Book This is Kashmir by Pearce Gervis
A banker by profession, Salim Ansar has a passion for history and historic books. His personal library already boasts a treasure trove of over 7,000 rare and unique books.
Every week, we shall take a leaf from one such book and treat you to a little taste of history.
BOOK NAME: This is Kashmir
AUTHOR: Pearce Gervis
PUBLISHER: Cassell & Company Ltd – London
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1954
The following excerpt has been taken from Pages: 217 — 220
“This the story of a country and a people, a country about the size of England and Scotland or the State of Minnesota, yet within whose frontiers may be found near-tropical heat and arctic snows, hot springs and glaciers. It is a land on which God had showered his blessings in the making, where the earth is good and can be made to grow much good, yet many of its people are near starvation; a land where finest silks and the softest wools are spun and woven into cloth, yet most of its people are clad in ranks, a land precious stones are to be found, yet few of its people possess any; a land in which ‘the men are strong the women as fruitful as the soil,’ being those of many basic cultures and creeds. A land which writers have described as ‘the Happy Valley’’ yet only those who visit it are happy, not those who dwell therein.
“There is a story which will always be remembered by the Baltis attached to this castle and fort. Because of its remoteness and the difficult road into the country, it had not known invasion for many years. Even when in the eighth century the Chinese invaded Kashmir and forced the inhabitants to pay Chinese invaded Kashmir and forced the inhabitants to pay annual tribute, the men of Baltistan successfully defended their country. At that time they were Buddhists. Somewhere in the fifteenth century it came under the great wave of Mussulman propaganda which was put out in the time of Sikander the Iconoclast. Then at the close of the sixteenth century the Ladakhis tried to conquer Baltistan, which had thrown off all religious allegiance to them. The Balti forces under their Commander-in-Chief, Ali Mir, permitted their entry through the passes, lured them on, and then when snow had fallen and closed them in, attacked. The army of Ladakh had to surrender. With the main part of the Ladakhi army out of the way, the Baltis took up the offensive, they invaded their country, as Mohammedans now they went forward from one Buddhist monastery to another in Ladakh, destroying the buildings, burning the sacred records and books and looting them of their gold, silver and jewels.
“From that time on there were no wars, just small raids by the men of each side until 1841, the year of the Dogra conquest. The great Commander-in-Chief Zorwar having completed his operations against Ladakh, turned to the impregnable Baltistan. The Baltis tore down their bridges, intending to repeat the tactics used in their victory over the Ladakhi warriors of two hundred years before; the Dogras found themselves on the wrong side of the river, on exposed ground, short of food and with the winter coming on. Five thousand of their troops under Mir Nidhan Singh were sent to find some means of getting over the river; the Baltis ambushed them and cut the army to pieces. Only four hundred escaped.
“In the features of the Baltis there is a Mongolian likeness to the people of Ladakh, but physically they are larger; many of them have signs of Aryan blood, and the Dard element is more common than found in Ladakh. But there are two distinct types of Baltis; the first are those of the upper classes, the descendants of the many Rajas who once divided the land among themselves; they are a fine bunch of men and women. Their features are almost Grecian with oval faces and straight noses, often the eye-brows are straight or beautifully curved, and they are fair of skin. Some have the hair directly above the forehead shaved off, otherwise their rather coarse, straight hair hangs in long locks. These people of the Raja class dress in white, the men and boys frequently decorating their hair or their caps with bright flowers.
“The peasant types distinctly Mongolian, being square, short of stature, though generally slightly broader and taller than the Ladakhi. Their faces are sallow, the hair worn long, either hanging in a straight fringe all round a coconut-shaped head, or as curled locks on either side of it. One is surprised to find among them some whose eyes are hazel-coloured, others definitely blue, and these people frequently have brown and not black hair as always found among the Mongolian races.
“They are happy people, why I cannot imagine. The creases of their faces are all horizontal, their manners are pleasing and they are gentle and patient, qualities which have doubtless come down from the time when they were Buddhists. As coolies they are strong and willing, although rather independent, and even are strong and willing, although rather independent, and even when carrying a load of sixty pounds, they seldom complain of the discomforts and trials of the trek – the master can go on, so can they.
“These peasants were very closely woven tunics, much like the Ladakhi’s coat-gown, but falling to just below the knee, straight pyjamas, a low-crowned hat made either of the same material or of knitted wool and boots of untanned hide.
“The colour of their clothing is drab and earth colour, so that you are almost upon one of them sitting by the wayside before you realize that he is there. It is really the perfect camouflage, dirt.
“They are inveterate smokers. If the going is bad or the day cold so that the usual happy smile leaves their faces, one has but to hand over a small amount of tobacco, and they are happy again. They do not use a pipe, they make up a small mound of earth, drive a hole in the top with a finger, then bore a lateral tunnel with a piece of stick. First the tobacco, then the red hot charcoal goes in the upper hole, and taking turn and turn about they kneel down a draw at the other end of the ‘pipe’.
“Although a comparatively barren country, the people being followers of the prophet Mohammed, polygamy – the reverse to polyandry – is practiced here, each man being permitted as many as four wives. The result is that no woman remains un-married and the population becomes greater than the land can maintain with the result that they must either go out or starve. So that unlike the Ladakhis they leave their homeland to work in India, many will be found working as coolies in the hill stations or navvying in the Punjab. Then, after leaving wife and family at hope perhaps for many years, they return with the savings they have managed to get together, this becoming a small fortune in their own country.
“The lives of their women are very different to those of the women of Ladakh. As soon as one enters a village, instead of being greeted by smiling women standing in their doorways, those Muslim women of Baltistan slip away inside the houses or round corners, so that they should not be seen.
“The village, if not dominated by a Raja’s house, has as its principal building its mosque or Ziarut. This is usually built after the style of the Shah-i-Hamadan Mosque in Srinagar, and seems to be meeting place for the village.
“One Balti who was quite a wealthy man, even by the standards set in Kashmir, in explaining how he managed his business of exporting dried fruit told me he had one elder son with several young brothers in Srinagar, another elder son in Peshawar also with several brothers and yet another elder son together with several brothers in Leh. When I asked him how many sons he had he proudly exclaimed ‘seventeen’. The doctor of a mission who was with me said, ‘You see he makes no mention of his daughters-though he might proudly tell you of his sons-in-law. He also has six daughters and there must have been some who died in infancy.’ I was quietly working out that this would mean a rough average of seven children from each wife, when as though reading my thoughts he said ‘and all from two wives who still remain active healthy women.’
“From this it can be seen that unless the country can be made to grow more food, with these strong men and fruitful women populating it, assisted by the practice of polygamy, those who are born there must go elsewhere to survive. It is estimated that about a thousand men go ‘abroad’ each year to work, but this is not enough, and the result is that whereas the coolies of Ladakh have clothes to wear and flesh covering their bodies, the peasants of Baltistan who do not dwell in those parts which produce food, are poor, thin and ill-clad, their rags of clothes hardly covering their shivering bodes in the cold winds. A coolie’s most precious possession, one for which he will almost die, is his coarse piece of blanket, which is much like sacking. And it seems that the wives of these men have never learned how to sew, for the stitches used to mend a tear are as large as the average child of five would make.”