A Himalayan Necklace

At the time of collusion of the Indian subcontinent with the land mass of Asia, about one hundred million years ago, nature carefully disposed the Pir Panjal range in the Himalayas to be the necklace of the complex.

Strewn with jewels of peaks of varying heights ranging from 5,000ft to 16830ft, Pir Panjal encompasses the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the northern areas of Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza and Nagar etc. The range has also been witness to numerous politico-cultural inroads, starting with the mighty Mughals, continuing with the unruly Sikhs as well as the colonial Anglo Saxons and the present, less fortunate, perpetually warring nations of Hindus and Muslims.

The range, running south to northwest, dissects the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in two parts, up to Muzaffarabad district, beyond which Sulaiman, Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges come into play.

The Pir Panjal’s own crown jewels cosist of Banihal Pass 9,200ft, Pir Panjal Pass, 11,400ft, Tattakuti 15,524 ft, Bedori 12,560ft, Haji Pir Pass 8,500ft, Ganga Choti 10,200 ft. and Tutmar Gali in Kazinag complex, 12,531 ft. All these peaks are strewn across the vast expanse of Kashmir.

However, other than the height of the mountains, the most frequent and scary feature of these peaks and ridge lines is lightening. As Captain Montogomerie stated in his account, “on the Pir Panjal peaks the electricity was so troublesome, even when there was no storm, that it was found necessary to carry a portable lightning conductor for the protection of the theodolite.”

Pir Panjal range enters the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the mountain state of Chamba in the southeast before being cut by the Chenab in Jammu. Pir Panjal continues northwest to form the high southern rim of the vale, with peaks up to 16,830 ft., deep wooded valleys, and torrents on its southern flanks, and fine alpine pastures lie on its northern rim. Gulmarg 8,700 ft, the sporting and holiday centre, is typical of these. West of Baramula, at the western end of the vale, Pir Panjal is pierced by river Jhelum in a deep gorge.

While Jammu, Poonch and the southern ranges have a considerable rainfall from June to Sept – in August more than 12.5 inches in both places – the greater part of the Kashmir Vale is sheltered from the monsoon by the Pir Panjal.

The Valleys of Ladakh and Baltistan are largely shielded from both monsoon and western disturbances, and have usually less than 101in. of annual precipitation. But the higher ranges of Baltistan and Karakoram get considerably more rain.

Of the numerous hill stations that dot the Indian subcontinent, Nainital (6,400ft), Simla (7,000ft), Murree, (7,500ft) and many more, but it was the long trek to Srinagar (5,250ft), that the Mughal emperors preferred as their summer retirement. The royal entourage would enter the state from the present day Pakistani Gujrat and travel to Srinagar via Bhimber, Thana, Mandl, Haji Pir Pass and Baramula, and finally into Srinagar. In fact, Emperor Jehangir died during one of his travels on way back from Srinagar, at Noori Chain, near Mandl, in Poonch District, a foothill of Pir Panjal.

Mughal obsession with Kashmir was not out of place. Nature has conferred some of the most exceptional favours to the watershed areas of Pir Panjal, that account for most of the area of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Life long experience has shown that the climate of the watershed areas of Pir Panjal is the best in the world. Most of the major ailments like diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, piles and even cancer are not as endemic as elsewhere in the region.

The staple cultivation of these areas is maize except the Srinagar valley where rice is grown in abundance. Most of the population uses spring water. Food and water combined with the invigorating environments may be the main cause of good health and longevity of the populace.

The timber of these areas, specially, deodar and kail, is also rated as the best in the subcontinent. In addition chil, poplar, maple, the red and white hawthorn, wild chestnut and many more varieties of timber are obtained from the forests of Kashmir for export to the other areas of the subcontinent.

The medicinal herbs of Kashmir are also famous in the land and are acclaimed as of the best possible quality. Amongst other useful plants occur the alismaplantago, formerly regarded as a specific against hydrophobia. Kuts or wilds indigo also abound. Allushak Bala, Ralanjote, Budmaiwa, Patrees and many other herbs are a source of thriving commercial activity in the state. Mushroom and saffron of Kashmir are decidedly the best in the world. Saffron is extensively used by the Kashmiris as a condiment. To this end, it is mixed with water and pounded, and eaten with fish and meat, to which it imparts a pungent flavour. According to the Gazetteer of Kashmir even Emperor Jehangir noted in his journal, of the very strong scent of the saffron-flower.

“I accompanied my father to this spot during the season of flowers. In some places the beds of saffron-flowers extend to a kos. Their appearance is best at a distance, and when they are plucked they emit a strong smell. My attendants were all seized with a headache, and though I was myself at the time intoxicated with liquor, I felt also my head affected. I inquired of the brutal Kashmiris who were employed in plucking them, what was their condition, and they replied that they never had a headache in their lifetime.”

Kashmir is also famous for the variety and a very high quality of its fruits. Hugel, a sound and well informed botanist, considers Kashmir superior to all other countries in the abundance and excellence of its fruits. Apple, pear, peach, apricot, plum, almond, pomegranate, mulberry, walnut, hazel-nut(pistachio), cherries and melon are grown in a planned fashion under the advice and assistance of the official horticulturiat. May thousands of acres skirting the foothills are covered with apple and pear trees. Fruit in abundance too grows in Kashmir. The significant wild fruits are strawberry, raspberry, currant, wild grapes (dakhan), kunkoli and guch. Apple and apricot are dried at a large scale and eaten during winter, usually in the morning.

All said and done, the apple of Kashmir has acquired a proverbial fame and acclaim in the subcontinent and the Indian government has adopted it as a ritual to present crates of Kashmiris apples to the visiting foreign dignitaries.

Papermashi, shawl weaving and wood carving are the main occupations of the people of the vale. The pashmina shawl of Kashmir is of international fame and is exported to many countries. The silk-worm, it is said, was introduced into Kashmir shortly before the reign of the Emperor Akbar by Mirza Hyder of Kashgar, who imported, according to tradition, a chittak of eggs from Bokhara.

The wild life of Kashmir is also sufficiently diverse. Leopard, Hangal, Bear, Fox, Ibex, Kakar (mountain goat or barking deer) Markhore (serpent eater), Musk and wolves are some of the animals with significant populations. A good variety of fish is found in the rivers and streams of Kashmir. Some of the best quality trout is found in the upper reaches of rivers Jhelum, Kishanganga and some other streams.

Right up to Partition, the beehives of Kashmir were a part of the household culture and every house, in the country side, had the provision of beehives of up to a maximum of ten. The provision of beehives was catered at the time of design and construction of each house. Similarly, floating gardens, towed with the house boats, were a peculiar sight, but confined to the valley of Srinagar.

Quiet a few minerals like iron, copper, sulphur, coal, lignite (salajit), gypsum, chalk, marble, mica and gold are the only minerals extracted at a commercial scale. Captain Montgomerie, who in his account of the progress of Kashmir, gives the following particulars regarding gold washing in a stream: “The drainage, escaping from the plains of Seosai through a not easily distinguished gorge near the Katasiri station, falls into the Dras river above Kirkitchoo. This tributary of the Dras river is called the Shigar and sometimes the Shingo river brings down gold with its waters, and gold washing is carried on just below the junction. The Indus itself and several of its tributaries are known to produce gold.”

Gold washing is also carried out on the banks of Jhelum, in the neighbourhood of Tangrot, north of Jhelum.

The population of the state is predominately Muslim. Hindus and Sikhs also comprise a sizable minority but are in majority in some of the districts of Jammu province. The valley of Srinagar has some 20 tribes or clans among the Muslims. Of these, the Chak were the warriors of Kashmir and bravely resisted the invasion of Mughals. Akbar, when attempting to take Kashmir, was three times defeated, it is said, by the Chak kings.

After the Chaks, Rishis were the most respectable people during the time of Akbar. Maleks rank next to Rishis. The original Kashmiris, who speak Kashmiri dialect are mostly confined to the districts of Srinagar valley, though some sprinkling of these Kashmiri speaking people is also found in rest of the state as well.

Muzaffarabad and Poonch are the significant niches of Kashmiri speaking people who still maintain their Kashmiri traditions. Elsewhere in the state most of the populace is constituted of a conglomerate of immigrant settlers like Gujars from the Gujrat, Gujranwala and Rawalpindi district of Punjab. Dogras, Sikhs, Pathans, Syeds and many other clans are immigrants from the Indus and Ganges valleys.

The Kashmir Gazetteer sums up the character of Kashmiris as follows: “The Kashmiri has been called the Neapolitan of the East; lively, ingenious, witty, and good-humoured. They have, for ages, been oppressed and insulted, and are much addicted to the never failing vices of slaves, lying, and trickery; the truth, even for their advantage, is avoided by them, and they are inordinately devoted to amusement and pleasure.”

The fact remains that the vale of Kashmir possesses the pride of having a culture. It has been noted in Rajatrangni that the valley of Kashmir is the only model, unlike rest of the subcontinent, which has a distinct and definable set of cultural values. Kashmiris have a distinct dress, dialect, cuisine, art, craft, ritual and conviviality in use and practice since centuries. While analyzing various contours of Kashmiri culture (Kashmiriat), one finds that the overall complexion of Kashmiriat gains its freshness and strength from the snow capped peaks and lush green vales and dales of Pir Panjal.

Courtesy :

Dawn, April 18, 2004 (By A. Rashid)