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Kashmir Reflections

INDIA | Tuesday, 24 September 2013 | Views [555]


Kashmir Reflections


 I left Kashmir a few days ago and am only now beginning to process what I found there.  Let me start by saying that I was fortunate to meet very gracious and beautiful people throughout my short stay in the province.  In Pahalgam I had a hiking guide, Shaban, who, though not formally educated, was friendly, knowledgeable and wise. In Srinagar I met a number of people from all walks of life both Hindus and Muslims, who without exception welcomed me into their homes for tea, meals, and fascinating conversations. I am deeply grateful to all of them for the literature they gave me to read and for their hospitality as they provided me with a glimpse into their lives.


 The region is clearly split culturally along religious lines, although this does not mean that there is currently any tension between Hindus and Muslims.  According to the people I spoke with, there was never any tension between them and the 1991 exodus of Hindus from the region was something the government initiated.  This is not the opinion of some of my friends in Delhi, however, so there does appear to be differing versions of reality when it comes to recent Kashmiri history.  This is coupled with the strong military presence I mentioned in the earlier blog, which seems to be partially based on fear of a militant uprising (although, again, from the people I spoke with this is unfounded as, according to them, the people just want to get on with their lives and earn a decent living) and partially based on the border skirmishes, which are very real. Nonetheless, I had the feeling that I was in a police state as every third person wears a uniform and carries a large rifle. For the people who live in Kashmir this has to be upsetting. 


 It is also upsetting to them that they have the feeling they are being oppressed economically.  I heard stories of what the tourist industry was like in the 1970s and saw letters from European and American tourists to hotel and houseboat owners from that time.  What they described in their narratives did not remotely resemble the Kashmir I found.  What I saw was for the most part an economically depressed, poverty-ridden area with most people struggling to survive, especially in the villages. This is not to say that everyone is in this bracket as I was invited into a few of what we would call middle-class homes in Srinagar that had recently been built.  I also saw areas where new McMansions are being constructed, some of them clearly U.S. $ million homes, so at least a few people are getting quite wealthy. Corruption is rampant throughout India and is perhaps one of the three or four leading problems the country faces, and it seems Kashmir is no different.


Despite all these issues, however, it is a beautiful region and one that is steeped in religious history.  The area around Srinagar has ancient Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples and late medieval Sufi shrines. As mentioned earlier, Jesus is said to have lived in the region and be entombed in Old Town Srinagar; Moses is said to have been buried around 90km from town, and even Solomon was said to have prayed on the hill that later became a Buddhist, then Hindu and Muslim site, and is now named after the man who reconverted the people of the valley to Hinduism from Buddhism in the 8th C, Shankyacharya.  Unlike the Central Asian nations, Islam did not come to the Valley via the sword but instead via Sufi mystics, who were able to combine their message with that of the Hindu mystics. There is also a strong influence from the Sufi saints who came from Bukhara in the architecture of the central Friday Mosque in Srinagar, which has wooden pillars throughout exactly like the main mosque in the Uzbek city. The carving is different in the Central Asian city, but the pillars in both places are all out of one piece of wood. Today, people worship the Sufi saints in much the same manner as they would a Hindu deity, including the number of times they go around the tomb and how they kiss the saint’s feet.  The rituals are strikingly similar.


 The surrounding mountains take on different attitudes depending on the time of day and the weather.  Sometimes they feel like they are tired of all the ponies and people climbing up the same paths to pilgrimage sites, and at other times they come alive with the fresh roar of white water cascading down their granite sides and crashing into the rivers below. The clouds play games of hide and seek with the peaks, while reminding one that they can also let loose total destruction as happened with the floods in Kedernath in Uttaranchal in June. There is a feel of living at the edge of life in these hills.  Up in the high country nothing matters other than the glory of the natural world and sheer survival; down in the valley is the struggle to exist.


The local people say this is Paradise and the Garden of Eden; if it is, we humans have really made a mess of things. But like everything else, this can change. 


 The region is dependent upon tourism.  The travel bans and advisories that have been place for a number of years are slowly being lifted.  An increase in tourism, specifically in international tourists, will bring needed income to the region as well as offer those who come food for their minds, hearts, and souls. Additionally, an increase in international scholars to the region, could help objectify the various versions of contemporary as well as ancient Kashmiri history, which in turn might lead to greater understanding and respect between the provincial and central governments. Legends abound in this area and when legends are taken as indisputable truths, conflicts arise.  Objective scholarship conducted by those with nothing personally to gain from the outcome of their investigations, could be of tremendous value to the wonderful people of this region.  Maybe then, someday it will be back to being the Paradise the people claim it to be.


 Just a few observations on some of the Kashmiri customs I observed:


 At parties in the homes, men and women have separate sections.  The men seem to be allowed to visit the women’s section, but I did not observe women going to socialize in the men’s area.  The food arrangements for home-based celebrations are centered around “wasa” which is a series of courses, up to 50 traditionally, but now mostly around 9-10, where groups of four people (of the same sex, although children are with the women) share a common plate.  Men traditionally cook and serve the wasa.  Huge portions of rice form the foundation, then come chicken, mutton, sheep intestines stuffed with mixed meat, various sizes of mutton meat balls and more and more meat.  A few vegetables are added intermittently for variety. People are given bags so that they can take the food they don’t eat home with them.  There is an exhorbitant amount of food at these festivities.


I was fortunate enough to be invited by a groom’s family to a wedding as well, and although I couldn’t stay over for the actual celebration, was able to see the day before preparations, including the cooking and the women in the family making music, singing blessings for the couple. For the actual wedding professional musicians had been hired, but the day before was for the family to get together and sing blessings for the couple.


Music also resounds throughout the mountains. Local musicians play on the sides of the streets and in teahouses. Sometimes the sounds are not quite so peaceful as in Sonamarg the army base below my hotel window blasted Kashmiri folk music from loudspeakers from 5:30 – 8 in the morning.  It was an interesting form of wake up call.


 Perhaps the one Kashmiri tradition that I personally have the most trouble with is the ingrained attitude that men are superior to women.  This comes out in general discussion as well as in the way the women are treated.  But I have to note that while I have real problems with this tradition, the women within the tradition did say they shared my views. While some wanted more freedom, they all saw their roles as first and foremost wives and mothers not as free thinking individuals who are also wives and mothers. My lifestyle was as clearly completely foreign to them as theirs was to me. 

 Addendum: On Sept. 26th there were 15 people killed in a militant attack on an army barracks near the Pakistan border.  According to news reports, a group of terrorists from Pakistan came over the border shot 8 people at and near a police station then went on to invade the mess hall of a nearby army base and killed four soldiers.  All three militants were shot in the attempt to contain the situation.  This incident has raised issues for the upcoming talks between the Presidents of India and Pakistan at the UN in NYC this week.  Throughout India people are sad and furious and those in Kashmir are afraid that now even more restrictions will be placed on them.  Once again, the attempt to stop terrorism may hurt the average citizen, while doing little to change the situations that cause terrorism in the first place.  Which is not to say that anything can be done to stop people once they are fanatics, but rather that it would be better to change the situations that lead to fanaticism so they don't become converted to terrorism in the first place.


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