Kashmir from the early records of East and West

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

As Amir Khusro’s famous couplet in Farsi goes, “Agar firdaus bar rU zameen E ast, hameen ast” meaning, If heaven was to be situated on this earth, it is this (Kashmir). History of Kashmir and its people can be traced from a few centuries before the Common Era from both indigenous and foreign sources. The main foreign records are those of European travelers and that of Chinese pilgrims. While the European records are early, they do not give much information about the polity of Kashmir. The Chinese traveler accounts though are later than the European accounts; provide detailed accounts of the polity, society and religious practices as the writers were pilgrims who stayed in the valley for many years.

Today’s tourism vlogs are popular among people who wish to see the world. Equivalent of Vlogs in yesteryears are chronicles of travelers. Vlog coverage of today can be witnessed live by any viewer; all it takes is a ticket and some planning. These chronicles will only have to be enjoyed from books. This article aims to give a view on Kashmir as seen by foreign travelers before two millennia.

Ptolemy’s Kasperia:

The earliest mention of Kashmir from outside India is from European sources. Herodotos, a Greek historian who lived around 450 BCE mentions Kashmir as Kaspatyros. Though the Greeks ruled over Kashmir in the 2nd Century BCE, we do not find any official records in this regard and is hence shrouded in mystery, except for the few coins that have been obtained in the region.

Ptolemy was a mathematician, geographer and an astronomer who lived in the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century CE. His treatise on geography is called ‘Geographia’. This work refers to Kashmir as Kasperia. The geographical boundaries as perceived by Ptolemy seem larger than the Kashmir we know today, encompassing parts of Punjab.

Though it is probable that a work on geography in the first few centuries of the Common Era has certain degree of errors, what is certain is that Kashmir, a province surrounded on all four sides by mountains, was inhabited for centuries before the beginning of the Common Era and was known to the Roman Empire, 2000 years ago in the name of Kasperia.

The Chinese Accounts:

Clear references to Kashmir are obtained from the Chinese sources dated 6-7th Century CE. Though several indigenous accounts in the meantime refer to Kashmir, which shall be dealt with separately in another article, we shall focus on foreign chronicles in this post.

The famous traveler Hiuen Tsiang visited Kashmir in 634 CE. He calls Kashmir ‘Kiashi-mi-lo’. From the European records, only variations in names and geographical location were decipherable. No information of the polity, culture or other matters was available. However, Hieun Tsiang stayed in Kashmir for around 2 years and had made a detailed record of his observations.

His account of arrival in Kashmir itself is very interesting. He says that he had to cross several mountains to find a big stone gate and a watchtower which is the western entrance to the kingdom. This yeilds an understanding that the province was fortified and well protected. According to many historians, this is the location of today’s Baramulla district. Baramulla in the indigenous sources is called ‘Varahamula’, probably a speculation can be made as to whether a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Varaha (The boar form of Vishnu) existed there.

The Chinese pilgrim spends his first night in the valley at ‘Huskapura’, which is today’s Uskur, after which he proceeds to the capital city of Srinagar. In Srinagar, he is housed in a huge Vihara (residences of Buddhist Monks), called the ‘Jayendravihara’, where he shall spend two years studying the Sutras and other Buddhist canonical texts. This gives us a perspective of religion in the valley around the 6th Century. It was seen as a center of learning of Buddhism and travelers from other countries like Tsiang came to stay and study to Srinagar. Tsiang himself mentions that the people of Kashmir have held learning in high regard for centuries.

However it cannot be said that the whole state followed Buddhism as its only religion. Tsiang mentions that the kingdom as a whole was not given much to the faith of Buddhism and that there were many temples of the heritics (Those who were opposed to Buddhist philosophy of non acceptance of Vedas, the Hindus) in worship.

Thus, during Tsiang’s times, it can be assumed that Hinduism and Buddhism flourished together in the valley. The records of Ou-Kong (759 CE), a century after Tsiang’s, mentions that a lot of Stupas and Viharas exist in the valley, probably the presence of Buddhism increased in the century that lay in between.

Tsiang also makes interesting remarks about the people of this country. He says the people love learning, they are fair and that they are well instructed. This gives us a view into how educated the society of Kashmir was in his times. Interestingly, he also calls the people clever but cunning.

The T'ang dynasty of China sent emissaries to Kashmir in 713 CE. These records mention the kings of Kashmir. While Chandradeepa was called Tachen-to-lo-pi-li, his brother Muktadeepa was called Mou-to-pi by them. We shall discuss the history of these kings from the huge historic work of Kalhana called Rajatarangini, a 12th century work which records the kings who ruled Kashmir in a separate article later.

Kashmir's past was that of peace, religious harmony, learning and natural beauty. We can only hope that it be restored to its pristine glory again soon. I hope to write more on the history of Kashmir in future with this hope in my thoughts.


1. Ptolemy's Geography- Ponsonby and Weldrick

2. Ancient Geography of Kashmir , M.A.Stein

3. Si-Yu-Ki translated by Samuel Beal

4. Rajatarangini Moolam – Publisher unkown

6. Picture Courtesy – siaphotography

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