God’s own land


The magnificence and beauty of Kashmir is unrivalled and undisputed. This paradise
on earth, a unique blend of divinity and romance, has inspired poets, philosophers
and seers over the centuries, writes Pran Nevile

Kashmir, nature’s most spectacular work on earth, has, for centuries, enamoured seers and sages, merchants and missionaries, emperors and scholars, adventurers and travellers, artists and poets alike. They have all glorified this picturesque land – a paradise on earth. A meeting ground of different cultures of Asia and beyond, Kashmir has essentially inherited the Indo-Aryan traditions.

A pavilion in Shalimar Bagh

A pavilion in Shalimar Bagh

View on the Mar Canal with Mosque of Shah Hamdan, Srinagar. Paintings by William Carpenter C.1850

View on the Mar Canal with Mosque of Shah Hamdan, Srinagar. Paintings by William Carpenter C.1850

Kashmir’s magnificent and mysterious mountains have been projected as the abode of gods in various scriptures. The holy Amarnath cave is considered to be the resting place of Lord Shiva. The ice lingam is a marvellous handiwork of nature and a symbol and manifestation of the supreme power. Here, Shiva is believed to have narrated the Amarkatha to his consort, Parvati.

The sacred verses of the Rig Veda were composed in Kahmir. The ancient classic on dance, drama and music, Natya Shastra, which is also called the fifth veda, too, was compiled in the spiritual and romantic environment of the Valley. Patanjali also wrote his compendium of yoga in the second century B.C here. This was the earliest comprehensive study of discipline. With the passage of time, Kashmir became a fountainhead of Sanskrit learning and a rival to Benares. It was around seventh century AD that Jagadguru Shankaracharya, the great saint and philosopher, who revived Hinduism and the classic Upanishads, travelled to Kashmir. In the 11th century AD, Somaveda Bhatta produced the famous Katha-Sarit Sagar (the ocean of the stream of stories.) His aim was to please a queen. With its 22,000 verses and lines in prose, it is much longer than the Illiad and Odyssey put together.

Kalhana’s Rajatarangini(the River of Kings), a chronicle of Kashmir composed in the middle of the 12th century, is the earliest record of Indian history and presents a rich account of Kashmir and its people. He gives a poetic narrative, of “its streams and cascades, the flower-strewn meadows, soft cloud-draped sky over rich fields, the far vistas of snow on the mountains and the roses and pinks and madders in an artist’s palette.”

He tells us that the capital owed its name to `Srinagari’ (city of the sun) founded by the great Mauryan emperor, Ashoka.

Royal fans

Later, with the advent of Islam, Kashmir came under the influence of Central Asia and Persia. Then followed the Mughal emperors who admired and loved this heavenly resort and constructed a string of vast picturesque pleasure gardens like the Naseem, Nishat and Shalimar. The beauty of these is celebrated in prose and poetry. Jehangir gives, in his memoirs, a fascinating description of the entrancing beauty of the Valley: “The red rose, the violet and narcissus grow of themselves. Truly, this is the paradise of which priests have prophesied and poets sang – “Agar firdaus ba-ru-i-zamin ast, hamin ast u hamin ast” (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here).

The Afghan and Sikh rulers followed the Mughals until finally in 1846 the British, while retaining their supremacy, gave the territory of Kashmir to the Dogra King Gulab Singh for a consideration of Rs 75 lakh.

European visitors

The first European to visit Kashmir was Bernier (1668), who described it as “the terrestrial paradise of the Indies”. “The whole kingdom wears the appearance,” he says, “of a fertile and highly cultivated garden. In truth it surpasses in beauty all that my
warm imagination had anticipated.”

It is only in the 19th century that we find accounts of English travellers to the Valley. Moorcroft was the first Englishman to visit Kashmir in 1823 after obtaining permission from Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who held sway over Kashmir. Until then the British had generally viewed Kashmir through the eyes of Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore (1817), who had culled its imagery from early travellers’ accounts:

Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere

With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave?”

Like the Mughals, the British took delight in the blue lakes with their beds of lotuses surrounded by willows, poplars, walnut and chinar trees. The fair Kashmiri women in their handsome costumes were a delight to the eyes. It is not surprising that William Carpenter, a famous British artist who visited Kashmir in the 1850s in search of subjects for his Royal Academy paintings of India, chose “Cashmere women buying vegetables on the banks of the City Lake” and “Girls gathering water-lillies”.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a spate of British visitors, and by the end of the century Kashmir had emerged as the most popular holiday resort for the British residents in India.

In his account of travels in Kashmir, Lt-Col Torrens gives a delightful description of the flowing Jhelum, the overhanging picturesque houses perched on slender piles, shikara boats and the famous Shalimar, Nishat and Naseem gardens and lovely surrounding hills mirroring themselves in the smooth surface of the lake they encircle – “Wherever the lotus will allow them
an uninterrupted view of themselves.”

He was allured by the sight of Kashmiri nautch girls with braided tresses and dark bright eyes. Speaking about Shalimar, the queen of gardens, he recommended that this should be visited “by the pale of moonlight.” It does not look well by daylight, but at night, if properly bedecked with torches and crowned with lamps, you do not remark the ravages time has made in her complexion, and she still has the power to charm.” He notes that the proper thing to do is to give order for a `nautch’ at Shalimar, to read nothing but Lalla Rookh all day, and towards the evening to step into your boat and glide over the still lake to the gardens, doing your best to feel, “As felt the magnificent son of Akbar.”

We come across another fascinating account by William Simpson, a noted British artist who was a witness to a nautch performance in the illuminated Shalimar in 1861. He was so captivated that he wrote, “It was like a scene from Lalla Rookh. The paris of paradise were not a matter of doubt, they were realities before us.”

Traveller’s paradise

By the end of the 19th century, travelling in Kashmir was a pleasant experience for those who were not pressed for time. In his famous account of his extensive travels in Kashmir, Sir Francis Younghusband (1890) mentions that the usual mode of conveyance was a tonga with a change of ponies every five or six miles. Other more costly means of conveyance were landaus and Victorias. The journey from Rawalpindi to Srinagar took three, four or more days according to the time of the year, condition of the road and the disposition of the traveller. He adds that houseboats are not indigenous to Kashmir but were introduced by one T.T. Kennard around 1880.

In those days, the traveller pitched his little camp wherever he wished. Food was ridiculously cheap and coolies were thankful enough to get any payment at all. There were no game laws or licences and the sportsmen were free to shoot to their heart’s content.

Comparing Kashmir to Switzerland, Younghusband observes that Switzerland might excel Kashmir in its combination of lakes and mountains but it lacks the wide sweep of snow-clad mountains.

“There is not a place (in the world) where one can see a complete circle of snowy mountains surrounding a plain of anything like the length and breadth of the Kashmir valley, for the main valleys of Switzerland are like the side valleys of Kashmir. Each spot in Kashmir one is inclined to think the most beautiful of all, perhaps because each in some particular way excels the rest.”

Commenting on the grand remains of monuments, Younghusband extols their solidity, simplicity and durability as well as the graceful elegance of their structure, the massive boldness of their parts and the happy propriety of their outlines. He describes the Sun Temple of Martland as the finest archetype of early Indian civilisation, built on the most sublime site occupied by any building in the world finer than the site of the Parthenon, or of the Taj, or of St Peters.

Kashmir continues to enchant the new generation of visitors from all over the world. No other place anywhere has been so widely hailed as a paradise on earth. Its magnificent mountains, lakes, verdurous valleys and majestic monuments embellished with mystery, mythology and legend would always draw the traveller, adventurer and the scholar.