What has happened in Kashmir and what is happening in Kashmir over the last few hundred years is a consequence of different forces at play. It is very important to understand and distinguish between these forces because they are not the same. These forces are born of a chain of cause and effect of events that can be traced back a thousand years or more in time. Kashmir has always suffered from corrupt leadership and poor administration. These are not only the woes of the present day Kashmiri but also that of the Kashmiri of antiquity. The rulers of Kashmir were famous for running away when threatened by an army that would even appear to have the strength to break through the Valley, which by no means was an easy task. Debauched rulers with no finger on the pulse of the common man, empty thrones with no sign of its occupant in the face of advancing armies, famines created by rulers who sought to bathe their greed in the blood and sweat of peasants, ministers bleeding the treasury and the people while the king swam in currents of wine and women, are replete in Kashmir’s history. But we want to get on with this story and not get washed away in a tide of metaphors.

Kashmir of Antiquity

The valley of Kashmir has always been a melting pot of spiritual beliefs. Something about the energy of Kashmir lends itself to spiritual contemplation. The people of Kashmir started recording their history before any other region in India and the records date back to some 5,000 years. The Hindu text, the ‘Nilamata Purana,’ may be seen as an imaginative interpretation of actual kings and alliances that existed in pre-history or as myths. It records how Kashmir was a great lake that was drained at the behest of the sage Kashyap, who was the grandson of Brahma, by cutting a rock gorge at Varahmula, which is now Baramulla today. The interesting part about this myth is that modern day geologists confirm that Kashmir was indeed a lake at the end of the Ice Age some 12,000 years ago and was drained by a gorge at Baramulla, probably created by an earthquake.

Ashoka and Buddhism

The first Indian emperor to rule Kashmir was Ashoka who founded Srinagari 20 kms from modern day Srinagar in the 3rd century B.C. Ashoka brought Buddhism to the Valley.

The Buddha had viewed Kashmir as the perfect “focal point” from which his teachings spread far and wide. Kashmir, he had said, was for meditation; Kashmir was for those who wanted to walk the spiritual path.[1]

The Buddhist Council held at Pataliputra sent the preacher Madhyantika to Kashmir and legend says it was he who introduced saffron cultivation in the Valley. Kanishka held the fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir that drew 500 Buddhist and Hindu scholars from all over the region, including China, to codify Sarvastivada, the precursor to Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism and Hinduism bloomed side by side in the Valley, although Hinduism proved to be more durable.

The 12th century scholar Kalhana’s Rajtarangini is the chief source of most of what we know about the ancient history of Kashmir, along with some Chinese texts, and they both record Lalitaditya as the most powerful of all of the kings of Kashmir, having built a short-lived empire that included large parts of India, present-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. Lalitaditya reigned from 724-760 CE and built Buddhist shrines and stupas, Hindu temples, as well as the famed Sun Temple at Martand.

[1]M.J. Akbar,  Behind the Vale

The Shah Mir Dynasty 

Islam was carried into Kashmir by Bulbul Shah, a Turkistani Sufi, in the first half of the 14th century. Sadruddin Shah was the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir in the year 1320. It is said, Rinchin, a Ladakhi prince who had taken over the throne of Kashmir, wanted to be converted into a Hindu, for a ruler must be of the same religion as the people. But the Pandits could not convert him because they could not decide which caste to place Rinchin in. The Sufi Bulbul Shah converted him to Islam at his request and Rinchin thus took the name Sadruddin Shah. He and some of the kings to follow him would be crowned with Hindu rituals conducted by the Pandits. After Rinchin, Shah Mir took the throne, founding the Shah dynasty in 1339. He was not a Kashmiri himself and his origins are ambiguous. Some believe he came from the Swat valley in the Pakistan area.

The sixth ruler of the Shah Mir dynasty was Sikandar Shah Mir who came to power in 1389. Over time, Sikandar came to be known as ‘But-shikan’ or the ‘Destroyer of Idols’. The title was apt, for Sikandar not only destroyed innumerable Hindu temples but is also infamous for destroying the glorious Sun Temple at Martand. He imposed the cruel jiziya tax (a tax that people had to pay for not being followers of Islam). Under his reign Hindus faced extreme discrimination, upsetting the brotherhood that had long prevailed between Muslims and Hindus. In fact, Sikandar’s policies reflected the first instance of Islamic fundamentalism entrenching itself in the Valley. Historians have pointed out that by the year 1420, only 11 Hindu families remained in the Valley.[1]

There is some controversy as to whether these accounts of Sikandar Shah have been fabricated by Kashmiri Pandits to project themselves as a persecuted lot. It should be noted though that this account of history is one that has been gleaned from Muslim accounts. For instance, the sobriquet ‘But-shikan’ was given to Sikandar Shah Mir by Muslim historians, especially those of Persia, who eulogised his campaign of destroying Hindu temples and shrines and forcible conversions as a great service to the expansion of Islam. These are recorded in Baharistan-i-Shahi, of unknown authorship and the Tohfatu’l-Ahbab, the biography of Shamsu’d-Din Araki, an Iranian of Noorbakhshiyya Sufi order who visited Kashmir twice – the last time in about 1574 AD. Both these works have been translated by K.N. Pandita and are available for the general public to read.[2] Shahi Khan, who came to be known as Zainul Abidin and was revered as the greatest ruler the Valley had ever seen, mitigated the effects of his predecessors and brought a period of peace and prosperity to the Valley. He reduced but did not dispose of the jiziya tax. The Hindus were much more at ease under the fair rule of ‘Bud Shah’ (Great King), as Zainul Abidin was known.

[1] M.J. Akbar,  Behind the Vale

[2] From the article in The Print by Ashutosh Bhatnagar Does Rajatarangini narrative of ​5,000 yrs of Hindu history in Kashmir need challenging?

The Mughals

In 1586, Akbar’s troops entered Srinagar, testament to the failure of Bud Shah’s progeny to follow in their patriarch’s footsteps and provide Kashmir with an able king. Akbar brought his famed administrative powers and relative secular leanings to the Valley, abolishing jiziya and enacting many other changes that were in favour of the people. The Mughals ruled through their governors and there was a period of stability till Aurangzeb took the throne. His fundamentalism brought much pain to even the Shia Muslims of Kashmir. After Aurangzeb, came a number of weak rulers and a string of governors. At one point, Mahtabi Khan was made the chief theologian by Bahadur Shah, whose atrocities on Hindus and Shias made them revolt against and kill him. His son, however, had his revenge on the Shia people.

The Afghans

English author Sir Walter R. Lawrence writes in his book, The Valley of Kashmir, that with the crumbling of the Mughal Empire, the subahs (province in the Mughal Empire, alternatively used as the term for the governor) in Kashmir began asserting authoritarian influence and control over the region. This was keenly felt during emperor Muhamad Shah’s reign when Hindus faced terrible oppression; Kalashpura, ‘a Hindu ward’, was set ablaze and Hindus were even prohibited from wearing turbans. In the meantime, in-fighting among the subahs, who had since become independent, ensured that Kashmir slipped into political disarray. Then in 1752 AD, Kashmir fell to the conquering armies of the Pathans, who have gone down in history as “the cruelest and worst” of all its masters.

Sir Lawrence’s account goes on to mention that the Pathans were merciless in the treatment of their people, especially the Pandits and Shias. Notorious amongst them all was Assad Khan who was known for instructing his men to tie up Pandits in grass sacks and have them drowned in the Dal Lake. Oftentimes, for fun, excrement-laden pots would be placed on a Pandit’s head so that Musalmans could pelt the pitcher to pieces, soaking the victims in excreta. As a reminder of past tyrannies, a locality adjoining the Dal Lake is still known as Batta Mazar or the ‘Graveyard of Pandits’.

During the Afghan rule of about 70 years, Kashmir became a shell of what it once was. The rich and the poor were plundered alike. There were forced conversions of Hindus and the jiziya tax was imposed again. The irony of all this is it was the Kashmiri nobles, tired of the oppression of the Mughal governors, who had invited the Afghans to invade Kashmir.

The Sikhs

Another invitation changed the course of Kashmiri history, this time to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Kingdom in Punjab. When Mirza Pandit Dhar and his son Birbal Dhar requested Maharaja Ranjit Singh to annex Kashmir, the Maharaja complied. In July 1819, his army marched towards Kashmir under the leadership of Misser Diwan Chand, Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu (crowned in 1822), Sardar Hari Singh and others. A pitched battle was fought at the end of which the Afghans lay defeated, with an injured Jabar Khan (governor of Kashmir) fleeing to Kabul. With this the Afghan rule came to an end and Kashmir, after almost 500 years, again came to be governed by Hindu kings.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh or ‘Sher-e-Punjab’ (Lion of Punjab) as he was popularly known, ruled over the northwest Indian subcontinent in the early 19th century. Under him, around 1808, Jammu was annexed to the Sikh Empire and in 1820, the Maharaja ‘bestowed the place as a jagir’ (a land grant given to a feudal superior in return of his military/administrative services) on Kishore Singh Jamwal, a member of the Jamwal Rajput dynasty, or Dogra clan, that ruled over Jammu.

The Dogras were a warrior class, who, to defend their land against invasions by the Greeks (under Alexander the Great), are believed to have migrated from Delhi and Awadh to the banks of the Mansar and the Siroinsar lakes. The region around these lakes stretched from the Punjab plains to the mountains in the north. The Dogras took their name from the word Dogirath, which in Sanskrit means ‘two lakes’.[1] The area under their occupation eventually merged to become Jammu.

[1] M.J. Akbar,  Behind the Vale

The Dogras 

The Dogras gained fame under Gulab Singh, the son of Kishore Singh. Gulab Singh had joined Ranjit Singh’s army in 1809 as a sepoy and rose to become a favourite general. Upon Kishore’s Singh’s death and in acknowledgement of Gulab’s leadership, Maharaja Ranjit Singh gifted him with the hereditary title of “Raja of Jammu” in 1822.

Following Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, the British and the Sikh Empire became embroiled in two wars. Gulab Singh’s deliberate neutrality led to the defeat of the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh war. The Sikh empire ceded Kashmir to the victorious British East India Company as per the Treaty of Lahore signed on March 9, 1846. Just seven days later, the British rewarded Gulab Singh separately for his ‘non-participation’ in the war by granting him Kashmir through a sale deed, formalized under the Treaty of Amritsar.

The Sale of Kashmir

Under the treaty’s terms, Gulab Singh ‘bought’ Kashmir from the British East India Company for a mere sum of 7.5 million nanak shahi (Sikh) rupees. With this, not only did the Kashmir Valley come under the Dogras, but Gulab Singh was also granted the title of independent ‘Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir’. Many Kashmiris, in retrospect, view 1846 as a ‘betrayal’ as they feel Kashmir was sold to a ruler they did not identify with.

After securing Kashmir, Gulab Singh followed it up with the conquest of Gilgit, having earlier captured Ladakh and Baltistan. This formally ended Sikh rule in Kashmir and marked the beginning of the Hindu Dogra rule. Gulab Singh’s son, Ranbir Singh, went on to further expand his territory to include most of what is today modern-day Jammu and Kashmir.

In conclusion, one can quote Karan Singh, the son of former Jammu and Kashmir ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, ‘The unique multi-regional, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and multi-cultural state of J&K was thus the handiwork of the Dogras, who have not received adequate attention or credit for this from historians’. [1]

[1] Retracing the rich history of J&K, writes Karan Singh in the Hindustan Times


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