who before coming to the valley at the insistence of Kashyap lived on the banks of river Saraswati. They were therefore called Saraswat Brahmins. As the story goes, there was a great famine, and Saraswati fed her son Saraswat with fish so that he would survive and keep the knowledge of Vedas alive. Other Brahmans, not that lucky, could not study and the knowledge of Vedas was lost to everyone except Rishi Saraswat. This could also be the reason why the Brahmins of Kashmir, Bengal and Saraswat Brahmins of Mangalore traditionally are fish eaters. The story is also a reminder to all those who tend to confine Hinduism to a particular food habit.
Today, Kashmir is dying a slow death. Not only the spirit is about to be lost, but even the body is dying. Gariyali writes, “The sacred Vitasta river, the lifeline of the valley, is turning into a sewer. Dal Lake is shrinking and dying. Many water bodies and lakes have disappeared, silted, filled with filth and garbage, and built upon. The unique avenue trees, which greeted the visitors at the gateway to the paradise, have been chopped off. Icy slopes of Gulmarg and Son Marg are strewn with litter. When the body and soul both are dead is there anything to fight over?”
Worse, the inhabitants of the valley are fighting against their own past. To use the Naipaulian phrase, there’s a “fundamental rage” against their own ancient history. There’s palpable disdain and apathy for numerous temples destroyed all over the valley. The pious temple of Goddess Sharada at Sharada Peeth in today’s Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is almost forgotten, with no pilgrims going there for decades now. Divinity has been detached from the Vitasta river, the lifeline of ancient Kashmir. With divinity gone, the river, being worshiped for 5,000 years, has been allowed to become a sewer of sorts. If the river dies, will the valley survive? And with it, a great civilisation will be a thing of the past, more on the lines of the pre-Islamic Persian civilisation.
So, is it all over? Are we going to be perennially extorted by the likes of the Muftis and Abdullahs who claim to own up Kashmiriyat today but know very little about it? Thankfully, all’s not lost till we have Kashmiri Pandits and the likes of Maqbool Sherwani who refuse to give up on the real Kashmiriyat, whose idea of Kashmir complements the idea of India. For those who are not well aware of Sherwani’s exploits, this 19-year-old Kashmiri boy delayed for four days the advance of thousands of Kabailis towards Srinagar in 1947 by misleading them, thus giving the Indian Army enough time to reach Srinagar and save the Pandits from the impending massacre. Sherwani was brutally killed and crucified on a wooden cross by Kabailis during their retreat after they realised his motive. Later, when the Indian Army regained its control and the raiders were driven out, Sherwani’s body was reclaimed and buried in Jumma Masjid with full military honours.
There is something about the Pandits that they survive till date despite all odds. When all seems to be lost for them, a fresh air of life and exuberance invariably comes to their rescue. It happened in the 19th century when, after centuries of persecution — of halal-type interspersed with occasional jhatka executions, only eleven Pandit families were left in the valley; at that time Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to their rescue. It saw their cultural flowering for almost a century when things began to deteriorate in the Nehruvian setup. The Modi dispensation has provided them some hope, again. One wishes it’s not a hollow one. For, the battle is not just about Kashmir. It’s the very idea of India that is at stake.