Kashmir 1823

British veterinarian, William Moorcroft (1767-1825), who played a key role in exploring Central Asia for the East India Company, spent a harsh winter in Kashmir (1822-23) at the peak of hugely exploitative Sikh rule. His contribution to documenting Kashmir is enormous. In these passages, Moorcroft details the state and status of people who make Kashmir

In this 1895 photograph preserved and owned by the British Library, a Dogra soldier is seen keeping a watch while Kashmiri women work on Maharaja’s fields as forced labourers on Begar. The photograph taken in the Srinagar periphery is believed to have been taken in Pampore.

The first appearance of the people of Kashmir was anything but prepossessing.  The dress of both men and women consisted of a long loose wrapper and a  low woollen cap, both sufficiently dirty.  The legs and feet were bare,  or wooden clogs were bound to the latter by straps of leather or straw.  Poverty and discontent were the prevailing characteristics.  The chief article of food was a kind of greenish-coloured bread made from the tromba, of buckwheat.

On  our  advance  from  Sonamurgh,  we  were met  by  letters  from  the  Malik,  from  Khaja Shah  Nyas  Khan,  and  from  Surat  Sinh,  the latter  of  whom  announced  himself  as  deputed by  the  Subahdar  of  Kashmir,  Dewan  Moti Ram,  to  attend  upon,  and  conduct  me  to the  capital…


About two miles from the capital,  a party of horse, and a detachment of the regiment of infantry disciplined in the European fashion, under the son of  Nand  Ram, awaited our approach and escorted us past the remains of the  Nazimbagh into the city.  The streets and houses were lined with spectators, and we proceeded through them to a neglected garden, once that of  Dilawar  Khan,  in a building in which some apartments had been prepared for our accommodation.

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.

As we advanced  Surat  Sinh was assailed by many clamorous appeals from the crowd,  and hands were stretched out,  and cries addressed to us,  praying for our interference to save the inhabitants from starvation. An  order,  it  appeared,  had  recently  emanated from  Raja  Ranjit  Sinh,  prohibiting  the  sale of  any  of  this  year’s  crop  of  rice  until  a  deficit of  five  lakhs  in  the  revenue  of  the  preceding year had  been  discharged.

During  the  first  day  subsequent  to  our  arrival  we  were  beset  by  crowds  of  people,  who not only filled the garden but came in boats along a  lake  adjoining,  on  the  border  of  which stood  a  sort  of  summer-house,  in  which  I  had taken  up  my  quarters.  The Hurkaras of the Dewan would have prohibited the people from approaching me,  but  I  desired them to be admitted,  hoping that in a  few days the

public curiosity would be satisfied.  This, however, was far from the case,  and the multitude rather increased:  amongst the crowd were men who had served as sipahis in  India, and merchants from  Delhi and  Benares:  the latter,  as well as the  Banias of  Kashmir,  tendered their services to advance whatever cash I  might require for my bills on  Hindustan.

The  garden-house,  belonging  formerly  to  a nobleman  named  Dilawar  Khan,  situated  on the  Biari  Nambal,  a  small  lake,  or  rather  an expanse  of  one  of  the  chief  canals  of  the  city, was  assigned  for  our  residence,  and  here,  as at  Le (Leh),  my  time  was  spent  in  medical  practice, collecting  information,  and  occasional  excursions…

Confused Mass

The  general  character  of  the  city  of  Kashmir  is  that  of  a  confused  mass  of  ill-favoured buildings,  forming  a  complicated  labyrinth  of narrow and  dirty  lanes,  scarcely  broad  enough for a  single  cart  to  pass,  badly  paved,  and having a  small gutter in the centre full of filth,  banked  up  on  each  side  by  a  border  of mire.  The houses  are in  general  two  or  three stories  high;  they  are  built  of  un-burnt  bricks and  timber,  the  former  serving  for  little  else than  to  fill  up  the  interstices  of  the  latter; they  are  not  plastered,  are  badly  constructed, and  are  mostly  in  a  neglected  and  ruinous condition,  with  broken  doors,  or  no  doors  at all,  with  shattered  lattices,  windows  stopped up with  boards,  paper,  or  rags,  walls  out  of the  perpendicular,  and  pitched  roofs  threatening  to  fall. The roofs  are  formed  of  layers of  birch  bark  covered  by  a  coating  of  earth, in  which  seeds  dropped  by  birds,  or  wafted by  the  wind,  have  vegetated,  and  they  are constantly  overrun  with  grass,  flowers,  and seeds.

This is the main Srinagar city called the down-town where congested housing is the norm. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The houses  of  the  better  class  are commonly  detached, and  surrounded  by  a wall  and  gardens,  the  latter  of  which  often communicate  with  a  canal:  the  condition  of the  gardens  is  no  better  than  that  of  the building,  and  the  whole  presents  a  striking picture  of  wretchedness  and  decay.

Juma Masjid

There are no public buildings in the city of Kashmir entitled to notice for their architectural or antiquarian merits.  The oldest  building  is  the  tomb  of  the  mother  of  Zein-ul-abaddin,  who  reigned  in  the  middle  of  the  fifteenth  century,  and  who  is  said  to  have  made use of a more  ancient  Hindu  temple  for  the purpose.  It is an octagonal building of brick, surmounted by a  dome of great solidity and strength,  the walls being seven or eight feet thick,  but of no beauty.  The shrine  of  Sayid Ali  Hamadani  is  constructed  chiefly  of  the wood  of  the  Deodar  pine,  and  is  equipped with  a  pyramidal  steeple  of  timber,  capped with  brass.

Jamia Masjid Srinagar, a 1900 photograph. Pic: Social Media

The most celebrated structure, however,  is the  Jama  Masjid,  or great mosque, which is capable of containing,  it is said, sixty thousand persons.  After having  been four  times  destroyed  by  fire,  it  was  last  rebuilt  in  the  time  of  Aurangzeb:  it  had  been shut  up  at  the  time  of  our  visit  by  order  of Ranjjt  Sinh,  lest  the  plea  it  afforded  for  the assemblage  of  large  bodies  of  Mohammedans  should  afford opportunities  of  plotting  against his  rule.  The Jama  Masjid  consists  in  great part  of  wood,  a  dome  and  spire  of  timber  of rude  construction,  resting  partly  upon  wooden pillars,  and  partly  on  side  walls,  of  which the  foundation  and  lower  portion  consist  of roughly  hewn  stones,  and  the  upper  of  brick and  mortar.  The number  of  pillars  is  three hundred  and  eighty-four;  the  intervals  are usually  considerable.  The  columns  are formed  of  an  assemblage  of  square  blocks  of Deodar,  about  a  foot  in  diameter,  laid  at  right angles  to  each  other,  so  that  each  face  presents  a  succession  of  butts  and  sides,  or  to speak  more  technically,  a  bond  of  alternate headers  and  leaders:  the  blocks  are  probably secured  together  by  pins,  but  those  are  not seen  exteriorly.  The columns  are  in  general about  ten  feet  high,  but  some  are  taller  than others.

The  peculiarity  of  their  construction  was,  no  doubt,  suggested  by  the  occurrence  of  earthquakes,  which  are  frequent  in Kashmir,  though  not  very  violent.  Certain it  is,  that  although  the  roof  and  walls  have been  rent  and  shattered  in  various  places, not  one  of  the  pillars  appears  to  have  been seriously  injured,  or  to  have  deviated  from  its original  perpendicular.  Such also  is  the  durability  of  the  timber  of  the  Deodar,  that  in none  of  the  columns  was  any  vestige  of  decay from  exposure  or  insects  to  be  discovered, although  they  have  been  erected  above  a  century  and  a  half,  and  have  received  for  some time  past  very  little  care  or  attention.

The same valuable material is employed in the formation of bridges over the canals and rivers of the country… This  construction  is  so  solid,  that  upon  one  of  the bridges,  the  Zein-al-kadal,  a  line  of  shops, the  best  in  the  city,  is  situated.  The  shops are  built  of  wood,  each  with  a  work-room  and show-room,  and  the  concourse  of  buyers  is very considerable.

Wretched Population

The population of the  City of  Kashmir, although much diminished,  must be numerous.  One hundred  and  twenty  thousand persons,  it  is  said,  are  employed  in  the  shawl manufacture  alone;  and,  although  this  is  the chief  employment  of  the  population,  yet  the other  trades  and  occupations,  essential  to  the support  of  a  large  city,  must,  at  least,  double the  amount:  the  population  of  the  province is  estimated  at  eight  hundred  thousand.

Three Kashmir women posing with a Stone mortar (Kanz) and pestle (Mohul) using for pounding paddy and corn in Kashmir in areas not having water mills.

Everywhere, however,  the  people  are  in  the most  abject  condition; exorbitantly  taxed  by the Sikh  government,  and  subjected  to  every kind  of  extortion  and  oppression  by  its  officers.  The consequences  of  this  system  are, the  gradual  depopulation  of  the  country:  not more  than  about  one-sixteenth  of  the  cultivable  surface  is  in  cultivation,  and  the  inhabitants  starving  at  home,  are  driven  in  great numbers  to  the  Plains  of  Hindustan.  In  like manner  the  people  of  the  city  are  rapidly thinning,  though  less  from  emigration,  than poverty  and  disease:  the  prevalence  of  the latter  in  its  most  aggravated  forms  was  fearfully  extensive.

I  devoted every Friday to the reception of visits from the sick,  and a greater  number  and  cases  of  greater  inveteray  crowded  round  my  door  than  ever  preseited  themselves  at  the  Hotel  de  Dieu.  I had, at  one  time  no  fewer  than  six  thousand and eight hundred  patients  on  my  list,  a  large portion  of  whom  were  suffering  from  the loathsome  diseases,  brought  on  by  scant unwholesome  food,  dark,  damp,  and  ill-ventilated  lodgings,  excessive  dirtiness,  and gross  immorality.

Land Seizures

According to  the  prevailing  notions  on  the subject  the  whole  of  the  land  in  Kashmir  is considered  to  have  been,  time  out  of  mind, the  property  of  the  ruler.  Of some  portions of  the  Khalsa lands  the  sovereigns  divested themselves  by  grants  in  Jagir  for  various periods,  but  when  the  country  came  into  the hands  of  the  Sikhs,  Ranjit  Sinh  made  a general  resumption,  and  ousted  the  possessors  of  grants  of  land  of  every  class,  thus summarily  reducing  thousands  who  had  long lived  in  comfort  to  a  state  of  absolute;  destitution.

An old photograph showing potters carrying their manufacture. They are wearing the footwear woven locally with paddy straw rope

The Khalsa lands are now, as theretofore, let out for cultivation.  Those near  the  city are  termed  Sar-Kishti,  those  more  remote Pai-Kishti;  or  head  and  foot,  upper  and lower  cultivation.  When the  grain  has  been trodden out,  a  division  takes  place  between the  farmer  and  the  government:  this  was formerly  an  equal  division,  but  the  government  has  advanced  in  its  demands  until  it has appropriated  about  seven-eighths  of  the Sar-Kishti,  and  three-fourths  of  the  Pai-Kishti  crop.  The straw falls  to  the  share  of the  cultivator,  but  his  case  would  be  desperate  if  it  were  not  practicable  to  bribe  the overseer  or  watchman  to  let  him  steal  a  portion  of  his  own  produce.  He has  also  a house  to  live  in;  he  can  keep  his  cattle  on the  mountains  during  summer,  can  cut  wood and  bring  it  to  the  city  for  sale,  can  sell  wild greens  and  butter -milk,  and  can  support himself  and  family  upon  the  wild  fruits  of the  forest.  Still the cultivators of Kashmir

are in  a  condition  of  extreme  wretchedness, and,  as  if  the  disproportionate  demand  of  the government  was  not  sufficiently  oppressive, the  evil  is  aggravated  by  the  mode  adopted of  disposing  of  the  government  share.  It  is sent  into  the  market  at  a  high  price,  and  no individual  is  allowed  to  offer  the  produce  of his  farm  at  a  lower  rate,  or  sometimes  to  dispose  of  it  at  all,  until  the  public  corn  has been  sold.

Shawl Taxes

A much  larger  revenue  than  that  which is  obtained  from  the  land  is  realised  from the  shawl  manufacture,  every  shawl  being stamped,  and  the  stamp-duty  being  twenty-six per cent,  upon  the  estimated  value.  Besides this a  considerable  sum  is  raised  by  duties upon  the  import  of  wool,  and  a  charge  upon every  shop  or  workman  connected  with  the manufacture.  Nor  are  these  imposts  restricted  to  the  artisans  employed  in  the shawl  fabric,  every  trade  is  taxed,  butchers, bakers,  boatmen,  vendors  of  fuel,  public  notaries,  scavengers,  prostitutes,  all  pay  a  sort of  corporation  tax,  and  even  the  Kotwal,  or Chief  officer  of  justice,  pays  a  large  gratuity of  thirty  thousand  rupees  a  year  for  his  appointment,  being  left  to  reimburse  himself as  he  may.

A  portion  of  the  Sinhara crop, to  the  extent  annually  of  a  lac  of  rupees  it  is said,  is  claimed  by  the  government.  The revenue is  farmed,  and  the  farmer  is  independent  of  the  military  governor.  At  the time  of  our  visit  tire  sum  paid  by  the  farmer was  thirty-eight  lakhs  of  Panjab  rupees, equal  to  twenty-nine  lakhs  of  Sicca  rupees,

or  about  two  hundred  and  ninety  thousand pounds;  but  a  much  larger  sum  than  this was  extorted  from  the  people,  although  it was  only  to  be  realised  by  the  greatest  rigour and  oppression.

Lively People

The natives  of  Kashmir  have  been  always considered  as  amongst  the  most  lively  and ingenious  people  of  Asia,  and  deservedly  so. With  a  liberal  and  wise  government  they might  assume  an  equally  high  scale  as  a moral  and  intellectual  people,  but  at  present a  more  degraded  race  does  not  exist.

A photograph believed to have been taken by James Ricalton in 1903 shawl part of the Shawl making processes.

The complexion  of  the  Kashmirians  varies  from dark  to  olive,  and  is  sometimes  ruddy  and transparent:  the  eyes  are  large  and  full,  the nose  is  well  defined,  and  commonly  of  an aquiline  form.  The  stature  varies,  but  the Hindus  who  have  least  intermixed  with  foreign  races  are,  in  general,  tall  and  symmetrically  made.  The  inhabitants  of  the  city are  rather  slight,  but  amongst  the  peasantry, both  Hindu  and  Mohammedan,  are to be found figures of robust and muscular make, such as might have served for models of the Farnesan  Hercules.  In character the  Kashmirian  is  selfish,  superstitious,  ignorant, supple,  intriguing,  dishonest,  and  false:  he has  great  ingenuity as  a  mechanic,  and  a  decided  genius  for  manufactures  and  commerce,  but  his  transactions  are  always  conducted  in  a  fraudulent  spirit,  equalled  only by  the  effrontery  with  which  he  faces  detection.  The “vices  of  the  Kashmirian  I  cannot help  considering,  however,  as  the  effects  of

his political condition,  rather  than  his  nature, and  conceive  that  it  would  not  be  difficult  to transform  him  into  a  very  different  being.

(These disjoined passages were excerpted from William Moorcroft’s Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir; in Peshwar, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara from 1819 to 1825 Vol 2. Most of his Kashmir publications were printed after his death.)

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