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Kashmir: The Scarred and the Beautiful

The Arts of Kashmir

Catalog by Pratapaditya Pal
of a recent exhibition at the Asia Society and Museum, New York City
Asia Society/5 Continents, 224 pp., $55.00 (paper)

In November 1989, as a young journalist newly arrived in India, I was sent to Kashmir to cover a series of violent incidents in the state capital of Srinagar. Those protests turned out to be the beginning of the disastrous uprising against Indian rule that continues to smolder to this day. In the interval, it has left thousands dead, radicalized an entire region, and brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war.

At the time, however, the violence was still an amateur affair of young, largely secular-minded Muslims armed with unreliable homemade weapons—pistols fashioned from the steering shafts of rickshaws and so on. They were rising up in a disorganized fashion, from village to village, angry at the Indian government’s neglect of Kashmir’s dominantly Muslim population; its blatant rigging of the state’s elections; and its continuing refusal to hold a long-promised referendum on Kashmir’s future.

The extraordinary, almost unearthly beauty of the Kashmir valley made it a strange conflict to cover. In the morning, the window of my houseboat on the Dal Lake would be open, and as I lay in bed I could see the reed cutters and fishermen. The shikara canoes would be in the foreground; behind were the bridges and waterways, the willows and poplars, and the orchards of apricots and almonds. There were children paddling in the shallows and girls carrying brush-wood bundles on their heads. Beyond stretched the old Mughal watergardens and, above them, the mulberry trees of the silk farmers. Crowning all this were the jagged snow-peaks of the great Himalaya.

Yet even at the beginning, as early as those first months of the winter of 1989–1990, there were signs of how things would later develop. The first of the big massacres of civilians by the Indian paramilitary police, the CRPF, took place on the morning of January 21, 1990. Following incidents of police brutality during search operations, several thousand Kashmiris, including much of the local civil service, broke the curfew and marched peacefully out of the old city, waving placards complaining about police violence. When the vanguard of the crowd was halfway across the Gowkadal bridge, at the center of town, the CRPF opened fire, with automatic weapons, from three directions.

When I got to Srinagar the following day, I went straight to the city hospital. Every bed in the building was occupied and the overflow lined the corridors. One man, an educated and urbane city engineer named Farooq Ahmed, described how after the firing, the CRPF walked slowly forward across the bridge, finishing off those who were lying wounded on the ground. When the shooting began, Ahmed had fallen flat on his face and managed to escape completely unhurt. “Just as I was about to get up,” he told me, “I saw soldiers coming forward, shooting anyone who was injured. Someone pointed at me and shouted, ‘that man is alive,’ and a soldier began firing at me with a machine gun. I was hit four times in the back and twice in the arms.” Seeing that he was still alive, another soldier raised his gun, but the officer told him not to waste ammunition. “The man said I would anyway die soon.”

Ahmed waited forty-five minutes while the soldiers went through the piles of dead bodies, finishing off survivors and kicking corpses near the edge of the bridge into the river. When a convoy of trucks arrived, Ahmed was hauled inside along with the other bodies and covered with a tarpaulin. The trucks drove around Srinagar for an hour before finally dumping the bodies at the headquarters of the local Kashmiri police. Only then did survivors get taken to the hospital. The official casualty figure for the incident was twenty-eight dead. Ahmed and the three other survivors believed that the correct figure could well have been ten times that number.

After the international press published what had happened at the Gowkadal bridge, all foreign correspondents were banned from Kashmir for several months. When we were allowed to return in May, it quickly became clear that the brutality of the security forces had comprehensively radicalized the normally apolitical Kashmiris and turned a small-scale insurgency into a genuine popular movement. “India has united us,” I was told by a badly injured man at the city hospital. “We have no option but to continue. Only then can we live with our heads held high.”

It was on this visit that I heard the story of Mubina Gani, a young bride from Anantnag, who spoke to me from her hospital bed. On May 18, she was coming back from her wedding at eleven o’clock at night, being escorted by her new family to their home. Beside her in the bus, holding her hand, was her aunt, a woman of nearly forty who was seven months pregnant. Half a kilometer from their destination, the wedding party came upon a roadblock. As the driver pulled the bus to a halt, the paramilitary police at the checkpoint opened fire, killing the groom’s brother. The wedding party took refuge under the seats as the police boarded the bus. They attacked everyone—male or female—with rifle butts, then herded outside anyone who could still stand. The two ladies were then taken to a nearby field.

We were dragged along and when we resisted they beat us again with their rifles,” said Mubina. “They stole all our ornaments, including my new wedding ring. Then they took off their clothes and ordered us to do the same. I wept bitterly and told them I had not yet seen my husband. They laughed, then between four and six persons raped first me, then my auntie.”

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim majority. At the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the state should logically have gone to Pakistan. But the pro-Indian sympathies of the state’s Hindu maharajah and those of its preeminent politician, Sheikh Abdullah, as well as the Kashmiri origins of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, all led to the state passing instead to India—on the condition that the Kashmiris retained a significant degree of autonomy.

Successive Indian governments, however, steadily increased their control of Kashmir’s affairs, and in 1953 the Nehru government imprisoned Sheikh Abdullah. Elected Kashmiri governments were dismissed by New Delhi, and direct rule imposed. Grants for economic development were misappropriated: four golf courses were built, but few schools and no hydro-electric dams or public sector industrial plants. Many Kashmiris came to believe that they were not being treated as equal partners in the Indian Union, that they were a mere appendage, even a colony. Following the Indian government’s shameless rigging of the 1987 local elections, several furious Kashmiri leaders went underground. Soon afterward, the bombings, strikes, assassinations, and stone-throwings began.

By the mid-1990s, during the second administration of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan had begun inflaming the conflict by sending first weapons, then thousands of heavily armed and ideologically hardened jihadis into Kashmir. Many of these soldiers were drawn from the urban poor of Pakistan, especially from the impoverished southern Punjab, but some were the same sort of exiled Arab radicals who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and who were at that moment forming al-Qaeda in Peshawar. Bhutto was vocal in support of the new Kashmir jihad: “The people of Kashmir do not fear death, because they are Muslim,” she told one rally. “The Kashmiris have the blood of the Mujahids and Ghazis [jihadis].” In 1994 I asked her whether this sort of religious rhetoric was wise. “India tries to gloss over its policy of repression in Kashmir,” she replied. “India has been unable to crush the people of Kashmir. We are not prepared to keep silent, and collude with repression.”

The Muslims of the Kashmir valley had long been known for their tolerant and heterodox Sufi faith. But these foreign jihadis tried to impose a hardline Salafi-Wahhabi form of Islam. By 1994, the Arab and Afghan jihadis, and their sponsors in Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI), had begun to take over control of the uprising from the local Kashmiris, and local Muslim women who refused to wear the full black chador—a brightly colored kerchief thrown lightly over the back of the head was traditional in the valley—risked having acid thrown in their faces.

India responded to Pakistan’s jihadi offensive by sending half a million soldiers and paramilitaries to the valley, where they undertook mass arrests and brutal reprisals against ordinary civilians. Few of these actions were ever investigated, either by the government or—with one or two honorable exceptions—the Indian press. Two detention and torture centers were set up—Papa 1 and Papa 2—into which large numbers of local people, as well as the occasional captured foreign jihadi, would “disappear.” Their bodies would later be found, if at all, floating down rivers, bruised, covered in cigarette burns, missing fingers or even whole limbs.1

The centers became notorious for two methods of torture: some suspects were crushed by the use of heavy rollers, leading to terrible internal injuries. Others had electricity applied to their genitals, which had been wound around with copper wires; the result was often long-term impotence. For Western journalists, too, the conflict suddenly became much more dangerous: al-Faran, one of the new ultra-radical jihadi groups sent over the border by Pakistan, was the first Islamist organization to make a spectacle of beheading the Westerners it captured.

Eighteen years later, Kashmir is still restive, and the issues that brought about the insurgency remain unsettled. India and Pakistan in all have now fought three inconclusive wars over Kashmir, while a fourth mini-war over the Pakistani army’s occupation of a slice of Indian territory at Kargil came alarmingly close to igniting a nuclear exchange between the two countries in 1999. Indeed, so long has the conflict dragged on that many people now associate Kashmir with violence and strife rather than the traditions of high culture, artistic inventiveness, and religious syncretism with which the region has traditionally been connected.2 It now seems only ironic that the Kashmiris were once regarded as so unwarlike that, according to an old Indian joke, their troops always refused to go into battle without a police escort.

It was therefore timely and imaginative of the Asia Society to produce an exhibition and an accompanying volume of scholarly essays devoted to the larger currents at work in Kashmiri history before the present sad chapter of violence and repression. “The Arts of Kashmir,” which closed in New York at the beginning of January, was a superb piece of museum craft—a beautifully realized display of the intellectual and artistic brilliance that had long distinguished the valley. It was not a show that highlighted one particular aesthetic; instead it was a celebration of how multiple influences and styles can coexist and influence each other within a single small but culturally vibrant region. Many of the most beautiful pieces, some of them never before published, are illustrated in the remarkable exhibition catalog.

The greatest revelation for me was the quality of the artworks from Kashmir’s early Hindu and Buddhist past. For in the early centuries AD, the western Himalayas were not the culturally remote and provincial region they are today. Despite their physical isolation, these mountains and valleys were then a major crossroads where Hellenistic, Persian, Central Asian, Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese aesthetic traditions met and mixed together.

One of the main centers of cultural activity was the region of Gandhara, now in the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, which was conquered by Alexander around 327 BC. After he died, the Greek garrisons he had established in what is present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan found themselves cut off from their Mediterranean homeland and had no choice but to stay on, intermingling with the local peoples, and leavening Sanskrit learning with classical Greek philosophy. The region later came under the influence of the Indo-Greek kings of the Central Asian kingdom of Bactria—who had names like Diomedes of the Punjab, Menander of Kabul, and Heliochles of Balkh; and over the following one thousand years a remarkable Indo-Hellenistic civilization grew up. Gandhara’s principal icon was a languid, meditating Buddha dressed in a Greek toga.

The earliest sculptures in Kashmir were heavily influenced by Gandhara’s Indo-Hellenistic Buddhas, even using the same dark gray schist. The Hellenistic influence is immediately apparent in the Corinthian capitals that support the plinths on which the Buddha meditates; in the garlanded bulls that seem to have wandered off some Mediterranean sarcophagus; and in the stucco and terra-cotta figures of ascetics that closely resemble those found at the Bactrian Greek site of Ai Khanum in modern Uzbekistan with their pointed goatee beards and intense wide-eyed stares.

In time Kashmir ceased to be a provincial adjunct to Gandhara and instead became a major center of Buddhist art and scholarship in its own right. Around 100 AD, the Kushan emperor Kanishka, who then ruled over Kashmir, convened a great council of Buddhist scholars in Kashmir. By 400 AD, monks from across Central Asia and western China were coming to the valley, attracted by its reputation for Buddhist scholarship, including Faxian, the Chinese travel writer, and Kumarajiva, a scholar from the Silk Road kingdom of Kucha, who later translated the Lotus Sutra into Chinese. One of the most famous intellectual pilgrims was Xuanzang, the Chinese monk, who spent two years in Kashmir studying Buddhism under the patronage of the Kashmiri king. By the seventh century Tibetan rulers were sending emissaries to Kashmir to educate themselves in the Buddhist scriptures and adapt a script for their own use. It was from this period that some of the most striking Buddhist sculptures included in the Asia Society exhibition date: the astonishingly tall, thin, and sensual bronzes of the Bodhisattvas Maitreya and Avalokitesvara standing cloaked and majestic, their elongated torsos tapering down to a narrow waist, their hands raised in blessing and reassurance.

Yet Kashmir during this period was as much a center of Hindu art and philosophy as it was of Buddhist scholarship. As the exhibition and its accompanying catalog make clear, Kashmir’s early rulers were all Hindus, who commissioned numerous images of Hindu gods and goddesses such as the colossal sculpture of the dancing goddess Indrani, restless and vivacious, curving her body and swinging her hips to the sounds of some unseen musicians.

Sectarian differences appear to have been easily reconciled in this learned and cosmopolitan world. The competition between devotees of two of the most popular and powerful Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu, was reconciled in the cult of Harihara, a deity that was often depicted split vertically with Hari (Vishnu) on the left and Hara (Shiva) on the right. Even the boundaries of gender were porous: one of the most popular forms of Shiva in early Kashmir was his avatar of Ardhanarishvara, where Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati come together to form an androgynous deity, half man, half woman, with one female breast and one male one.

Whether Hindu or Buddhist, these early Kashmiri sculptures all hint at a vibrant court life in which local kings promoted music, dance, and poetry, and even depicted their gods as courtly creatures. In one seventh-century sculptural ensemble, for example, Shiva is shown crowned and kingly, playfully throwing a die as Parvati—here a carefully coiffured and sari-clad Kashmiri queen—looks on.

The two religions of Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted in Kashmir for eight hundred years, and shared many deities—such as Tara (literally “star” in Sanskrit), the goddess of compassion. One eighth-century plaque depicts the Hindu god Indra visiting the Buddha Sakyamuni in his cave. Both religions were patronized by the same kings, ministers, and merchants, many of whom indulged in the same Tantric heterodoxies. Indeed it seems to have been in Kashmir that Tantrism—the practice of devotees seeking elevated mystical awareness and esoteric knowledge—passed from Hinduism to Buddhism. Scholars suggest that the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which was highly influenced by Tantrism and which would later flourish in Tibet and Nepal, originated in Kashmir, where some of the earliest known Mahayana texts have been found.

As this new examination of Kashmiri art makes clear, Kashmir was the missing link between the art of early Buddhist Gandhara and the later Buddhist iconography of Nepal and Tibet. The new Tantric influence, for example, is clearly manifest in some early Buddhist deities, such as the eighth-century brass figurine of the four-headed, ten-armed Chakrasamvara that was included in the exhibition and is illustrated in the catalog (see illustration on page 14). Roaring with rage yet strangely poised and balletic, he is crowned and garlanded with skulls, brandishing thunderbolts and skull-headed scepters; over his head he holds the stretched skin of a dead elephant. This is exactly the sort of angry protector figure who would become common in later Tibetan art and was believed to ward off demons, but is a world away from the peaceful, philosophical images of early Indian Buddhist art.

The history of Kashmir is usually divided in two, with the period of Hindu rule and Buddhist cultural influence, which lasted up to the fourteenth century, followed by a period of Islamic domination, which continued until the twentieth century. At first sight, the arrival of Islam seems to mark a dramatic shift in Kashmiri culture. The gods and goddesses, Buddhas, and elegant bodhisattvas that predominated in earlier centuries appear to be supplanted by intricate but almost entirely nonfigurative calligraphy, carpets, textiles, and glazed ceramics. Yet the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir was not a conqueror but a Buddhist king from the Kashmiri region of Ladakh named Rinchana (1320–1323), who converted to Islam and began the slow and gradual process of spreading Islam through the valley, while still encouraging the Kashmiri traditions of syncretism and cosmopolitan artistry.

One of the greatest early Muslim rulers of Kashmir was Zain-ul-Abidin (1420–1470), whose enlightened administration and artistic patronage are still remembered by Kashmiris today. As Pratapaditya Pal, the curator of the Asia Society exhibition, writes in the catalog:

Fluent in Kashmiri, his native tongue, and Persian, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, he was a great patron of the arts and architecture, of literature and music, and in the conservation and preservation of Kashmir’s heritage, irrespective of his religious affiliation…. Indeed, the only other Muslim ruler on the subcontinent who can be compared to Zain-ul-Abidin for his liberality, his intellectual curiosity, his love of learning as well as music, and for introducing and nourishing a wide range of crafts and arts and architecture is the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605).

When the Mughals conquered the valley in 1589, Kashmiri intellectuals began to migrate from the valley to the imperial court in Agra. Several Kashmiri artists such as the calligrapher Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri, known as Golden Pen, became celebrities in the entourage of Akbar. An image of him teaching his young pupil, the artist Manohar, was among the most beautiful miniatures included in the Asia Society exhibition and catalog: he is shown sitting on a carpet and wrapped in a shawl, teaching the younger artist to form his letters, while an attendant in a yellow gown fans from behind (see illustration on page 12). The books and pencase are given pride of place on the carpet, while a table of refreshments stands behind. Above is a piece of dancing nastaliq calligraphy.

Like his father Akbar, the emperor Jahangir (1605–1627) spent a great deal of time in Kashmir. “As far as the eye could see,” he wrote in his diary during one of his visits,

flowers of various hues were blooming, and in their midst beautiful streams were flowing. One might say it was a page that the painter of destiny had drawn with the pencil of creation…. In the whole world there is no sight of such enchanting character. It is a piece of paradise.

But it was under Jahangir’s grandson Prince Dara Shikoh that Kashmir traditions of syncretism achieved their greatest influence on the Mughal court. Like his grandfather, Dara was refined in his sensibilities, but he also had an inquiring mind and enjoyed the company of wandering Sufis and sages. Dara’s spiritual guide was a Sufi master named Mullah Shah Badakshani who retired to the Pari Mahal, or Court of the Angels, not far from Srinagar. Here in 1638 he instructed the young prince in the essential unity of the Islamic and Hindu mystical paths, and here Dara wrote his great treatise on Sufism, The Compass of Truth:

Thou art in the Ka’ba at Mecca,
as well as in the [Hindu] temple of Somnath.
Thou art in the monastery,
as well as the tavern.
Thou art at the same time the light and the moth,
The wine and the cup,
The sage and the fool….
3

As a result of his time spent with the sages of Kashmir, Dara had the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads translated into Persian as The Mysteries of Mysteries, and wrote a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam, The Mingling of Two Oceans, which speculated that the essential nature of Islam was identical to that of Hinduism. Following the Koranic injunction that no land had been left without prophetic guidance, Dara became convinced that the Vedas and the Upanishads constituted the mysterious concealed scriptures mentioned in the Koran as the ultimate scriptural spring of all monotheism. He also wrote of the mystical visions he received from Hindu deities, and how Vasistha, one of the seven Hindu sages, had appeared to him:

He was very kind to me and patted me on the back. He told Lord Ram that I was his brother because we were both seekers after truth. He asked Lord Ram to embrace me which he did in an exuberance of love. He then gave some food [prasad] to Lord Ram, which I also took and ate.

In the end Dara Shikoh’s writings proved too radical for even the Muslim elite of Mughal Delhi. The orthodox mullahs puzzled over how, as one put it, “infidelity and Islam could be twin brothers.” The court divided in two, with one faction supporting Dara, the other his orthodox and puritanical brother Aurangzeb. Of the two Dara may have been cleverer and more talented, but Aurangzeb was the better general. When the two met in battle, Dara’s huge army was crushed by Aurangzeb’s small force. Under Aurangzeb, Hindus were persecuted and their temples destroyed, bringing to an end a period of remarkable cultural diversity. By the mid-twentieth century, the last traces of the old pluralism, traditions built up over a period of one thousand years, gave way to savage polarization.

Nowhere in India has suffered more from this process than Kashmir. Today the valley remains a victim of the ambitions of the political and military elites of both Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. The Kashmiris themselves were never allowed to vote on which of the two states they wanted to belong to, and by 1948 it was clear that India would never let Pakistan win control of the valley, which was considered of great strategic importance for its position and its control of the headwaters of many of the great rivers of South Asia.4 Likewise, Pakistan has always seen the value of prolonging the Kashmir conflict as a way of bogging down and draining strength from India’s army, even though it knows India will never let the region go.

When I went to see Hamid Gul, the head of the ISI under Benazir Bhutto, in 2003, he was quite open about this: “If we encourage the Kashmiris it’s understandable,” he said. “The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, why should we not support them?”

During the conflict Kashmir’s architectural and archaeological heritage has been neglected and in some cases severely damaged. The civil servants that were supposed to look after antiquities fled the valley and Dara Shikoh’s Pari Mahal is, like several other monuments, now in a state of collapse. But perhaps the most tragic long-term effect of the conflict has been the flight of the remaining Hindus, the learned and talented Kashmiri Pandits who in 1947 still made up around 15 percent of the valley’s population. In the early 1990s, as the insurgency took on a more unambiguously religious and sectarian flavor, several Pandits were killed, and most of the rest fled for their lives. The valley is now almost entirely monoreligious—99.9 percent Muslim—perhaps for the first time in its history.5

Today the conflict appears as insolvable as ever. Both the Indian police and the Pakistani-trained jihadis continue to kill each other and terrorize the local civilians, although recent statements by Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and now leader of her PPP party, give some hope that Pakistan may finally be willing to compromise on the Kashmir issue, so providing some hope of a solution to the central problem between the two countries. Certainly it is in the plural currents of tolerance and syncretism so clearly exemplified in Kashmir’s artistic traditions that lies the best route map for a solution, not just to the conflict in Kashmir but also to the wider problem of Hindu–Muslim relations in South Asia. In the words of Deen Darvish, a nineteenth-century Kashmiri Sufi of the same tradition as Dara Shikoh:

The Hindu says, “I am superior”;
The Musalman says I.
Two halves of a grain of
mung they are;
Which, then, is greater than the other?
Don’t quarrel over who is superior;
And who is not;
The one is a devotee of Ram, the other of Rahman.
Deen Darvish says, the two unite in one ocean;
There is only one Lord of all.
The Hindu and the Musalman are one.

—April 3, 2008

  1. 1

    For details of these torture centers, see Pankaj Mishra’s remarkable pieces on Kashmir in these pages: “Death in Kashmir,” September 21, 2000; “The Birth of a Nation,” October 5, 2000; and “Kashmir: The Unending War,” October 19, 2000. Curfewed Night, an excellent account of growing up during the uprising, by Basharat Peer, will be published by Scribner.

  2. 2

    For a wonderfully readable introduction to Kashmir’s history and artistic traditions, see Brigid Keenan, Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of the its People, Places and Crafts (1989; Permanent Black, 2006).

  3. 3

    K.R. Qanungo, Dara Shukoh (Calcutta: S.C. Sarkar, 1952).

  4. 4

    See Alex von Tunzelmann’s excellent account of Kashmir at Partition, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (Henry Holt, 2007).

  5. 5

    There is a good account of the flight of the Pandits and the recent politi-cal history of Kashmir in Navnita Chadha Behera’s Demystifying Kashmir (Brookings, 2006).

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