Dear Young Kashmiris,
That my last epistle (1 Jan 2018) was of some value to you, that it was able to convey a useful message, I continue my next letter. And this time let me guide your focus to something about which you might have already started thinking: who are we Kashmiris? From whence have we come from? And why are we called Kashmiris?
When we ask questions like these we mostly rely on history, or, to be specific, on historiography. Though some people confuse myth and history and accept whatever is said in mythical stories as historical truth. But I want you to have a scientific temper and look at these questions with an open mind. That is to say, not to take what is handed down to you as absolute truth. Because our identities i.e., we as Kashmiris or someone as French or Nigerian or Guatemalan, have complex histories, as what our identity today is was not how it always was, say, two thousand years ago. So, the fundamental idea is that our identity (as Kashmiris) is ‘constructed.’ And, it was constructed by us Kashmiris, but in dialogue with others (non-Kashmiris).
Let me give a simple example. Imagine there is a large family and it has two dozen members: grandfather and grandmother, and their children and their children’s children. Let’s call it the Camenzind family. If Camenzinds were living on an isolated island all alone, nobody would call them Camenzinds, because among themselves they were just brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and cousins. A daughter from this family would not call her father Mr. Camenzind, would she? Or, a son would not ask his mother, “Where are you going, Mrs. Camenzind?”, would he?
Exactly the same way, if we Kashmiris were living all alone in our beautiful landlocked Valley without ever having any contact with the outside world or different people, we wouldn’t be called Kashmiris. Because we didn’t need to have that name for us, as we already knew who we were through our common dialect. The point is our identity or ethnic name as Kashmiris was neither given to us by God nor did we take it voluntarily. Then, how we came to be called Kashmiris? You may ask. Precisely when we had our first contacts with the people who didn’t speak our language. And who were these different people? Nobody knows for sure.
However, what we know, in the light of the archeological discoveries, is that our ancestors first lived at higher places in south Kashmir, like Pahalgam, where a crude hand-ax and flakes were discovered by archeologists in 1969, believed to be from the Middle Pleistocene Age. Through a rough estimation, our earliest ancestors lived 7.8 lakh years ago. However, later, moving towards Karewas (plateaus) in central and north Kashmir, our ancestors established subterranean dwellings i.e., human settlements that were created underground. You might have already heard or read about Burzhom, the archeological site just 5 kilometers from the Shalimar Garden, or about Gofkral in Tral district, 40 kilometers from the Srinagar city. Such dwellings were first discovered in the late 1930’s by a team of foreign archeologists. Just last year, in March 2017, a team of archeologists from the Kashmir University discovered very significant pre-historic sites and objects, which are believed to be 5000 years old. These sites, all in north Kashmir, were found in Harwan (Sopore), Tregam (Kupwor), Turkpur (Bandipur), Vizer Kreeri (Baramullah/Varmul), and Yembarzalwore (Kupwor). As archeologist Ajmal Shah says, “These archaeological sites are having richest cultural material pertaining to the Northern Neolithic Culture of the subcontinent. If excavated, these sites will add a mine-full of information about Kashmir valley’s cultural heritage.”
Based on these settlements and objects, archeologists argue that during the Neolithic (new stone) Age, Kashmiris, primarily settled in north Kashmir, had contacts with the outside world through the old silk route which connected the Kashmir valley with Kashgar (Xinxiang in China) and Central Asia region. Most of our trade, commercial, and travel routes passed through the north—but since 1947, all these historical routes remain out of bounds for us.
At any rate, what we know so far is that we Kashmiris have a 5000-year-old civilization; we were born artisans who were “adept at weaving and intricate craftsmanship”; we bravely faced and adapted to adverse climate by creating underground dwellings; we innovated and made fine and advanced tools, like harvesters, spear-heads, spindle whorls, double-edged picks, copper arrowheads, celts and knife blades; we had international trade links with neighboring regions in China, India, and Afghanistan, selling and buying stuff like beads, pendants, and terracotta bangles. In short, we were a hardworking community of innovators and imaginative craftsmen, and relics of our craftsmanship are visible in many pockets of Kashmir even today.
Which religion we followed 5000 years ago? We were neither Hindus nor Buddhists nor Muslims. Probably, we were animists i.e., we believed in mystical powers of nature, or sun, moon, and sky, or inanimate objects, like trees, mountains, and rivers, or, as with Mongols, thunder and lightning—in the book A Little History of the World, which I recommended in my last letter, you will learn more about ancient beliefs of humans.
So, when exactly were Kashmiris called Kashmiris and how did we acquire our language, Koshur? Now this question might have popped up in your mind, right? Well, for such questions we rely on language experts, or, more specifically, on philology (“The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages”). In my next letter, inshallah, I will try to answer this question. In the meantime, to learn more about our origins, you can read the first chapter (pp. 1-15) of Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (Sage: 2017).
First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 January 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/272238.html