The real trouble with Kashmir’s ancient history is that it is very sketchy. This is a very critical shortcoming that made this discipline vulnerable to exploitation for political ends in the modern times. So much has changed over the past four years in Kashmir. Concomitant to these major political shifts is also calibrated reorientation of debates pertaining to Kashmir’s political identity with a specific emphasis over the kind of “civilisational” values that Kashmir is perceived as embodying.
Thus last year, Tarun Vijay, an RSS ideologue who formerly headed National Monuments Authority (NMA), while conferring recognition to a newly refurbished 8th century temple structure in Srinagar, said that such “monuments tell the truth and their preservation is like preserving a nation’s memory” which the “invaders and terrorists” were plotting to efface. “Kashmir’s monuments,” he went on, “tell us about our identity and civilisational flow.”
In his farewell address in May last year, one former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Srinagar based 15 Corps of the Indian Army, deplored that, “Kashmir was a land of abundance and driver of its own destiny till the 13th century,” he said, alluding to the specific point in Kashmir’s history marked by transition towards Islam. “In a sad turn of events, Kashmiris lost control over their destiny to foreign tyrants and invaders.”
Not far behind from politicians and soldiers, one historian conveniently repurposed her work (criticised by the scholars as being sloppy) on Rajatarangini, a 12th century commentary on Kashmiri kings, in defence of revocation of J&K’s special status. Not only are these narratives loaded with political bias, they are also very sweeping, and sometimes, frankly bogus.
But thanks to a scholarly new book ‘The Making of Early Kashmir: Intercultural Networks And Identity Formation’, by two very distinguished academics from Kashmir, it is now possible to see through this deception.
Muhammad Ashraf Wani and Aman Ashraf Wani, the two authors, have truly succeeded in writing the first longue durée history on ancient Kashmir, casting a scholarly light on the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, and mapping the journey down the temporal scale — through the rule of Graeco-Bactrians, Saka-Parthians, Kidarites, Huns, Karkotas, Utapalas, and the Loharas.
The picture of ancient Valley that emerges is that of a mosaic whose constituent units were sourced from disparate cultural ecumenes. There’s a huge wealth of evidence to corroborate this assertion: The plan of the archeological site of Harwan in Srinagar happens to be identical to the fire temple of Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan.
The anthropomorphic images on the reliefs extracted from the Harwan site show resemblances with the artefacts excavated in Yarkand and Kashgar. Another set of terracotta tiles from Hoinar site in South Kashmir representing two winged lions in a contest has a parallel at a Parthian site in Iran. Alexander Cunningham’s exhaustive study of Kashmiri temples found telltale signs of Greek influences — in the form of columns of Doric order, pediments and trefoil arch — synthesised with the Indian motifs.
Kashmir’s Neolithic sites, too, reflect a similar spirit of coalescence. The closest analogues of the pottery specimens — made by coiling method and possessing grey and black burnished texture — that have been recovered at the Burzahom in Srinagar are found in Swat and China. The semi-lunar polished stone knives show affinity with Far-Eastern Neolithic cultures, mostly spread across China.
An aboveground two-storey pole-house structure called Du‘ong has its likely origins in eastern and northern China. There’s another very crucial development in Kashmir that is of Chinese provenance: Millet cultivation. The Chinese term for Millet peiligang underwent transmutation to become penge, and survives to this day in colloquial Kashmiri.
The carnelian and agate beads found in Kashmir trace their origins to Sarai Khola site in Balochistan. The menhirs in Burzahom as well as cist graves on the banks of Lidder River in Kashmir, suggest that new cultures — tracing their origins to Chitral, Yasin, Nuristan and Swat where the proximal parallels of these exhibits have been discovered — were among the people flocking to resettle Kashmir.
The rock art found in Kashmir Neolithic sites is also understood to be iterations of the techniques first pioneered by the inhabitants of Chilas and Swat. And it is on the prehistoric rock carvings in these areas that we recover the evidence of Naga worship. Although there’s no conclusive evidence of its prevalence in Kashmir, the textual allusions are plentiful. Scholars have reported a prehistoric anthropomorphic figure from Chilas dating back to 4 BCE which is a snake god with putative powers over rivers and lakes. It is from here that the Naga cult is believed to have found its way into Kashmir.
The 7 CE text Nilmata Purana, a canonical work authored at the time when Brahmanism was ascendant in Kashmir, speaks of how the invading Aryans had to face resistance from indigenous tribes called Nagas and Pisacas. The text illuminates the ways in which Aryans had to devise capitulatory arrangements with the defiant Naga tribes and assimilate the Naga beliefs into their faith system.
By 516 BCE, we find a reference to Kashmir in the Greek sources where it is termed as, ‘Kaspapyros’, and identified as a Gandharic city. Kashmir was later brought under the Achaemenid's (Iranian) control. In 3 BCE, Mauryans extended their rule over the region. Thus begins the crucial period that saw Kashmir’s cultural and political exchange with the Indian subcontinent growing “beyond precedent” as groups with the Gangetic heritage flocked to resettle in the region.
By 200 BCE, Greeks (Seleucids) successfully established satrapies in the Bactrian region (Afghanistan) which by 185 BCE stretched out eastward to incorporate Kashmir. Evidence of Hellenistic presence in Kashmir is found at Semthan site in South Kashmir where coins with the impressions of Indo-Greek deities as well as the Greek kings — Phillip II, Alexander, Diodotus and Euthydemus, have been recovered.
The presence of Indo-Greeks was followed by Kashmir’s imperial encounter with Śaka-Parthians, the Central Asian nomadic tribes. A large number of coins attributed to Zeionses, a Parthian viceroy, unearthed in Kashmir establishes their historical presence. And an unmistakable proof of their rulership over the region is the tiles recovered in Hoinar, the exact analogues of which are available at Qateh-Yazgrad, a Parthian site in Iran. “The epigraphic and numismatic evidence available on the Śaka and Parthian period suggests an atmosphere of remarkable catholicity in this period—the rulers showing equal regards towards Greek religion, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Brahmanism,” the authors write.
Śaka-Parthians were succeeded by the Kushanas in the mid-first century CE. Kushanas trace their roots to the Kansu in Chinese Central Asia. Their beliefs were fairly cosmopolitan — but Buddhism appears to have shone lambent — except in the time of King Huvishka who displayed considerable proclivity towards Brahmanism.
Around 410 CE, Kidarites, yet another Central Asian dynasty, extended its domain over Kashmir. Kidarite motifs show influences from Sogdian culture, official art of the Sassanians (fire altar between two standing figures) and the art of later Kushanas (Śiva in front of the bull).
It was under Kushana's rule that Kashmir went on to become a high seat of Buddhist learning. The region became an important intermediary for Buddhist missionaries. “The number of Buddhist scholars who went to China from Kashmir in this period (third century CE to sixth century CE) is larger than those who went from other parts of India,” the authors write.
With the advent of Huns in 6 CE, the cosmopolitan religious tradition of Kashmir marked by a synthesis between Graeco-Persian thought and Indian elements slowly began to be overwhelmed by a new culture drawing increasingly on the Sanskritic framework. It is with the Hun rule that the Indian culture’s visibility is maximised as the Huns encouraged immigration of Aryadeśi brahmins into Kashmir from other parts of India by lavishing them with agrahara grants.
Karkotas, who replaced the Huns in Kashmir, were perhaps acutely aware of the region’s characterisation by the early Hindu texts, as per scholar Ronald Inden, “at best a liminal part of India.” Attempts were made to undo this spatial marginalisation by reinventing Kashmir as Madhyadeśa/Aryavarta, the ideological basis for which came via consolidation of two Purana texts: Nilmata Purana and Vishnudharmottara Purana.
Nilmata, which scholars understand to be a rehashing of a pre-existing discursive material, went about sacralising the territory of Kashmir by imbuing its topography with the sacred ethos. Both texts were political instruments geared to project Kashmir as a cynosure of the Vaishnavite cosmology. During the rule of Utapalas and the Loharas, Kashmir was a de facto spiritual centre of Hindu learning and a site of “fervid literary creativity in the Southern peninsula,” as Whitney Cox calls it.
When Turkic empires crawled right next to their frontiers, the Kashmiri rulers eschewed belligerence and became receptive to Turkic traditions. “Kashmir kings like Vajraditya are believed to have prompted some local people to embrace Islam and Judaism so that the mercantile community coming from the neighbouring trading entrepôts is encouraged to conduct business without being hampered by any personal inconvenience,” the authors write.
The Turkic military commander Shah Mir who took control of Kashmir and staved off a Mongol invasion is praised by the Jonaraja in his chronicle. It was Mir who firmly established the Sultanate in the Valley, and commenced the long process of Kashmir’s transition to Islam.
The Making of Early Kashmir makes for an edifying read. The book marshals prodigious research work to construct a powerful new narrative about Kashmir's ancient history, upending many older orthodoxies that have for years supercharged malafide politics.
(The author is a Srinagar-based journalist and writes for The Times of India, Article 14, The Quint and more.)