Kashmir 1783

When George Forster visited Kashmir in 1783 spring, it was Azad Khan ruling the roost in Srinagar. He has recorded the state and status of Kashmir state and its people at the peak of Afghan oppression.

An early twentieth-century photograph showing a group of extremely beautiful Kashmiri women, disempowered and in poverty. The photograph has been taken in the Kashmir periphery.

The valley of Kashmire has generally a flat surface, and being copiously watered, yields abundant crops of rice, which is the common food of the inhabitants. At the base of the surrounding hills, where the land is higher, wheat, barley, and various other grains are cultivated. A superior species of saffron is also produced in this province, and iron of an excellent quality is found in the adjacent mountains.

The Shawl Economy

But the wealth and fame of Kashmire have largely arisen from the manufacture of shauls, which it holds unrivalled, and almost without participation. The wool of the shaul is not produced in the country, but brought from districts of Thibet, lying at the ‘distance of a month’s journey to the north-east.

It is originally of a dark grey colour, and is bleached in Kashmire by the help of a certain preparation of rice flour. The yarn of this wool is stained with such colours as may be judged the best suited for sale, and after being woven the piece is once washed. The border, which usually displays a variety of figures and colours, is attached to the shauls after fabrication, but in so nice a manner, that the junction is not discernable

An 1870 lithograph showing a group of Kashmiri Mulsim women in Srinagar.
An 1870 lithograph showing a group of Kashmiri Mulsim women in Srinagar.

The texture of the shaul resembles that of the shaloon of Europe, to which it has probably communicated the name. The price, at the loom of an ordinary shaul is eight rupees; thence, is proportional quality, it produces from fifteen to twenty; and I have seen a very fine piece sold at forty rupees the first cost. But the value of this commodity may be largely enhanced by the introduction of flowered work; and when you are informed that the sum of one hundred rupees is occasionally given for a shaul to the weaver, the half amount may be fairly ascribed to the ornaments.

A portion of the revenue of Kashmire is transmitted to the Afghan capital in shaul goods, which I had an opportunity of seeing previously to the dispatch, and from the information then received; I am reasonably confirmed in the accuracy of this statement I have given. The shauls usually consist of three sizes, two of which, the long and the small square one, are in common use in India; the other long and very narrow, with a large mixture of black colour in it, is worn as a girdle by the northern Asiatics.

Trade

A wine is made in Kashmire, resembling that of Madeira, which, if skilfully manufactured by age, would possess an excellent quality. A spirituous liquor is also distilled from the grape, in which and the wine, the people of all kinds freely indulge.

The Kashmirians fabricate the best writing paper of the east, which was formerly an article of extensive traffic; as were its lacquerware, cutlery, and sugars; and the quality of these manufactures clearly evince, that were the inhabitants governed by wise and liberal princes, there are few attainments of art which they would not acquire.

A group of silver and copper smiths in a workshop in Jammu and Kashmir in 1895

But the heavy oppression of the government, and the rapacious temper of the bordering states, who exercise an unremitting rapacity on the foreign traders, and often plunder whole cargoes, have reduced the commerce of Kashmire to a declining and languid state. In proof of this position, the Kaslimirians say, that during their subjection to the Mogul dominion, the province contained forty thousand shall looms, and that at this day, there are not sixteen thousand.

In Kashmire are seen merchants and commercial agents of most of the principal cities of northern India, also of Tartary, Persia, and Turkey, who, at the same time, advance their fortunes, and enjoy the pleasures of a fine climate, and a country over which are profusely spread the various beauties of nature.

Dress

The dress of the Kashmirians consists of a large turban, awkwardly put on a great woollen vest, with wide sleeves; and a sack, wrapped in many folds round the middle; under the vest, which may be properly called a wrapper, the higher class of people wear a pirabun, or shirt, and drawers; but the lower order have no undergarment, nor do they even gird up their loins.

On first seeing these people in their own country, I imagined, from their garb, the cast of countenance, which is long, and of a grave aspect, and the form of their beards, that I had come amongst a nation of Jews. The same idea impressed also Mr Bernier who, carrying it further, has attempted, by the aid of some proofs more specious than substantial, to deduce their origin from the Jewish tribes that were carried into captivity.

A 1920 photograph showing two women talking in a houseboat Shikara

The dress of the women is no less aukward than that of the men, and is ill adapted to display the beauties they naturally possess. Their outward, and, often, only garment, is of cotton, and shaped like a long loose shirt. Over the hair, which falls in a single braid, they wear a close cap, usually of a woollen cloth, of a crimson colour and to the hinder part of it is attached triangular piece of the same stuff, which, falling on the back, conceals much of the hair. Around the lower edge of the cap is rolled a small turban, fastened behind with a short knot, which seemed to me the only artificial ornament about them.

You will be pleased to notice, that I speak of the dress of the ordinary women, such only being permitted to appear in public. The women of the higher classes are never seen abroad nor is it consistent with the usage of any Mahometan nation, even to speak of the female part of family.

The People

The Kashwirians are stout, well-formed and as the natives of country lying in the thirty-fourth degree of latitude, may be termed a fair people; and their women in southern France, or Spain, would be called Brunettes. But, having been prepossessed with an opinion of their charms, I suffered a sensible disappointment; though I saw some of the female dancers most celebrated for beauty, and the attractions of their profession. A coarseness of figure generally prevails among them, with broad features, and they too often have thick legs. Though excelling in the colour of their complexion, they are evidently surpassed by the elegant form and pleasing countenance of the women of some of the western provinces of India.

An 1870 photograph showing the famed Kashmir Nautch Girls in a group photograph.
An 1870 photograph showing the famed Kashmir Nautch Girls in a group photograph.

The city of Kashmire once abounded with courtezans, equally gay and affluent, but the rigorous contributions of the Afghans have great reduced their number, and driven most of those that remain, into a languid poverty. The few that I saw, afforded me much pleasure by their graceful skill in dancing, and voices peculiarly melodious. And here let me observe, least I should afterwards forget, that the women of Kashmire are singularly fruitful, be the government ever so oppressive, or fortune at all points adverse, no baneful effects are seen to operate on the propagation of the species, which is maintained with a successful perseverance. I will not presume to investigate the physical cause of a virtue so copiously inherent in the men and women of this country; but will simply intimate to you, that its waters are well stored with fish, which is thought to be a generative stimulus, and constitutes a site article of the food of the people.

The Kashmirians are gay and lively people, with strong propensities to pleasure. None are more eager in the pursuit of wealth, have more inventive faculties in acquiring it, or who devise more modes of luxurious expense. When a Kashmirian, even of the lowest order, finds himself in the possession of ten shillings, he loses no time in assembling his party, and launching into the lake, solaces himself till the last farthing is spent.

The fort on Hari Parbat was started by the Mughals but completed during the Afghan rule.

Mughal Era

Nor can the despotism of an Afghan government, which loads them with a various oppression and cruelty, eradicate this strong tendency to dissipation; yet their manners, it is said, have undergone a manifest change, since the dismemberment of their country from Hindostan, Encouraged by the liberality and indulgence of the Moguls, they gave a loose to their pleasures and the bent of their genius. They appeared in gay apparel, constructed costly buildings, and were much addicted to the pleasures of the table.

The interests of this province were so strongly favoured at the court, that every complaint against its governors was attentively listened to, and any attempt to molest the people, restrained or punished. |

In the reign of Aurungzebe, when the revenue of the different portions of the empire exceeded that of the present day, the sum collected in Kashmire amounted to three and a half lacks of rupees; but, at this time, not less than twenty lacks are extracted by the Afghan governor, who, if his tribute be regularly remitted to court, is allowed to execute with impunity every act of violence. This extreme rigour has sensibly affected the deportment and manners of the Kashmirians, who shrink with dread from the Afghan oppressions, and are fearful of making any display of opulence. A Georgian merchant, who had long resided in the country, gave me the most satisfactory information of Kashmire. He said, that, when he first visited the province, which was governed by a person of a moderate disposition, the people were licentious, volatile, and profuse but, that since the administration of the fate chief, an Afghan, of a fierce and rapacious temper, they had become dispirited, their way of living mean, their dress slovenly, and, though of a temper proverbially loquacious, they were averse from communicating ordinary intelligence.

During my residence in Kashmire, I often witnessed the harsh treatment which the common people received at the hands of their masters, who rarely issued an order without a blow of the side of their hatchet, a common weapon of the Afghans, and used by them in war, as a battle-axe. Though the inhabitants of this province are held under a grievous subjection, and endure evils the most mortifying to human nature, being equally oppressed and insulted, the various testimonies brought home to me of their common depravity of disposition, made me the less sensible of their distress; and, in a short time, so faint was the trace of it on my mind, that I even judged them worthy of their adverse fortune.

Character

In viewing the manners of a people at large, it were at once a sacrifice of truth, and every claim to historical merit, to introduce passionate or fanciful colouring; yet the coolest reflection does not withhold me from saying, that I never knew a national body of men more impregnated with the principles of vice, than the natives of Kashmire.

Afghan oppression had broken the back of the Kashmiri people. An artwork by an anonymous artist

The character of a Kashmirian is conspicuously seen, when invested with official power. Supported by an authority which prescribes no limits to its agents, in the accumulation of public emoluments, the Kashmirian displays the genuine composition of his mind. He becomes intent on immediate aggrandizement, without rejecting any instrument which can promote his purpose. Rapacious and arrogant, he evinces in all his actions, deceit, treachery, and that species of refined cruelty, which usually actuates the conduct of a coward. And it is said that he is equally fickle in his connections, as implacable in enmity. In behalf of humanity, I could wish not to have been capacitated to exhibit so disgusting a picture, which being constantly held out to me for near three months, in various lights, but with little relief, impressed me with a general dislike of mankind.

Tue Kashmirians are so whimsically curious, that when any trivial question is proposed to them, its attention and purpose is enquired into with a string of futile interrogatories, before the necessary information is given; and a shopkeeper rarely acknowledges the possession of a commodity, until he is apprised of the quantity required. In examining the situation in which these people have been placed, with its train of relative effects, the speculative moralist will, perhaps, discover one of the larger sources from whence this cast of manners and disposition has arisen. He will perceive that the singular position of their country, its abundant and valuable produce, with a happy climate, tend to excite strong inclinations to luxury and effeminate pleasures; and he is aware, that to counteract causes, naturally tending to enervate and corrupt the mind, a system of religion or morality is necessary to inculcate the love of virtue, and especially, to impress the youth with early sentiments of justice and humanity.

But he will evidently see that neither the religious nor the moral precepts of the present race of Mahometans contain the principles of rectitude or philanthropy; that, on the contrary, they are taught to look with abhorrence on the fairest portion of the globe, and to persecute and injure those who are not inclosed in the fold of their prophet. Seeing then the Kashmirians, presiding as it were at the fountainhead of pleasure, neither guided or checked by any principle or example of virtue, he will not be surprized, that they give a wide scope to the passions of the mind and the enjoyments of the body.

The Sherghari Palace that Afghans built on the banks of the Jhelum river in Srinagar was their seat of power. The photograph taken in the Dogra era shows Maharaja’s Royal Barge waiting in the river.

The Oppression

Azad Khan, the present governor of Kashmire of the Afghan tribe, succeeded his father Hadji Kareem Dad, a domestic officer of Ahmed Shah Duranny, and who was at the death of that prince, advanced to the government of Kashmire, by Timur Shah, as a reward for quelling the rebellion of the Amir Khan. Though the Kashmirians exclaim with bitterness at the administration of Hadji Kareem Dad, who was notorious for his wanton cruelties and insatiable avarice, often, for trivial offences, throwing the inhabitants, tied by the back in pairs, into the river, plundering their property, and forcing their women of every description; yet they say he was a systematical tyrant, and attained his purposes, however atrocious, through a fixed medium.

They hold a different language in speaking of the son, whom they denominate the Zaulim Khan, a Persic phrase which expresses a tyrant without discernment and, if the smaller portion of the charges against him are true, the appellation is fitly bestowed.

At the age of eighteen years, he has few of the vices of youth, he is not addicted to the pleasures of the harem, nor to wine, he does not even smoke the hookah. But his acts of ferocity exceed common belief; they would seem to originate in the wildest caprice, and to display a temper rarely seen in the nature of man.

That you may form some specific knowledge of the character of this, let me call him, infernal despot, I will mention some facts which were communicated during my residence in the province. While he was passing with his court, under one of the wooden bridges of the city, on which a crowd of people had assembled to observe the procession, he levelled his musquet at an opening which he saw in the path way, and being an expert marksman, he shot to death an unfortunate spectator. Soon after his accession to the government, he accused his mother of infidelity to her husband, and in defiance of the glaring absurdity which appeared in the allegation, as well as the anxious intreaties of the woman who had borne him to save her from shame, she was ignominiously driven from the palace and about the same time, on a like frivolous pretence, he put one of his wives to death.

Jehlum River near Baramulla, Kashmir somwhere in the 1880’s

A film on one of his eyes had baffled the attempts of many operators, and being impatient at the want of success, he told the last surgeon who had been called in, that if the disorder was not remedied within a limited time, allowing but a few days, his belly should be cut open; the man failed in the cure, and Azad Khan verified his threat.

These passages were related to me by different persons, some strangers in the country, others, who from the stations they held, would rather have been induced to speak favourably. Azad Khan had, in the three first months of his government, become an object of such terror to the Kashmirians, that the casual mention of his name produced an instant horror and an involuntary supplication of the aid of their prophet. Among the lesser order of his exactions, but which seemed to me the most unpopular and discouraging, is that levied from the courtezans or dancing girls, who are obliged to account for every sum of money they receive, and to pay the larger share of it to the intendant of the police; nor are they allowed to attend at any festival or entertainment, without the permission of that officer. The rigorous treatment of this class of females, which are ever the most pleasing to society, from the indulgence granted to them, has here affected a grievous change for though Kashmire is known to abound in fine, women, few are now seen among the courtezans.

Revenue

A revenue of between twenty and thirty lacks of rupees is collected from this province, of which a tribute of seven lacks is remitted to the treasury of Timur Shah. The army of Kashmire, part of which I have seen embodied, consists of about three thousand horse and foot, chiefly Afghans, who had received little pay for two years, and many of them, for want of a better subsistence, were obliged to live on the kernel of the Singerah, or water-nut, which is plentifully produced in the lakes of the country.

(This is the concluding part of the two-part series on George Forester’s Kashmir travelogue. Read the first part here.)

I agree to the Terms and Conditions of Kashmir Life
Advertisements

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here