Kashmir that met the eyes of Arabian travelers

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

- Prathik Sudha Murali

(In the previous article on Kashmir’s history, the records of Chinese pilgrims and early mentions of Kashmir were discussed. This article, as a continuation seeks to discuss the details that are obtained on Kashmir through the travelers from the Arab world, like those of Al-Beruni)

When the Arabs first arrived in provinces nearer to Kashmir like Sindh, Kashmir remained unaffected to their conquest of migration. It was naturally guarded by mountains. The early Arabian traveler accounts hence do not contain much detail about the province. A traveler who is called ‘the Herodotus of Arabia’, Al-Masudi who lived in circa 950 CE had visited personally the Indus valley. However, information about Kashmir is scanty. He informs in his ‘Meadows of Gold’ that Kashmir is a country with many villages and towns, which is inaccessible due to the geographical location, surrounded by mountains. He also writes about a passage through the mountains that is guarded by a gate. (A gate at Varahamula (Baramulla today) is mentioned by the Chinese pilgrims also).

Despite such difficulties, the 11th Century traveler Al-Biruni from Uzbekistan gives detailed notes on Kashmir. He probably collected notes during his stay in Punjab. In the first few chapters, he speaks about the voluminous sciences of India, during the conquest of Ghazni Mahmud. He informs that the Hindu sciences have fled to places that are yet unreachable to the Islamic conquerors like Varanasi and Kashmir. He gives a rather graphic example of Hindus under Mahmud’s conquest. ‘Hindus were like atoms of dust which scattered in all directions’, he writes. This dust along with its intellectual property seems to have settled in Kashmir and Kashi.

The reign of Ghazni, under which Biruni was sheltering did not certainly extend to Kashmir. Biruni probably had informants or took notes of various first-hand accounts on Kashmir to satisfy his curiosity on the region’s topography, polity and other aspects.

The people of Kashmir and their practices:

Much like the Chinese records, four centuries after them, Al-Biruni also writes that the men of Kashmir are good pedestrians and that they avoided riding animals. The nobles rode on palanquins. Biruni says that the Kashmiris called the palanquin ‘Katt’. Regarding the entry of foreigners, he writes that the Kashmiris allowed Jews to enter their territory in the former times and that currently, no foreigner is allowed to enter, unless personally known to them. It is therefore inferred that they remained very protective of their country and also that Jews moved freely in Kashmir before 10th Century. He makes very interesting remarks about the security of the province and the people’s behavior towards foreigners. It appears from his records that during the 10th century, the Kashmiris isolated themselves from the other territories and kept their country well guarded. Since Biruni mentions the difficulty in trading with the Kashmiris, it is a plausible conclusion that they were self sustaining.

Biruni mentions about polyandry existing in Kashmir. He says that some neighborhoods of Kashmir practice polyandry and that a few brothers share a wife.

Kashmir and her literary achievements as per Biruni:

Al-Biruni’s knowledge of the hindu scriptures was deep. While he makes a detailed account of the scriptures and their philosophies in Chapter XII of his book, he mentions about how the Hindus believe that the Vedas need to be memorized and do not support writing down of the Vedic books. However, he speaks highly of a Brahmin from Kashmir called Vasukra, who undertook the task of writing and commenting on the Vedas. Biruni records that Vasukra was worried about the Vedas being wiped away from man kind’s memories, as he felt that men grew worse in his days and that their virtues were being lost. Thus, we are able to deduce that the Kashmiris were well learned in the scriptures and that the task of writing down the Vedas to preserve it for posterity was undertaken by the Kashmiris.

Biruni discusses the various books that India has produced on astronomy. In the list of authors, he mentions a scientist called ‘Utpala’ who was from Kashmir. Utpala is attributed with a book called ‘Rahundrakarana’ by Biruni. Another astronomical text called ‘the great Manasa’ had a commentary to it written by the same Kashmiri astronomer, Utpala. It is therefore evident that the Kashmiris in the medieval period excelled in sciences as well.

He quotes the Kashmiri scholar Utpala, based on the commentary of the book ‘Samhita’, which speaks about the change of names of cities. Utpala is quoted to have recorded the names of the city we know today as Multan. Multan was first known as Kashyapapura, then hamsapura, then Bhagapura and finally as Mulasthana, which today is referred to as Multan. We can deduce that Kashmiris were themselves tracing the roots of the names of their cities and were curious about their history.

The same scholar is again quoted by Biruni while talking about standard measurements. Utpala had written about standard measures in cylindrical form with a particular diameter, which was called a ‘Mana’. The scholar from Kashmir had also attempted to codify and standardize weights and measures.

Biruni had knowledge of the script of Kashmir. The Siddhamatrika script he says has its origins in Kashmir and that the Kashmiris use it, but it is also in use at Varanasi.

The Sarada Peetha:

Biruni calls the capital city of Kashmir as ‘Adishtana’ instead of Srinagara. This must have been another name of Srinagar during the period. He mentions that a three day journey from Adishtana brings a traveler to Sarada. He however does not mention a temple, but only of the idol of Sarada Devi, made of wood that is venerated by Hindus and frequented by the believers.

Al-Biruni’s interest in Kashmir is fascinating. Though he might not have entered Kashmir, he provides vivid details about the province. This forms major evidence in the form of foreign accounts of the state to understand Kashmir as it stood in the 10th Century CE. -- To be Continued

References: 1. Al-Masudi’s Meadows of Gold Trans. Sprenger 2. India by Al-Biruni Trans. Columbia University (Internet library) 3. The ancient geography of Kashmir, MA Stein 4. Photo Credits – Ms.Shruti Sivakumar

The Author can be reached at - sahagamana@gmail.com

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