As illustrated by this passage written by Thomas Moore in 1826, the beauty of Kashmir has captivated the imaginations of visitors and invaders for centuries. Today, we're going to explore this beautiful region to get a sense of its geography, and then we'll peer back into its history. My aim is to paint a backdrop that will help us understand the factors that have shaped the area's people and their rich cuisine, which will be the subject of my remaining posts on Kashmir. I can't wait to share some of the fun and interesting stories I learned about these brave people!
The disputed territories that make up what I am referring to as "Kashmir" are located at the junction of India, Pakistan and China, with portions in each of these countries. In other words, today Kashmir is not an independent nation. It is a country divided by politics and border disputes, but unified in the hearts of the people who speak the Kashmiri language. I will explain how this situation has come into being shortly.
First, let's explore the geography of the region. Kashmir lays at the western edge of the Himalayas, so its landscape is dominated by mountains that are punctuated by fertile valleys, lakes and rivers.
The heart of Kashmir is the breathtakingly gorgeous Himalayan valley that Moore described above, the Vale of Kashmir, which lies at an elevation of 5,500 feet. This valley, in the area under Indian control, has often been compared to Switzerland for its abundance of meadows, lakes and streams surrounded by dramatic snow-capped mountains. Prior to 1990, Srinagar, the principal city in the region, attracted over 700,000 visitors annually. For the international tourist, a trip to India without visiting Kashmir was as unthinkable as missing the Taj Mahal.
I love the story of the origin of Kashmir. According to mythology, a Hindu sage drained a massive lake by displacing all the water with gold coins. A bunch of greedy children madly dug for the coins, which then created the major rivers in the area. Geological surveys partially corroborate this legend, telling us that the valley was indeed submerged less than a million years ago, but they tell us that earthquakes rather than coins drained it.
The history of Kashmir is rife with invasion, conquest and occupation. Turks, Persians, Mongols (Mughals), Afghans, Sikhs and the British have all spent time in this "Paradise on Earth." In the third century B.C., Indian leader Ashoka the Great established Buddhist universities in what was then a mostly Hindu region. In the 14th century, many Hindus converted to Islam, paving the road for Kashmir's eventual conquest by the Mughal emperor Akbar two centuries later. From that point on, Islam has been the dominant religion of the Kashmiri people.
Kashmiri culture thrived under the rule of the three successive emperors - Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan - whose rule in the 1600s marked the height of the Mughal Empire. Muslims and Hindus more or less coexisted in peace.
Emperor Jahangir was particularly captivated by the beauty (and cool climate) of the region and spent much time there, saying "if heaven be on earth, this would surely be it." He built many floating pleasure gardens, including the famed Shalimar, for his gorgeous Persian wife, who he renamed Nur Jahan, meaning "the Light of the World." Nur Jahan effectively ruled the Empire when Jahangir became addicted to first alcohol then, after his doctors made him give that up, opium. Incidentally, the successor to Jahangir, Shah Jahan, so deeply loved Nur Jahan's niece, Mumtaz, that he was inspired after her death to build the Taj Mahal in Mumtaz's memory.
Fast forward to the 19th century. The British Empire replaced the Mughal one, becoming the new conquerors of India. By that time, Kashmir was ruled by Hindu leaders, who had been granted that right by the Sikhs. Kashmir became the favorite holiday destination of the members of the British Empire. Moore penned the words that opened this post, and subsequently every sahib and memsahib of the British Raj flocked to Kashmir to escape the heat. When the local maharaja forbid non-Kashmiris (i.e. Brits) from buying property, the clever Imperialists built lavish houseboats to lounge in while on holiday.
The current mess of disputed borders dates back to this period of British rule. After the British Army defeated the Sikhs, the last holdouts opposing the Empire, the representatives for the Crown wrote a treaty in 1846 that granted Kashmir to Gulab Singh, a Hindu leader and turncoat who had betrayed the Sikhs. For the next century, a succession of Hindu maharajas ruled this predominantly Muslim (80-90%) region. The borders of the region that I've been calling Kashmir date back to this treaty.
In 1947, with the Empire weakened from its efforts in the second World War and from nonviolent resistance by millions of followers of Gandhi, the British withdrew from India. All Hell broke loose at midnight on Independence Day. Violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims, ripping the subcontinent first into two parts, India and Pakistan, then into three, when Bangladesh also declared its sovereignty.
Kashmir was literally caught in the middle. Since it hadn't been part of the British Empire, the Hindu leader Hari Singh, descendant of Gulab Singh, had to choose sides. Swiss-style neutrality wasn't an option. He waffled for a couple of months, but then Pakistan forced his hand when their troops crossed the border and barreled toward Srinagar. Realizing then that a Hindu leader could not survive in Muslim Pakistan, he tossed his ring in the circle with the secular nation of India. In response, Indian leader Nehru immediately sent troops to thwart the Pakistani invasion.
Since then, India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir three times, in 1948, 1965, and 1971, and its territory is still in dispute. The United Nations has attempted to intervene many times unsuccessfully to bring about a peaceful resolution. Both India and Pakistan claim the entire region of Kashmir (outlined in red on the map to the right), including the parts in China, as part of their respective countries. The UN got the warring nations to agree to honor the Line of Control (the dotted line between the green Pakistani and orange Indian regions) as the border.
From 1971 until the late 1980s, peace prevailed more or less in the Indian part of Kashmir. The economy thrived with income coming from tourism and the export of traditional handicrafts, including the famous pashmina shawls made from the pashmina goats. During their occupation of the subcontinent, the British renamed pashmina "cashmere," after Kashmir. Saffron was also a source of export income.
Although both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as part of their countries, some Kashmiri people want an autonomous independent "Kashmir for the Kashmiris." According to an interview I read in last month's issue of India Currents with the novelist Salman Rushdie, who has many Kashmiri ancestors and whose recent novel Shalimar the Clown focuses on the region, the "essentially secular [nationalist] movement was hijacked by the radicals by techniques including murdering the moderates. To this day you find jihadist groups targeting moderate Kashmiri leaders for assassination in order to polarize the situation."
Rushdie is referring to the campaign of violence that began in the late 1980s. Some of the separatists want an independent Kashmir and some want to merge with Pakistan. The Indian government views the separatists as "terrorists," funded and trained by Pakistan. The Pakistani government denies any involvement and views the insurgents as "freedom fighters."
However you view the conflict, the result is that Srinagar is a war zone, like Beirut was 25 years ago. Tourism, the major source of income for Kashmir, has ceased.
In 2002, the leaders of India and Pakistan agreed to work towards decreasing tensions, but violent attacks have continued in the region and Amnesty International has criticized the Indian Army of using excessive force to suppress the insurgency.
With this background of conflict, the earthquake (comparable in magnitude to the 1906 quake in San Francisco) struck October 8 near the largest city in the Pakistani controlled part of Kashmir, Muzaraffabad, very close to the Line of Control. Most of the 90,000 casualties and more than 3 million homeless are in Pakistan. India has assisted by opening several roads through the Line of Control to increase access to the affected regions.
Cooperation between India and Pakistan on rescue and relief operations has the potential to positively impact the future of the region.
Which brings us back to today (thanks for hanging in there). Pim's wonderful Menu for Hope II has successfully raised nearly $6,000 so far to assist UNICEF's relief efforts in Kashmir! Many people have bought raffle tickets for their chance to win the generous prizes donated by dozens of food bloggers, including yours truly.
For a chance to win the Kashmiri Cooking Kit (more than $60 worth of spices, food and recipes to cook a Kashmiri - or Indian - feast and to brew up some masala chai) that I am donating or any of the other prizes, please click the button below to be taken to the donation page (make sure to specify which prize you want to win). Thank you.