Wandering Through the Alleys and Making Sense of Central and West Asian Remnants in Srinagar — by Subhajit Pal
December 20, 2021
Relying on research and interview material gathered during his stay in Srinagar, Subhajit Pal discusses Kashmir’s historical connection to Central and West Asia as it manifests in contemporary times.

The former US president Barack Obama, who has been criticized for various issues when in office, notes in his book that, “The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.” Although in today’s world empires are obsolete, the mess that such empires created among different ethnic groups or between postcolonial nation-states still lingers on. Many opine that the processes of shrinking these erstwhile empires have ended up locking certain post-colonial states within covert colonial arrangements. While thinking about the legacies of the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, we often remember the blood-laden partition or the continued crisis of Kashmir that routinely makes primetime headlines. Conversely, the mainstream debates regarding the root of the crisis in Kashmir have also been doing rounds in academia for some time now. However, the notion that often gets brushed under the carpet is the connection that Kashmir had with the Central and West Asian empires throughout a lengthier historical timeline.

Kashmir was a part of the silk routes that stretched from the far eastern regions of present-day China to somewhere close to Southern Europe. This had been the center of heavy movement of goods, people, and ideas. The history of these loosely connected land routes dates to the 10th century BCE. However, from the 10th century CE onwards, these routes had become a hub of trade during and after the establishment of the Islamic empire from near and around the Mediterranean to parts of Central Asia. Owing to this trade connection, Kashmir had witnessed both outflow and inflow of people, goods, and ideas to and from the Central Asian regions of Yarkand, Kasghar and West and East Turkestan and the West Asian regions of Andrab, Semnan and Bukhara. This essay, which is based on observations and conversations during my stay in Srinagar for my masters’ dissertation, focuses on the findings of an ethnographic inquiry that tries to grasp the lingering effect of the rupture of the trade routes within the social imagination.


Wandering Through the Alleys

From local level organization to everyday semiotics, life in Srinagar speaks about its past through myriad ways. As the trading routes brought Islam with itself from the Arab world to Kashmir, it blended within a society largely dominated by Buddhists and people belonging to Hinduism. The confluence resulted in creation of some fluid identities within the society of the time. Names bearing Islamic identities were placed ahead of regions lying deep in Central or West Asia, thus giving rise to a Ghulam Ahmed Bukhari or an Altaf Andrabi (not indicative of real individuals but to the kind of names common in Kashmir). The indication of places within names has since become emblematic of Kashmir’s social terrain. Over the period of this research project, there were times when the discussion over caste and surnames was raised and some respondents acknowledged the presence of caste within the society. An octogenarian baker, whose previous generations had familial and business connection in Tajikistan (who now has multiple outlets in Srinagar), suggested that their family took up the surname of “Sofi”—a name associated with bakers. He later added that he had to drop it after a few years as their documents did not contain that surname and returned to his Central Asian surname “Kitass,” underlining the fact that there has been a trend of identifying people’s occupation with caste-surnames, while on the contrary moving away from these surnames has also been an option in lieu of something else, such as the Central or West Asian names. Therefore, surnames with names of places in Central and West Asia have become a common occurrence, importantly holding on to their semiotic value that signifies specific connections. Therefore, names such as “Andrabi,” “Bukhari,” “Semnani” prominently appear in Kashmir’s population. Similar comments could be observed in the literatures of other Kashmir scholars, where Warikoo notes:

Kashmiri families bearing surnames like Akhoon, Beq, Kashgari, Turki, Bukhari, Nakshbandi, etc. are a living example of the cultural assimilation that took place as a result of the immigration of Central Asian refugees and traders into Kashmir in the past. During the 19th century, the Nakshbandi family of Kashmir came in handy both to the Dogra rulers and the British Indian authorities for obtaining political information about Central Asian Khanates. The Nakshbandis still commanded a large following in Turkestan.

While wandering into the alleys of Downtown Srinagar near the Ali Kadal, one of my Kashmiri friends responded that the Central Asian trade routes were the only natural outlets from the land-locked region unlike the present roads that were later developed by various regimes to rigidly connect it with the subcontinent. Such infrastructural implementations had contributed in the making of the political atmosphere that is present in Kashmir in a subtle or less noticeable way. This was certainly not the first time that I heard such a claim, a retired schoolteacher from Ladakh, now settled in one of erstwhile trading inns in Srinagar, shared similar views. Their comments made me ponder over the difference between Kashmir as a space within the imagination of its natives and the imagination of Kashmir produced after the redrawing of the maps during and after the British regime.

Although this needs further research, my preliminary observation derived from the local imagination of Kashmir in terms of space is starkly different from the way it is imagined by the nation-states, who are prime actors in their geopolitical disputes over the territory, and who symbolize a continuation of the imperial imagination.


Engaging with Space and the Narrated History of Trade

After having spent several evenings walking with some of the senior respondents by the Jhelum Bund and having attended numerous Friday prayers at Khanqah-e-Moula with few of my close friends, I suspect that the lived experience of the people, under most of the ruling regimes prior to the British were not on contrary footing in terms of the spatial practice, representation of the space and the representational space. According to Lefebvre, this is the space triad that engages in a dialectical manner both at cognitive and material levels to produce a particular space. The Marxist scholar also notes that both the common people and the ruling institution are involved in making of the social space where the social relations and the dynamics of power are at continuous interplay. In The Production of Space, the author articulates that both the spatial practices and the representation of the space at cognitive levels interact with the representational space, which is the lived space shared by the common people. Furthermore, the tension between the way a particular space is perceived by the commoners and the way it is conceived by the ruling elites determine the social, cultural, and political conditions of the lived space.

Several conversations over the customary cups of noon chai stressed historically on the social rhythm in the Valley, which was produced by regular movement of people, goods and ideas via the mountain passes to and from the Central and West Asia. The abrupt shift happened with the arrival of the British as a part of the ruling institution, after the Treaty of Amritsar of 1846. To draw references from the literature available, Bray and Warikoo hint that the Empire’s suspicion about the traders and their intentions ushered a different outlook over the entire Himalayan region. In other words, the Empire’s representation of the region of Kashmir and its neighboring Himalayan regions was that of a frontier, making its administration suspicious about the traders and movement of people and goods within and outside the region towards Central Asia, whereas the people never gave into that approach. To put this in perspective, Bray writes, “… In July 1846 the British Government appointed P.A. Vans Agnew and Captain A. Cunningham to travel to Lahul and Spiti. Among other objections, they were to make sure that the people of Spiti stopped sending any kind of payment, except religious presents, to their neighbours in Tibet, Ladakh, Kulu and Bashahr.”

The trading history of Srinagar cannot be investigated in isolation, but in connection with the then contemporary happenings both internal and at the other end of the routes. Whenever any city or region of the main trading routes were affected, the tremors were felt in Srinagar. As one respondent (from the Tibetan Muslim community) mentioned, after the convention between the British and the Tibetan administration in 1906, the trade picked up while prior to it the trade was hit by several factors. The same could be observed in Bray’s work where during the early nineteenth century in the aftermath of the war between Nepal and the East India Company, caused some disruption between the Kalimpong-Kathmandu-Lhasa trade route. It was believed that the trade volume in Kashmir picked up since the ruling regime of Tibet and Nepal trusted in the Kashmiri Muslim traders.

Such a belief was confirmed in the Empire’s Gazette that, “The natives of Cashmere established with their families at Lassa are computed at 150 persons, who carry on a considerable trade between that capital and their native country.” Finally, the setup of the British Embassy in Kashgar in 1890, which was not formally recognized by the Chinese nation until 1908, had serious repercussions in Srinagar. It was during these changes that the Wazirs of the kingdoms of Kashmir or people in similar positions in Ladakh became less influential as observed by Abdul Wahid Rahu in his memoir. Therefore, it was not only internal changes that affected the trade in Kashmir but also external events happening far across the region, which Subhranyum has focused on in his work on connected histories. As a result, one can observe a transformational change brought in the altered conceived space or the representation of Srinagar, the larger Kashmir and the Himalayan region as a borderland or frontier zone, which might have had a deep lingering impact till date.

Since 1947, both the urban and rural spatial settings in Kashmir have been conceived by the post-colonial nation-states as liminal borderlands waiting to be secured. Elden’s reading of Lefebvre highlights the relation between time and space while understanding this production process. He notes that space and time should not be understood in isolation, instead in relation to each other along with contemporary events. Lefebvre believed that the cartographical experiments carried out by the power have always aided the motive of the power in terms of the spaces produced after the experiment. Furthermore Brenner and Elden understand that the process of production of this space by the power from time to time has mostly aided the colonial, imperial or capital-centric agendas. In Kashmir, there exists a discontinuity between the space conceived by the people in time and the space produced after the British cartographical experiment. In other words, it appears that the space that the common people intended or still intend to produce is not in complete synchronization with the conceived space intended or that has been intended to be produced by the nation-states around it. On the one hand, the respondents’ social and abstract space is laden with movements across the mountains for religious, economic, cultural, and political purposes. While on the other lies a conceived space produced by the ruling powers that requires increased militarization and a securitization narrative even more in the present to satiate a false sense of security and economic prosperity, to ensure electoral gains within multiple warring nation-states.


Navigating the Predicament

To illustrate the difference further in terms of manifestations of the space produced and its lived experience, we must evaluate the way an individual in general traverses through the cityscape of Srinagar. The city of Srinagar presents a stark division between the state’s and a native’s idea of what constitute important spaces within the city. When socially and historically important spaces such as Downtown, or interiors of Lal Chowk near the Dastageer Sahib shrine or areas near Jhelum Bund face large numbers of cordon and search operations by the Indian armed forces—restricting public and social movement in and around those spaces—then perhaps, it is bound to produce sentimental fault lines between the power and the people. It also affects the small and independent businesses, thereby disrupting the grassroot economy around those places.

Since the 1940s, with the strangling of the trade routes by border zones also meant that people from rural border areas had to leave and shift on either side of Kashmir in search of livelihood and safety. Meanwhile, people in urban spaces like Srinagar also had to become habituated with armed forces stationed within their localities. This did not augur well for the common people’s perceived space within their homeland. As the friction continues, the reason for the survival of the legacy of the Central and West Asian trade culture is partly due to the verbal and oral presence and the remembrance it produces.

Similarly, the difficulty to trace those connections has a lot to do with the turmoil the territory has faced post the formation and decolonization of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, which has become a default prism by which to view the territory’s past. As such, even if school history textbooks and popular opinions give minimal or negligible space to the Central or West Asian connections found in Kashmir, the knowledge of history derived organically from both the physical and spatial ruins of the trading culture—along with its religious and cultural impact—blends Central and West Asia into Kashmir. In doing so, such organic historical knowledge preserved by the people brings Kashmir closer to Central and West Asia than to the Indian subcontinent.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/subhajitpal/" target="_self">Subhajit Pal</a>

Subhajit Pal

Subhajit Pal is currently doing his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University at Albany (State University of New York). He previously interned with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP Kashmir).