The middle-aged gentleman in the seat next to me on the plane to Srinagar was waxing eloquent about a single line in a song in Mission Kashmir. “Do you know,” he boomed in a voice that easily outdid the roar of the aircraft we were in, “that rind poshmal gindini drai lo lo is taken from the work of an 18th century Kashmir poet?” According to my new friend who seemed to want to show off the beauties of his state even before the plane landed, the poet’s name was Rasul Mir and he peppered all his poetry with beautiful girl children. Girls and flowers, it appeared, were an allegory for beauty, and all his female characters had names of flowers. The sentence means “the happy young girl went out to frolic.”
“In my childhood,” reminisced the gentleman who was clearly in his fifties, “it was common for Kashmiri girls to be given names of flowers like Freesia, Poshmal (garland) or Kongposh (saffron flower). Now, everything has become Muslim this and Muslim that,” he said distastefully, though whether at the lukewarm tea we were being served or at the changing times in Kashmir, it was not clear.
“Tell me,” he asked, “if you can’t call your daughter Poshmal because it is not “Islamic”, if she can’t go out to play because of the dangers lurking at every street in the city, can she be happy? In short, do Rasul Mir’s words hold true today?”
I was genuinely interested in a nugget of information that was being thrown my way by a fellow passenger, and wanting to know more about Kashmiri poetry in general and Rasul Mir in particular, I asked the gentleman whether he taught literature in the University. At this simple enough question, a strange transformation befell him. His face recomposed itself as if he had not heard me, and he buried himself resolutely in his newspaper for the rest of the journey.
It was only after the first week of my stay that I discovered the possible reason, after many other such instances happened to me. The average Kashmiri who has lived for centuries in an atmosphere of harmony and religious tolerance feels stifled in the increasingly hardline atmosphere of today. They can’t live without the syncretism for which the Valley has been known, but they daren’t enunciate their displeasure at the new turn of events either for fear of reprisal.
Mustafa, an articulate businessman who lived in downtown Srinagar put a name to the amorphous fear that lies coiled in the fast-ageing city like an invisible beast. “This happened a few years ago, before the movement was hijacked by non Kashmiri militants. My father was sitting with his friends one evening and they were all fulminating about how rapacious the militants had become. The next thing we knew, two militants with guns came knocking at our door late that night. I’ll never know how I managed to talk them out of blasting off our heads.”
It was my first visit to Srinagar since militancy, and although I was prepared for some change, what I saw broke my heart. Cable TV shows you clips of shuttered shops being watched over by army jawans, but it does not show you the endless miles of potholed roads and non-existent medical care. It shows you clips of ministers of state addressing press conferences, but it doesn’t indicate the extent that depression and listlessness has taken hold of the common man. Kashmiri Pandits who have lost their homes in the Valley is an oft-repeated statistic. Until you see for yourself the kind of houses they have left behind. Large, commodious bungalows with gardens around them have either been occupied by army personnel, complete with flapping underwear on washing lines and heaps of sandbags at the windows or laid waste by militants, criminals or both.
On my last visit to Kashmir, before militancy, there used to be a hump-backed bridge in an advanced state of disrepair, just outside the Nishat Gardens. It dated back to the times of the Mughals. It’s gone now, as have the erstwhile Residency, the fin-de-siecle Palladium cinema and several Raj-era buildings in Lal Chowk. What is spreading like a case of measles is a rash of buildings that owes nothing at all to the local climate or conditions. Or aesthetic. Almost nothing in Srinagar looks pristine, fresh or even remotely well-maintained, but my erstwhile favourite place – the shrine of Akhund Mulla Shah, is in serious danger of falling to pieces.
It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why Emperor Jehangir’s love for Kashmir has been boasted about in the Valley, ad nauseum. Kashmiris never tire of telling the story of how, when he was asked what his dying wish was, he whispered, “Only Kashmir.” It has always struck me that his love for the Valley was slightly selfish: in the days before airconditioners, Jehangir’s opium addiction made him burn with heat, especially in the plains. That condition was alleviated to a great extent in Kashmir. Even the Emperor’s own creation, the Shalimar Gardens, seem to me slightly florid in the height of the flower season with red salvias and yellow dahlias competing for attention with the more sombre russet of the chinar.
Jehangir’s grandson Dara Shikoh, on the other hand, grasped the essence of Kashmir’s sufi culture and made several trips to Kashmir to commune with his teacher, Akhund Mulla Shah. Dara Shikoh built a magical garden high on a hill overlooking the Dal as a school for religious discourses. I used to love the whispery feel of the honey coloured stone buildings that are the central feature of this stepped garden, almost as if it was still inhabited by sufis. Unfortunately for me, but extremely fortunately for the spirits of the sufis, Pari Mahal is within firing range of the Raj Bhavan and hence has been closed to visitors. Of the flesh and blood kind. The wraiths, I hope, revel in the stillness.
Dara Shikoh’s other building in Kashmir was the shrine of his teacher. This one too is the antithesis of his grandfather’s excessively ornate touch. It’s a limestone building which, with age, looks like a natural outcrop of the hill where it is situated. Nearby, the far more popular shrine of Makhdoom Sahib gets all the visitors and the fanfare. On the annual urs when Makhdoom Sahib’s shrine is visited by tens of thousands a day, all jostling for a place to offer namaz and take home halwa puri, Akhund Mulla Shah’s shrine and its uncared for garden remain inviolate.
What I have discovered during the course of a dozen trips to Kashmir, is that natural beauty is the least of its charms. Perhaps it’s the most obvious one, which is why it has become a byword for beauty, but its lesser known aspects – history and culture – to name but two, are far more extraordinary than the formal, almost studied way that slender poplars fringe lakes and snowy mountains glitter in the sun.
Many of these places have never received the attention they deserve because Kashmir has so much. It’s the same principle as in Agra: stunning little Mughal gems lie among weeds because after the all attention that gets lavished on the Taj Mahal, who has the inclination for anything else? Avantipura and Pattan each have eighth century Hindu temples in advanced states of disrepair. It’s just because they lie on busy arterial roads that people are aware of them, but mention the name Parihaspora to Kashmiris and all you’ll get are blank stares. It’s an archaeological site dating to the Buddhist period in Kashmir (pre 6th century) which has three enormous plinths of viharas. The viharas themselves fell to rack and ruin, helped generously along by kings of the Utpala and Karkota dynasties who carried away enormous blocks of limestone to build their own temples. All you’ll encounter at Parihaspora are courting couples from the nearby college who’re terrified of being found out by the moral police.
Mercifully, Martand, the sun temple high on a wind-blown hill is too off the beaten track to have caught the attention of kings on the look out for architectural short-cuts. It’s hard work puffing and panting up the hill which has a motorable road only upto a point, but the view is stunning enough to make up for the climb. And Pandrethan? Will its temple still exist on my next trip to Kashmir…whenever that might be? In the early eighties, it was the best preserved of Kashmir temples, that now lies right in the midst of the army cantonment’s enormous truck parking lot, choking with diesel fumes.
Poet Rasul Mir’s line about young girls going out to frolic maybe tragically out-of-date in today’s Kashmir. Agha Shahid Ali, a non-resident Kashmiri poet, has summed up today’s situation in the Valley:
reds are autumn’s last crimsoned spillage
rushing with wings down the mountainside
or flames clinging to a torched village.