Kashmir: A forgotten history – II

In this series, we attempt to redress the glaring academic neglect of the longue durée historical identity of Kashmir and the knowledge vacuum that underwrites political discourse on the Valley. We do so by delving into some essential aspects of 2,000 years of the formative history of this prodigious land. These show early Kashmir was historically never isolated or insular, as she is made out to be, but incredibly open and cosmopolitan; and she was overwhelmingly Indic in her genesis and composition rather than ‘unique’.

Indeed, Kashmir is as unique as any and every region of this most diverse country called India. But the assumption that this uniqueness derived from an isolation from the Indic mainstream is simply unhistorical. So in particular this series presents the staggering historical evidence of the connected histories of Kashmir and the rest of India, which the world has conveniently forgotten.

We saw last time how textual testimony after testimony from observers outside Kashmir—from the rest of India and foreign chroniclers—established a clear understanding of her belonging well within India from at least the 5th century BCE onwards. It is only natural then that evidence from inside early Kashmir—archaeology, linguistics, script, politics, art, literature, philosophy, religion—also attests to a constant synchronicity with the Indic mainland. Yet this has been completely overlooked in the modern narrative on the Valley. Let us look at some of these cultural markers from Kashmir’s founding history.

Civilisation comes to Kashmir at the same time as in the rest of India circa 6th century BCE, and in the same form, designated as the Northern Black Polished Ware culture. NBPW is associated with the rise and spread of cities, punch-marked coinage, commerce, and state society in the Ganga Valley and central India, and then over most of the subcontinent, in a phenomenon known as Second Urbanisation. The site of Semthan, 44 km south of Srinagar, has yielded important evidence of this diagnostic NBPW material culture from 500 to 200 BCE, including the same deluxe pottery, silver and copper punch-marked coins (including a type associated with the Mauryan kingdom of Bihar!), building construction, copper and iron objects, and stone and terracotta beads. 

All these appearing in the Valley simultaneously with the rest of India is significant—but should not be surprising. For Kashmir was in fact within reach of one of the two great pan-Indian trade and communication routes of the time, the Northern Uttarapatha, which ran from Peshawar to Bengal, and in turn connected with the Southern Dakshinapatha, which extended from Bihar into peninsular and coastal India.

Now, Kashmir was geographically and historically proximate to two of the north-western-most cities of the Uttarapatha: Takshashila in the Peshawar plains via the Baramulla Pass, and Shakala (Sialkot) in Punjab through the Sidau, Toshamaidan and Pir Panjal Passes. So the great ancient Indian travel and communication network connected through Shakala and Takshashila to Srinagar, in the process no doubt transmitting Indic culture, material and intellectual, back and forth. In fact Takshashila and Shakala themselves were great centres of Sanskritic learning. But while at Takshasila we also get remains of Hellenistic material culture, in Kashmir we hardly do.

Speaking of Sanskrit, it is among the earliest historical languages we have in Kashmir, just like the rest of India. This is seen in the first Kashmiri texts, Nilamata Purana (7th century) and Rajatarangini (12th century), composed in Sanskrit; in the long list of Kashmiri place-names  that are all derived from Sanskrit (Anantnag, Srinagar, Sopore, Baramulla, Tulmul, Kanraz, Maraz and so on); and in a large number of the coins and inscriptions recovered, not just from Kashmir but also from Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, Ladakh and Peshawar, which mention the Indic epithets of local kings like maharaja and shri, and their Sanskritic names, like Meghavahana, Navasurendradityavarman, Lalitaditya, etc. Iconic historical documents from this wider culture region, such as the Buddhist Gilgit manuscript and the mathematical Bakhshali manuscript, are also in Sanskrit.

Indeed it is through Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan that, along with Buddhism, Sanskrit, which was described by the 7th century Chinese traveller Xuan Zang as “the language of India”, spread in the trans-Himalayas, i.e in Khotan, Kucha, Turfan and Sogdia. There is abundant epigraphic and manuscript evidence for this in those lands from the fifth to the tenth century CE.

But what about Kashmiri, the vernacular tongue? Though there is little evidence of it being written before the 13th century, literary references suggest that it was spoken from early on. The origins of Kashmiri is a significant question since language is deemed an important indicator of ethnic and cultural identity. So where did Kashmiri come from?

George Grierson’s view from 150 years ago that Kashmiri was a Dardic and not Indo-Aryan (IA) language like Sanskrit has long been rejected. After the work of linguists George Morgenstierne and Colin Masica, it is now known that so-called Dardic languages like Kashmiri and Shina cannot be distinguished from IA languages at all but are simply “a bundle of aberrant IA hill languages”. Moreover, as S S Toshkhani and others have demonstrated, Kashmiri can be traced to a form of speech that closely resembles archaic or Vedic Sanskrit, sometimes mediated through Prakrit. Thus Kashmiri and Sanskrit—and indeed the vast majority of Indian languages from the IA family—would then be cognate languages, so that linguistically as well we are looking at a horizontal continuum between Kashmir and the rest of India.

(To be continued)

(The first part of this monthly series was published on 20 April 2021. The second part was delayed due to unavoidable reasons)

Shonaleeka Kaul, Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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