Surrounded by Wonders: Pico Iyer in Kashmir
"Kashmir became a shorthand for the contention that festers between neighbors whom Empire has cynically divided."
Kashmir was the local paradise that bewitched my cousins all across India. The mountainous region in the country’s far north was, for them, the home of otherwise unthinkable snowballs, of golden fields of mustard, of peaks to rival the ones they’d read of in the Alps. Whenever they went to the cinema in their congested cities, they were apt to see vast meadows with lovers eyeing one another from behind Iranian maples, or dancing in loud-voiced ranks beneath the snowcaps.
Their parents—like mine—had been weaned on woozy colonial verses about “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar” and stories that mingled Persian fables with tales of a “Splendorous Valley.” Even my father’s not so cheery college classmate, V. S. Naipaul, had evoked a tantalizing vision of a private heaven while describing his weeks on a houseboat on Kashmir’s Dal Lake, spiced tea and curried vegetables brought to him as he composed fresh sentences to the sound of kingfishers and the plash of oars.
The same season I traveled across Iran, watching so many chafe against the strictures of an Islamic republic, I knew I had to go to Kashmir, where many were agitating in the opposite direction, towards Islamic rule—or self-determination, at the very least. Now, as I stepped into a green wooden mosque, of the kind found only in this region, I was confronted by papier-mâché walls not to be seen anywhere else in the world. Men sprawled out in the summer heat, while a few pious souls in skullcaps knelt on the carpet, hands raised to Allah.“In this medieval town,” I remembered reading in Naipaul, “the people were surrounded by wonders.”
All around the dusty alleyways of Old Srinagar, white-bearded elders were hobbling along on canes towards the house of prayer, while fair-skinned girls with the green eyes of Afghanistan smiled and sparkled under shawls of orange and yellow and blue. Copper workers in unlit stalls were hammering out beautiful engraved samovars, craftspeople were stitching gold and silver tilla embroidery into elegant shawls. I was wandering through what might have been a series of old canvases here in the bracing mountain air—fifty-one hundred feet above the sea—and much of the snarling congestion and honking fury of the plains seemed very far below.
It was Ramadan now, so the whole green valley was even more on edge than usual. Too hot in the blazing afternoons to work, too early to eat. When I stepped into the central mosque, held up by 378 deodar-wood columns reaching all the way to the roof, it was to see a man with Chinese features under his skullcap meandering past a surge of fountains while, nearby, women gathered on lawns in a happy explosion of bright colors. Then, from every direction—a hundred mosques, so it seemed—the call to prayer rose up and encircled us all, evoking God and the heavens and the need to remember them all; as men streamed in through a little wooden gate, I caught a glimpse, behind them, of bright sunlight, deserted shops, framed visions of green and gold.
For a visitor at least, the presences of 1394, when the mosque was constructed, were overwhelming. The smell of cedarwood was everywhere, and along the Jhelum River, which winds through the center of town, was a jumble of old Hindu temples, crumbling two-story wooden houses, mosques with pagoda towers, next to tidy cottages that might have been set beside the Thames. The closely packed bricks used to construct many of the houses were so intricate and small, I could have been walking through a stage set. “In this medieval town,” I remembered reading in Naipaul, “the people were surrounded by wonders.”
I made my way along the Bund, the riverside walkway where memsahibs had sauntered even in my parents’ youth; finding they were not permitted to buy houses on land, the British began fashioning their own private vision of paradise on the water. Houseboats came up across Dal and Nageen Lakes, recreating the drawing rooms of Kent, heavy with antimacassars and Grandmother’s oak-solid furniture. A home in the colonies allowed them to remake themselves and to take on airs they’d never have gotten away with among neighbors who could read them; here, they could dream up a version of home that had never begun to exist in the country they’d left behind. Even now, much of India has this feeling of a fictional, dressed-up England created by displaced Brits glad to be far from the land they knew. A local Jeeves can solve every one of Bertie’s problems in a tropical afternoon.
For centuries, in fact, Kashmir had seemed an answer to many of the world’s divisions. It was from here that the ecumenical emperor Ashoka, three hundred years before the death of Christ, had sent Buddhist teachers across Asia to pass on the value of seeing the interdependence of every living thing. It was here, in the sixteenth century, that the emperor Akbar had claimed his “private garden,” the area’s 777 flowering jewel boxes suggesting the more enduring beauties that await the blessed in heaven.
Every summer, huge convoys trundled up from Delhi, four hundred miles away, bearing the emperor, his court, many of Delhi’s merchants and at least one hundred thousand horsemen and thirty thousand porters, to what had long been seen as an arboretum for the gods. Even now, the four great gardens around Srinagar—not least Shalimar, its name appearing on perfume bottles and a Royal Navy ship—were gentle places for boys to sit under three-hundred-year-old sycamores while excited visitors from Ahmadabad or Delhi got themselves up in seventeenth-century Kashmiri costumes for photographs.
“The genius of picnic seems to rule the whole shore of the Dal,” a nineteenth-century British journalist had observed, and the people from damp England all around him lost their hearts, much as the Moguls had done, to the irises and lupines and wild roses across Kashmir in the spring, the purple saffron fields in September. Local merchants grew famous for spinning magic carpets and jewels tailored to a visitor’s dreams and when I was at college, Dal Lake became one of those storied rest stops along the modern Silk Road, sung of by Led Zeppelin and associated with the Magic Bus.
You could stay on a houseboat for a fistful of dollars every day (two meals included); the woman across the lake sold honey in saffron and almond and apple flavors (and, if you knew how to ask, spiced with marijuana and opium, too). You could forget the passage of time on floating hotels whose names preserved a grandfather’s dream: Duke of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth, St. James Palace and even The Best Prince of Vale.
A Tibetan prince in the sixteenth century had written to his father (who lived, the son thought, in an earthly paradise called “Shambala”), to evoke Kashmir as a land with “more than three million towns, all filled with houses made of jewels, surrounded by walls of crystal.” Its shops sold “emeralds and rubies,” he wrote; among its streets filled with singing citizens, “beautiful women with dark blue eyes and lovely figures send you seductive glances.”
One day, driving along lanes of poplars as the late light slanted down through the trees, I recalled how even Shah Jahan, cherished for his creation of the Taj Mahal, had constructed a black marble pavilion here, in the Shalimar Gardens, on which was inscribed, in Persian, “If there be a Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this.”
Kashmir was certainly the paradise that shone inside my mother’s heart, at least until she discovered Oxford. Now that she’d turned eighty, I’d begun taking her out every Sunday night to dinner in the Sojourner coffeehouse in Santa Barbara, and as we nibbled on lentil curries or quinoa, she threw open wide the magic doors of her girlhood. The neighbors who eloped and then, tragically, committed themselves to a double-suicide pact.
The people down one floor on Marine Drive whose parrots used to devour chilis. The great summer get-togethers on the rambling lawns of the house in Jabalpur. “Nandini, stop that, won’t you?” her mild-mannered mother had shouted, not knowing that it wasn’t her little daughter who was playing with her toes, but a gate-crashing monkey.
The most lyrical of these tales, though, came from Kashmir, the three trips the family had taken to escape the heat of summer. “Pahalgam,” the name of the hill town leading to the mountains, was the open sesame for this treasure chest of memories. “All of us, a big group, went to camp there, for three weeks in August. In the hills. We had porters and cooks so it was very comfortable. I made friends with three wild dogs. I called them Pee-wee and Kiwi and . . . I can’t remember now, maybe it was Tee-wee.”
On one such trip, the whole party mounted ponies for a five-day trek to the holy Hindu cave at Amarnath. They weren’t especially religious, but this was an adventure, the closest you could come in India to Europe. Her elder sister commandeered a sedan chair, but my mother went by pony. In summer, it was said, the ice formations in the Himalayan cave resembled a Shiva lingam.
Soon, however, it began to snow and my mother and her pony got lost. The snow turned into a blizzard, drawing a heavy veil over what had been a cloudless afternoon. The precipice was deep, and the ledge was narrow; her own mother thought she might have lost her youngest daughter forever.
But somehow girl and pony emerged intact—a happy ending—and Kashmir remained a sanctuary of radiance and calm in my mother’s stories, gilded by the seven decades that had passed.
“How old were you?”
“I must have been ten then.”
This was 1941, in short, and much of the world was divided by war. Very soon, Japanese soldiers would be pushing across Asia, ever closer to my mother’s home.Kashmir became a shorthand for the contention that festers between neighbors whom Empire has cynically divided, as if to cement their differences forever.
But Kashmir, during World War II, was a place of peace for my mother—only to be violently parceled off six years later during Partition and turned, while war was subsiding elsewhere, into a place of violence. A parable, almost, about the way Paradise becomes something different in every neighbor’s head, and my enchanted garden can never be yours.
The area had always been too seductive for its own good. In the nineteenth century alone, having survived both Mongols and Moguls, it was ruled by Afghans and then by Sikhs, neither of them notably gentle towards Kashmiris; when the British were offered the valley after the Anglo-Sikh War, in 1846, they sold it to a maharajah for a few million rupees and an annual payment of three pairs of Kashmiri shawls and a horse. The rulers of Empire knew that a friendly non-Muslim ruler could prove useful in containing a predominantly Muslim population.
When India claimed independence at last in 1947, the largest of its more than five hundred princely states again seemed doomed to suffer the consequences of geography: two thousand Pashtun militiamen from Pakistan rode into the region, as if to claim it, and the ruling maharajah called on New Delhi for help. India sent its troops up to resist the invaders and, all these decades on, they’d yet to leave. In 1949 the UN suggested that a plebiscite be held so that Kashmiris could themselves decide whether their state remain in largely Hindu India or become part of mostly Muslim Pakistan.
Or, best of all, simply rule itself: in 1947 Kashmir had enjoyed its own constitution and flag, its own president and prime minister. But for more than seven decades now, the vote had been constantly talked about and never held. Kashmir became a shorthand for the contention that festers between neighbors whom Empire has cynically divided, as if to cement their differences forever.
Islam had first gained prominence here, I found out, through—of all things—a Tibetan princeling in the fourteenth century, who had been converted by a Sufi preacher; no surprise, perhaps, that many of Srinagar’s wooden mosques had pagoda-worthy towers at the top, as if Himalayan Buddhists were building Sunni shrines with the help of designers from Isfahan.
Kashmir’s location had brought artists here, in the fifteenth century, from Egypt and Turkey and Persia; nowadays, that meant, less happily, that it was bordered by China and Afghanistan and, effectively, Tibet. The only majority Muslim state in largely Hindu India, it was home to twelve million souls who felt surrounded by enemies, whether they were Muslim or Hindu.
Some locals believed that Jesus had been buried in Sri-nagar, in an area known as “Roza Bal.” Others reminded me that five thousand Buddhists had convened here, long before the birth of Christ, to discuss how needless suffering could be transformed. Some even claimed that the Garden of Eden was located in Kashmir, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether its abundant apple orchards might evoke the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil even more than the less divisive Tree of Life.
Excerpted from The Half-Known Life: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer. Copyright © 2023. Available from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.