Kashmir in ancient foreign chronicles

Sir Aurel Stein in the second part of his translation of Kalhana’s Raj Tarangni has given a detailed memoir on the ancient geography of Kashmir. It makes a wonderful reading and transports one mentally to the glory that Kashmir was! The most interesting and absorbing account is about relating the present day place names and existing ruins of buildings to their ancient origin along with description given in various chapters of the main chronicle. One is struck by the accuracy of Kalhana’s narrative regarding the topographical location of various sites. This has been meticulously verified by Sir Aurel Stein. While going through these accounts one comes to a chapter on the mention of Kashmir in ancient chronicles titled “Accounts of Old Kashmir”. It makes a fascinating reading. The first references are from Greek sources. One would have expected that the records of Alexander’s invasion would definitely include mention of Kashmir as his armies passed in the vicinity of the valley. However, Kashmir is conspicuously absent from these records. On the contrary it is the Ptolemy’s geography which has preserved the references to Kashmir. He calls the region KASPEIRA which is supposed to enclose a large portion of land including parts of Punjab, North-West Provinces, and Central India. This may be related to the period when the power of the dynasty ruling Kashmir extended much beyond its borders. The importance of this reference lies in the name of the territory as it is a phonetic derivative between Kasmira, the ancient Sanskrit name of Kashmir, and the present day Kashmir or Kashir. Another curious notice is in the poem Bassarika of Dionysius of Samos. It mentions about KASPEIROI, a tribe famous among all Indians for their fast feet. Even Alberuni has mentioned about Kashmiris being good pedestrians. It is but natural that people living in high alpine valleys would have habit of long foot marches. Rajtarangni has given many examples of very respectable marching performances of ancient Kashmiris. The flight of King Bhoja across the peaks and glaciers of Haramukh range is a classic example of this marching prowess. Even Herodotus, who is known as the “father of history”, mentions KASPATYROS which is taken by some as a reference to Kashmir. However, this has not been authenticated or conclusively proved.

After Greeks is the mention of Kashmir in Chinese records. Buddhist pilgrims from China on their way to sacred sites in Indian plains travelled through Kashmir and chose it as a resting place. The earliest reference to Kashmir dates back to A.D. 541. This relates to the arrival of an Indian Envoy in China during the early part of the reign of Tang dynasty. Kashmir is described as a country “enveloped on all sides like a precious jewel by the snowy mountains, with a valley in the south which leads up to it and serves as a gate of the Kingdom”. Almost all other Chinese accounts of Kashmir give a similar description. Ninety years after this first mention of Kashmir in Chinese records, Hiuen Tsang visited the valley and stayed here as an honoured guest for two years. He entered Kashmir through the valley of Vitasta (present Jehlum). After crossing over mountains and treading along precipices he claims to have arrived at a stone gate which was the western entrance of the Kingdom. During his two year stay he studied Sutras and Sastras and acquainted himself fully with the country. He describes Kashmir which he calls Kia-shi-mi-lo as a country surrounded on all sides by very high mountains which have very narrow and contracted passes for entry. According to him these natural bulwarks have protected the country from its neighbours who have never succeeded in subduing it. He describes the climate as cold and snow plentiful. The soil is described as very fertile with abundance of fruit and flowers. The people are described as light and frivolous, and of a weak and pusillanimous disposition. “The people are handsome in appearance, but they are given to cunning. They love learning and are well instructed”. He recalls many conferences with the Kashmiri doctors of the sacred law. The two full years which Hiuen Tsang spent in Kashmir was the longest halt at any place which he made during his sixteen years of travels through India and Central Asia. Probably after crossing through the hot and dusty plains of India the cool and salubrious climate of Kashmir cast its spell on him. Apart from the earlier Buddhist pilgrims to holy sites in India who halted in Kashmir, the Turki pilgrims from Kashgar,Yarkand, and other parts of Central Asia, whether on their way to Makkah or on their return, never failed to make a long stay in Kashmir in the recent past i.e., just before the partition of India which resulted in total disconnection of Kashmir from its northern neighbours. The next reference to Kashmir in Chinese records relates to the Annals of Tang dynasty which mentions the arrival of the first ambassador from Kashmir sent by Candrapida and then another sent by Muktapida (Lalitaditya) of the Karakot dynasty of the Rajtarangni. In fact, Muktapida had entered into a treaty of military alliance with the rulers of Tang dynasty of China against Tibet which he subsequently raided with a strong Kashmirian army. He failed to conquer it as his entire army perished in the cold and high altitude deserts of Ladakh. After few years of the visit of Muktapida’s envoy, Kashmir was visited by another Chinese pilgrim, OU-KONG. His account is very important in regard to the routes of ancient Kashmir. He gives very clear description of three great routes through the mountains which, since ancient times have formed the main lines of communication between the valley and the outer world. In the east the route leads to Tou-fan or Tibet. This is the road going over Zoji La to Ladakh and thence to Tibet. In the north the route leads to Po-liu or Baltistan which is the route to Gilgit through Upper Kishenganga valley (Gurais and Tilel) and from there to Skardo or Astor on the Indus. The route through the western gate leads to Kien-to-lo or Gandhara. This is the famous Jehlum Valley road which was always the most frequented and easy entry to the valley. Ou-kong also mentions a fourth route which remained always closed and was opened when an imperial army honoured it with a visit. This is the route over the Pir Pantsal range to the south. In fact this route came into prominence only after the Mughals annexed Kashmir in sixteenth century.

After Chinese we can examine the references in the accounts of Muslim scholars. Although the first rush of Arabs into Indus Valley brought them close to Kashmir yet they did not make any attempt to enter it. Even when Islam overspread the whole of Northern India, Kashmir behind its mountain ramparts remained safe for many centuries. In spite of this seclusion of Kashmir, the Arabic literature has very accurate and valuable account of Kashmir. This is due to the research and critical appraisal of ALBERUNI who travelled with Mahmud of Ghazni upto the borders of Kashmir at the fort of Lohkot (presently Loran in Punch). This stronghold of the Kashmiri forces brought the invasion of Mahmud to a standstill and he had to ultimately retreat from here due to the onset of winter. Though this expedition failed to reach Kashmir but it gave Alberuni ample opportunity to collect detailed information on Kashmir. He refers to the pedestrian habits of Kashmiris and mentions that the nobles were carried in palanquins on the shoulders of men. He describes Kashmiris anxiety and care to protect their country. “They are particularly anxious about the natural strength of their country, and therefore take always much care to keep a strong hold upon the entrances and roads leading to it. In consequence it is very difficult to have any commerce with them. In former times they used to allow one or two foreigners to enter their country, particularly Jews, but at present they do not allow any Hindu whom they do not know personally to enter, much less other people”. In ancient Kashmir there was a very efficient system of frontier watch stations known as Davaras and Drangas and the system of rahdari was prevalent till recent times. The head of the frontier watch stations was called the Davara pati. Alberuni’s description of the entire country including its weather is very accurate even though he did not enter it.

Compared to all these references in Greek, Chinese and Arabic literature, there is a lamentable lack of exact geographical mention of Kashmir in general Sanskrit literature. Judging from the extreme scantiness of the data, it is clear that Kashmir to them was a country foreign and remote in every way. The name Kasmira is mentioned as the designation of the country and its people but in a very vague fashion. The Mahabharata refers in many passages to Kasmiras and their rulers but in a general manner without giving distinct location of the country. The most specific piece of information regarding Kashmir that Sanskrit literature outside the Valley furnishes is in the term Kasmira or Kasmiraja that designates Saffron and Kustha for which it was famous since ancient times.


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About the author

Mohammad Ashraf

Mohammad Ashraf, a celebrated travel writer, served as Director General of Tourism in Jammu and Kashmir