• (Re)locating Early Kashmir

    Shonaleeka Kaul

    September 13, 2018

    Reinterpreting the first work of Kashmiri history, Kalhana's Rajatarangini, Shonaleeka Kaul's The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini argues that the text was history not despite being traditional Sanskrit poetry but because of it. It elaborated a poetics of place, implicating Kashmir's sacred geography, a stringent critique of local politics, and a regional selfhood that transcended the limits of vernacularism. Combined with longue duree testimonies from art, material culture, script, and linguistics, this book jettisons the image of an isolated and insular Kashmir.

    The following is an excerpt from the chapter (Re)locating Early Kashmir of the book.

    Image Courtesy: Amazon

    From Unique History to Connected Histories

    Long, long before it was engulfed by late 20th-century sectarian identity politics, where did Kashmir stand culturally? Adjoining Hellenistic, Iranian, Tibeto-Burman, and Indic cultural regimes, can it be seen as a cultural borderland in the first millennium CE?1 As importantly, did it see itself as a borderland or as liminal in any sense? I believe the choices early Kashmir made that shaped its cultural identity and location were based on a very open and active, if uneven, historical interface with surrounding cultures. It came to master elements of one of these cultures, the Indic. Indic civilization, in turn, drew on Kashmir’s learning and traditions to such a remarkable degree as to assign a centrality to Kashmir within the regional configuration in which it was situated.

    A second and related aspect is that of the geographical location of Kashmir in the Western Himalayas. It is curious that among the large number of historical and anthropological studies on the Western Himalayas over the decades, the prominent majority, with their Buddhological/Tibetological bent, presume to refer to Ladakh, Himachal (Lahaul and Spiti), and Tibet as their subject area, and not Kashmir, even though by that limited parameter, too, the Kashmir Valley had a strong Buddhist tradition early on.2 Though geographically very much nestled between the western-most Himalayan ranges, Zanskar and Pir Panjal, the Kashmir Valley as also the areas of Gilgit, Hunza, and Nagar further north in the shadow of the Karakoram are somehow tacitly understood to constitute a world of their own—a world about which, one may add, more assumptions circulate than facts. Historians, in particular, may have tended to exclude this iconic place from the regional grouping of the Western Himalayas because Kashmir is culturally thought to belong instead to a different regional forma-tion altogether, one which, it is held, exerted a defining influence on her and was non-Himalayan and non-Indic in the main. I refer to what is increasingly now called the Indo-Iranian borderlands, the Indus–Oxus orbit or the Kabul–Gāndhāra complex but has traditionally been labelled the subcontinental North-West.3

    In other words, whether it was conquests, commerce, or cul-ture, the northern-most and north-western parts of the Indian subcontinent have typically been characterized in history as gate-ways or outward-looking highways to central and western Asia with the Hellenistic, Persian, Sogdian, or tribal histories of those areas. Therefore, the historical significance of early Kashmir,4 or Gāndhāra and Punjab for that matter, is seen to lie in their access and exposure to non-Indic realms and affairs, thereby consigning them to a liminality or hybrid peripherality of the scholar’s making.

    In this chapter, without questioning the well-established incursion of Indo-Greek, Śaka, Pehlava, Kuṣāṇa, and Huna politi-cal elements into the region in the early historic period,5 and notwithstanding Kashmir’s contiguity or proximity to different culture zones, the range of evidence on hand leads one to ques-tion the assumption that early Kashmir somehow constituted a cultural hybrid, falling between a variety of hyphenated cultural regimes. In other words, this chapter interrogates the peripheral-ity, both literal and figurative, vis-à-vis the Indic mainland that is presumptively attributed to Kashmir. Reinstating into view the Western Himalayas, it then considers the entire regional spread— from Gāndhāra and Ladakh to Jammu, Punjab, and Kashmir up to Himachal Pradesh—in terms of its connected histories and that of the Indic mainland.

    Connected history is the perspective that regions do not come into being or exist in isolation but are entangled in a network of shaping interactions with other regions. Based on select cultural markers diagnostic of identity and movement in the early period, such as material culture, script, language, and art, and the com-mon or interwoven patterns and network that these throw up, this chapter argues for early Kashmir as the pivot of what appears to be formulatable as a distinct cultural configuration which nestled in the Western Himalayas but straddled the Himalayan–non-Him-alayan, mountains–plains divide. This multi-faceted evidence of cross linkages and integration helps develop an understanding of regionality, and the relationship between region and supra-region, in terms of multilinear cultural transmission.

    1. It has recently been suggested that Kashmir be investigated as a borderland because of its location as a part of three different empires (the Afghan, the Sikh, and the British/Dogra) in the early modern period (C. Zutshi, ‘Rethinking Kashmir’s History from a Borderlands Perspective’, History Compass 8/7 [2010]: 594–608). Borderlands is the emerging concept of a place in-between and in-flux, where cultures were shaped by constant exchange and negotiation. It is possible, however, that a political criterion like a shifting claim on Kashmir by different kingdoms might miss out on the full potential of the concept for explaining hybridity of cultures.

    2. For example, Laxman S. Thakur, Buddhism in the Western Himalayas: A Study of the Tabo Monastery (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), and Peter van Ham, Indian Tibet, Tibetan India: The Cultural Legacy of the Western Himalayas (Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015). See also the website www.himalayanart.org with its heavily, if not exclusively, Buddhist and Tibetan slant.

    3. D. K. Chakrabarti, India: An Archaeological History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 26–9; Huntington, The Art of Ancient India , p. 353; Suchandra Ghosh, ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Movement and Migration at the Cross Roads of Asia (c. 5th Century BCE–c. 3rd Century CE)’, Journal of Ancient Indian History XXVI (2011): 1. Also by Ghosh, ‘Hellenism in the Indo-Iranian Borderlands’, in Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia, eds Gautam Sengupta and Sharmi Chakraborty (Delhi: Pragati Publications, 2008), pp. 69–79.

    4. For example, even Kashmir’s history writing is attributed by Basham (‘The Kashmir Chronicle’, p. 57) and Thapar (‘Kalhaṇa’, p. 61) to her contact with central and west Asian ‘peoples possessing a stronger sense of history than did India’. Recently, Jesse Knutson takes this persistent fallacy to an extreme, saying ‘It is obvious the Rājataraṅgiṇī was … modeled on the Shahnama [of Firdausi]’ (‘Poetic Justice: On Kalhana’s Historical Aesthetics’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35, no. 2: 283).

    5. These central Asian dynasties themselves came to be heavily Indicized as reflected in the cultural choices they made, from faiths and personal names they adopted to the language and literature they patronized. This is mirrored in Kalhaṇa calling the Kuṣāṇas, ‘Turks who yet built tīrthas’ (RT I.170). For recent discussions, see C. Rapin, ‘Hinduism in the Indo-Greek Area. Notes on Some Indian Finds from Bactria and Two Temples in Taxila’, in In The Land of the Gryphons: Papers on Central Asian Archaeology in Antiquity, ed. Antonio Invernizzi (Firenze: Le Lettere, 1995), pp. 275–92; and Daniel Michon, Archaeology and Religion in Early North west India: History, Theory, Practice (Delhi: Routledge, 2015).


    Shonaleeka Kaul is a cultural historian of early South Asia, specialising in working with Sanskrit texts. She is associate professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    This is an extract from The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini published by Oxford University Press, 2018 and is republished here with permission from publisher.

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