South Kashmir 1868

An Assistant Surgeon in Her Majesty’s 36th Foot, John Frederick Foster (1839-1869) spent almost a quarter in 1868 summer in Kashmir, primarily for health reasons. A year later, he was on his way to Malta when he died. During his stay, he would keep notes of his activities. These notes were later edited by Lizzie A Freeth, and published as Three Months of My Life in 1873. The excerpts mention Bejbehara as Bigbikara, Amarnath as Ummernath, and Achabal as Atchebul and it has been retained.

As the source of Jhelum, Verinag has fascinated people for centuries. An old photograph of Verinag.

August 11: Started again at daybreak but soon stopped at Bigbikara, where there is another bridge. All these bridges are alike and similar to the one described at Baramula, but this one is particularly pretty from the fact of large trees having grown from the lower part of every pier. These trees green and flourishing are high above the footway, between which and the water there is a distant vista of fine mountains. Fished here, but only hooked one, which I judged from its run to be large, and lost it. Above the bridge, the river narrowed to about half its former width. We are approaching a very grand range of mountains which seems to be the boundary of the valley. Before midday, we reached Kunbul and completed the trip of forty miles by water. At Kunbul is the first bridge over the Jhelum, the river here diminishes to a breadth of only thirty or forty yards, and soon breaks up into a number of small streams which mostly rise from the water, then along the foot of the hills.

With Shadhus

August 12: Marched to Buroen, six miles, on arriving found the camping ground occupied by numerous Fakirs who had lately returned from Ummernath. These men are horrible looking objects, most of them being painted white and nearly naked. Ummernath is a mountain 1,600 feet high, and at the top of it is a cave sacred to the Hindoo deity. In July pilgrims assemble there for a great religious festival, and these are some of them on their way back. I intended to visit this cave, but I have not time now, and I have thought that it may be a trifle too cold up there. At Burven is a very holy spring. Two tanks are formed where the water escapes from the ground, and these tanks swarm with tame fish, some of them of large size. It was a great sight feeding them. They all rushed to the place struggling and fighting for the food. The bright green water was black with them, and a space yards wide and long, and several feet thick, was occupied by a block of fish packed as closely as if they were pickled herrings. These fish are also very sacred, and to catch them is prohibited. Soon after leaving Kunbul I passed through Islamabad, a large town of which I may have more to say hereafter. There are two other men encamped here with me, but they don’t seem very sociable, and I don’t care much for the society of strangers; we have exchanged “good mornings” and that is all, and now sit staring at each other at a distance of twenty yards. How different it would have been if we were Frenchmen instead of cold-blooded Englishmen.

Sadhus Taking Charri Mubarak to Pahalgam.
Photo: Bilal Bahadur

After dark, the fakirs had a tomasha. Singing, bell ringing, tambourine-beating, and the blowing of discordant horns all at the same time, constituted a delightful music – to them at least – and was continued for hours, interrupted by shouting and yelling, and with this din going on I now hope to sleep.

The Sun Temple

August 13: Marched back to Islamabad, seven miles, by another road, as I first visited the ruins of Martund, a temple built (so the legend goes) ages ago by gin men or demons of gigantic stature. These are really grand ruins, whether position, site, or architecture be considered. They stand on an open plain, on the summit of a ridge, from which is a fine view of the surrounding mountains, which are much higher than in the western part of Kashmir. In the centre is a large block, containing several rooms, the huge stones of which it is built being elaborately carved. There are many niches containing figures, but the defacing hand of time has sadly marred them.

A 1900 photograph of the Sun Temple of Martand in South Kashmir

On two sides of this building and only a few feet distant from it rise a couple of wings, and the whole is enclosed by a stone screen, perforated by trefoil arches, and having on its inner side a row of fluted columns. In the middle of the south side of the screens is the main entrance, the pillars of which are very tall. Vigne, classes these ruins among the finest in the world, and perhaps he is right. At Islamabad there are several bungalows provided for visitors, and I went into one of them, having first cleared it of the fakirs – who are here too. These bungalows stand by tanks in which are tame fish, as at Burven. A spring issues from the hill side, just above them. Two men of the 7th Hussars, Walker and Verschoyle, occupied another, and I breakfasted with them. Adjoining the tanks is a small pleasure garden, with some buildings which are inhabited by the Maharajah when he visits Islamabad. The place reminds me more of a tea garden in the New Road, than the resort of Royalty. The water from the tanks escapes under the front bungalow forming a pretty cascade. Dined and passed the evening with the other fellows.

Achabal

August 14: To Atchebul, six miles. This is a charming spot. It is a pavilion and garden built – if my memory serves me – by the Emperor Shah Jehan, for his wife; at its upper end rises a hill covered with small deodars and other trees, and from the foot of this hill four springs gush forth from crevices in the rock. The volume of water is very large, and it is conveyed into three tanks at different levels. These tanks are connected by broad canals lined with stone, and at the extremity of each canal is a fine waterfall. There are also two lateral canals which run through the whole length of the gardens, from the boundary of which the water escapes in three cascades, the centre one from the tanks being the largest. In the middle tank are twenty-five fountains, which were turned on for my benefit; only seventeen of them play, and the best jets are not more than six feet high. In the centre of this tank stands a pavilion which I now inhabit.

A photograph of Achabal taken in 1915

Its walls are of wooden trellis work, and the ceiling is divided into panels on which are painted in many colours the everlasting shawl pattern; it looks as though the floor-cloth had been placed on the ceiling by mistake. Along the foot of the hill is a ruined terrace built of bricks, with arches and alcoves crumbling to pieces. There is also an arch over the canal, between the second and third tanks. The whole garden was originally laid out in several terraces faced with masonry, and having wide flights of stone steps from one to the other; but all is now much decayed, and the garden itself is quite uncultivated, except a small portion, and is but a wilderness of fruit trees and fine chenars. On the left of it is the old Humam or bath, a series of domed and arched rooms containing baths and marble seats. The interior is in a fair state of preservation, and the various pipes which conveyed the water to it still exist. The whole ground is enclosed by a wall, and if it was properly looked after, might be converted into a very pleasant retreat. In the afternoon Walker and Verschoyle, rode over from Islamabad and sat some time with me, after a few hours five other pipes began to squirt – rendered patulous I suppose by the pressure of the water – so that three only now remain occluded. I had a great loss last night; the dogs broke open the basket containing my provisions, and carried away half a large sized cake, and a hump of beef that had been cooked but was uncut.

Navbug

August 15: Marched to Nowboog, fifteen miles, this long march was quite unexpected as Ince in his book puts it down eight miles. It was uphill nearly all the way – this combined with the sun’s heat – for I did not start so early as I would have done if I had known the distance – and the vexation of having to go on, long after I considered the march ought to have been finished, made it very fatiguing. Nowboog is situated in a small and pretty valley separated by hills from the rest of Kashmir. I intend to halt here tomorrow, so will reserve further description until I feel fresh again. It was one or two o’clock before I arrived, and I have worn a hole in my left heel which will, I fear, render the next marches painful. Umjoo, the boatman, is now shampooing my legs and feet. This process consists of violent squeezes and pinches, which make me inclined to cry out, but I am bearing it bravely without flinching and endeavouring to look happy, and to persuade myself that it is pleasant – now my toes are being pulled with a strength fit to tear them off. Oh! – There’s a cry on paper. He does not hear that, and it is some sort of relief.

A painting by James Duffield Harding shows Bijbehara village in 1847.

August 16: Sunday: The valley of Nowboog is small but very picturesque. The surrounding hills are comparatively low, and are covered with pasture on the open places, while the deodar and many other trees occupy the ravines and gullies. The large amount of grass and the grouping of the trees give it a park-like appearance, and the gentle slopes of the verdant mountains remove all wildness from the scene. It is a pleasant spot to halt at. A little nook which while it charms the eye, only suggests peaceful laziness. My coolies sit at a short distance, singing through their noses Kashmirian songs. There is much more melody in their music than in that of their brethren of Hindoostan. Indeed some of the tunes admit of being written, and I have copied a few of the more rhythmical, as they sang them. The principal objection to them is that they are rather too short to bear repetition for half an hour as is the custom, there is another music going on – a music that cannot be written and will be difficult to describe – I mean the song of the Cicada Stridulantia in walnut trees above me. This insect – the balm cricket – is in appearance a burlesque, just such a housefly as you might imagine would be introduced in a pantomime; and its cry is as loud and incessant as it is peculiar. To describe it, fancy to begin with a number of strange chirps, and that every few seconds, one of those cogged wheels and spring toys that you buy at fairs to delude people into the belief that their coats are being torn – is passed rapidly down the back, with occasionally momentary interruption in the middle of its course, while between each scratch you hear a mew of a distant cat – another cat purring loudly all the time, and any number of grasshoppers chirping to conclude with a running down of the most impetuous and noisy alarum, and then silence – a silence almost painful by contrast – until it begins again. Such is the song of the Cicada in the Himalayan forests.

Kokernag

August 17: To Kookur Nag, twelve miles. I am now convinced I came the wrong road from Atchibul to Nowboog, as I had to march back over a great portion of it this morning; however, with the exception of a mile or two, it was all downhill, and as I knew when I started that I had twelve miles to go, I was not tired. Stopped at the village on the way where there are iron works, and saw them smelting the ore which is obtained from the neighbouring mountains, this ore is a yellow powder, and appears to be almost pure oxide. Their method of working is very rude; a small furnace, such as a blacksmith uses at home, supplied with a pair of leather bellows constitutes the whole of the foundry, and is of course, only capable of smelting a very small quantity of ore at a time.

 

The Mughal Garden of Kokernag in South Kashmir

Kookur Nag is the name of some springs about two miles from the village I have encamped at, and I walked over this afternoon to see them. It was scarcely worth the trouble. There are a great number of them close together and they issue from the ground, as usual, at the foot of a prettily wooded hill. The water is very pure and cold, and of sufficient quantity to form immediately a large and rapid stream. This place lies near the mouth of a wide gorge or valley which leads right up to the snows, and down which there must have been at one time, either a mighty rush of water or a vast glacier, as the ground is thickly strewn with huge boulders. The stratification of one mountain against which it is evident the flood impinged – is very clearly and beautifully shown.

Verinag

August 18: To Vernag, ten miles, crossing a range of hills, the descent being the steepest I have experienced. From the top of the range there was a fine view of the two valleys of Kookur Nag and Vernag. They are very similar and down the middle of each is a layer of loose rounded stones. The springs of Vernag occupy the same position in the valley as those of Kookur Nag do in the other, but around them is a good sized village, and their point of exit has been converted into a large and very deep octagonal tank, which is perfectly crowded with sacred fish. Surrounding the tank is a series of arches, and on the side from which the stream escapes is a bungalow for the use of visitors. Six days ago a

One of the oldest photographs of Verinag, the spring wherefrom the Jhelum originates

Hindoo was drowned here, and his body has not been recovered – so deep is the water, it is probable that ere this the fish have removed all but his bones, one hundred yards below the tank is another spring, which is the finest I believe in Kashmir. It comes straight up on level ground, and forms a mound of water eighteen inches high, and more than a foot in diameter. The morning cloudy and very gloomy on account of the eclipse of the sun of which I saw nothing. This is my birthday and my thoughts have been running over my past life and speculating upon the future before me. “But fear not dear reader!” I will not bore you with all my musings over those twenty-nine unfruitful, if not absolutely misspent evil years, or show you how my “talent” lies carefully folded up and hidden away, in order that I may have it to return to its “owner”. “Oh! fool, fool that I am.”

Knowing better things and with a half a lifetime gone, “I find myself still plodding along the old road paved with good intentions.” The springs of grace indeed surround me, but I am in the shallows and the water is muddy. The very “Tree of Life” is by my side, but it is a dwarfed and stunted shrub, whose shoots wither before they put forth leaves. When will this change? Will my resolutions ever become deeds? “Will grace abound: or will faith ever give such impetus to my “Tree of Life,” that it may grow up into heaven?” I put to myself the question that was asked Ezekiel. “Can these dry bones live,” and have no other answer than his to make. These are some of my birthday thoughts. Pray, forgive, excuse me if I have wearied you.

August 19: Back to Atchibul, twelve miles, the road for the most part level, but there was one mile of very hard work, over the ridge I crossed yesterday. I approached Atchibul from the hill I mentioned as standing at the head of the garden, and from the top of it a very pretty view of the place is obtained. I found the pavilion unoccupied, and again took possession of it, set the fountains playing, and imagined myself the Great Mogul. Just out of Vernag, I caught a small black and yellow bird, which my boatman calls a bulbul (though I think he is wrong in the name) and says it sings very well. I have had a cage made for it, and it is now feeding at my side, and is apparently very happy. I’ll try and take it to England. I believe it is only one of the shrike family, but it is too young to identify at present. However, it is my fancy to keep it, so why should I not. The old gardener here is very attentive, constantly bringing me fruit. Shall I do him injustice, by saying that he probably has expectation of a reward? I think not indeed, is it not the same expectation or its allied motive, the desire to escape punishment, which prompts the actions of all of us? We do good, I fear, more for the sake of the promised recompense, than for any love of the thing itself. Light rain has fallen all day.

August 20: I halt at Atchibul. I have now completed my wanderings in Kashmir, and have seen all I intended except one portion, which I shall visit on my road home. My next move will be to – but as I do not care to spend more than seven or eight days there, I am in no hurry to get back. My bird died in the night, and by its death has put an end to a rather violent controversy between my Bheistie and boatman. The boatman stoutly maintained his opinion of its value and the Bheistie with a more correct appreciation, and while explaining to me that it was a jungle bird and would never sing, appeared to look upon my conduct with a mixture of compassion and disgust, and then they quarrelled over it. Was my fancy a foolish one? Some men will spend years in the pursuit and classification of butterflies, while others go into ecstasy over a farthing of the reign of Queen Anne. My common jungle bird was a pretty one, and if I had got it home and put it in a gilt cage, it would surely have possessed some value for its antecedents, even if it had proved as mute as a fish, or as discordant as a Hindoo festival.

Khanabal

August 21: Marched back to Kunbul, seven miles, and took up my quarters again on board the boat, fifteen or twenty other boats are here, a good many visitors having recently arrived in this part of Kashmir. I remained at Kunbul all day waiting for the completion of a pair of chuplus which I ordered of a shoemaker ten days ago. I have occupied the time by reading Marryat’s Newton Forster (one of Hewson’s gifts) and I find that when I read I can’t write, so that must be my excuse for the shortness of my notes. My head is full of ships, sea fights, and love-making to the exclusion of everything else. I heard you – you said it was a good job, as it prevented me writing more nonsense.

I agree to the Terms and Conditions of Kashmir Life

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here