The largest of India’s Himalayan states comprises three regions of stark geographical and cultural diversity. Jammu, in the southwest, is a predominantly Hindu region bordering the Punjab, its foothills forming the transitional zone between the plains and the mountains. To the north the Shiwalik mountains give way to the Pir Panjal, which attain heights of 5000 m. Between the Pir Panjal and the High Himalaya, at an average altitude of 1580 m, lies the largely Islamic Vale of Kashmir, where snow-capped peaks form a backdrop to the capital, Srinagar, and the Nagin and Dal lakes. Rising behind the Vale are the Great Himalaya which culminate in the west with Nanga Parbat (Naked Mount) at 8125 m.
To the west and north are the Buddhist mountain provinces of Ladakh and Zanskar, crossed by four mountain ranges – Great Himalaya, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram – as well as by the River Indus and its tributaries the Zanskar, Shingo and Shyok. The Zanskar cuts an impressive course of 120 km before slicing through the Zanskar range in a series of impressive gorges to join the Indus at Nimmu near Leh, the capital of Ladakh. During the winter months, the frozen Zanskar provides the only access for Zanskaris into Ladakh. Combined with its two subsidiary valleys, the Stod (Doda Chu) and the Lung-Nak (Tsarap Chu or ‘Valley of Darkness’), which converge below Padum, the main valley is approximately 300 km long and is ringed by mountains, so access to it is over one of the high passes. The most important are the Pensi La connecting Zanskar with the Suru Valley in the west, the Umasi La with the Chenab Valley in the south and the Shingo La with Lahul in the east. Ladakh also has the world’s largest glaciers outside the polar regions, and the large and beautiful lake Pangong Tso, 150 km long and 4 km wide, at a height of over 4000 m. This makes for spectacular trekking country.
Even in the Vale, the air in summer is fresh and at night can be quite brisk. The highest daytime temperatures in July rarely exceed 35°C but may fall as low as -11°C in winter. A short climb quickly reduces these temperatures. In Ladakh the sun cuts through the thin atmosphere, and daily and seasonal temperature variations are even wider. The rain-bearing clouds drifting in from the Arabian Sea never reach Ladakh; while Srinagar receives over 650 mm per annum, Leh has only 85 mm, much as snow. Over half Srinagar’s rain comes with westerly depressions in the winter.
Ruled for many years by Scythian and then Tartar princes, Kashmir was captured in 1341 by Shams ud Dinwho spread Islam across the Vale. In 1588 the Mughal Emperor Akbar conquered Kashmir and his son Jahangir (1605-1627), captivated by the beauty of the Vale of Kashmir, planted chenar trees and constructed pleasure gardens. Later, the area fell under Sikh rule and when they were defeated by the British at the end of the first Sikh War in 1846, Jammu, the Vale of Kashmir, Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit were assigned to the Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu, who had aided the British victory. He founded a dynasty of Dogra Rajputs, descended from the Katoch branch of the lunar race of Rajputs. Thus began a period of Hindu rule over the mainly Muslim population of the Vale of Kashmir.
Rock carvings in Ladakh indicate that the region has been used for thousands of years by nomadic tribesmen who include the Mons of North India, the Dards, the Mongols and Changpa shepherds from Tibet. In Roman times Kashmir and Ladakh lay on a feeder of the great Silk Road that ran from China to the Mediterranean. By the end of the 10th century, Ladakh was controlled by the Thi Dynasty which founded a capital at Shey and built many forts. Tibetan Lamaistic Buddhism took hold at the same time and over 100 gompas were built. In 1533 Soyang Namgyal united the whole region up to the outskirts of Lhasa and made his capital at Leh. The Namgyal Dynasty still exists today and the Rani (Queen) of Stok was elected to the Indian Parliament. During the reigns of Senge Namgyal (circa 1570-1620) and Deldan Namgyal (circa 1620-1660) Ladakh was threatened from the south and west by the Baltis, who had enlisted the assistance of the Mughals. They were beaten back and the Namgyals extended Ladakhi power. The expansionist era came to an end when the fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Nawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682) persuaded the Mongols, whom he had converted to Buddhism, to enter a military campaign against West Tibet and Ladakh. The Ladakhis were unable to repel the invading Mongol forces and in desperation Delegs Namgyal turned to Kashmir for help. The Mughal Governor of Kashmir sent troops to help the King of Leh regain his throne but in return he had to pay regular tribute and build a mosque. From then on the country became an extension of the Mughal Empire. In 1834 Zorwar Singh, an Army General, conquered Ladakh and brought the area under the control of the Dogra Maharajah of Kashmir. The dethroned royal family received the Stok Palace where they still live today.
Zanskar became an administrative part of Ladakh under Senge NamgyaI whose three sons became the rulers of Ladakh, Guge and Zanskar/Spiti. This arrangement collapsed after Ladakh’s war with Tibet and the Zanskar royal house divided, one part administering Padum, the other Zangla. Under the Dogras, the rulers were reduced to puppets as the marauding army wreaked havoc on the villages, monasteries and people.
When India gained Independence from Britain, rulers of ‘princely states’ such as Kashmir were given the choice of whether to stay with India or join Pakistan. But Kashmir’s maharajah, Hari Singh, played for time, in the hope that Kashmir could remain independent of both countries. In October 1947, Kashmir was invaded by tribesmen from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, with the support of the Pakistani army. Singh, supported by popular leader Sheikh Abdullah, had to turn to India for help. Nehru sent in the Indian army and 18 months of fighting followed until 1949, when the state was split by a UN-monitored cease-fire line, much of which remains the de facto border between India and Pakistan today. Of the total area of the pre-Independence State, over which India continues to claim the legitimate right to govern, 78,000 sq km are currently controlled by Pakistan and a further 42,600 sq km by China. Kashmir has remained the single most important cause of conflict between India and Pakistan since 1949, while arguments for autonomy within the Kashmir Valley have periodically dominated the political agenda, erupting in 1987, when – it is widely accepted – India rigged the state elections to bring about a favourable result. Widespread unrest followed and hundreds of young men fled over the border to receive arms training in Pakistan. The militancy started in earnest in1988 and continues today, although it is now much less overt than during the early years.
Following India’s Independence and partition in 1947, Ladakh, like Kashmir, was divided. Indian and Chinese troops have been stationed on the eastern border since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950-1951. From the early 1950s Chinese troops were stationed in the Aksai Chin, which India also claimed, and without Indian knowledge built a road linking Tibet with Xinjiang. This was one of the two fronts in China’s war with India in 1962, which confirmed China’s de facto hold on the territory. India still disputes its legality. Since the 1962 war the Indian army has maintained a very strong presence in Ladakh. The strategic requirements of better links with the rest of India were primarily responsible for Ladakh being ‘opened up’ to some influences from outside.
The current political situation
The insurgency that started in the late 1980s has gone through several evolutions. Until the mid-1990s, it was overt and highly visible, with parts of Srinagar being held by the militants, openly carrying arms. Fierce counter-insurgency measures forced them underground, but the violence continued. Meanwhile, in May 1999, war broke out between Pakistan and India, in the Kargil area, lasting two months. Even after the cease-fire, the two countries continued shelling each other across the border, badly affecting the Jammu border districts of Poonch and Rajouri.
The tension reached a peak in June 2002 after an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 – allegedly carried out by Pakistan based militants. Internationally, there were serious fears that the two countries were on the brink of nuclear war but thankfully the situation was wound down following a new agreement between India and Pakistan to try and find a peaceful solution to the problem. India and Pakistan embarked on a dialogue that saw some improvement in relations.
On 8 October 2005 a massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck Kashmir, killing 73,000 people and injuring hundreds of thousands more on either side of the Line of Control. While border controls were loosened to allow families to search or grieve for loved ones, the potential longer-term benefits of international cooperation have not yet been realized. By April 2007 only 1600 people had availed of the Peace Bus (set up in 2005 to enable Kashmiris to visit their relatives on the other side of the Line of Control, and as a “confidence-building measure” between India and Pakistan), in part due to the bureaucracy involved in making the crossing.
In December 2008, state elections saw the highest voter turnout since the militancy began. The National Conference won, in a coalition with the Indian National Congress party and Omar Abdullah, aged 38, became the state’s youngest ever chief minister. However, the early part of 2009 saw regular protests against alleged violations by security forces.
Instability and the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier through 2009, along with the holding of peaceful elections for the state assembly and the Lok Sabha in Indian-held Kashmir have relegated Kashmir to the back pages, but a solution which meets with the full support of Kashmiris in both Indian and Pakistani Kashmir is still a distant prospect.
The state enjoys a special status within the Indian nation. As defined in Article 370 of the constitution, since 1956 Jammu and Kashmir has had its own constitution affirming its integrity. The central government has direct control over defence, external affairs and communications within the state and indirect influence over citizenship, Supreme Court jurisdiction and emergency powers. In normal times the state sends six representatives to the Lok Sabha and two members who are nominated by the governor to the Rajya Sabha.
In Ladakh, the local government body, the Ladakh Hill Council, has once again put forth a demand to the Indian government to separate the district from the rest of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Citing reasons of cultural uniqueness and the fact that they do not wish to be part of any separatist movement in Kashmir, the Ladakhis demand they be made into a ‘Union Territory’ directly funded by the central government.
Culturally, the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh could scarcely be more different from each other. The 10 million population is unevenly scattered. The Vale of Kashmir has more than half the population, whilst Ladakh is the most sparsely populated region. Jammu was traditionally the seat of Dogra power and serves a largely Hindu population whose affinities lie more with the Punjab than the Vale. Kashmir marks the northernmost advance of Islam in the Himalaya while Ladakh is aptly named ‘Little Tibet’. Ethnically the Ladakhis are of Tibetan stock. Indeed, it was once a province of Tibet and was governed in secular matters by an independent prince and in spiritual affairs by the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Changpas form the bulk of the population in central and eastern Ladakh. These nomadic herdsmen can be seen living in black yak-hair tents on the mountains with their yaks, goats and sheep. They still provide the fine pashm goat wool. The Mons, nomads of Aryan stock, introduced Buddhism and established settlements in the valleys. The Droks or Dards from the Gilgit area settled along the Indus Valley and introduced irrigation; many converted to Islam 300 years ago. Most are cultivators speaking a language based on Sanskrit. The Baltis with Central Asian origins mostly live in the Kargil region. The Zanskaris are of the same stock as the Ladakhis and because of the sheer isolation of their homeland were able to preserve their Buddhist culture against the onslaughts of Mughal India. The majority of Zanskaris are Buddhist, though there are Muslim families in Padum, the capital, dating from the Dogra invasion.
Kashmiri is influenced by Sanskrit and belongs to the Dardic branch of the Indo-Aryan languages. Linguistically and physically Kashmiris are similar to the tribes around Gilgit in Pakistan. The Ladakhis physically reveal Tibetan-Mongolian and Indo-Aryan origins while their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese group.
In the Vale of Kashmir, 95% of the people are Muslim, the majority being Sunnis, while in Jammu over 65% are Hindu. In Ladakh, 52% are Lamaistic Buddhists. Most follow Mahayana Buddhism of the Vajrayana sect with a mixture of Bon animism and Tantric practices. The Red Hat Drukpa (or Kagyupa) sect of Tibetan monastic Buddhists enjoy royal patronage. The reformist Yellow Hat sect are Gelugpa Buddhists and, like the Dalai Lama, wear a yellow headdress with their maroon robes. The more ancient Nyingmapa Buddhists have their seat in Tak-thok. Ladakhi lamas may also be physicians, teachers and astrologers; they also work in the fields, as do the chomos (nuns). Nearly every family has a member who chooses to become a lama (often the third son) or a chomo. The most important in the Tibetan tradition are recognized reincarnate lamas (Trulku), who are born to the position. The Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are places of worship, meditation and religious instruction and the structures, often sited on spectacular mountain ridges, add to the attraction of the landscape while remaining a central part of Ladakhi life. Ladakh also has a large number of Shi’a Muslims, mainly in Kargil District, many being immigrant Kashmiris and Dards. Their mosques and imambaras, influenced by Persian architecture, can be found in Leh proper and villages nearby.
The foundation of Sani in the 11th century is recognized as the first monastery in Zanskar. Phugtal and Karsha date from the same period. The sects developed alongside those in Ladakh. The Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order was established in the 15th century and monasteries at Karsha, Lingshet and Mune belong to this. The Drukpa sect set up monasteries at Bardan and Zangla and ‘occupied’ that at Sani. These have links with Stakna near Leh and the Gelugpa is associated with the Lekir monastery. Traditional Ladakhi and Zanskari life, even today, comes close to Gandhi’s idealized vision of life in ancient India.
Kashmir is deservedly famous for its distinctive and fine handicrafts. Many of these developed when Srinagar was a trading post on the ancient trans-Himalayan trade route. High-quality craftsmanship in India initially owed much to the patronage of the court and Kashmir was no exception. From the 15th century onwards, carpet making, shawl weaving and embroidery and decorative techniques were actively encouraged and the tradition grew to demands made at home and abroad. Since tourism has been severely affected in the Vale since 1989, Kashmiri tradesmen have sought markets in other parts of India.
Kashmir shawls are world renowned for their softness and warmth. The best are pashmina and shahtush, the latter being the warmest, the rarest and, consequently, the most expensive. Prized by Moghuls and maharajas they found their way to Europe and, through Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, became an item of fashion in France. The craft was possibly introduced from Persia in the 15th century. Originally a fine shawl would take months to complete especially if up to 100 colours were used. The soft fleece of the pashmina goat or the fine under hairs of the Tibetan antelope were used, the former for pashmina (cashmere) shawls, the latter for shahtush. The very best were soft and warm and yet so fine that they could be drawn through a finger ring. The designs changed over the years from floral patterns in the 17th century to Paisley in the 19th century. The Mughals, especially Akbar, used them as gifts. However, with the introduction of the Jacquard loom, cheap imitations were mass produced at a fraction of the price of hand woven shawls. Kashmiri shawls thus became luxury items, their manufacture remaining an important source of employment in the Vale, but they ceased to be the major export.
Hand-knotted carpets were traditionally made in either pure wool or mixed with cotton or silk. However, nowadays pure wool carpets are hardly produced in the valley, the preference being for silk. The patterns tend to the traditional, the Persian and Bukhara styles being common, though figurative designs such as The Tree of Life are becoming increasingly popular. A large carpet will take months to complete, the price depending on the density of knots and the material used, silk being by far the most expensive. The salesmen usually claim that only vegetable dyes are used and whilst this is true in some instances, more readily available and cheaper chemical dyes are commonplace. After knotting, the pile is trimmed with scissors, loose threads burnt off and the carpet washed and dried. Young boys work with a master and it is common to hear them calling out the colour changes in a chant. Child labour in carpet making across North India is increasingly widely criticized, but government attempts to insist on limiting hours of work and the provision of schooling are often ignored. Look for the rug mark awarded when no child labour is used.
Papier mâché boxes, trays, coasters make ideal gifts. Paper is soaked, dried in a mould, then painted and lacquered. Traditionally, natural colouring was used (lapis lazuli for blue, gold leaf for gold, charcoal for black) but this is unlikely today. The patterns can be highly intricate and the finish exquisite.
Other crafts include crewel work (chain stitching) on fabric, Kashmiri silver jewellery, silk and fine woodcarving, particularly on walnut wood.