Tourists enjoy shikara ride on the waters of Dal Lake in Srinagar. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Kashmir, today, has become synonymous with turmoil, but there was a fascinating phase in its history that goes back to the time before the Chinars lined its slopes.

The memories of a peaceful and serene Kashmir with its abounding natural beauty are gradually fading from the collective consciousness of the people. Today, the mention of Kashmir brings to mind images of protest marches and stone pelting, counter-terrorism measures and heated public debates.

The crimson Chinars of autumn or the snow-capped slopes of Gulmarg and Sonmarg are no longer the subjects of discussion on Kashmir. The history of Kashmir is now firmly latched on to the political situation in the region. But there was a fascinating phase in the history of Kashmir, which goes back to the time before the Chinars lining its slopes were born. The history of Kashmir begins with the history of its geography.

About 50 million years ago, the gigantic Indian Plate collided with the Asian Plate. The sea of Tethys, which separated the Indian and Asian plates, was subducted under the colliding plates. The collision gave rise to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. The gradual collision created the Pir Panjal and the Zanskar ranges in the Himalayas, between which the valley of Kashmir lies today. The climate of the region changed as the collision continued.

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The northern reaches started becoming colder as the altitude increased. Increase in the elevation of the Himalayas also set in motion the monsoons. However, around three million years ago, the Pir Panjal range was high enough to block the monsoon winds from blowing into the valley. As a result, the tropical climate of the valley turned into a temperate one.

The climatic and tectonic changes resulted in the formation of large glaciers in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. These then gave birth to rivers, which drained into the lower reaches of the mountains, and ultimately flowed down the northern plains of India. Some of these rivers drained their water into the valley, forming a large lake known as the Karewas Lake. The entire basin of the valley, roughly 5,200 sq km, turned into a freshwater lake. The lake probably continued to grow until tectonic activities and erosion created an outlet, near Baramulla, for the water to drain out. This left an extremely fertile valley for human settlement.

Legends Surrounding The Draining Of Lake Karewas

The first cultural evidence in the valley dates back to around 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic phase. Archaeologists at the Archaeological Survey of India have excavated stone tools, pit dwellings, and pottery from the region. However, human settlement would have started much before the Neolithic phase began. That must have been the time when the valley had large water bodies still draining out from the Baramulla breach.

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There are interesting references to the large lake being drained out to make the valley fit for habitation.

The two most prominent references to the draining of Karewas Lake feature in the Nilamata Purana and the travel records of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim.

Both legends tell us the story of how the lake was drained out, but in very different ways. According to the Nilamata Purana, the lake was breached when the gods were fighting a battle with a demon called Jalodbbava. The demon was raised by the Nagas of the lake and attained supreme powers from Brahma. The demon was invincible while in water, and hence Ananta, the serpent, breached the mountain walls to drain the water, leaving the demon vulnerable.

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The legend recorded by Xuanzang (Buddhist Records of the Western World, Samuel Beal, 1884), on the other hand, talks about a dragon. According to the Buddhist legend, a monk, Madhyantika, was meditating on the hills along the lake. Impressed by the powers of the monk, the dragon in the lake sought his blessings and asked what his wish was. The monk asked for space to sit in the middle of the lake. The dragon drained a piece of the lake to make room for the monk to sit. The monk, however, grew in size and soon all the water of the lake has to be drained for the monk to sit. Thus was created the valley of Kashmir.

The Buddhist legend incorporates the elements of Nilamata Purana and has a striking similarity to the legend of Bali in Kerala. The legend mentions the demand of Vamana, the incarnation of Vishnu, for land enough to cover his three paces.

The legends recorded by the Hindu and Buddhist sources match with the modern geological findings. Research has proven that the sediments in the valley are largely fluvio-lacustrine in nature, formed by the movement of rivers (moving water). This might mean that people living in the region witnessed the reduction of the water levels in the valley and assumed that the entire valley was once a large lake, and that is how the legends became popular.

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The legend of Karewas Lake is similar to other flood myths in India. The drowning of Dwarka, off the coast of Gujarat, or that of the ancient city of Puhar in Tamil Nadu is recorded in popular mythology. These cities were flooded gradually due to rising sea levels and marine erosion. The story of their destruction has been passed down through generations, woven into legends. Archaeological findings have now confirmed these legends to be true, not so much the stories but the act itself.

Buddhism And Hinduism In Kashmir

The draining of the Karewas Lake is the beginning of the history of Kashmir. Like the rest of India, Kashmir also went through multiple phases of cultural changes. Xuanzang, the Chinese traveller, gives a very detailed account of Kashmir and its Buddhist culture. Not just the valley but almost the entire Northern Areas (now in Pakistan) including Gilgit and Baltistan were a hotbed of Buddhism since the Mauryan times. Annual religious councils were organised in the Northern Areas by the kings to patronise the monks. Ashoka is believed to have commissioned a number of stupas in the region, and Kanishka turned the Karakoram Pass into a Buddhist missionary highway.

Buddhism was introduced by Indian monks in China through the Karakoram trade caravans travelling to Xinjiang. The first statues of Buddha in China were inspired by the Kushan artists. That is the reason, even today, the statues of Buddha in much of China and the Far East resemble some of the oldest statues found in Kashmir and modern-day northern Pakistan. As Buddhism started to wane, the valley and its adjoining regions became predominantly Hindu.

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By the time Al-Biruni visited India in the early eleventh century, Kashmir had lost most of its Buddhist influence. There is no mention of Kashmir’s Buddhist culture in Al-Biruni’s accounts. He could not manage to reach Kashmir since it was fiercely defended against foreigners. He, however, left a detailed account of the region through his interactions with travellers. He believed Kashmir to be one of the greatest centres of Hindu sciences – the other being Varanasi. He also mentions the Sharada Peeth, which he says had a wooden statue, venerated by the people.

Kashmir continued its tradition of learning well into the medieval period and produced a large body of literature in Sanskrit, Persian, and later in Urdu.

The current articulation of Kashmir’s history would probably camouflage this rich Buddhist and Hindu heritage and make it sound synonymous with Islamic history. But that is a topic for another time.

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The lament will remain that despite a rich history of arts, culture, and science, the modern discourse of Kashmir has become limited to one of bloodshed, terrorism, and violence.

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