Imagining Kashmir on Silk Road, again

One of the most positive developments of the recent times is the initiatives being taken by the countries of South and Central Asia to open up the ancient trade routes. At present work is going on in full swing to open a trade route between North east and Tibet across Nathu La which is claimed to be a branch of the famous Silk Route. This is being done in pursuance to the agreement reached between the Indian and Chinese Governments. In earlier times people used to travel in caravans across endless steppes, inhospitable deserts, and high mountain passes for trade. There used to be long lines of Bactrian camels travelling all across Central and South Asia. The travel was not only adventurous (or rather dangerous) but also very rewarding in terms of the cultural experience. These caravans were sometimes accompanied by explorers and writers who have written dozens of travelogues. These days most of the travel is undertaken by air. However, one does not get the same thrill which is in travelling across the land and the gradual discovery of new lands and people inhabiting these is totally missing. Most of the trade also takes place through cargo flights. Our area is probably the only place where one can still get the thrill of the travel of good old days if we re-open some of the world’s most adventurous and thrilling routes.

Ou-Kong, the famous Chinese Pilgrim who visited Kashmir in the middle of eighth century A.D. in his accounts describes the three most important trade routes of the country. These great routes traversed the high mountains which surround the valley of Kashmir and formed the main lines of communication between the valley and the outside world from the ancient times. The first route leads over the Zoji La pass to Ladakh and thence to Tibet through Demchok. The second route leads through upper Kishenganga valley and from there to Skardu to join the Gilgit route across Khunjrab pass to Central Asia and Chinese Turkistan. The third route follows the river Jehlum along the Baramulla gorge towards the west. This is the easiest route as it does not involve crossing of any high mountain passes. For last sixty years we have been totally cut off from these ancient routes and have only one channel of communication with the outside world. During its entire history Kashmir has never been so much geographically isolated by human intervention as in these last six decades or so. It was said that the mountain barriers surrounding the valley have always acted as its guardians against outside onslaught and even Mahmud of Ghazni and Alexandar’s armies were unable to penetrate these natural defences. However, there was no restriction on normal travel and trade. All these routes were fully operational for all types of travel and trade. The peaceful advent of Islam in Kashmir was made possible by the travel of preachers from Iran and Central Asia through these routes. The new Mahayana doctrine of Buddhism formulated by the Fourth Buddhist Council held in Kashmir in the first century A.D. was also spread all over the region by bhiksus travelling over these very routes. Most of all, the well marked influence from Iran and Central Asia on the culture and traditions of Kashmir has been possible due to interactions carried over these routes. Kashmir’s famous cuisine owes its origin to Iran and Central Asia. The arts and crafts were introduced by the artisans brought from Samarqand by Zain-ul-Abidin. Samovar, an essential possession of every Kashmiri home travelled along with the trade caravans to this place. For last half a century or so we have been exposed to only one type of influence. There has been no choice for direct and continuous interaction except with the rest of the country. Kashmir has virtually evolved into a controlled enclosure with only one entry/exit. This isolation from our historical neighbours due to closure of all the traditional routes of communication has not only stagnated our normal growth but has adversely affected our psychological well being. Apart from huge economic loss which has resulted from disruption of trade along these ancient channels, our cultural, moral, and spiritual growth too has been retarded. Had Kashmir’s interaction with all these neighbouring states continued, the situation may have been quite different. After the exit of the last generation, there may not be any first hand knowledge of our interactions with the societies of Central Asia, Chinese Turkistan, and Iran. The new generations may read about the stories of travel across these mountain barriers in their history books only and that too if they are given access to such books, which at the present moment is non-existent in most of our educational institutions. There is still time to restore our historical trade and cultural links. One of the most important links namely the Jehlum Valley Road has been partially activated. There is also talk of re-starting the trade along this route shortly. This has been the most frequented route in the entire history of Kashmir. Most of the trade with outside world was through this route till 1947. The suspicions created during the last half century of tension as well as physical conflict are forcing the two countries to tread the route very cautiously. However, to make the opening worthwhile and register an impact some amount of risk has to be taken. It is time to come out of the “Bus Syndrome” and open up the route for all interested travellers through their own preferred modes of transport. The system of allowing only the relations on each side to travel and that too with cumbersome verification should be done away with. We should be encouraging tourism from both sides. It should now be functioning like other crossing points where people arrive on their own with special permits and cross every day to and fro during specified hours. It should also be possible to allow private vehicles to cross after installing vehicle scanners at the crossing points. Similarly, traders should be allowed to cross along with their truckloads of goods. It is only then one can term it as the true restoration of this historical link. Otherwise it will remain like opening of a second door to the “Enclosure” called Kashmir!

For revival of cultural links it is much more important to restore the links to Tibet and Central Asia. This can be achieved by opening the Kargil-Skardu route as well as Leh-Lahasa route. Skardu and Gilgit are now fully connected with Central Asian Republics as well as Chinese Turkistan through the famous Karakoram Highway and there is brisk trade between these countries. In fact, the residents of Northern Areas get permits locally to travel to various neighbouring destinations. Kargil connection can restore our link to Central Asia. Only the Bactrian camels will get replaced by motorised transport. Similarly, Leh-Lahasa link will restore the strong spiritual bond which has existed for centuries. It will also allow access to the holy sites of Kailash Mansarovar by motorised transport. In fact, the re-opening of these routes will give a tremendous boost to surface tourism. Kashmir has the potential of becoming the most important tourism as well as commercial hub for the entire region. If only the routes could be revived fully, the people would have no time for anything except travel and trade. There is no better way to restore Peace than to open up all channels for mingling of travellers, traders, and culture enthusiasts. Most tensions result from artificial barriers. To usher Peace, these barriers have to disappear. The sooner it is done, the better it would be not only for the sub-continent but for the whole South Asian Region and above all for Kashmir itself. It is hoped that the Government of India, which is trying to revive the ancient trade routes, will not look up to North only in the North east but here also as the most famous branch of the historical Silk Route passes through Kashmir.


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