Category Archives: History

A Bridge named Albion?

Published / by Jehangir

On this day in 1929 newspapers carried an article exposing the sectarian and autocratic character of the Dogra rule. The publication of this article emboldened Kashmiri muslims to raise the banner of protest. Remarkably, the article was written by the serving Prime Minister of KashmirSir Albion Banerji.

Sir Albion R. Banerji, Kt., C.S.I. C.I.E., (1871 – 1950) was the first Bengali Brahman to be born in England, hence his unusual first name. He earned his Master's Degree at the Balliol College, Oxford and joined the Indian Civil Service in 1894. At the Delhi Durbar of 1911, Albion Banerji was awarded the Companion of the Indian Empire (CIE).

He served as Magistrate in the Madras Presidency, and as Diwan of Cochin and then of Mysore before joining the Maharaja's administration in Kashmir as the Foreign and Political Minister.

In 1927 Sir Albion Banerji was appointed Prime Minister of Kashmir.

On March 16, 1929, he published a scathing indictment of the administration of the Kashmir State – criticising the Maharaja's lavish lifestyle sustained by a poor population – and then resigned from his post.

Some excerpts from the note:

'Jammu and Kashmir state is labouring under many disadvantages, with a large Mohammedan population absolutely illiterate, labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages, and practically governed like dumb driven cattle.

There is no touch between the government and the people, no suitable opportunity for representing grievances…

The administration has at present no or little sympathy with people's wants and grievances…'

Sir Albion Banerji's resignation effectively ended his hitherto stellar career in the Indian Civil Service. This act should have made him a hero for the common Kashmiri.

Strangely, or maybe I should say expectedly, there is no mention of Sir Albion Banerji in the sponsored hagiographies that masquerade as history in today's Kashmir. His selfless act has been forgotten because no self-serving separatist, mainstream or 'slipstream' politician can legitimately claim his legacy.

Even the numerous 'civil society' groups peculiar to Kashmir, ever keen to jump on to any 'kashmir/kashmiriyat' bandwagon, have not instituted an award (their favoured ploy to stay news-worthy) in his name – the ultimate ignominy for a man who has had such an undeniable impact on the history of Kashmir.

Perhaps there is an undercurrent to Sir Albion Banerji's service in Kashmir that I have failed to observe, but the fact remains that he championed both the cause of the downtrodden muslim population of Kashmir and of the backward classes of India. Much to the discomfort of his peers, he protested the failure of the Dogra and the British rulers respectively to address their problems.

The erstwhile state of Cochin, which also had cause to honour the gentleman, has a street named after him. I had suggested in an earlier post that the new bridge over the river Jehlum at Rajbagh could be named the Albion Bridge to honour Sir Albion Banerji.

Any takers?

The Day a Nation was Sold

Published / by Jehangir

On this day in 1846, the British sold Kashmir for 75 lakh nanakshahi rupees to Gulab Singh via the Treaty of Amritsar.

After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 the Punjab fell into a state of disorder. The British were quick to take advantage of the anarchy and decisively defeated the Khalsa at Aliwal (January 1846) and Sobraon (February 1846), hastening the demise of the once-mighty Sikh Empire.

Pre-informed by Pandit Dina Nath, the Finance Minister of Lahore that his coffers were worth only half a crore, the British imposed a war indemnity of one-and-a-half crores on the Sikhs for the crime of 'unprovoked aggression' against the East India Company.

By the Treaty of Lahore the British claimed all the territories between the Beas and the Indus in lieu of the remaining one crore rupees.

The Sikh Empire was also forced to recognize Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, their erstwhile vassal, as an 'independent sovereign' to allow the British to 'admit him to the privileges of a separate treaty'.

This Gulab Singh was a one-time sowar or cavalryman of the Dogra army who found favour with Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was elevated as a prince of Jammu.

In lieu of 'services' rendered to the British during the Anglo-Sikh wars and the negotiations that followed, they elevated Gulab Singh to the status of 'Maharaja' at Amritsar on March 15, 1846. With folded hands Gulab Singh declared himself to be a 'zar kharid ghulam' of the Raj. On the next day, March 16, 1846 the Treaty of Amritsar was signed. By Article 1 of the treaty, Gulab Singh acquired 'all the hilly or mountainous country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus and the westward of the River Ravi'.

To add insult to inhumanity, Gulab Singh acknowledged the supremacy of the British Government – amply demonstrated by the power to sell into bondage every man woman and child in Kashmir – by agreeing to present annually to the British Government:

'one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls'.

Since the land had already been paid for, one may assume that all the children of Kashmir equaled one horse in value, men and women six shawl goats each while the three shawls must obviously have symbolised the much vaunted British values of honor, justice, and fair play.

The Kenyan-born poet, Shailja Patel wonders- 'How do you price a country? How do you value its mountains and lakes, the scent of its trees, the colors of its sunrise? What’s the markup on the shapes of fruit in the dreams of its people?'

It is the British that are thus responsible for the unending cycle of slavery, violence and death that followed the Treaty of Amritsar and continues to this day.

Surely we had our own internal issues, but the British had no right to outsource mayhem to the Dogras. We have no end of local talent in that department. For centuries it has been this self-destructive trait that has arrested our progress into an evolved society.

An example of the titles bestowed by a grateful Raj upon the Dogra rulers:
Lieutenant-General His Highness Shriman Rajrajeshwar Maharajadhiraj Sri Sir Hari Singh Indar Mahindar Bahadur, Sipar-i-Sultanat, Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO

In February this year, another worthy with a mouthful of titles, the Right Honourable David Cameron, Member of Parliament, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and First Lord of the Treasury performed an ablutionary pilgrimage to Jalianwala Bagh. In the visitor's book he wrote:

"This was a deeply shameful event in British history and one that Winston Churchill rightly declared at the time as 'monstrous'."

"We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world."

Will David Cameron visit Kashmir and apologise to the Kashmiri nation for the shameful Treaty of Amritsar?

Did I mention that Mr Cameron visited India as part of a trade delegation? Sin relación, probably. As another completely unrelated fact, 5 lakh British Sikhs are potential voters for the Conservative Party.

I wonder how many Kashmiri's possess voting rights in the United Kingdom?

P.S Here is a reproduction of the Treaty of Amritsar

Thesiger in Kashmir

Published / by Jehangir

Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) was a British explorer and travel writer best known for two travel books recounting his adventures in Arabian deserts and the marshes of Iraq.

Arabian Sands (1959) chronicled the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins, while The Marsh Arabs (1964) described the people of the marshes of southern Iraq.

Many people regard him as the last of the great traveller/explorers who wandered wildernesses across the globe. However, unlike his colonial predecessors, Thesiger's USP was his absolute empathy with the communities he encountered in his travels.


At the end of 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush', Eric Newby, no mean traveller himself, relates how during a chance meeting in the of the mountain ranges of Asia, Thesiger reacted to Newby and his friend attempting to inlate their air beds by exclaiming "God, you must be a couple of pansies."

Thesiger had also explored the Hindu Kush, the Karakorams and the Pamirs and described his travels amongst tribes like the Kafir Kalash, but I was unaware that he had visited and photographed Kashmir in 1983.

Exhibit: This single tantalising photograph entitled 'Dal Lake at Srinagar'

Thesiger took tens of thousands of photographs during eight decades of travels throughout Africa and Asia. However not many details are available of his Kashmir visit. Which begs the question – would Thesiger visit Kashmir and restrict himself to just one photo?

Thesiger's photographs were famed for their clarity and expressiveness and I hope we can access more of his Kashmir portfolio sometime.

Promised Land, Proud People

Published / by Jehangir

An article titled "Promised Land, Cursed People" by a former boot-licking brown-nosing career bureaucrat – who post-retirement is striving to turn himself into a self-styled champion of Kashmir and Kashmiriyat – shook me out of my state of inertia.

In an article desperately trying to prove that Kashmiris were originally Jews/Israelites, he takes perverse pleaure in reprising vicious attacks made on the kashmiri character by a number of foreign writers of yesteryears.

According to this gentleman, Moorcroft, Hugel, Drew, and Barnes describe Kashmiris as “selfish, superstitious, ignorant, supple, intriguing, dishonest, false-tongued, ready with a lie, and given to various forms of deceit.”

He also quotes some comments from the one man that gave the common Kashmiri a fair deal – Walter R. Lawrence, who came to Kashmir as the Settlement Commissioner during Pratap Singh's rule. "Laren Sahib" is still fondly remembered in villages across Kashmir. P. N Bamzai remarks about Lawrence that “his land settlement in the State marks a turning point in the economic and social history of its people.”

Curiously though, Lawrence himself checkmates the author:
"many of the hard things said about the Kashmiris are due to the fact that the official interpreters of their character have been foreigners, often grasping and corrupt."

I fail to understand why the article required the grafting of unsavoury comments made in previous centuries onto the character of the people of modern Kashmir. The author concludes that Kashmiris have God’s curse on them and that somehow we deserve it !

Why should we be apologetic or ashamed of who we are?

We Are Kashmiris
And We Are Proud Of It !

Kuchh Baat Hai Ke Hasti Mit Ti Nahin Hamari,
Sadiyon Raha Hai Dushman Daur-E-Zaman Hamara

Allama Iqbal could have penned these words equally aptly for the resilient spirit of Kashmir.
He was echoing Lal Ded's assertions of our historical identity and individuality.

Assi aess, assi aasav
'We have been and We shall be'

'My Existence Is My Resistance'

Thus beats every Kashmiri heart.

If you start to get seriously worried about the way things are shaping up, it is Iqbal who infuses hope yet again:

Jis Khaak Ke Zameer Main Ho Aatish-E-Chinar,
Mumkin Nahin Ke Sard Ho Wo Khaak-E-Arjumand

(The dust that carries in its conscience the fire of the Chinar,
It is impossible for that celestial dust to cool down)

An internet-sourced couplet that remarkably sums up our resilience and eternal search for …well…something…

Lafzon Mein Fasaane Dhoondte Hain Hum Log,
Lamhon Mein Zamaane Dhoondte Hain Hum Log,
Tu Zeher Hi De, Sharaab Keh Kar Saqi,
Jeene Ke Bahaane Dhoondte Hai Hum Log.

Take that, O Cruel Saqi !

P. N Bamzai – Culture and Political History of Kashmir (1994)
Walter R. Lawrence – The Valley of Kashmir (1895)

My Neck Of The Woods

Published / by Jehangir

Here is a series of images from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that focus on the the southern part of Srinagar city. The total absence of any kind of human settlement is striking.

Photograph taken from the Takht-e-Suleman (Shankracharya Hill) circa 1865

An engraving in 'Letters from India and Kashmir' by J. Duguid, 1870. The caption in the book reads ' The curves of the Jehlum, the inspiration for the shawl or pine pattern…'

From a stereoscopic photograph taken by James Ricalton in 1903. The caption reads 'An earthly paradise, famous Vale of Cashmere, watered by the winding Jhelum, India'

The area in the centre of the images, enclosed almost fully by a loop of the Jehlum, is the locality of Shivpora – my neck of the woods.

The first house built in Shivpora was 'The Chenars'. As the name would suggest it was built on the banks of the Jehlum, under a row of enormous chinar trees.

A hundred years later…

The population of Srinagar has exploded from 1,18,960 at the start of the twentieth century to 10,81,562 at the present time.

To illustrate the frenetic pace of construction in and around Srinagar:

My home in 2005, surrounded by a veritable forest of trees.

The same area in 2010. A colony exists where only a couple of houses stood a few years ago.

It is painfully evident that, even allowing for the change in seasons, trees have borne the brunt of our insatiable desire for construction. Maybe I should reconsider the title of this post. My Neck of the 'Woods' seems a bit ironic when the woods are vanishing at an alarming rate.

Unfortunately my old home had to be demolished due to age-related structural damage compounded by the devastating earthquake that struck Kashmir in 2005.

The house in the centre of the colony is my new home. It is still under construction. Here's a sneak peek:

P.S: The low quality of the photographs is due to the fact that cameras are no longer allowed on the Shankracharya Hill.

Hawking Revolutions with Roosting Hawks

Published / by Jehangir

Watching the revolt in Egypt on TV while helping my son with his poetry assignment, I had a flashback. From the depths of memory a Persian ode translated by Khushwant Singh popped into my head. I had read it in the Illustrated Weekly <1979?> alongside a caricature of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi following the Iranian Revolution.

Think not, 0 King! thy sceptre or thy pow'r
One moment can arrest the destin'd hour !

Only time will tell whether the tumultuous events of the past week in the Middle East are genuine popular movements or are strings being pulled to replace politically-inconvenient stooge-dictators with politically-correct stooge-democracies?

Meanwhile enjoy the powerful imagery of Ted Hughes' ode to megalomaniac despots – the Hosni Mubaraks and the Ben Alis and their ilk.

Hawk Roosting*

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Just brilliant !

by owner. Provided gratis for educational purposes.

White Swans of Kashmir

Published / by Jehangir

Most westerners that figure in the history of Kashmir were either missionaries like Biscoe or employees of the Maharaja's like W R Lawrence. However a few like Freda Bedi were involved with Kashmir not as a career option, but because they chose to be.

Freda Bedi was an Englishwoman who met and married BPL (Baba) Bedi at at Oxford University. During the struggle against the Maharaja, the Bedi's were closely associated with the National Conference, especially Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah.

Their communist leanings are believed by some to be the influence for the allegedly leftist slant of the 1944 'Naya Kashmir' manifesto. Freda Bedi delivering messages to jailed National Conference leaders wearing a 'Burkha'is part of freedom struggle folklore.

My grandmother would sometimes talk about her – especially when Kabir Bedi was on TV. I don't remember the context now but I believe it had something to do with Begum Abdullah, with whom my grandmother had been closely associated. Kabir Bedi, the film actor, is Freda Bedi's younger son. The Bedi family used to own property in my neighbourhood (Shivpora) and I seem to remember that the elder son, Ranga Bedi was a friend of my eldest brother.

Edna Bellafontaine was more of a mystery. Unlike the other two, there is very little information on this Englishwoman, the self-confessed 'Mata Hari of Kashmir'. Till I came across the news item I thought she was a famous painter. I have a painting signed ' Edna Bellafontaine 1949' hanging in my living room, and have seen her works in the homes of certain old families in Kashmir.

Nilla Cram Cook is the most intriguing of the three. According to a 1933 Time Magazine article titled the 'Runaway Disciple',

'Of all his strange disciples the one who has caused Mahatma Gandhi the sharpest pangs of dismay is plump & pleasing Nilla Cram Cook, 23-year-old daughter of the late George Cram Cook, Iowa poet. …..

……Her difficulty in adjusting her good intentions to her Iowa temperament caused sorrowing St. Gandhi to embark on a hunger strike seven months ago'

Nilla Cram Cook

She apparently wrote and translated poetry, explored mysticism, was Mahatama Gandhi's most troublesome disciple, reinvented dance in Iran and worked as cultural ambassador for the United States.

Nilla Cram Cook's Kashmir connection is 'The Way of the Swan', her gem of a translation of the the works of Kashmiri mystics including the Lol's or love poems of Habba Khatoon / Zooni. This is the inscription on a copy of the book she presented to my father:

The Fort on the Hill [KeY]

Published / by Jehangir

In one of the most vivid memories of my childhood days I remember standing on the balcony of the topmost floor of my house and looking beyond the splendor of the nearby Shankracharya hill at the battlements of a distant fort rising above the horizon as if in some fairytale.

A schoolboy's dramatic imagination would then conjure up visions of invading armies, desperate defenders and glorious battles being fought at its walls.

On rare trips to downtown Srinagar in those years, mostly to pay homage at the holy shrines of Makhdoom Sahib and Dastgeer Sahib, the full grandeur of the Hari Parbat fort would come into view, no less impressive in reality as in the imagination.

Even today all roads seem to lead straight to the majestic fort on the hill, which totally dominates the skyline in the old city. Like the Amar Mahal Palace at Jammu the fort presents travelers with an instantly recognizable architectural symbol of Srinagar city.

After all these years whimsical flights of fancy have been replaced by cold reasoning by the rigors of medical training but I am still reminded of those childhood memories. I therefore followed with great interest the discussion in the columns of a local newspaper about who actually built the fort.

In his book titled 'Travels in Kashmir, Ladak, Iskardo', G.T. Vigne – who travelled through Kashmir in 1838 records that Akbar the Great made the fort on the Hari Parbat hill his residence and built a strong wall round the foot of the hill. He also reports an inscription in Persian over one of the five gates of the wall transliterated by him as:

'Sir-i-shah-an-alum-Shah Akber-talu-Shah-nuh-hu'

and translated as:

'The chief of kings of the world, Shah Akber, may his dominions extend'.

He also reports another inscription stating that:

'this killah of Nag-i-Nagur is built by the order of the great king, Akber, at the expense of one crore and ten lakhs of rupees from Hindustan, that two hundred master builders were employed and that no injustice was done to anyone who assisted them, but that all were paid – that there never was a king like this king of kings, nor ever will be – that it was built in the year of the Hejira, 1006 (A.D 1597) and that the Superintendent's name was Khoja Mohamed Husyn, a slave of Akber's'.

This inscription still exists at Kathi Darwaza. Many other sources also refer to Akbar as the builder of the fort on the Hari Parbat or Koh-i-Maran.

An earlier structure dating from Mughal times was probably further developed into the present fort during the Afghan period – hence the later inscription reported by Prof. Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah in his letter (GK Reflections: 08.12.2004).

Whoever built the fort, what is more important is that it is part of our cultural and architectural heritage and needs to be preserved for future generations. The learned professor and Naseer A Ganai deserve credit for bringing this issue back into public memory.

Visitors have not been allowed access to the Hari Parbat fort since 1989 but the official Tourism department description of the fort reassures us that though there is little left of the fort's former glory, the ramparts are still impressive and the old apartments within the fort, even though in a state of ruin, still convey at least a little of the grandeur of the Mughals summer retreat in paradise. I am reminded of Pearce Gervis' exhortation:

'It (the Hari Parbat fort) should never be allowed to fall into decay, to crumble and sink within the hill from which it was built, for only by such a reminder – one which all in the city and not the few who live nearby may see at all times – can people not forget the past and on that build their future'.

The restoration of an entire fort would appear to be an enormous and unprofitable enterprise but it has been done before
– with impressive results. At the forefront of similar restoration effects in India are the architectural conservationist-restorer duo of Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg who revive old forts and havelis based on what they call 'the rule of minimum intervention'.

Their flagship project was the restoration of the Neemrana Fort-Palace, Rajasthan which earned a prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award nomination in 2001 for 'Reconstruction, conservation and adaptive reuse of palace ruins, dating from 1464, to self-sustaining heritage tourism property while encouraging local economic development'.

The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence for 2004 was awarded to the restoration of the Baltit Fort located at Karimabad in Pakistan's Hunza Valley. To quote the award organisers:

'The restoration of the majestic 700-year-old Baltit Fort exemplifies excellence in conservation practice applied to large-scale monuments. This challenging project was the first of its kind in northern Hunza.

By demonstrating that historic structures can be saved, restored and recycled for continued use in the community, the Baltit Fort project is a model for the revitalization of historic structures throughout the northern regions of Pakistan.

The historic wood and masonry structure was carefully repaired using a combination of traditional local knowledge and state-of-the-art conservation techniques.

In its new use as a cultural centre and museum, the Baltit Fort attracts thousands of visitors to the province and has contributed to reinvigorating the local community's pride in their heritage. The fort's restoration has fostered the local revival of traditional building trades, while an associated handicrafts project provides improved livelihood opportunities in the area.'

The success of the Baltit Fort project in the remote Hunza Valley in Pakistan can easily be replicated in Kashmir provided we have the desire to do it – and the will to fulfil that desire. The focus should be on immaculate restoration of the Hari Parbat fort while simultaneously developing it as a must-see tourist attraction and also a thrust area for handicrafts, possibly in the shape of an affiliated craftsman's village which is a concept quite popular with tourists. The employment opportunities generated by the project would be the icing on the cake.

Like everything else that Kashmir's slow rot has consumed, will our children have to open their history books for a glimpse of the Hari Parbat fort, the Dal Lake, or the Hangul? The time to act is now.