Understanding Kashmiri

The only Englishman who is more famous in Kashmir than the UK is Sir Walter R Lawrence, the man who’s functioning as Kashmir’s land settlement Commissioner is a role still unparalleled. He made a speech on December 13, 1895, at London’s Westminster Town Hall in a function that was organized by East India Association. Almost 122 years after, Kashmir Life is reproducing part of the speech

……Away from the world, away even from the monsoon rains of India one might have expected that Kashmir would have been left to itself, but its beauty and rumoured wealth allured the Mughals, and from the end of the 16th century the Kashmiri people have groaned under a foreign yoke. New masters introduced new manners, but there is a passive resistance about the Kashmiri which gently baffles all suggested changes, and from the first, the people have looked upon their Mughal, Pathan and Sikh rulers as institutions not come to stay.

Their customs and ideas have therefore not been greatly affected by foreign influence, and the Kashmiri’s are now very much what they were in the old days of Hindu rule. But at last there came the English with their assignees the Dogras find their Pax Britannica, and I think the Kashmiri is beginning to grasp the idea that there is a permanency in this newest phase of their history. I believe that the ideas and customs of the people will change, and I admit that in some directions change is desirable. It is of the highest importance that the people of Kashmir should have some permanent solid fact to cling to.

Sir Walter Lawrance

It was pathetic to see a whole nation absolutely incredulous of any permanence of institutions or of the existence of good in man or in nature. Tyrant after tyrant tortured and degraded them, while as awful interludes came fires, floods, earthquakes famines, and cholera. If you go, as I hope you will to Kashmir, on your way to the Capital—Srinagar—you will pass a place named Pattan where you will see two stately temples of the 9th century—injured alas ! by the push of an earthquake. In Pattan there is a population of about 165 families. In 1885, seventy persons perished in the earthquake. In 1892, 55 persons were carried off by cholera. Picture this happening in an English village. I think the survivors would be unhinged —apt to question the truth that all is ordered for the best. It is sad to listen to a man recounting in a simple matter of fact way how some of his relatives perished in the famine of 1877-79, how others were crushed to death in the earthquake of 1885, and how the few survivors dropped like flies in the cholera of 1892.

The Valley is full of superstitions, which the religions of the country foster and accentuate; the administrations of the past have shaken all faith in the honesty and benevolence of rulers, and when on the top of this calamities recur again and again, which make men lose all confidence in the order of the universe, we have a chain of circumstances not conducive to the formation of a vigorous and reliant national character. Superstition has made the Kashmiri timid. Tyranny has made him a liar, while physical disasters have made him selfish and incredulous of the existence of good. Fires, famines, floods and cholera can all be prevented, and the consideration that efforts devoted to the removal of these evils will eventually result in the moral amelioration of the much abused and little-pitied inhabitant of Kashmir should excite the State to grapple with them regardless of cost and labour.

I have dwelt on this subject because it has been the fashion to abuse the Kashmiri, to scoff at his cowardice, and to pillory him as a liar. No one made allowances for his unfortunate surroundings, and the officials in order to justify a system of government which was cruel and wrong, urged adroitly that the Kashmiri was a peculiar person who required peculiar treatment. The officials used to tell me more in sorrow than in anger that the cultivators of the Valley were lazy, dishonest and treacherous. They were lazy because the simple proposition “Yuskarihgonglu sui karihkrao(he who ploughs shall reap)” was ignored at harvest time, and the tax collector took what he liked; they were lazy because they were seized for forced labour at a time when the rice fields required their close attention day and night; they were dishonest for their masters were dishonest, and I doubt, whether in Kashmir honesty was the best policy under the old regime; they were treacherous for a terrible system had been introduced of espionage and blackmailing—a system which has had a sad effect on the national character. Every man distrusts his neighbour as being a potential spy.

A curious result of this espionage is the absence of crime. Out of an agricultural population of 671,000, only 40 find their way to prison in a year. Criminal pursuits become unpopular when one’s neighbours are all members of a very efficient Criminal Investigation Department. I will not go into the question of the hateful corvee which has been abolished but I can never forget that common and saddest of sights in Kashmir—the large group of men sitting on the ground waiting in anxious doubt, the orders of the Pressgang. Their faces would have furnished studies of fear, hate, hopelessness and shame.

Everyone believes in the Rozlu spring and its divining power. When the throes of divination come on the water of the spring is violently agitated for two days and finally disappears giving place to a muddy bed. On this bed, if war is imminent swords and guns are seen. If famine is approaching’ shapes of winnows, hand mills and rice-husker’s are clearly shown, and when cholera is near the form of graves and spades appears.

Not many years ago great excitement was caused by the appearance of tents and helmets, and the late Maharaja had horsemen posted along the road to report whether these signs again appeared.

Often it happens that one of the sacred springs of the Hindus turns colour. If the water is a violet colour—all is well. But if it turns to black, beware of cholera and famine.

There are half-mad soothsayers, to whom great respect is shown by all classes. I once visited the most renowned of these and found him when the fit was on him. He waved me away but roared out excellent advice as I left his mountain retreat somewhat crestfallen. He shouted, “Go home and read your books.”

They are a people of symbols. Formerly it was no doubt necessary to attract the attention of their rulers by some striking demonstration.  Men who have a grievance will fling off their clothes and smear themselves with wet mud. The nakedness implies destitution: the mud signifies that they are reduced to the condition of a clod. Many a time I have seen a procession—one man wears a shirt of matting, another has a straw rope around his neck with a brick pendant—another carries a pan of hot embers on his head while in the rear conies a woman bearing a number of broken earthen pots.

A man once came to me carrying the corpse of a child which to my horror he placed in my arms and alleged that his enemies would not allow him even burying ground. He had a land suit in his village and he wished to strengthen his case by arousing my indignation. Once a man appeared at Nagmarg, a place some 9,000 feet high. He was stark naked and said that his uncle had turned him empty into the world. It was bitterly cold and night had fallen. So I gave him a suit of old clothes, and by way of jest said that as he was now dressed as an Englishman he should assert his rights. He shambled down the mountains holding up with difficulty his new garment and next day the uncle came into my camp charging the nephew with an aggravated assault, and offering in his shattered appearance convincing proof.    It is always dangerous to jest with Kashmiri’s.

As I travelled through the villages I would suddenly meet a man—perhaps some old soldier who was explaining to an excited suspicious crowd that he was the collector of a new tax of which no one had ever heard—a tax on violets perhaps—or on some of the thousand medicinal herbs in which Kashmir abounds. I would ask for his written authority—he had none. I would ask for what office he was collecting—he would rather not say. Eventually, the indignant crowd would hustle him out of the village and the old soldier would disappear from the fiscal system.

A great change has come.So far as agriculture is concerned, the Kashmiri’s are no longer lazy. No man can work harder or more efficiently than the Kashmiri when he has the will. I have seen them perform prodigies of effort and strength when restoring some old shrine under the leadership of the abbot. I have seen them carrying loads for the repair of an irrigation work which would astonish an Englishman, and I have seen rice fields and vegetable gardens cultivated in a manner which could not be surpassed by an English agriculturist. I think that the rampant and widespread dishonesty of old is passing away and that if the officials deal fairly by the people they will respond. At any rate, they now pay their revenue and feel some shame when detected in a lie.Confidence has been won and hope has been awakened.

I will not weary you by details of the abuses which existed and of the reforms which have been introduced, I have only alluded to the disadvantages under which the Kashmiri’s have lived in order that those of you who may visit the Valley may not accept at once the proposition “that every prospect pleases and only man is vile.” If you will make allowances for their past history and think of the old system of Government, and if you will talk to the people in their villages away from the artificial and corrupting influence of Srinagar, you will find a clever witty, gentle and charming folk, living quiet useful and honest lives. In their domestic relations, they are admirable—one never hears of scandals. All they ask for is to be left alone in their lovely valleys and their simple prayer is one which happily finds no place in our English Litany “Hakim tah Hakim,” from “the ruler and the doctor good Lord deliver us.” They believe in a hereditary curse, but I am glad to say that an idea has now sprung up that the curse came to an end with the flood of 1893.

The Mussalmans of Kashmir who represent 93 percent, of the population are not a very religious people if one were to accept the opinion of their priests. “They are religious enough in cholera time,” said an old Mullah to me, “but in fair weather, they neglect their duties to God.” The fact is that the so-called Mussalmans of Kashmir are at heart Hindus and their forcible conversion to Islam did not eradicate the old ideas. They are well named the “PirParast” or saint worshippers and all that is reverent in their nature is reserved for the shrine where the saint lies buried. As a Kashmiri approaches the holy spot he dismounts from his pony and with lowly obeisance smears his forehead with the dust of the shrine portals.

The shrines are associated with legends of self-denial and good works: They are pleasant places of meeting at the fair time, and the natural beauty of their position and surroundings may have an effect on the artistic temperament of the Kashmiri which the squalid mosques have not. A crystal spring beneath noble brotherhoods of venerable trees in some sequestered glen was sure to attract one of the recluses of old time who led blameless lives and taught simple homely morality. The style of the shrine building is always the same, and it owes its pagoda-like appearance to Chinese influence. For it must be remembered that Kashmir is on the high road to China and many facts point to the conclusion that in ancient days there was a close connection between the happy valley and the Celestial Empire.

The Kashmiri holds strongly the belief that “Saints will aid if men will call.” Sick men will regain health, women will be vouchsafed children, and the litigant will win his suit if a pilgrimage is paid to the shrine.

The traveller in Kashmir can discover interesting traces of the foreign influences under which the valley has from time to time fallen. Buddhists from Ladakh still regard as sacred the site on which the great mosque of Srinagar is located. Scarcely a village but contains some spot most sacred to the Hindu and Kashmir is a veritable Holy Land to the people of India. Then clearly to be noted is the influence of the Mughal Emperors and their courtiers who vied with their royal masters in the construction of stately gardens and summer seats. The influence of the Pathan from Kabul and of the Sikh from Lahore was destructive rather than constructive. The Pathans have left their execrable memories in gruesome tales of torture and brutality while with one exception the Sikh rulers are remembered with loathing or contempt.

I trust and believe that a happier era has dawned for the Kashmiri’s, but they are a timid and sceptical people, and the slightest relapse into confusion and injustice would render them again the same hopeless, desperate wanderers as they were a few short years ago.

Confidence and capital would make Kashmir the wonder and envy of the world. With a soil and climate suited to the production of all the staples that are to be found in a temperate clime: with water power and water carriage everywhere available: with a people cunning in agriculture and unrivalled as dexterous artisans—surely there is a great future for this delectable country.

Not long ago the inhabitants’ spoke of the valley as a “Box” from which escape was impossible and great snow mountains suggested nothing to them beyond the hopelessness of flight from tyranny. Let us hope that the description of the valley in the old Sanskrit chronicle will in future be more justly applied.


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