Home Books Excerpt: The Making of Early Kashmir by Shonaleeka Kaul

Excerpt: The Making of Early Kashmir by Shonaleeka Kaul


The Making of Early Kashmir; Shonaleeka Kaul; 189pp, Rs 750; Oxford University Press

Through his fingers glided the years, months, weeks, and days, returning again and again without end as in the cycle of existence. —Kalhaṇa


Time is a constant melding of past, present, and future, a mode of stretching which produces a kind of simultaneity in difference. —Henri Bergson

The old world, such as it was, has been lost; a new one has yet to be won. —T. N. Madan

This book is a cultural history/anthropology/geography of early Kashmir. The reason it dons many hats is that the phenomena it investigates, the questions it raises, and the perspectives it employs do not belong to any one discipline. They do all relate, however, to the broad field of culture. Culture has been understood in its essence as shared meanings and values. And after the recent ‘cultural turn’ across the social disciplines, it is understood to be discrete and irreducible to other spheres of human life such as the economic and the political. This book is an attempt to identify and interpret the values and meanings associated with the region called Kashmir from its origins until the 12th century CE. It does so chiefly through the medium of an iconic textual representation composed by a Kashmiri in 1148 CE, Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī. The Making of Early Kashmir is in a primary sense, therefore, a work of textual criticism. It explores early Kashmir as a literary imaginary constructed in a major text. However, that is only the beginning of what this book is about. Synoptically speaking, it is a study of temporality, spatiality, and identity in early Kashmir through a range of discursive and material practices.

The Rājataraṅgiṇī , an epic Sanskrit poem running into nearly 8,000 verses and narrating the story of Kashmir’s royal dynasties over more than a millennium, deserves to be the subject and medium of such an investigation for it is one of Kashmir’s earliest articulations of, and engagements with, a regional self-awareness. This is not the reason, however, why this text has received the rousing scholarly reception that it has over the last two hundred years. As will be explained in detail in Chapter 2, Kalhaṇa’s magnum opus, when translated by European Orientalists in the 19th century, was believed to be the first and only work of true history to be found in all of Sanskrit literature and early India. Given that such an interpretation implied that early Indians otherwise were singularly bereft of a sense of history, this celebration of the text was in fact deprecation of an entire civilization. It was nonetheless embraced by Indian historians and philologists throughout the 20th century in what can perhaps be described as a scramble for coevality with the Western world and its disciplinary parameters.

That the Rājataraṅgiṇī did not call itself history but rather quite unequivocally traditional Sanskrit poetry, mahākāvya or prabandha, and behaved like the latter, complete with its heavy use of rhetoric, myth, and didacticism, was seen as something of an inconvenience and aberration, a disruption and compromising of its otherwise fine display of objectivist qualities such as factuality, impartiality, and causality. Dividing the text against itself thus, the modern scholarly exegesis of the Rājataraṅgiṇī, by and large, ended up transforming it as also suppressing, what this book will argue are, its authentic representational tendencies and rich semantic possibilities. The Making of Early Kashmir is about rehabilitating the Rājataraṅgiṇī to its own literary culture and thereby accessing the wealth of meanings pertaining to early Kashmir that it produced and preserved.

Breathtaking beauty: A nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwal with his flock of sheep and goats on the Mughal Road in Kashmir.
(Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)

Today a part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Valley of the river Vitastā (Jhelum) was, for at least 1,500 years before Kalhaṇa, the kingdom or maṇḍala of Kashmir. This book attempts to understand the discursive and material processes by which it emerged as a historical culture region. Re-examining the relationship between language and expressions of space in premodern India is the entry point for this volume. Arguing for moving beyond the influential binary of ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘vernacular’ literary cultures authored by Sheldon Pollock, this book draws attention to how the Rājataraṅgiṇī, a classic literary representation of regional space, is in the ‘cosmopolitan’ Sanskrit and not in the vernacular tongue, Kashmiri. It thereby provides an important exception to Pollock’s hypothesis as well as defies any formulaic understanding of how premodern South Asian literary cultures related to the spaces they represented. It argues that the Rājataraṅgiṇī is a splendid example of how Sanskrit kāvya adopted and adapted local Kashmiri motifs, locales, and content to a translocal poetics and stood in as the pre-eminent register of regional literary expression. In the process, it inaugurated a critique of local politics as well.

From this position, the book seeks to expand the ways in which the Rājataraṅgiṇī has been looked at — from political history to intellectual and cultural history that entails the production of knowledge and meaning. It is then a case for revisiting the scope of kāvya studies as well, for this book shows on the strength of the Rājataraṅgiṇī how kāvya was not just an inertreceptacle for history but a cognitive and discursive mode of representation that actively constituted and mediated the past for its audiences. This form of history was coterminous with the poet’s vision of the land and its lineages. It is this vision that thebook attempts to decode, this discourse that it seeks to interpret, to raise for the first time questions of landscape and identity for early Kashmir.

Before I explain how the book goes about this, it would be appropriate to say more about the relationship between regional history, culture, and representation to make explicit the premises underlying this exercise. A region does not express or possess intrinsic meaning. Meaning is given or constructed through discursive practices, chief among which is textualization performed by social actors such as Kalhaṇa. A land coming into meaning is the birth of a region, in particular a culture region. So regions are produced not just by material practices on the ground such as the drawing of boundaries or erection of gateways but, perhaps more powerfully, by cultural practices of representation.

A sustained representation inaugurates a discourse on the region, the power and efficacy of which derives from whether it is experienced as authentic by the community which it claims to represent and in which it circulates. The fact that Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī gave rise to at least three sequels by other Kashmiris over the next four, tumultuous centuries of Kashmiri history and was still regarded as the foremost representation of the land by Abul Fazl when the Mughals descended on the Valley in the late 16th century decidedly attests to the persistence of the power and deemed authenticity of Kalhaṇa’s discourse. Perhaps the Rājataraṅgiṇī’s fame and authority would have been confined to intellectuals; nonetheless, to what was owed this prestige and enduring authenticity?

I suggest that it is only when a discourse is embedded in a semantic–conceptual universe that is shared by the community that it can attain currency. For Kalhaṇa and his representation of Kashmir, that shared cultural universe or framework by which people made sense of the world around them drew from the pan-Indic Sanskrit episteme. In particular, Sanskrit’s master texts and genres, such as itihāsa, purāṇa, kāvya, and śāstra, and their ethico-philosophical traditions relating to nīti (principles), dharma (righteousness/duty), and karma (action), were the intertexts that furnished for early Kashmir the criteria for evaluating knowledge as relevant and true. However, in a little-noticed fact, Kalhaṇa’s poem was also a foray into folklore and local oral traditions about the land, seen in the frequent references to janaśruti and kathā (people’s sayings and stories) as the source of verity, and in the invocation of popular memory as witness to Kashmiri history via the formula adyāpi smaryate janaiḥ (‘it is remembered by the people to this day’). This is discussed in Chapter 3. This fact also illuminates Kalhaṇa’s choice of kāvya for being a versatile and flexible mode that could entertain the mythic and the folk alongside classical and conventionalized registers of imagination and representation. The Rājataraṅgiṇī’s authority perhaps stemmed from this apposite combination, among other things.

That notwithstanding, reading Sanskrit culture out of a Sanskrit text may appear somewhat circular. However, as explained in the chapters, we do not get literature in any other endogenous language from early Kashmir. Sanskrit spoke for Kashmir. On a different yet related plane, Kalhaṇa’s elite background, evident not least of all in his choice of a highly learned Sanskrit genre, has been indicted by some scholars as shaping his historical assessments. On a close reading of the text, it appears that Kalhaṇa’s ethical sensibility far outweighed his social ideology. As readers will find, it is not so much a socio-ritual orthodoxy as a politico-moral orthopraxis that is the evaluative criterion for Kalhaṇa, and he does not necessarily conflate the two as modern scholars are wont to do. Instead, though certainly and unsurprisingly a conservative traditionalist and a monarchist, he at times is seen reworking social distinctions in order to foreground ethical ones. Thus he lampoons and abuses figures of ritual or political authority for being pompous, debauched, or treacherous even as he celebrates and valorizes some commoners for their talent and the socially insignificant, such as a prostitute or a cook, for their loyalty or bravery. Everywhere, Kalhaṇa’s constant refrain or vantage, howsoever rhetorical, seems to be people’s welfare (prajānupālanam ); his chief tirade is against persecution of the people (prajāpīḍanam), and, in the highly judgmental piece of poetry that is the Rājataraṅgiṇī, Kalhaṇa spares no one except the pure minded (śuddhadhī, sat, manasvī).

Kalhana’s land: Snow covered mountains in Kashmir
(Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)

Further, though the son of a former minister by the name of Caṇpaka who was possibly dismissed from the court of the Kashmiri King Harṣa, it is noteworthy that Kalhaṇa himself does not appear to have been at any king’s court (albeit he speaks at length and fairly penetratingly about the reigning monarch of his time, Jayasiṁha, the last in the line that he documents). This seems to set Kalhaṇa apart from those of his peers who were court poets. It may account for the remarkably personal, sentimental, and individualistic takes on view in the Rājataraṅgiṇī and the acerbic and hypercritical tone that cuts through Kalhaṇa’s poetry. It also has implications for the kind of extra-royal locales and, therefore, audiences that his composition, which is so steeped in political culture, may have circulated amidst. Of course, the reading communities of the Rājataraṅgiṇī cannot be known for certain, but a description in a contemporary kāvya from Kashmir (Mankha’s Śrīkaṇṭhacarita) of a literary conclave or goṣṭhī gathering at the house of a poet-laureate Alaṁkāra in Srinagar for a poetic performance may well provide a clue. Further, rather than being read privately as a modern novel might, it is possible that Kalhaṇa’s marathon composition was excerpted and its highly vivid content related orally to audiences at such events, true to a traditional rendition of a śravya kāvya (poetry to be heard).


The Making of Early Kashmir is divided into three segments that deal with what I suggest are the text’s treatment of three different aspects of a region: time, space, and a form of space–time, if you will. While the first two concepts appear to be self-explanatory dimensions of apprehending the history of a region (though these are problematized by the Rājataraṅgiṇī, as readers shall see), by space–time I refer to a framework capable of representing movement across spaces through time, in other words, a region’s external linkages in the longue durée. A word about each segment.

The first segment, or Chapter 2, seeks to re-interpret the nature of the text, critiquing traditional scholarly opinion for persistently confining itself to the question of the Rājataraṅgiṇī’s empiricist historical qualities, in the process rejecting the vast rhetorical and figurative component in the poem and inducing flawed oppositions between poetry and history. This chapter emphasizes the need to look instead at the metapoetics of the genre of kāvya to which the Rājataraṅgiṇī belongs, and take seriously the special ontic and epistemic claims it makes on behalf of the kavi (the poet) and his extraordinary access to time — the past, present, and future. Surely this is the main reason behind Kalhaṇa’s choice of kāvya for writing Kashmir’s tale of time. Combining this insight with the theory of ‘narrativity’, I observe that a certain organizing principle, rather than mere seriality, holds together in a unifying logic the multitude of disparate kings in the Rājataraṅgiṇī. I identify that organizing principle, which brings an order of meaning to the sprawling account, as a model of orthopraxis or righteous conduct according to which Kalhaṇa classifies and narrativizes — not just narrates —Kashmiri kings from the earliest till the poet’s own time. I further argue that the same ethical paradigm served as Kalhaṇa’s mechanism for generating and structuring temporality.

Much as historians privilege chronos as the chief interest of their discipline, bereft of topos time is rendered abstract and valueless. Indeed place is time made visible. Operating with the understanding that spatiality is as integral to historicality as time, the second segment, Chapter 3, is devoted to teasing out how the text transformed an abstract space into a specific place, namely Kashmir. Using the analytic of ‘landscape’, I identify certain practices of place that the text employs to elaborate a region and a homeland. These included naturalistic and symbolic means. The chapter charts and analyses the Rājataraṅgiṇī’s representation of the physical features of the land of Kashmir and the range of cultural constructions put on these through myth and memory. In other words, it views the land as landscape: geography overlaid with narrative that generated a rootedness in the land. So the interpretation of myth in this book is not as history’s primeval other, but as a special kind of historical strategy in so far as it inscribed and memorialized historical places and also stitched them to time. For a place with a sense of self so fashioned, reclaiming the past, or writing history, was a means to strengthening the self. And given that landscape is manifested narration, the key to the Rājataraṅgiṇī’s portrayal of Kashmir as a deeply sacred geography was also, I argue, to provide a synergistic backdrop against which Kalhaṇa’s ethicized political commentary could unfold. Geography and polity were brought together to essay an instructive contrast. Finally, the Rājataraṅgiṇī’s vivifi cation of Kashmir as a landscape is shown in this chapter as a primary site for the intersection of the local and the universal in the literary constitution of Kashmir’s regional identity.

Read more: What is Kashmiriyat?

The third segment, Chapter 4, adopts the lens of ‘connected histories’ to formulate the geo-cultural location of early Kashmir and situate her in relation to the cultural configurations bounding her. In particular, it focuses on the relationship between the region and the supra-region, India, which has its resonance again in the vernacular and cosmopolitan literary traditions coming together in early Kashmir. How does the Rājataraṅgiṇī understand this location? Can it be seen as a literary response to liminality and a peripheral and acculturated identity for Kashmir vis-à-vis the Indic cultural zone? Or were other dynamics at work? And what do non-textual imaginaries testify in this regard?

Towards this end, Chapter 4 first maps Kashmir’s cultural encounters with other regions near and far, which the Rājataraṅgiṇī refers to in abundance, and measures, as it were, the role these may have played in Kashmir’s emergence as a culture region from very early times. Then it also steps out of the text to examine other crucial markers of cultural identity and mobility: archaeology, art, script, and language from the early historic up to the early medieval period in the Valley and, selectively, in Gāndhāra, Gilgit–Baltistan, Jammu, Ladakh, Himachal, and Punjab. Howsoever limited, this to my knowledge, is the first such interpretive piecing together and joining-of-the-dots, as it were, of the material-cultural history of not just early Kashmir, which otherwise suffers from massive gaps and silences, but the West Himalayan zone and the subcontinental North-West all together. Juxtaposing the testimony of this range of cultural markers and the traditions they attest suggests a new way in which to regard questions of region and regionality in early Indian history, one that takes us away from static and unilinear conceptions such as ‘centre–periphery’ and ‘acculturation’, towards an appreciation of broad cultural flows and movements of astonishing reach. This and other theoretical positions that emerge from the studies contained in this book are enunciated in the conclusion, that is, Chapter 5.


Author Shonaleeka Kaul

While works on medieval, modern/colonial, and contemporary Kashmir may abound, serious discursive scholarship on the ancient past of this troubled land has been inadequate, so that historical analysis of modern Kashmir, too (Mridu Rai, Chitralekha Zutshi), has tended to operate in virtually a vacuum, sometimes naturalizing the vitiated present. Existing histories of early Kashmir, such as they are, have by and large relied on a literal, if not verbatim, duplication of the procession of royal dynasties and events figuring in the Rājataraṅgiṇī (Francis Younghusband, PNK Bamzai, James Ferguson), never rising above the face value of the text’s contents to an exploration of its symbolic and discursive universe. While empiricist studies (Harold Wilson, Aurel Stein, George Buhler) tended to make of Kashmir something of a curiosity and quaint exception in harbouring a historiographical impulse, later specialized works (Rafaelle Torella, Bettina Baumer) on the philosophical innovations in early Kashmir, though profound, by centring on Tantric Śaivism or dhvani aesthetics, tended to create the impression of Kashmir as a mélange of a few cultural exhibits, rather than a complexly constituted culture region. While some (BK Kaul Deambi) did go descriptively into aspects of Kashmir’s external linkages, these were seen as off shoots of her ‘genius’ and her ‘contributions’ to the world, rarely analysed or theorized in terms of implications for Kashmir’s own regional identity.

Indeed, while historically thin notions of a peculiarly pluralist identity (‘Kashmiriyat’) have been devised for medieval Kashmir down to Independence, and claims of a regional identity based on a single religion for contemporary Kashmir are proferred, there is little understanding in mainstream scholarship of the emergence of early Kashmir as a culture region (as different from a geographical region) and the many material, linguistic, literary, ethnic, ritual, artistic — and not only religious — processes that constituted it as such. One likes to believe that recent work in the West (YigalBronner, Lawrence McCrea, Walter Slaje) is attempting to rediscover ancient Kashmir through the medium of Sanskrit literary theory but there, too, coming from philology, a fuller integration of the literary with the historical–anthropological perspective, as also a consideration of the interface of Sanskritic with vernacular culture, is at best a project in progress.

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This book locates itself within this nascent recasting of the gaze on early Kashmir but does so using fresh hermeneutical and comparative–historical methods and perspectives. It asks new, interdisciplinary questions of a comprehensive range of discursive and material representations of early Kashmir in the hope of defining the region both spatially and ideationally. The Making of Early Kashmir does not claim or seek to be a comprehensive analysis of all of early Kashmiri culture. Its chief ambitions are: first, putting out a critical reinterpretation of a literary classic of iconic stature, in the process defining anew the problem of history and historicality in premodern South Asia. And second, bringing clarity to our understanding of the genesis and cultural composition of a region long subject to scholarly and political assumptions and clichés, if not neglect.



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