Karamjeet Singh's Himalayan Home

Geologists opine that the vale of Kashmir was once a huge lake called the Karewa. The Karewa was formed when the Jhelum was blocked by the rising Pir-Panjaals in one of the periodic phases of Himalayan uplift. The river finally escaped it's encirclement by gouging a deep cut across the Pir Paanjaal at Uri and when the waters of the Karewa drained here from what is termed the Jhelum gap, the valley of Kashmir came into being.

Mankind has been around in the Kashmir valley for a long long time but the early history of Kashmir is lost in the mists of legend. The valley's name is often attributed to the Sage Kashyap, being a corruption of the original Kashyapamaar.

Kashmiri history becomes clearer after the advent of the Mauryan empire under Ashoka. The great emperor is said to have built the city of Srinagar around the year 250 B.C. During this period Buddhism spread in Kashmir, taking firm root by the time of the Kushan empire in the 1st century A.D. From here Buddhism spread to Ladakh, Tibet, and Central Asia, beyond, furthered by Kashmiri scholars and monks and artists.

The famous Chinese traveller visited the Kashmir valley and Ladakh in the 7th century in order to study Buddhism. He stayed in Kashmir for two years and provides many accounts of the lives of the people in those times. According to him there were over 5,000 monks in the valley. A large number considering the low population in the 7th century.

Islam came to the valley in the 14th century, through the combined influence of Saiyyad preachers and the muslim rule established in the middle of that century. By the end of the century, barring small sections of the Hindu orthodoxy, the valley was almost totally muslim. Buddhism now, retreated behind the Himalayas.

Later came the Moghuls. They introduced an elaborate system of village level revenue during the close of the 16th century. The moghuls left a permanent mark on the history of Kashmir. Akbar built the Hariparbat fort as a famine relief measure. Jehangir laid out the famous Shalimar garden and introduced the Chinar tree from Iran.

The modern history of Kashmir is centered around the Dogra dynasty. Maharaj Gulab Singh got the Jagir of Jammu from Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1820 and two years later he became the full fledged ruler of Jammu. In march 1846, the aftermath of the Anglo-Sikh war saw Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu acquire control of modern India's largest princely state, Jammu and Kashmir, which included Ladakh and Baltistan.

Kashmir's long and multifaceted history is reflected in it's craft traditions. From the Muryan and Kushan period, through a period of Tibetan influence, before finally setting it's sights on the west, towards Mecca, Kashmir recieved the most highly developed influences of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. Skilled workers from Central Asia and Iran provided a remarkable cross fertilization. Carpet weaving, finely painted papier mache, paper making, weaving of shawls of Pashmina and other fine wools, metal work and jewellry, all flourished in the suceeding centuries.

Weaving of both carpets and the famed Kashmir shawl are traditions and techniques handed down over the generations by the master weavers of Persia. The techniques, the Taleem or the instruction sheet, and the Karkhanas remain as they must have been for centuries. The weavers chant the taleem while working. Wages are paid by the thousand knots and of course the more knots per square inch, the finer the ultimate result.

The patterns are reproduction and adaptations of Persian, Turkish and Turkman motifs and designs. What makes Kashmiri carpets famous the world over are the faithfulness to the original elaborate designs and the quality of the craftsmanship. Trained from an early age when fingers are nimble many master weavers are in their early thirties.

The forty odd Basholi miniatures housed in the Amar Mahal Palace museum in Jammu constitute one of the finest collections of hill miniatures in the world. These detail the epic love saga of Nala and Damayanti and are priceless remnants of the artistic heritage of the Hindu Himalaya.

Each frame is a tapestry of love, betrayal and passion liberally embellished with gold and exquisitely detailed.

Kashmiri social dynamics are more akin to plainspeople than to other Himalayan hill peoples. Complex and highly stratified, despite the age old conversion to Islam, Kashmiri society is layered in caste, considerations that generally come to play during marriages etc. Surprisingly, Kashmiri society never really had a warrior or trading class, though tourist times saw all classes take to trading like a duck to water.

The lakes and waterways of Kashmir had a big effect on shaping the people leading to the growth of a significant boat community whose unusual lifestyle has been moulded by their surroundings. Living their lives on the water they are a truly unique Himalayan community. The fascination of tourists with houseboats led to the emergence of entrepreneurs within this community who converted their houseboat into luxurious floating hotels. Most of the lakes of Kashmir are remnants of ancient oxbows created by the river Jhelum as it meanders across the valley floor and the present lakes are shrunken remnants of their past selves. The Dal lake, for example, has shrunk in the past 50 years to half it's size, from 22 to 11 square kilometers. In the intervening years, the lake has changed in other fashions too. The classic example of environmental degradation in a Himalayan lake eco- system today, is the Dal lake in Srinagar.

The process known as Eutrophication has set in. Eutrophication results when the lake waters become artificially enriched with nutrients, causing abnormal plant growth. Runoff of chemical fertilizers from the vast drainage basin around the lake, sewage and other oxygen demanding wastes, which brings in 15 tons of phosphorous and 300 tons of nitrogen every year, all these factors combine to place the lake's internal life processes under severe stress. Oxygen levels fall, the fish die out and aesthetically also the effect is not very pleasing. Decaying organic matter produces disagreeable odors and the eye is offended by unsightly green scum of algae and weed infested waterways.

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