Kashmir’s Botrajas

On the slopes of the Srinagar fort is a cluster of homes that represent the little Hunza in Kashmir. Its emergence is wowen in the region’s tumultuous history, reports Ibtisam Fayaz Khan

At the second refuge on the Pass; breakfast with the Rajas of Nager and Astor: The princes of the little kingdoms of Nager (in the north-west Karakoram in the Hunza Valley) and Astor travelled to Delhi in October 1911 for the great Durbar (an audience) to take place at the end of December in the Red Fort. Under Viceroy Lord Hardinge these celebrations took place to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India in the presence of all senior dignitaries in British India. The two rulers travelled together as they were bonded by family as well as their faith, Twelver Shia. It is not possible accurately to identify the princes in the photograph. In Delhi Mir Sikandar Khan of Nager was knighted and awarded the title Knight Commander of British Empire (K.B.E.).© Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich, photo: Otto Honigmann

Mohalla Raja Azur Khan is located on an elevated plain near Kathi Darwaza. It is overlooked by the Hari Parbat fort where the Raja, the erstwhile crown prince of the then Gilgit Agency was imprisoned for six years somewhere in the late nineteenth century. This Mohalla largely comprises of Burusho people, locally known as Botraj (all Mongoloid faced people in Kashmir are called Bota and Raja means king). They are originally from Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin, major belts forming the Gilgit Baltistan (GB), which Pakistan is ruling independent of Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) region.

Despite being a very small population, this Shia Muslim cluster has managed to preserve part of its language and culture. However, over the decades they are as fluent in Kashmiri as they are in their own language, the Burushaski. Generational isolation from their place of origin has compromised the orthodoxy of their language but the advent of the internet is helping them to make quick corrections.

A War

In 1891, British India and their client Dogra regime in Kashmir decided to annex the Hunza, Nagar belt.  This was part of the Great Games that dominated Kashmir for more than 200 years. The key factor that led to the plan was a belief that the Russians would invade or the Chinese influence will increase thus disturbing British India. They aimed at improving the buffer state, the state of Jammu and Kashmir by the entire Northern Areas to the Dogra state.

It led to the Anglo-Brusho War, preserved in the local folklore as Jangir-e-Lae because it marked the end of the region’s sovereignty. This war was fought in December 1891 for 23 days with British and Dogras on one side and people of Nagar and Hunza states jointly defending Nilt, Thole and Mayun forts. They were led by Raja Azur Khan, the son of paralysed Nagar king, Raja Jafar Zahid Khan.

It was a bloody battle. As many as 100 Nagar soldiers died and 127 were taken as prisoners. British lost four officers and more than 50 Dogra, Kashmiri and Puniali levies. Their commander Colonel Algernon George Arnold Durand, who led an invading army of over 1000 regulars, 2,000 Balti coolies and about 200 Pathan labourers, survived injured. Mir Safdar Ali Khan of Hunza was Raja Jaffar Khan’s nephew. Relations apart, they had an alliance. But it was a mismatch.

Briton had given so much importance to this campaign (1889-1892) that three Victoria Crosses (VC) and numerous Indian Orders of Merit were awarded to the native troops.

On December 23, Thole Fort fell. Raja Azur Khan of Nagar and Raja Azur Khan of Hunza fled to Chinese Turkestan. British reinstated the paralyzed Raja of Nager with his younger and loyal son Sikandar Khan as heir apparent. It was with the active collaboration of Sikander Khan that the invaders succeeded.

An Arrest

The takeover saw Raja Safdar fleeing to Yarkand, where the family possessed various estates. Raja Azur Khan fled to China. But the commander of Jangir-e-Lae Raja Azur Khan was arrested by the Chinese guards and handed over to the British troops. It was in the winter of 1892 that the arrest took place.

Mir of Nagar, Raja Azur Khan, the commander of the bloody war that he fought with the joint army of British India and Dogras in 1890. After he lost the war, he was arrested and imprisoned in Srinagar, where he eventually founded the Botraj Mohalla.

Post arrest, the successful invaders were forced by the weather conditions to keep Azur Khan in the region till June temperatures made Kashmir accessible after the snowmelt over the high passes. He was shifted to Srinagar as a prisoner and kept in Hari Parbat fort. So were all other prisoners and his supporters who also migrated with him.

After six years imprisonment, Azur Khan was released and put up, under house arrest, in a Haveli in the nearby neighbourhood. Somehow that villa caught fire. So, he was shifted to Mughalia Haveli at Badamwari Bagh of Waris Khan. Gradually, some of the people who accompanied the Khan died mysterious deaths.

The Descendents

In March 1922, Azur Khan breathed his last. He lays resting in his mausoleum at Bemina on the city outskirts. With his death, some of the people who had accompanied him returned home and some scattered around.

However, the core family still lives in Srinagar. Raja Jehangir Ali is one of them. He traces the lineage of his clan to the family of Nausherwane Adil of the millennium-old Persia.

Advocate Raja Jehangir Ali with his grandchildren at their Mohalla Botraj residence in Srinagar. Ali is the grandson of Raja Azur Khan. KL Image: Shah Hilal

Wearing a Khan suit, known as Chogah in the family, a black-coloured waistcoat, and a traditional woollen headgear kept in a slanting position on his head, Ali was a practising advocate in Srinagar and quit his hectic job owing to ill-health. He is Azur Khan’s grandson.

Jehangir Ali said around 500 people had followed Azur Khan from Hunza and Nagar and settled in Zadibal. Before and after the 1947 partition, some of them spread across the world including London, the Middle East, the Americas and Pakistan. Still, around 200 people live in Kashmir.

The Language

They speak Burushaski and must be a minuscule linguistic group in Kashmir. Burushaski is a mixture of Khajunah, Kashmiri, and Urdu. Khajunah is basically from Yassin, one of the northern frontier states of Gilgit-Baltistan. The language sounds similar to Persian but is far away from it. More than a century has passed in a discrete habitat but the Burusho people have not forgotten their language.

“Even if there are only two Burusho people in a gathering and the rest of them are Kashmiri, we prefer to speak in our language”, said Ali.

Change of address was not so easy for this community. Moving out from the sprawling Tibetan plateau with sub-Celsius agro-climate to Srinagar, comparatively a warmer place had its own impact on them.

“It took us some time to adjust as we belong to a different cultural background,” said Ali. “However the situation changed. We initiated marital ties outside our clan, among Kashmiri Shias.”

Linguist Sadaf Munshi, a professor at the University of North Texas, did her doctoral thesis on their language, and her book Srinagar Burushaski is perhaps the only research on this language outside the Northern Areas belt.

Her research suggests that since this language has survived in isolation from the mainstream Burushaski community for around 130 years, Srinagar Burushaski has developed divergent linguistic features. The language does not have a written literary tradition.

“Since our elders knew Persian and Pashto languages, whatever they wanted to write, they did in these languages”,  Ali explained.

Academic Success

The community is economically sound and has been doing fairly well on all fronts. Almost 90 per cent of the Botaraj community are teachers, graduates, doctors, engineers, and serving almost all the departments.

Ali speaks Kashmiri when he said:” Bahaz chus takreeban panch sheh zabani bolaan, Koshurti, Farsiti, Urdu ti, thoda angreziti,”( I speak many languages, Kashmiri, I speak Persian, Urdu, Khajunah, Balti, and a little English also.)

It has been more than a century since the Botaraj clan is a part of Kashmir’s socio-economic life. While in this long period, the community’s culture, lifestyle, clothing, and food habits have changed as they adopted the Kashmiri lifestyle, they somehow managed to keep their language alive besides some of the marriage rituals. They are now correcting the changes by using the internet and watching the original culture they belonged to.

Though they have retained some traditional matrimonial rituals, they sing Kashmiri folk songs in their marriage functions the same way the natives do. Normally it is very difficult to distinguish them.

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