Kashmir: Joining dots along the Silk Road

The “Ancient Kashmir” was historically much better connected with its Northern neighbours than the present “Modern Kashmir”! Some of the main aspects of life which show Central Asian influence are the Kashmiri cuisine as well as the world famous Kashmiri Handicrafts. A typical example, which every Kashmiri home can boast of is the Samovar. Kashmir’s most revered King Zain-ul-Abidin popularly known as Budshah is supposed to have spent two years in Royal Court of Tashkent where from he brought the artisans who introduced the famous handicrafts in Kashmir. Crafts are very well developed in Kashmir. Some of the outstanding craftsmen who make handmade plaids live here. You can always buy a plaid (in Ukrainian to плед купить) in a workshop or in a specialized store. These handicrafts were over a period of time improved and perfected by the enterprising Kashmiri craftsmen. Kashmir and Ladakh figured on one of the branches of the famous “Silk-Route”. This was a very important and busy trade route of the earliest times. Spices and condiments from India would be taken to Central Asian countries through this route and the caravans would return with Silk, Pashmina wool and dry fruit. Srinagar’s Kaka Sarai (Inn) was a halting point for some of the caravans from Ladakh as well as Yarqand. There was one more Sarai near Safa Kadal. The caravans would normally use the double humped Bactrian camels commonly seen in Central Asian deserts. Some of these camels are still in the Nubra valley of Ladakh. Leh was another important halt on this route. The most adventurous and dangerous travels between Leh and Central Asian countries as well as Chinese Turkistan have been beautifully portrayed by Ghulam Rasool Galwan in his book “Servant of the Sahibs”. Till the advent of Islam, Kashmir’s major religious and social interactions had been with its Southern neighbours. These exchanges were mostly with Southern parts of India because of the predominant Saivite Hindu religion, which was common to both. North India being predominantly Vedanta had a much lower interaction with Kashmir. However, even during Hindu period of Kashmir’s history, there were many exchanges and interactions with Chinese. Tibet was a source of disturbance and nuisance for both the countries. Raj Tarangni mentions that there existed a treaty of Military Alliance between Kashmir’s Karakot dynasty and Tang rulers of China against Tibet. Laltadatiya Muktapid is supposed to have mounted an expedition against Tibet, which proved disastrous and he lost his entire army en route. Once Kashmir became a Muslim State, the interaction with Central Asian States as well as Chinese Turkistan increased appreciably. Muslim Pilgrims from these places used to go for Hajj through Kashmir and would halt for sometime in Srinagar. The greatest exodus of Yarqandis took place in 1949 after the Maoist Revolution in China. Caravans after caravans of refugees from Chinese Turkistan descended on Srinagar. Most of these were rich and upper class people called the “Bourgeoisie” by the communists. They were the Aristocracy of the countries overtaken by the communists. Most of these settled in some colonies near Eid Gah in the old city and lived in penury. Some of the members of former Aristocracy would go begging in Srinagar. However, most of them started some small trades. There may be still some Yarqandis selling the “Nana Kebab” and other Central Asian Delicacies like the Yarqandi Pulao. Subsequently quite a few of these migrated to a number of foreign countries. There was also some interaction between Kashmir and Tibet after the Third Buddhist Council of first century AD when Bhikshus from Kashmir travelled to China and other places with the message of the new Mahayana School of Buddhism. The famous Tibetan Prince Rin Cin Zangpo is supposed to have taken about 100 Muslim artists from the valley to Ladakh and Tibet. The world famous frescoes on the walls of Alchi Monastery in Ladakh are supposed to have been painted by these Muslim artists from Kashmir. These frescoes are very intricate and beautiful miniatures painted all over the Monastery walls and on the legs of the two storeys high statues of Buddha. These paintings date back to eleventh century AD. There are clear depictions of Kings and Queens, Arabs and other persons showing Muslim influences of the artists. The other important as well as intriguing journey from Kashmir to Tibet is that of Jesus Christ. This is attributed to a manuscript in Hemis Monastery discovered by a Russian Traveller and Explorer, Nikolai Notovich in 1889. This story is still a legend and has not been fully established. However, it points to the connection which Kashmir had with these countries in the past. It was supposed to be an easy conduit to the Central Asian States, Chinese Turkistan, and Tibet from the Indian sub-continent. Kashmir’s vicinity to the Russian Empire through the Pamirs prompted the British to establish a foot hold in Gilgit to keep a check on expansionist designs of the Czars. There is a very strong spiritual link of Kashmir with Central Asia. The Kashmir’s patron Saint Shah-i-Hamadan, (Sayed Ali Hamadani) who was the leading light for the spread of Islam in Kashmir is buried in Katlan in Tajikistan. He had travelled there through Ladakh. A mosque in Shey near Leh is attributed to him as he is supposed to have halted and prayed there for sometime. The events of 1947 totally cut off Kashmir from its Northern neighbours. Even Leh, which always had a strong religious connection with Lahasa in Tibet got completely disconnected. During last half century Kashmiris have only been exposed to influences from the sub-continent. The Central Asian traits have gone into background and there has been Indianisation and in the other part Punjabiasation of Kashmiris. However, the only lucky people who have continued some interaction with Central Asia and Chinese Turkistan, even though of a limited level are from the Northern Areas of Pakistan. This is due to the construction of Karakoram highway by Chinese. People living in those parts do not need a visa to travel to Chinese Turkistan and other places. They get local permits and there is a lot of trade with China through this route. The first and foremost step to restore Kashmir’s ancient and historical character is to get routes to Central Asia and Chinese Turkistan reopened. Similarly Leh should be re-connected to Lahasa through the ancient route upstream Indus entering Tibet near Demchok. Incidentally, I had visited the famous John Hopkins Institute of Advanced International Studies in Washington during my visit to USA in 1998. I was surprised to know that they had clubbed all studies on Kashmir under the Department of Central Asian Studies rather than the Department of South Asian Studies to which I had been referred by some people from outside. They have always been considering Kashmir to be more strongly connected to Central Asia than to South Asia or the Indian sub-continent. May be if Kashmiris are allowed free travel to all their neighbouring countries with whom they have had strong cultural links, the complexion of the whole problem changes and the peace returns faster? Sometimes isolating and confining a person to a totally new environment after disconnecting him from his historical past also creates deep psychological problems. A free and open Kashmir could once again become an important hub on the “Ancient Silk Route” and a meeting point for Central and South Asia. Will someone take the initiative?


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