History & Culture

Mohand Marg: Sir Aurel Stein’s Private Kingdom & Indira Gandhi’s Honeymoon Destination

Of Kashmir’s idyllic spots there is no dearth and no dearth is there about the paeans that describe the beauty of the land.  Among the popular meadow destinations frequented by a large number of visitors to Kashmir include Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Bisaran, Yusmarg and Khilanmarg. However, there is another ‘Marg’ that is hardly known and never visited by the tourists in general and even almost never talked about by the Kashmiris themselves.

This obscure meadow land  is  the verdant alpine grazing ground called Mohand Marg hidden in the mountains to the north of Srinagar at the foot of  Haramukh Peaks about 25 kilometers along the road to Leh.  After going up the steep path from the edge of the road at Ganderbal   through the  hill-side settlements and fields of Nunnar, Manigam and Andravan, the ‘Marg’ opens out across the mountain side giving views of the Sindh Valley far below in one direction and the Valley of Kashmir in the other.

Mohand Marg was formally located for the first time in 1895 by Aurel Stein, the editor, translator and annotator of the famous Kashmir chronicle Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and the far famed legendary explorer and archaeologist of Central Asia. Ever since, till Sir Stein’s death in 1943 in Kabul, Mohand Marg remained his summer camping abode whenever he was in Kashmir. It was from here he made all his famous explorations into Central Asia in the years 1900, 1906, 1913 and 1930.

Later, he even wrote all the four reports of these expeditions at Mohand Marg which on an occasion or two were marked by lighting bonfire as mark of celebration. Stein was always glad to find himself back in his alpine kingdom after each return from his four great expeditions to Central Asia. And there were few times in his life when he felt happy to leave it. In a way this association, between Stein and Mohand Marg, has become a ubiquitous reference to his Central Asian scholarship and research. Sir Stein called the ‘Marg’ his ‘own little kingdom’. Pine and fir trees skirt the ‘Marg’ and clothe the slopes below. Flowers fill it in the summer.

The ‘Marg’ provides a dazzling view where one can breathe the pine scented air or to use Sir Stein’s phrase “the avalanche perfume”. Once there you can never be too tired or too pre-occupied to enjoy the salubrious atmosphere. At ‘Marg’ one may be alone but never lonely. Warm sunshine, rare grass and alpine flowers are a sight out of the world. Here, in the pine scented balmy salubrious-air, hang the folk tales of Panzil, the stories of the Rajatarangini and accounts of Sir Stein’s explorations into Central Asia. Stein even fascinated that he were cremated there when the end would come. However, that was not to be as he died in the far off Kabul.

Those few who have visited and seen Mohand Marg compare its breath-taking beauty to that of the Deosai Plateau and Dodpathri expanse; some even claim that it surpasses both. Camping here is a rendezvous with the old history, culture and literature of Kashmir. It is a spot that whispers the virgin serenity of Kashmir’s landscape; a silent retreat of an unencumbered life where one feels cut off from the horrors of the mundane by cozying in the lap of ‘Nature’. Unfettered life under canvas at Mohand Marg holds the unique charm and dual key to one’s inner orientation and outer life. For nearly five decades, Mohand Marg was Sir Stein’s adopted home and the entire meadow was his private kingdom. There, he lived with his camp entourage that included his faithful retainers like Sattar Pohul, Rustom Pohul, Ismail Ghanai and Ali Bhat and his trusted assistant Ram Chand Bali.

However, apart from Stein not many are known to have lived or camped at Mohand Marg except for his few European scholar friends like Fred Andrews in 1913, Maurice Winternitz in 1923, Franklin Edgerton in 1927 and Ervin Baktay in 1929 when they visited him there. Among the native Kashmiri scholars who are known to have  visited Stein at Mohand Marg but perhaps not stayed with him  overnight or  for any longer duration include Pandit Kashi Ram and Pandit Nityanand Shastri. Their visits to Mohand Marg are evidenced in photographs preserved in the Stein Papers presently housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Surprisingly, however, there is no recorded reference or any document to show that Stein’s best Indian friend and chief collaborator on Rajatarangini, Pandit Govind Kaul, ever visited him at Mohand Marg.

Aurel Stein and group saying farewell to two ladies starting for Haramukh trek at Mohand Marg, c. 1940. Cat. Stein LHAS Photo

After Stein’s death in 1943 that followed with the erection of the memorial stone on the site of his camping ground at Mohand Marg in 1947, the place fell silent in public memory. However, in more recent times there has been a shift to rediscover Aurel Stein in Kashmir. Only recently in September 2017, a two-day international conference: ‘Aurel Stein from Kashmir to Central Asia’ was hosted by the Centre for Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University. Many scholars both from India and abroad that included scholars from Iran and England presented their papers at the conference.  It followed with the replacement of the vandalized Stein Memorial Stone at Mohand Marg by installing a new tri-faced memorial stone with epitaphs in Urdu, English and Sanskrit in December 2017. The task undertaken is the collaborative achievement of Yasin Zargar of the Indus Discoveries, London, in association and active help of  the Kashmir Chapter of INTACH, and the Department of  Tourism, Government of Jammu & Kashmir. Alongside, the Stein Museum is under construction at Lar in District Ganderbal. All these initiatives are a multi-focused effort to revive Stein’s Kashmir legacy and promote heritage tourism in Kashmir.

However, despite the pre-eminent importance of Mohand Marg as an exceptionally scenic spot from the point of view of tourism and its association with many names connected with world-class native and western scholarship, no other names of historically public significance have been linked to Mohand Marg. And yet there is one personality of great historical importance but unfortunately erased from public memory.

This relates to the honeymoon trip of Feroze and Indira Gandhi to Mohand Marg in the summer of 1942. Their marriage took place at Anand Bhawan in Allahabad on March 26, 1942. The day coincided with the Ramnavmi that year. All near relatives of the Nehru family except Indira’s maternal grandmother Rajpati Kaul attended the ceremony. She was prevented to join the celebrations due to illness. The entire marriage was filmed by the well known American scholar-filmmaker Norvin Hein. Among the important foreign guests at the marriage included writer and journalist Eve Curie, the youngest daughter of the Nobel Prize in Physics winners Marie and Pierre Curie. However, the most important of all the foreign guests was Sir Stafford Cripps who had arrived in India a couple of days earlier in connection with Britain’s offer to give India a dominion status or what subsequently came to be known as the Cripps Mission. Cripps came to stay, as guest of the Nehru’s, at Anand Bhawan in Allahabad. During his stay there, he was the only vegetarian in the household with very little fruit and vegetables in the Allahabad markets at the time. To overcome the curious situation “the Nehrus sent all the way to Kabul for melons and to Quetta for grapes”. Indira with charm and grace looked after Sir Cripps and on one occasion offered him some potato chips saying innocently: “Please do have some potato Cripps”. However, everyone present on the occasion enjoyed the slip of tongue.

After the marriage, Feroze and Indira moved into their rented home at 5, Fort Road in Allahabad. Sometime in late May, as the mercury shot up in the Indian plains, the couple set off for a belated honeymoon to Kashmir. There, Sheikh Abdullah was their host.  As a good friend of Pandit Nehru, he took it almost as his duty to accompany the newlyweds wherever they would go. It was odd but is true that Sheikh often knocked at the couple’s door announcing that he “was ready for breakfast with picnic lunch to follow”. Finding that such intrusions sometimes violated the privacy of the young couple, Indira with all her tact, on one particular occasion, persuaded Sheikh to leave her and Feroze alone.

During their two months stay in Kashmir, both Feroze and Indira found the weather there heavenly and the air bracing. As they drove to Srinagar, they saw the hillside covered with wild flowers while the valley looked carpeted with daises. But more invigorating was their experience to sight “the mountain peaks surrounding the valley that still had dazzling snowcaps”. During their trip to Gulmarg, the couple wired to Nehru then at Allahabad: “Wish we could send you some cool breeze from here”. To this Nehru, knowing how fond Feroze and Indira were of mangoes, responded in a cable reply without any delay: “Thanks. But you have no mangoes”.

Throughout their euphoria in the ‘lotus land’, Feroze stayed by Indira’s side all the time. In Srinagar, their activities included visits to the Mughal Gardens, walk along the banks of Jhelum River and boat rides on the serene waters of the Dal Lake. To it were added short excursions to the mountainsides interspersed by brief shopping visits to the floating market and uptown shops. Giving a graphic description of their holiday after visits to Pahalgam and Sonamarg, Indira wrote to her father (Nehru) on June 3, 1942. “We are having a glorious time. I am so full of the joy of discovering Kashmir”.

In another letter, she reported about her four days trek on horseback to the Kolhai Glacier. And when they returned to Srinagar, they spent “three days on a houseboat- three glorious moonlit nights”.

Continuing with their honeymoon, Feroze and Indira now scampered to seclusion. The spot they chose was Mohand Marg, Stein’s private kingdom. However, nothing is known as to who suggested them this far off meadow; nor there is any hint that they themselves knew about the scintillating grandeur of this place to have attracted them to spend there a few days. However, one thing is known quite well that on this trip they were joined by Mohammad Yunus, a close ‘Nehru family friend”.

It is also known that at the time Feroze and Indira camped at Mohand Marg, Aurel Stein was away to Indus Kohistan. Hence, they never met each other. “The Marg that summer knew Stein but briefly, just time enough for him to write the Introduction for the portfolio of wall paintings” he had discovered earlier in Chinese Turkestan. It is also not known if the couple knew about Stein’s work in Kashmir and also about his pioneering expeditions to Central Asia.

Portraying a pen-picture of her enchantment by the scenic beauty of Mohand Marg, Indira yet again wrote to her father: “Truly if there is a heaven, it must be this. There is nothing in Switzerland to compare with these flower-filled slopes, the sweet-scented breezes, running water that pours over the soul the anodyne of forgetfulness and peace. Since I cannot bottle the beauty of Mohand Marg, I am sending you two little flowers as token; forget-me-not and edelweiss. They both grow in abundance along with anemone, buttercups, Dutch slippers and a host of other so-called Alpine flowers”.

Perhaps Indira’s description of Mohand Marg echoed that of Stein himself after his maiden visit to this picturesque spot in 1895. In a letter addressed to his elder brother Ernst Stein, wrote Aurel Stein:  “I will leave my bellowed meadow on September 6. It is in full glory and bloom and the meadows are covered in foot-high flowers and look like the most magnificent carpet in the world. The main colours are blue and yellow. I will quit the alpine world with many regrets”.

From the two, almost similar, maiden descriptions about the beauty of Mohand Marg, it is therefore, not at all a hazard to guess that souls of both Indira Gandhi and Aurel Stein communicated with same verve and emotion to its scintillating beauty. Their inner resonance synchronized like echoes!

Mohand Marg was the bridge that joined their respective souls even though they never met in life and their worldly vocations were so different.

This peculiar situation and the abstract relationship in absentia  between the two, however, leaves us with just  one conclusion and that is: Their spiritual threads provide strong bonds that join all those who believe that mutual values of Kashmir’s past provide the soundest base on which to lay its future. By following their example we travel many paths and not only those that lead us to Mohand Marg.

With several ongoing initiatives to revive Stein’s Kashmir legacy and Mohand Marg coming out of obscurity, it can be hoped that the ‘Marg’ earns its coveted recognition as the future tourist destination in Kashmir. The combination of history and picturesque beauty holds the promise for its new destiny.

 

 

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