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Early Kashmiri Society and Challenge of Islam

By Dr. S.S. Toshkhani

Prefatory

Exploring what kind a society existed in Kashmir before the advent of Islam is a very interesting but also a challenging task. How was it organized ? What were its institutions, its belief systems and traditions, its values and ideals ? To know this in full and exact detail, we have but fragmentary and scattered sources of information available to us. Buried beneath a several kilometer long embankment running across the Dal Lake in Srinagar are hundreds and thousands of ancient manuscripts that could have provided us with a wealth of evidence. But they seem to be irretrievably lost.

All is not lost though. On the basis of still extant source materials: pioneering work of treat value has been done in the recent decades by erudite scholars like Dr. Ved Kumari Ghai, Dr. S.C. Ray and Ajay Mitra Shastri to prepare a coherent and connected account of ancient Kashmir’s social and cultural life. Yet the field of investigation is so vast, and the available evidence so limited, that there still remain large areas which are unexplored and unlimited Furthermore, the studies- of these scholars seem to suffer from a certain lack of perspective and orientation, based as they are on the Western lndoiogists’ line of approach consisting of too literal an interpretation of myth.

The immediate necessity, therefore, is for someone to carry the work of the pioneering scholars further on, and to offer fresh perspectives and new insights into things. It is a colossal exercise. It is extremely important to trace the genesis and evolution of Kashmiri society from the earliest times in view of attempts being made by some people to present the entire pre-Islamic past of the valley as one long period of darkness. A lot of mischief has been done by those who in the garb of historiographers are using negativist and reductionist tactics to suppress what is true and suggest what is false. They have mined the whole area of historical investigation with numerous falsehoods and fact distortions. These shall, therefore, have to be cleared from the path of our vision so that it will be possible for us to see and place things in a clear and correct perspective.

At the outset, we must understand that when we talk of early Kashmiri society, we do not mean thereby any particular racial or ethnic group. Several such groups - Manvas, Nagas, Pishachas and others have come together in some distant pre-historic past to give shape to this society.  Their mixing and commingling is commemorated in the Nilamata Purana, a 6th or 7th century text in Sanskrit which gives Kashmir’s own creation legend. According to this Purana, gods intervened to reclaim the Himalayan Valley from the waters of a primordial lake that filled it. Killing the demon who infested the lake, they drained away the water at the request of Rishi Kashyapa, preceptor and progenitor par excellence, who took the initiative in populating the land thus reclaimed. But there was a hiccup. The Nagas, resented Kashyapa’s recommendation of allowing Manavas (descendents of Manu) cohabit with them. They had second thoughts as soon as an enraged Kashyapa gave them the option of having to live with the “terrible” Pischachas. In the end we find all the elements that constituted the ancient population of Kashmir living together in a spirit of harmony and cordiality, following the instructions of, the Naga king, Nila. These instructions, as we see, concern performance of certain rites and ceremonies, which for the most part are quite similar to those prescribed in other Puranas, except in case of a few rites related to Naga worship. The Nilamata Purana is a record of their coming together, a process which must have taken centuries of assimilation. On its pages we see the earliest contours of a Kashmiri society beginning to emerge.

But that is not the manner some people would like things to have been. In their eagerness to be counted among ethno-historians, they see a bloody ethnic strife to be at the root of it all. Presenting the episode of the Nagas’ initial unwillingness to accommodate, let us say, Vedic Aryans, as a gory struggle for domination a la colonial historians’ theory of Aryan invasion, they read discord into accord and accuse “alien” Aryans to have “annihilated” the original inhabitants of Kashmir. “The blood of Nagas flows on the pages of the Nilamata”, shrieks one poet-turned-politician-turned ethnologist. “Massacre most foul”, cries another, forgetting that there is nothing in the Nilamata even remotely suggestive of any such conflict or tension, and that it was Vishnu who gave Nagas fleeing from the wrath of Garuda, their arch enemy, shelter on the mountains surrounding the Kashmir Valley. After all, the Nilmata does not read like a document of war but a document of compromise and reconciliation, of the birth of a unique civilization on the banks of river Vitasta against the backdrop of snow clad mountains. Besides, as we have said earlier, in that age of mass migrations of people, no geographical boundaries were fixed, and the state just did not exist Anyway, let us not give the feverish imagination of these people more attention than it deserves. These are, we must know, tactics to draw attention.

We have, however, to study closely the implications of the archaeological explorations which suggest that the earliest inhabitants of Kashmir were the Neolithic pit-dwellers of Burzahom, a village near Srinagar. Some Neolithic sites have been discovered in several places in the southern parts of the Valley also. Neolithic culture is said to have flourished there between 2300 BC and 2nd century AD. But as data available from Burzahom has not yet been systematically studied and analyzed, the identity of its Neolithic settlers has not been identified. Nor do we know whether they have any relations with the people of the Nilamata age or the present inhabitants of Kashmir. We are also not sure whether they had any social organization worth the name. To get a clear picture of how early Kashmiris lived, thought and worked, we have to fall back upon the Nilamata Purana and other literary sources, including Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Damodargupta’s Kuttanimata Kavya, Kshemendra’s writings. Bilhana’s Vikramankadeva Charit, Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara, Buddhist Avadana literature, Laugakshi’s Grihyasutra, Shaiva and Shakta Tantric literature, and stray references in other early works. Chinese and Tibetan records including Taranatha’s history of Buddhism in India and translations of old Buddhist texts are also of great value. Information gleaned from these different sources can then be checked for authenticity by relating it to archaeological evidence wherever available.

Caste in Early Kashmir:

Let us again revert to the Nilamata Purana and its reference to immigrant Brahmanas who followed Chandradeva and settled in Kashmir. It is highly possible that a bulk of them were from the Saraswati Valley who must have decided to migrate to Kashmir after the legendary river changed its course and finally dried up. There is a persistent and strong tradition among Kashmiri Pandits that they are Saraswat Brahmins, and the presence of a large number of words of Vedic origin in the Kashmiri language seems to confirm it. From accounts given in the Nilamata. Rajatarangini and other early sources, they appear to have emerged as the dominant and highly respected social group in Kashmir, not just because they were associated with religious rites and ceremonies, but because of their intellectual proclivities, their natural gravitation towards cultivation of cerebral graces. They  were intellectual people who prized learning above everything else. And indeed it is because of their contributions that Kashmir came to be known all over the world as a great seat of Sanskrit learning. In the ancient texts referred to above, we see them as people “engaged in self-study, contemplation, performance of sacrifice, penance and the study of the Vedas and Vedangas” Respect was shown to them because they were supposed to be “itihasvidah” and “kalavidah”, that is “knowers of history and the connoisseurs of art. And who can provide a better proof of this than Kalhana, the great author of Rajatarangini, and  the whole host of chroniclers  of Kashmir who followed  him — Jonaraja and Shrivara,  Pragyabhatta  and  Shuka  ? Brahmins were also required to have a thorough grounding  in  the six schools of philosophy, astrology and astronomy, grammar, logic, prosody and medicine, besides religious texts. They had to live an austere life and adhere to a high moral code. Nowhere has it been suggested that they should be worshipped “as gods on the earth” even if they are illiterate and ignorant. And yet all Brahmins have been equated with priests and shown as representatives of an exploitative and oppressive social order by historians whose only pastime is Brahmin bashing. They are accused of appropriating the surplus in agriculture and growing rich on the gifts given to them by others.

There is no doubt that Brahmins did hold a high position in the society, but mainly as an intellectual and scholarly class, and not all of them adopted priesthood as their profession. And those who did were not much respected as they were recipients of donations and sacrificial fees and not donors. The donor was the patron, the yajamana who hired a priest to have a religious sacrifice or ritual performed. And anybody could be the patron under the yajmani system - including a Brahmana.

But this we shall take up later. Suffice it to say here that the Brahmins took up several occupations during the period under review, besides serving as priests. They were katha-vachakas or narrators of Puranic stories, astrologers, vaidyas or physicians, teachers, and even agriculturists. Some of them joined the administrative service also and became councillors and ministers. Some, like Kaihana’s own father Champaka. adopted the military career.

What about the other castes? If Dr. S.C.Ray is to be believed, there were no intermediate castes in Kashmir, not even Shudras. “Though the conception of the population as consisting of the four traditional castes was not altogether unknown”, he writes, “there was no such caste as Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra in early Kashmir”. While he describes Brahmanas as “definitely the more privileged and honoured caste” , he mentions Nishadas, Kiratas, Dombas, Shvapakas and Chandalas as the lower castes. Dr. Ray’s view appears to be only partiality true. The Nishadas the Kiratas, the Dombas etc. were no doubt there, but the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas were not altogether absent, though they have not been mentioned in that detail. The Nilamata describes the functions of all the four traditional castes and says that representatives of all the four participated in the king’s coronation. The Rajatarangini too makes specific references to Kshatriyas as well as Vaishyas in the context of Kashmir’s ancient history. There is no reference in it of any tension between the castes, nor anything like the priest - king collusion to maintain hegemony over others. The Brahmanas, however, are often shown as resorting to prayopavesha or hunger-strike to get their demands accepted by the king. The confrontation between King Jayapida and the Brahmanas of Tulamula is a well known example.

There may not be many direct references to Vaishyas as such in Rajatarangani and other early works, but Kalhana does mention the emergence of a rich and prosperous merchant class. With the opening of overland trade routes during Kanishka’s rule, and perhaps,, earlier, trade and commerce with foreign countries appears to have received a boost. Commercial activity must have been particularly brisk

during the rule of the Karkotas Extensive conquests by kings like Lalitaditya must have opened vast markets for Kashmiri goods in neighbouring territories. The Valley was full of wealthy merchants, says Kalahana, with some of them living in palatial buildings excelling the king’s palace. Damodargupta’s reference to shreshthin and vanikas also indicates the existence of a rich and prosperous trading community during his time, belonging probably to the Vaishya caste. Many among the upward mobile artisan classes in the Valley too must have belonged to this community.

As for the Shudras, Nilamata counts the karmajivin (workers) and shilpis (artisans) as Shudras - that is, the weavers, carpenters, goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, leather-tanners and potters. They were treated with respect in the society and were among those who exchanged gifts with the “higher varnas” during the Mahimana celebrations, says Dr. Ved Kumari. The servants serving in the houses of the higher castes too belonged to the caste. They were treated with sympathy and were included in the list of the persons “in whose company the householder feasted and enjoyed”. The very fact, writes Dr. Ved Kumari, that the Nilmata describes the Shudras as taking part in the coronation ceremony of the king, shows that they were not debased.

There were people belonging to mixed castes also like Suta, Magadha and Vandi who lived by singing the paeans of heroes and other famous persons.

Dr. S.C.Ray counts the Nishadas, Kiratas, Dombas etc. among the low caste people but stops short of calling them Shudras. The Nishadas, who lived by hunting and fishing, are also described as boatsmen in the Rajatarangim. The Kiratas, who were hunters and animal trappers, were a forest dwelling tribe belonging to the Tibeto-Burman racial stock. The Dombas have been described in the Rajatarangim in association with the Chandalas as huntsmen belonging to the menial class. Kalhana calls them “Shvapakas” or “dog-eating people'. But they have also been shown as good musicians who made quite a profession of their singing and dancing. Kalhana mentions the story of a Domba singer Ranga whose daughters gave a performance in the glittering royal assembly hall of Chakravarman and were included in the king’s seraglio, one of them becoming the chief queen much to the chagrin of others . Consequently, Dombas became the favourites of the king and wielded much influence at his court as councillors. Chandalas,- were bravos and fierce fighters. They worked as executioners and were also employed as the king’s watchmen.

The division of early Kashmiri society into four castes and their sub-castes was only notional In actual fact, the caste-system was never rigid in Kashmir, or of a tyrannical character. Intermarriages between various castes were not uncommon, as we learn from works like the Katha-sarit-sagara. It is not, therefore relevant to talk of social-organization in terms or caste so far as at least Kashmir is concerned. The society in Kashmir was actually divided along occupational or socio-economic lines. Writes Dr.  S.C.Ray  :  “Three distinct classes of people evolved, along with their several   sub-divisions,   on   the   basis   of  three   principle   methods   of  production (agriculture, industry and trade)”. While agriculturists constituted the bulk of these occupational classes, artisans and merchants too had important roles to play in the society.

Though agriculture formed the mainstay of the economy, it is not known whether the cultivators in ancient Kashmir were the owners of the lands they tilled or mere tenants of the actual landlords. In all probability, they had a certain share in the crop harvested by them, but its distribution lay mainly in the lands of the king and the feudal lords. The fact that cultivators participated in the joyful festivals related to agriculture during the Nilamata age shows that they were by and large owners of the lands tilled by them.

But around the 8th century, a new class of feudal landlords known as the Damaras appeared on the scene and started gaming control of agriculturist economy. We do not hear of them in the Nilamata, nor in the first three books of the Rajatarangini till we find Lalitaditya, Kashmir’s most powerful king, warning his successors not to leave cultivators of the land with more than what they require “for their bare sustenance and the tillage of the land”. Otherwise, he says ‘they would become in a single year very formidable Damaras and strong enough to neglect the commands of the commands of the kings”. And then we learn that they -were agriculturists who, owned large chunks of land. Lalitaditva’s warning appears to have had no effect, for we see the Damaras becoming more and more wealthy and gaming more and more strength   By the time” the Lohara dynasty ascended the throne,, they had become so rich and powerful that they began to interfere in the affairs of the State. Living in fortified residences, they raised large private armies and established their strongholds all over Kashmir   Such was their power and influence that they were able to extend their stranglehold over the administration, becoming virtual king-makers, enthroning or dethroning anyone according to their wish. In the wars of succession that became endemic after the 10th century, we find them supporting one claimant to the throne or the other, their support often proving to be the deciding factor. This is what happened  in the internecine conflicts between Ananta and Kalasha and Kalasha and Marsha, each of them vying for their help. Powerful rulers like Didda, Ananta, Kalasha and Jayasimha used every stratagem to curb them, including the use of military force, but the Damaras continued to retain their nuisance value. Dr. S.C.Ray attributes the rise and growth of the Damaras not only to the “weakness of the royal authority” and “the constant wars of succession”, but also to “the economic structure of the society”’’, which because of increasing dependence on agricultural lands for revenue proved helpful to the rise of the landed aristocracy. As their wealth and influence increased, the Damaras came to be looked upon with respect in the society, with royal families establishing even matrimonial relations with them.

Merchants formed another important and influential section of the society.   We have already referred to their rise while talking of the Vaishyas. Kalhana shows them living in great affluence in palatial residences more magnificent than even the king’s palace Kashmir’s trade and commercial ties with the neighbouring regions appear to have been very strong right from the Kushana period or even earlier and by the time the Karkotas rose to power, an extensive export market became available for Kashmiri goods, which presumably included raw wool and woollen fabrics, hides and skins and leather articles, fruits, and most important of all, saffron. Among the articles of imports salt seemed to be the most important Silk, which seems to have been imported from the neighbouring China, vermilion, asfoetida and several other spices, and coral, imported possibly from the western regions, were possibly the other-important items. With this the wealthy merchant class gained ascendance in the society We can see in Damodaragupta’s kuttanimata Kavya. shresihm and vanikus living in great luxury and patronising theatre-houses. However their importance began to decline when the overland trade routes were closed and trade became more of an internalized affair. They even began to resort to deceitful means for making quick money, as Kalhana and Kshemendra seem to suggest.

While agricultural and trading communities were very important elements in the society from the socio-economic point of view, the artisan classes also witnessed a significant growth in early Kashmir. These included the weavers and the jewellers, metal casters and image-makers, potters and carpenters, blacksmiths and leather tanners etc. Although their sphere of activity was quite wide, there were no corporate or traders guilds in Kashmir as in other parts of India.

There were also occupational communities who served the society in various other ways. Among these could be counted the wrestlers, the actors, the dancers, the physicians, the shepherds, the gardeners and also the courtesans who plied the world’s oldest trade These people were not directly connected with the production of wealth, but nonetheless had their own place in the society.

Yet another class, which distinguished itself from all the classes mentioned above was that of the administrators. It consisted of the nobility and the bureaucracy As Dr. S.C. Ray has pointed out, the highest civil and military officials were drawn from the nobility, and these included the sarvadiikara (also called dhi-sachiva) or prime minister, stiehiva or minister, the mandalesha or governor and the kantpanes ha or commander-in-chief. Being important officers of the State, the nobility drew lame salaries from the royal treasury.                                                      

The bureaucracy assisted them in running the general administration of the State It consisted of all kinds of officials, both high and low, all of them being known by the general coveivterm “”Kayastha”, which did not denote any particular caste. Members of and caste or class could be recruited as Kayasthas, including the Brahmanas. Both Kalhana and Kshemendra have Hayed them for their greed and for their cruel methods of exacting revenue and taxes from the people. Kshemendra gives a long list of their designations in his works Narmamala and Samaya Matrika . Describing them as an exploitative and oppressive class, he exposes their fraudulent ways and bungling, and accuses them of forgery, misappropriation and embezzlement.  Kalhana too speaks about them in the same vein. The common man appears to have been squeezed between the tyrannical Damaras and the oppressive and greedy Kayasthas, though not all Kayasthas could have been like that.

One of the most significant, and surprising, features of the early Kashmiri society was the freedom that women enjoyed. The picture one gets of their life from various literary sources is not that of servitude or deprivation but of happy participation in different spheres of human activity. There was no attempt to marginalise them or decultunse their personality, as was being done in other contemporary societies elsewhere in the world. Though under the protective umbrella of the family, they occupied a pivotal place in social life and moved about with unfettered freedom. Undoubtedly, the society was patriarchal, but there was no restriction on the movement of women, nor were any irrational curbs imposed on their activity In the age of Nilamata and the centuries that followed, female seclusion was something unknown in Kashmir till Islam made its advent. Participating joyfully in the numerous festivals prescribed in the Nilamata, they would go to the gardens in the company of their menfolk without any inhibition or tear oi approbation. Poi instance, during the hamanjan utsava, the would freel) sport with men under the flower-laden boughs of the Iramanjari shrubs, exchanging garlands of flowers with men in a spirit of gay abandon ‘ Or go to the fruit gardens on the Ashokikash.ta.ini clay to worship fruit-beanng trees”’. Such was the spirit of the times that during the Shravani Utsava. young maidens were enjoined to go and enjoy water sports V Yet another seasonal-festival was Knshyarambha when peasant women would accompany their menfolk to the “open fields of nature for ceremonial ploughing of the soil and sowing of seeds”. It was a month long festival celebrated amidst much singing cind dancing While these outdoor festivals showed that women in these limes were in no way confined to the four walls of their homes, there were numerous indoor festivals too. For instance, during the Kaumudi Mahotsava or the festival of the Full Moon, women would sit beside the sacred fire with their husbands and children, watching the beauty of the moonlit night”.  Even servants were allowed to participate in such festivals.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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