KASHMIR - A GLIMPSE IN TIME
EARLY ACCOUNTSThe oldest written account of Kashmir is found in the sixth century Sanskrit Classic, the Nilmatpurana. It begins with a legend: a vast lake, Satisar (Lake of Sati, the consort of Shiva), surrounded by towering snow - bound mountains, was inhabited by a demon, Jalodbhava (Born of Water). His victims, the Nags, inhabitants of the mountainous region, appealed to the sage Kashyap, for deliverance. Since the demon was invincible within water, his element, the sage did great penance and was thus able to secure divine intervention. The mountain to the west of the lake was pierced with a trident and water drained away through this gorge. The demon, deprived of his elements, was easily slain by Vishnu. The valley that emerged from under the water was Kashmir, a name said to be the corrupt form of Kashyappur or Kashyap Mar or stretching a point, Ka (water) shimir (desiccated).
Whatever be the truth of these legends, geological findings confirm that the valley, with its fossil remains of aquatic animals & plants, was once submerged in water. Scientific opinion based on the valley's physical features holds a major volcanic convulsion responsible for draining away the great lake. Another proof of the valley having lain submerged under water for countless years is the peculiar formations karewas (wudar in Kashmiri) found here. These are raised, plateau-like formations with sloping sides separated by ravines, some of these stand like islands, others cling to the sides of mountains like smooth, flat-topped outgrowths suggestive of their long under-water existence.
Nags (Sanskrit for serpent), the earliest inhabitants of Kashmir, are sometimes imagined as human-bodied snake worshippers, sometimes as snake-tailed deities who could assume human form. It is interesting to note that the Kashmiri name for a spring - that delightful natural phenomenon of water bursting out from subterranean passages in the mountain spurs, ridges or downs that Kashmir is so rich in - is nag. It is believed that these springs were the abodes of the Nags. The springs and fountains, all popular tourist resorts now, are thus associated with individual serpent-deities celebrated in legend: Nilnag, Verinag, Anantnag, Vicharanag, Sukhnag, Kokarnag, and Vaishakhnag (a distortion of Vasuki, the mythical serpent with whom Garuda, the divine bird, is in eternal conflict). Even the great lake, Wular, the largest natural fresh water lake in Asia, was the abode of Mahapadma, the serpent deity that could grant even impossible wishes.
The Nags were followed by settlers from the plains, chiefly Brahmins who are supposed to have had to subdue the Pisachas and Yakshas (beings in a lower state of evolution than the human) before they could live in peace in Kashmir. Other inhabitants included Nishads, Khashas, Dards, and Bhotta (present-day Ladakhis and Zanskaris).
According to another myth Kashmiris are believed to be the lost tribe of Israel, and Kashmir the promised land that Moses should have found but did not! This theory suggests that Jesus Christ, alive after being taken off the cross, was brought here by his disciples to recover at Aishmuqam near Pahalgam. Aish is the local name for Isa (Jesus), and muqam means "the place of stay", but aish also means 'enjoyment', and is quite appropriate as a name for this pretty spot on the banks of the Lidder stream. It is believed that Christ was finally buried at Rozabal Khanyar in Srinagar. The name recorded on the shrine at Rozabal is Yuz Asaf, which according to the believers of this theory means Jesus, son of Joseph. Though this theory is a matter of some debate, there is no doubt that in spite of its mountainous terrain Kashmir has been remarkably accessible to outsiders. There is evidence of intercourse with the ancient Greek, Roman, and Persian civilizations, as well as those from other parts of India.
Some Kashmiris believe that the Pandavas of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata lived and ruled here. In fact, the gigantic ruins of old temples in Kashmir are known as Pandav-Lari or the Houses of the Pandavas. In the third century BC, Kashmir came under Buddhist influence when Ashoka, the great Mauryan king, made Srinagar his capital. The zenith of Buddhist power in Kashmir was reached in the reign of king Kanishka, convertor of the fourth Great Buddhist Council which was attended by a large number of scholars, theoreticians and commentators.
Buddhism was followed by a revival of Hinduism and Kashmir was ruled by Hindu rulers till AD 1320. One of the most remarkable Hindu kings was Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty who ruled from AD 724 to 761. A great warrior, he is often compared to Alexander in his ambitions and successful military campaigns. The sweep of his conquests was such that his empire extended from Tibet in the north to the Deccan in the south and from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east. Vast areas of Central Asia were also annexed by him.
Apart from being a military genius, Lalitaditya was a great builder. His most glorious legacy is the sun temple at Martand, 8 kilometres from Anantnag, which even as a ruin stands magnificent and aweinspiring. The temple has a trefoil arched doorway, surrounded by a rectangular colonnade of eighty -four pillars and seems to have been conjured up, like the walls of Ilium, by a miracle. Martand itself commands one of the finest views to be found anywhere in the world, with its sunny prospect overlooking the vast expanse of the valley on the one hand and tall, snowy mountain peaks on the other, Lalitaditya's imagination, architectural and artistic vision, and style left an undying stamp on all later building craft in Kashmir.
About 75 kilometres away to the north-west, on the commanding site of Karewa, near the present village of Divar, Lalitaditya built a new capital for his kingdom. Situated near the confluence of the Veth (Jhelum) and the Indus, he called this city Parihaspura ('fun' or 'humour' in Sanskrit) because its sublime grandeur excelled the divine city of Indra, the King of the gods, and thus seemed to mock it. Of this celebrated city of magnificent limestone edifices embellished with rich and lavish decorations, which the historian Kalhana describes with awe, alas, only three crumbled ruins remain. These are all Buddhist: a stupa (a dome-shaped relic structure), a rajvihara (royal monastery) and a chaitya (a relic structure within an assembly hall).
Raja Avantivarman (855-83) of the same dynasty was an equally enthusiastic builder with a grand vision. He laid out the city of Avantipur, about 25 kilometres from Srinagar on the Srinagar-Jammu road on the bank of the Veth, and built the magnificent temple of Avantiswami from huge blocks of limestone, installing a gigantic idol of Vishnu there. Today only the topless ruins of the temple and colonnade remain, poignant reminders, like other monuments scattered all over the valley, of the glorious building skills of ancient Kashmiris. Avantivarmans's reign was one of peace and consolidation. He was also a patron of the arts. Many writers and philosophers graced his court, but the brightest of his jewels was a remarkable man, Suyya, whose name has been bequeathed to the modern town of Sopore (old Suyyapur) in north Kashmir. He was an engineering genius who caught the attention of the king by volunteering to rid the country of famine brought about by floods. While the people watched in puzzlement, Suyya dropped pots of gold coins into the river Veth at certain specific points where its choked current overflowed its banks. Excited at the thought of gold-prospecting, people dived into the river, rummaging its bed, pulling out in the process boulders that impeded its flow, and piling up masses of mud, slush, and stone on the banks. Thus was the river bed dredged, its muck drained and bands built. Liberated, the river flowed out in a faster current to the Wular lake. Suyya also altered the course of the Veth, preventing it from meeting the Sindh at Trigom, thus saving a large area from turning into a swamp.
ISLAMIC INFLUENCEWhen Islam came to the valley in the twelfth century, it did so in a quietly persuasive manner rather than through the power of a strong arm or a royal commandment. The first Islamic preachers who set foot in the valley were Sufis, the mystic poet-saints of Islam. They won converts to the new faith even before the beginning of the rule of the first Muslim king Rinchen in 1320. the meditative religion of these Muslim mystics was a product of the influence of the austere, inward-looking, non-violent Mahayana Buddhism of Central Asia on Islam. In 1320, the most enlightened of the Sufis, Bulbul Shah came to Kashmir. He is the one who through his piety and remarkable life converted Rinchen to Islam. The interaction of Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism gave rise to a distinctive form of Sufism the practitioners of which were called rishis in Kashmir. A similar process overtook Hindu Shaivism (the worship of Shiva), making it evolve into its own specifically Kashmiri form known as Trikasastra.
The rishi cult of Kashmir emphasized celibacy, austerity, penance and a strict vegetarianism that even entailed not eating freshly-plucked vegetables. It accepted with perfect religious tolerance many humanistic practices of the faiths which had influenced it. The greatest of these rishis was Sheikh Nuruddin, born in 1377, the patron saint of Kashmiris, also known simply as Nund Rishi. His ziarat (shrine) at Chrar-i-Sharief is a highly venerated place, and supplicants include believers of all religions. His counterpart, born in the middle of the fourteenth century, was Lalla, popularly known as Lal Ded, the great mystic poetess and Shaiva philosopher whose observation transcended all organized religions. Their sayings, highly philosophical and abstract yet most practical, have become maxims that Kashmiris live by and frequently quote. Nund Rishi's adage, An poshi teli yeli van poshan, meaning 'Food [grains] will last only as long as the forests' could very well serve as the slogan of modern conservationists! Lal Ded is believed to have suckled Nund Rishi at her breast, recognizing in the infant the latent saint.
Many theories are advanced to explain the destruction of the massive, megalithic Kashmiri temple structures. Sultan Sikandar (1389-1413), one of the Kashmiri Muslim rulers, has come in for most of the blame. Later historians have given the sultan the title of the Butshikan (Iconoclast) in the traditions of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Muslim invader who made the breaking of idols and the destruction of temples the mission of his life. But all the devastation is certainly not Sikandar's handiwork. There were Hindu kings also who revelled in the destruction of their predecessors' work. Some were prompted by jealousy, others by sheer fits of madness and still others by plain greed for the gold, silver, land, and property attached to the temples. Sankarvarman (883-901), for instance, was a narrow-minded zealot who uprooted the Buddhist complex at Parihaspura and, removing the vast material from there, built a whole new city close by at Sankarpura (modern Pattan on the road to Baramulla from Srinagar). Harsh (1089-1101), another Hindu king, was comparable to Nero in the cruel delight he took in watching marvels of workmanship go up in flames, or huge structures crumble down, demolished by a giant hammer blow. Many Brahmin priests also took advantage of the prevailing confusion, aiding in the vandalization of richly-endowed temples so that they fell into disuse and could conveniently be usurped. Sadly, all this was later attributed to religious bigotry alone.
Sultan Sikandar was, in fact, a great patron of scholars and gave refuge to many Muslim theologians and Sayyids from Iran who were fleeing from the persecution of Timur (Tamburlaine). He is the builder of the beautiful hospice at Srinagar, the Khanqah Moulla, which through many vicissitudes still stands in all the glory of its intricate, stylish wooden architecture and artistically painted interior. His prime minister, Suha Bhatt, a Brahmin, converted to Islam and, with the zeal of a new convert, embarked not only upon a denunciation of his old faith but also the violent destruction of all its symbols and adherents.
The most glorious chapter in the history of ancient and medieval Kashmir was written by Sultan Sikardar's son Shahi Khan (1420-70) who assumed the title of Zain-ul-Abidin. Such was his popularity that he came to be known as Budshah (Great King). It is his name that boatmen and load carrying labourers even now chant reverentially whenever they need to haul with all their might, or force themselves to the maximum physical effort. All historians agree that his reign of fifty years was a golden period in the history of Kashmir.
Budshah's religious tolerance is legendary. Such was the catholicity and breadth of his vision that, though a devout Muslim, he actively participated in the festivals of his Hindu subjects. In fact, most of these festivals became cultural rather than sectarian events. This tradition was continued by later rulers like Hussain Shah Chak who reigned from 1563 to 1570 by which date majority of the population had embraced Islam. An important occasion was the 'birthday' of Nilnag, the source of the river Veth, when the whole populace, including Budshah and his court, stood on the richly illuminated ghats (Yarbal in Kashmiri) and lowered earthen lamps with their quivering little flames into the river, asking for the blessings of the mother river. The Veth festival, however, is no longer celebrated. The Hindus reciprocated by not eating meat during Ramadan. In the spring festival too, celebrated in the month of April, there was royal participation with fireworks and general revelry. Though its traditional venue Badamwari (the Almond orchards), around the Hari Parbat, with lovely pinkish-white blossoms lining the slender leafless almond branches in March and April, is fast disappearing under the onslaught of the construction boom, the spring festival is still very much a part of Kashmiri cultural life. People picnic under almond blossoms, a samovar steaming before them, and a good time is had by all, with hearty feasting to the accompaniment of song and dance by folk musicians.
Budshah would also personally assist at the most sacred Hindu-festival of the Kashmiris, Shivratri, which under the local name of Herath is celebrated a day before the festival of Mahashivratri. The festival extends over several days, being an exact replay of the marriage of Lord Shiva to his consort Parvati, with all the elaborate religious and cultural ceremonies of a traditional wedding, performed with earthenware pots and objects as symbols of the divine personages. The offerings include mutton and fish which never cease to astound, indeed horrify, strictly vegetarian Hindus from outside Kashmir!
Native rule came to an end in 1586 with the conquest of Kashmir by Akbar, the great Mughal king of India, who appointed governors to rule over Kashmir. With their eye for natural beauty and their passion to enhance it through man's artistic skills, the Mughals were quick to respond to the enhancement of Kashmir. Akbar built the fort a Hari Parbat, the walls and fortifications of which survive to this day. Jahangir, with his celebrated queen Nur Jahan, loved Kashmir and would not go far from it even in the winter months, when he would shift to Lahore. The splendid gardens around the Dal lake in Srinagar - Chashma Shahi (Royal Spring), Nishat(joy), Shalimar (the Abode of Love) and Harwan - are his legacy. Jahangir also laid out gardens around some of the most exquisite springs at Achhabal and Verinag. The Mughal road, which was wide enough for huge royal processions of elephants, horses and men, passed over the Pir Panjal mountains near the present-day town of Rajouri. The Mughals built huge serais(inns) at intervals for royal caravans, and these serais are worth seeing even now. The Mughals are also credited with planting the glorious chinar (Platinus orientalis) on a large scale all over the valley, particularly on the west bank of the Dal lake at Naseem Bagh (the Garden of Breezes).
As Mughal power declined Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Afghan conqueror, invaded and annexed Kashmir in 1753, leading to its colonization and enslavement and its consequent decay and degeneration. Fed up with the cruel, tyrannical and exploitative Afghan rule, Kashmiris secretly sought the intervention of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. The Afghans were defeated in 1819 and Sikh rule established in the state. With the break-up of the Sikh empire in 1846, Gulab Singh, Ranjit Singh's emissary in Jammu, Ladakh and Baltistan, negotiated a separate treaty with the British at Amritsar. Apart from the territories already in his possession, the valley of Kashmir was handed over to him for Rs. 750,000.
MODERN HISTORYThe year 1846 is the date, therefore, when all the territories that constitute the present state of Jammu and Kashmir were welded into one political unit under Dogra rule. This rule, lasting about a hundred years, saw the stirrings of modernism in the state. The Dogra rulers, particularly Pratap Singh, built many palaces and temples, beautifying the landscape. Schools and a college each at Srinagar and Jammu were established to impart modern education with far-reaching consequences. Houseboats appeared on the Dal and Nagin lakes and on the river in Srinagar. These were initially for the British as, under a state law which is still in force, only permanent hereditary residents of the state could own landed property here. The presence of the British Resident (whose graceful official mansion, the Residency, now houses the Government Arts Emporium in Srinagar) encouraged an influx of British and foreign tourist as well as the development of Gulmarg as a hill and ski resort. In fact all the other famous resorts-Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Achhabal, Kokarnag Yusmarg, Verinag, Lolab valley - became very popular. Camping sites at Ganderbal, Manasba and Naseem Bagh, and treks to the glaciers and mountains and to Ladakh and Gilgit became fashionable. The bund on the Veth and the Boulevard around the Dal lake became promenade for the rich. The picturesque location of the palace in Srinagar (one of which is a well-known hotel now) in the downs of the Zabarwan hills on the Dal lake, between the Pari Mahal and the Shankaracharya hill temple, are a tribute to the aesthetic sense of the Dogra rulers.
In spite of its pomp and glory, however autocratic rule and the feudalism it spawned were oppressive and despotic. Forced and unpaid labour illiteracy, poverty and exploitation of all kinds stalked the lives of the masses. Whole families of the world famous kani shawl weavers were wiped out, some in famines. Others, unable to keep pace in an unequal race with the machine-made paisley shawls from England and Europe, gave up their work, with the result that this fine craft died out. The discontent of the people grew till in 1931, the Muslims of the state rose in open revolt against the autocratic rule of Maharaja Hari Singh.
That was also the year when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah appeared on the political scene. Coming back to Kashmir after getting Master's degree in Chemistry from Aligarh Muslim University, he found the vast majority of the Kashmiri people submerged in a 'culture of silence without any awareness of the depths of the ignorance, poverty, and bondage. Their politic economic, and social emancipation became his dream, and he embarked on the long struggle to restore to the state its lost glory, and to its people the dignity and pride in their own unique culture which centuries of subjugation and cultural domination had wrenched from them.
The National Conference, the party launched by Sheikh Abdullah, represented all three regions and worked in tune with national leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. Popularly known as Sher-i-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir) Sheikh Abdullah rallied all Kashmiris behind his demand for the unity of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Even during the communal convulsions of 1947 when the country was dismembered into India and Pakistan, no blood-bath took place in Kashmir as it did in the rest of north India. Today, the state is progressive and prosperous and the basic necessities of life are available to all.
LANDMARKS OF SRINAGARSrinagar, the summer capital, is an ancient city believed to have been originally built by Ashoka, the Mauryan king (third century BC), as his capital. Successive tides of history have left their imprint upon its architecture. Built upon the banks of the Veth its picturesquely named nine bridges are reminders of its history in their style and material used in construction. The city as it stands today is at once old and new. There is quite a contrast between the interior of the city on the river with its closely packed houses of old brick and timber, quaint medieval bazaars full of rich, burnished copper-ware, gracefully shaped samovars and pots, the heavy aroma of tobacco sticky with molasses formed into neat little heaps for the hookah and the comparatively new residential complexes of concrete and glass fanning out loosely around it. Then there are the Dal and the Nagin lakes and their population of houseboats. The Hari Parbat fort on Sharika hill was constructed in the eighteenth century by Atta Mohammed Khan but the walls surrounding the fort were built much earlier, during Akbar's time. A complete panoramic view of the city with its river, lakes and winding canals can be had from the top of the Hari Parbat and Shankaracharya hills, two graceful eminences harmoniously poised at either end of the Dal lake. The original temple atop the Shankaracharya hill is believed to have been built by Ashoka's son Jaluka around 200 BC, on the site of the Takht-i-Suleiman or the throne of Solomon. The present temple, on the same site, however, was built during Jahangir's reign. A real feel of the city, however, is provided by a leisurely boat ride from the Zero Bridge to Safa Kadal, the last bridge. Boating through the narrow, willow-lined channels that link the Dal and the Nagin lakes - an unforgettable experience - is not only extremely relaxing but offers a close look at the almost amphibian life of Hanjis, the boat people. The once floating gardens, approachable only by boat, are now rooted to one mace and only grow vegetables but still remain divided into islands by cries-crossing currents. The gardens of Chashma Shahi, Nishat, Shalimar and Harwan are laid out around the Dal lake. The first three are perfect examples of the Mughal style of garden: terraced lawns, evergreen cypresses, flowering bushes and fruit trees and a channel of sportive water taking a break into a pool of spouting fountains, suddenly falling in a sheet to finally flow out of the garden in a stream to be utilized for irrigating the fields.
Another Mughal legacy is the Pari Mahal of the Palace of Fairies, a series of arched terraces picturesquely perched on the slope of the Zabarwan hill facing the Dal lake. It was built by Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan's son, as an observatory and library for his tutor Akhoon Mullah Shah. Akhoon Mulla's tomb, at the foot of Hari Parbat, next to the shrine of Maqdoom Saheb, is well worth a visit too.
HOLY SHRINESThe holiest place for the Muslim of Kashmir is not a mosque but a shrine, Hazaratbal, which houses one of the holiest relics, a sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammed. With its exquisite location on the western bank of the Dal lake, it is a graceful structure in white marble. A shimmering dome balanced by a minaret, it is a most harmonious sight, visually and spiritually. One can see other shrines at the most enchanting locations, with latticed or (in modern renovation) barred windows choked with multi-coloured strips of cloths tied as pledges by believers who importune the presiding saints and deities to grant their wishes.
Amarnath, the holy cave with its huge ice lingam, a miracle of nature, is situated at the towering height of 3880 metres, 142 kilometers north-east of Srinagar, It is one of the most exciting treks in Kashmir as far as a dazzling variety of landscape is concerned. For the Shiva-worshiping pilgrim it is, of course, a spiritual experience par excellence. The 46 kilometres route from Pahalgam, winding along the Lidder stream for the first day's trek, soon leaves the forests and the beeline behind in its climb, and adventures into wild-flower meadows field with such intense, intoxicating scents that trekkers are warned not to linger there too long. The route passes along torrential streams, ice-bridges, frozen glaciers and deep-blue mountain lake, Sheshnag (associated with the seven-headed mythical snake on which Vishnu is supposed to recline). The cave is reached after a four day march. It is possible to do it from the Baltal side (15 kilometres south-east of Sonamarg), a shorter route
certainly, but tougher and without the constantly unfolding surprises of the much more beautiful Pahalgam route. Twenty-one kilometres from Srinagar, set in a grove of ancient Chinars is the shrine of Khir Bhawani. The temple rises from the surrounding waters of a spring, the colours of which are supposed to change according to the moods of the Goddess, thus predicting the fortunes of the state!
LANGUAGEThe Kashmiri language itself has a Dardic base, modified considerably by the superstructure of Sanskrit and Persian vocabulary acquired through hundreds of years of interaction with immigrants from other cultures, though it did not have a script of its own, from the fourteenth century onward it had a lively oral poetic tradition. The earliest mystic poets, Lal Ded and Nund Rishi, used the four-line stanza without rhyme called the vaakh and the shrukh. But the poetess who broke new ground and transposed Kashmiri poetry from mystical heights to the human level, lending a tragic dimension to it, was Habba-Khatoon (1551-1606), the village girl from Pampora who became the queen of the last king of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah. When Akbar defeated Yusuf Shah and had him exiled to Patna (Bihar), Habba suffered the torments of separation. Not only did the content of poetry change with her, but she also gave it a new verse form: the vatsun, which is like a ghazal in its exquisite lyrical quality and therefore perfect for love poetry. The charm of these vatsuns is that they can be sung very effectively, music enhancing the inherent melody of their alliterative and repetitive rhymes.
MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATREThe classical music of Kashmir is Sufiana Kalam, a blend of Iranian and Hindustani classical music some of its muqams are similar to ragas. The leading musician sings as well as plays upon the santoor, the 100-stringed instruments . which is played upon by two small curved sticks. Other instruments are the tumbakhnaar, sazi-i-Kahmiri, sarangi, rabab and tabla. The songs are in Persian and Kashmiri. The compositions have a sweet, soothing melody, gradually increasing in tempo but never too loud.
Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, dancing girls known as hafizas were also a part of a Sufiana music performance. They would sing and dance on marriages and other celebrations. Their dances were not robust or fast-paced but gentle and graceful, the face acting out in sharp detail the emotional content of the song. Today they have disappeared from the scene. A substitute has appeared in the folk form, chhakri, in which a boy, dressed in a long skirt and blouse, with a veil draped round the neck, sings in a high-pitched voice and dances to a vigorous beat. This performer is known as a bachcha (child), and the programme bachcha naghma - as against the old hafiza naghma - but the two are worlds apart as far as grace and charm are concerned. The instruments used in a chhakri are the tumbakhnaar, sarangi, not and rabab. A harmonium too is used now.
The roff or rov is a simple form of dance accompanied by songs with recurring rhythms, the refrains emphasizing alliterations and assonances. This dance performed only by women, irrespective of age, on the Muslim festival of Id and on marriages and other celebrations, is indicative of the participatory nature of all festivities.
The pather is Kashmiri folk theatre performed by troupes known as the bhands. Having portrayed the concerns, hopes, fears and problems of the common man from time immemorial, this folk medium possesses remarkable vitality. Its topical themes, its wit and earthy humour have helped it to evolve into a stylized form, using the age-old devices of humour, irony and full-blooded satire, bordering sometimes on the crude. Even today, thanks to television and the radio, the bhands have a great fan following.
FOODKashmiri cooking blends the best of Indian, Iranian, Afghan and Central Asian haute cuisine. The traditional wazwan, served by Muslims at weddings, is an unimaginably elaborate affair. As many as two dozen mutton and chicken dishes, including goshtaba, the famed mincemeat balls, are served with mounds of rice and pilau to four people on one platter. There are in addition chutnies, vegetables, cheese, curds and sweets.
Another culinary area in which Kashmiris excel in sheer variety of form and taste is bread-making. Not for the ordinary bread; every locality has its own baker to whom customers flock in the morning and afternoon, buying freshly-baked large or small, crisp or soft, flat or fluffy, round or oval, tsot, kulcha, girda, tsochvor, qatlam, lavaus, sheermal, khatai and several other varieties.
ARTS AND CRAFTSThe arts and crafts of Kashmir are distinctive too. Back-breaking effort goes into the intricate weave of each inch of a Kashmiri silk or wool carpet. The art has a simple mechanical principle to it. The design, as in the case of shawl embroidery, is created by the artist, known as a naqash, and then reproduced on graph with all the delicate shades that blend, contrast or stand out in harmony. The graph is then translated into symbols, coded messages on sheets of rough paper. The unlettered craftsman who actually transfers these fantasies of colour and texture onto cotton warp in knots of wool or silk is given these yellow-brown lengths of paper to work from. Generally the 'master', the head craftsman, chants a rhythm of his own coded messages: three ripe cherries, two rust, two snuff, one turquoise, five pomegranates'- and as if by magic the vibrant colours appear on the surface of the warp. The left-hand fingers pull a length of yarn hanging above in little balls, deftly twist and firmly knot it around the thread of the warp, a flash of the curved knife held in the right hand snips the 7 yarn and the knot is the place. These fingers of the carpet weavers echo the rhythm of the chanted instructions. Once a whole row is done and iron comb presses it down firmly. The fineness of knotting can reach the dizzy miniaturization of squeezing in as many as 1200 knots per square inch. Pure-silk yarn spun so perfectly that not even a microscopic variation in thickness can be detected goes to create the perfect texture and 'shot' effect of the carpet. The shimmering silk plays tricks with one's vision and the carpet seems to change hues when seen from different angles.
There are other floor-coverings that are uniquely Kashmiri. The numdah is brightly embroidered in 'leaf fringed legends'. It is generally small, ranging from a 6 to 3 square metro rectangle to small round ones which can be scattered all over a room to lend it warmth and colour. Innovative designs include small nursery items that can carry the whole English alphabet charmingly illustrated. Sometimes a complete fairy tale is inscribed in crewel embroidery, tapestry-fashion. But what makes this floor-covering interesting is its base. One man spreads fluffy cotton in a thick pile to the required measurements. Another, meanwhile, neatly arranges sheep's wool in its natural form to make a fringe of thick wool strands all round the edges of the pile, A third sprinkles water on the pile till it is soaked and then gives it a generous rubbing of locally manufactured soap, pressing it down into a felted sheet. More cotton and more soap is added till it is the thickness of a comfortable rug. Then begins the beating and pressing down with a long wooden-handled mallet-like contraption, squeezing the water out. These firm rugs are then washed in plenty of water and hung out to dry, after which they receive their decorative embroidery usually done by girls. The natural creamy-white base can also be dyed in vivid colours.
The gabba is another variety of floor-covering. Generally old blankets worn thin are soaked in soap and water and then actually trampled upon to give them a matted look. Once dry, they are cut into little squares, wavy patterns, rounds or other shapes, depending upon the design in mind and then dyed in different colours. As in quilting, these bits are stitched, but here the stitching is actually crewel embroidery which completely hides the stitching and fashions the whole thing into an exotic, multi-coloured and geometrically patterned rug. The stitching mirrors the intricacy of the miniature patterns of a khatam band ceiling.
Most Kashmiri households still posses heirloom mattresses, the genuine gabba, with its painstakingly joined bits and pieces in warm rich tones of orange and maroon to make a bed cosy in winter. Anantnag, the prosperous town in the south of Kashmir, is the seat of this craft. This area also boasts of a woodcraft which is fast dying out in this age of electric whisks, plastic toys and metal walkers. These are traditional wooden toys, little three-wheeled walkers for toddlers, beautifully painted in bright colours, with softly rattling wooden rings attached for a child to play with. Hard, seasoned walnut-wood lends itself well to the artistry of the Kashmiri wood-carver's hand. Three-dimensional scenes from nature, wavy floral patterns, recurrent motifs of the iris, poppy, lotus, the chinar leaf amid intertwining bunches of grape and vines, slowly emerge from the gently chisel. Apart from fashioning elegant furniture, the walnut-wood carvers also produce decorative boxes, salad bowls, trays and cigarette-boxes.
Nearly every visitor to Kashmir carries back a papier mache souvenir. Apart from table-lamps and jewellery boxes, there are exquisite candlesticks, coasters, bangles, napkin-rings, cigarette and powder boxes, even decorative eggs and bells that will retain their beauty as long as they do not get too wet. The processing of papier mache is long and painstaking. Waste paper and even cotton rags are soaked till they become a soft mess, which is then pounded together with a starchy paste or a gelatinous mixture to make a soft dough, pliable enough to be moulded into the desired shape. When dry, floral or other dainty designs are painted on with the extremely fine, delicate strokes of a brush. What is amazing is not only the sharpness of the eye nor the steadiness of the hand, nor even the speed with which these lovely miniature designs are executed, but the highly sophisticated taste of the craftsman, which does not allow a single stroke of inharmonious colouring to mar the aesthetic beauty of even the lowest priced of papier mache items.