The Dial/Volume 15/Number 169/In Kashmir and Western Tibet



In Kashmir and Western Tibet[1]


The handsome volume entitled " Where Three Empires Meet "contains the interesting account of Mr. E. F. Knight's recent travels in Kashmir, Western Tibit, Gilgit, and adjoining countries; the book taking its title from the fact that it is hard by Gilgit, on the high roof of the world, as it were, that the three greatest empires, Great Britain, Russia, and China, converge. Mr. Knight is a very agreeable writer, with a keen eye for out-of- the-way traits and humors; and his book, besides being rich in the solider sort of facts, is pleasantly anecdotal, and, on occasion, drily humorous. Kashmir has been called the northern bastion of India, and Gilgit may be described as her farther outpost. Of the Happy Valley itself, the author did not, as he tells us, see much, the greater part of the year (1891) being spent by him among the desolate mountain-tracts to the north of it, where the ranges of the Hindoo Koosh and Karakoram form the boundary between the dominions of the Maharaja and that rather vaguely defined region called Central Asia. In the course of the journey he visited the mystic land of Ladak, and he reached Gilgit in time to take part in Colonel Durand's expedition against the raiding Hunza-Nagars, thus falling in with exceptional opportunities for observing how things are ordered on the Indian frontier, both in peace and war. Mr. Knight prudently confines himself, so far as possible, to the narrative of his own sufficiently varied experiences, without attempting to theorize as to what ought to be done or left undone on the frontier. He remarks:
“The Indian government can be trusted to do everything for the best, as heretofore; and while it is foolish for people at home to airily criticise the policy of those highly-trained Anglo-Indian experts who have made the complicated problems of our Asiatic rule the study of a lifetime, it is still more foolish for one to do so who has spent but a year in the East, and who, therefore, has just had time to realize what a vast amount he has yet to learn.”
Especially interesting and opportune is the account of Kashmir a sort of debatable land, at present, the affairs of which are likely soon to attract a good deal of attention. In order to understand the ground, at least the ostensible ground, of late British interference in that country, a few general facts touching its more recent history must be borne in mind. Kashmir, having been wrested from the Pathans by the Sikhs in 1819, was attached to the Punjab until the termination of the Sutlej campaign, when it fell into the hands of the British — who did not, as the author significantly observes, at that time realize its immense value. It was at once assigned by treaty, dated March 16, 1846, to the Maharaja of Jummoo, partly in consideration of certain services rendered. In exchange for the cession the Maharaja was to pay over the very inadequate sum of seventy-five lacs of rupees, besides engaging to come to the assistance of England with the whole of his army whenever she was at war with any of the people near his frontier. He also acknowledged England's supremacy, and agreed to pay an annual tribute — consisting mainly of Kashmir shawls — to the government. By this treaty, not only the Vale of Kashmir, but Ladak, Baltistan, and the Astor and Gilgit districts, became the appanage of the Maharajas of Jummoo. During the reign of the present ruler, Pertab Singh, the Indian Government has "lent" to the Kashmir State military and civil officers "to superintend the much-needed reforms in the administration of the country." The author describes what he saw of the work of these officials in a rather non-committal way, and he reaches the conclusion that the present active policy of Great Britain in Kashmir, "while having for its object the safeguarding of our Imperial interests, will bring about a great amelioration in the condition of the population." Despite this need of foreign interference in its internal affairs, Mr. Knight found Kashmir the "safest land he had ever seen or heard of " one of the few countries, indeed, in which it is possible for a lady to travel without escort in a perfectly unconventional way.
“Every summer English ladies wander about Kashmir alone, taking their caravans of native servants, baggage animals, and coolies, pitching their tents at night, and riding the stages in the same independent fashion as their brothers and husbands would.”
This immunity of travellers from offences against person or property seems to be due partly to the native dread of the dominant British race, partly to the drastic Oriental custom by which a whole district is made amenable for crimes committed within its boundaries.
The account of Kashmir itself, its climate, natural resources, etc., is highly favorable. The whole of the state is practically independent of rain, a fairly hard winter storing a sufficiency of snow on the mountain-tops, so that the gradual thaw of the summer, which keeps the irrigating canals constantly brimming, is all that is needed to insure a harvest. The famines in Kashmir have been caused, not by summer drought, but by a too mild winter, or by heavy rains in the hot season which have flooded the plains and drowned out the crops. The climate of this Asiatic paradise seems to be well adapted to Europeans, the few English children who have been born and brought up there being as strong and rosy-cheeked as if they had been bred at home. The great drawback to an Indian career, the necessary separation between parents and children, is thus quite avoidable in Kashmir; and Mr. Knight regretfully observes, "Had we not sold this magnificent country, a great military cantonment would no doubt have been long since established here."
The resources of Kashmir have never been exploited, though Mr. Knight makes it evident that should British capital ever be admitted into the country there will be ample scope for it. According to some authorities, only one-third of the available land is under cultivation, and even that does not produce nearly what it might. Valuable minerals undoubtedly exist, and it is probable that should the long-projected more-than-once-surveyed railway be made, Kashmir will become a large exporter of agricultural produce and of the delicious fruits for which it is famed. At present the industrial enterprise of the country is centred,—that is to say is strangled,—in the hands of the Maharaja. His, for instance, are the sawmills, his the wine and brandy monopoly. French experts conduct the latter branch for him, producing wine, both red and white, of excellent quality ; and our author thinks it is not too much to say that the vineyards of Kashmir should some day make India independent of France, at least for claret of the ordinary description.
In point of scenery and natural charm Kashmir seems to be all that the author of "Lalla Rookh" (which poem our author makes it a point of honor not to quote) has taught the northern fancy to paint her. It is a land of running water, of fruits and flowers and birds (not omitting, one hopes, the bulbul, though Mr. Knight does not mention it), and sweet odors and sparkling cascades, a land, in short, that assures the traveller that the beauties of far-famed Kashmir have not been exaggerated by Oriental poets. Mr. Knight who is a capital hand at description, terse, vigorous, and sparing of the finical details of the "word-painter " writes as follows of the scenery along the road to Baramoula:
“We drove through pleasant groves of chestnuts, walnuts, peaches, pears, cherries, mulberries, and apples, all of which are indigenous to this favored land, while the wild vines hung in festoons from the branches. The fresh grass beneath the trees was spangled with various flowers—great terra-cotta colored lilies, iris of several shades, and others—while hawthorn bushes in full blossom'emulated the whiteness of the snows above. The mountains, too, were craggy and grander in outline than any we had yet seen. Highest of all were the dreary, snow-streaked wastes, lower down forests of deodar crowned the cliffs, which in their turn often fell sheer a thousand feet to the green, lawn-like expauses below.”
The nominal masters of this favored land seem to be utterly unworthy of their good fortune, as a rule, says our author. An Englishman coming to the country for the first time takes a great fancy to the handsome, cheery, outwardly civil and obliging Kashmiris, and it is not until he has been some time in the country that he discovers them to be among the most despicable of creatures, incorrigible cheats and liars, and cowardly to an inconceivable degree. Tartars, Tibetans, Moguls, Afghans, Sikhs, have in turn overrun the Happy Valley, whose inhabitants have always meekly submitted to each new tyranny, their very abjectness proving their salvation. Says Mr. Knight:
“I had been a good deal among Mohammedans in other countries, and had always associated dignity and courage with the profession of that creed, so was disagreeably surprised to discover this cowardly, cringing, cackling race among the followers of the prophet.”
A Kashmiri will unresistingly take a blow from anyone, even from a Kashmiri; the people—who, however, wrangle among themselves like the proverbial washerwomen—having achieved such a depth of cowardice that they actually fear one another. To understand the Kashmiri thoroughly,—which is to dislike him,—one must have seen, for instance, a great bearded man meekly submitting to having his ears boxed by a Punjabi half his size, whom he could crush with one hand, weeping and shrieking like a naughty child under the maternal slipper, "and finally rolling on the ground and howling at the feet of this lad of a more plucky race." On the other hand, "one must have observed his covert insolence to some griffin globe-trotter, who does not understand the rascal yet, and treats him too leniently. He will presume on any kindness that is shown him, until, at last, going too far, he is brought to reason by the thrashing he has long been asking for." In short, the inhabitant of the Happy Valley is a paradoxical creature, for he has, withal, certain rather feebly revealed good qualities, difficult to describe, and certainly not admirable, save, perhaps, to that school which affects to despise physical courage as a relic of savagery.
The qualities of the serpent are often coupled with those of the dove; and the Kashmiris, meekest of men, are uncommonly sly at a bargain, and are gifted, moreover, with a mercantile pertinacity not unworthy of the "book-agent" of less favored climes. Some of these Kashmir merchants will go to great lengths, stepping unbidden from the shore to the prow of the tourist's "doongah," crowding into his cabin, pressing their wares upon him, and declining to move until forcibly ejected. To enjoy even a modicum of peace, the sahib must be brutal, and actual privacy is only to be gained with a stick. Any hint short of this is lost upon hawkers of the lower sort. A beating he understands as a hint that he must take himself off. Then he departs, smiling; it is all in his day's work; and to cheat the sahib out of one anna will recompense him for many blows. Our author says of the merchants of Srinagur—an especially pestilent class:
"They were all adepts at blarney, and with a jovial persuasive volubility extolled their own wares and cried down those of their neighbors in more or less broken English. Their pertinacity was extraordinary. The sweetly-smiling, long-robed ruffians would not take no for an answer. ‘I do not want you to buy, sir,’ one would say in a gentle, deprecating way, after some emphatic refusal on my part to have any dealings with him. ‘Please to understand, sir, that I do not wish to sell. I only ask you to do me the honor of looking at some of this excellent workmanship. It will not fail to interest you.’ Then, if I should order him to be gone, and explain that I was busy, ‘In that case I would not on any account interrupt you,’ he would urge, ‘but I have nothing myself to do, sir, so I will sit down here and wait until you are quite unoccupied; then I will show you some beautiful things.’ And thereupon he would squat down on the grass in front of the boat, surrounded by his merchandise, to remain there silent and motionless, contemplating me with a smile of patient amiability."
These people employ all sorts of curious devices to attract the attention of the rich or powerful sahib a habit, however, by no means confined to the merchant class. Even learning forgets, on occasion, its dignity. Once, for instance, in Srinagur, Mr. Lawrence, the Settlement Officer for the State, on coming out of his bungalow, found a strange object in front of his door, surrounded by a deferential crowd. On walking up to it he discovered that it was nothing less than an ancient pundit, stark naked, standing on his head. The acrobatic sage was thus patiently balancing himself, meditating, doubtless, the while on Nirvana, while he awaited the coming out of the sahib. Mr. Lawrence ordered the learned man to be turned right side up, and the case was dealt with forthwith.
The following incident, of which Mr. Knight was an eye-witness, illustrates this curiously puerile side of the Kashmiri character. Mr. Lawrence was then holding court just outside Islamabad:
"Two suppliants came up, who, after the manner of Kashmiris, had carefully got themselves up in pitiable plight with a view of attracting sympathy for their cause. These two big men had stripped themselves naked, and had smeared their bodies all over with foul, wet, blue mud from the river bed. Even their hair and faces were thickly covered with the filth, through which their eyes glittered comically. . . . They came up and stood before the Settlement Officer, quietly salaamed, and then suddenly and of one accord commenced to weep, groan, and shriek most dismally, while they wrung their hands or clasped them imploringly, writhing their bodies as in agony, etc. . . . Their story was, that while they were working in their fields an official had taken from them by force some grass straw of the value of twopence. The said official had moreover plucked their beards; in evidence of which they produced two or three hairs, which they affirmed had been pulled out."
Mr. Lawrence refused to listen to men in so filthy a condition, and the court accordingly adjourned itself and went to breakfast while the plaintiffs washed themselves.
The Kashmiri, with all his rascality, always demands, on leaving his employer, a chit, or written testimonial. If convicted of theft or other offence he will endure without a murmur the mulcting of his pay; but a chit, good, bad, or indifferent, he must have. So insensible is he as to the purport of these talismans that he does not take the trouble to get them translated, but presents them all, good and bad, for your consideration. One official, encountered by Mr. Knight, was the proud possessor of many chits:
“He handed one to me, and gazed at me with a solemn expression of conscious merit as I read it. This chit was from a captain sahib, and ran thus: ‘This man is the greatest thief and scoundrel generally I have ever come across.’ ”
On reaching Ladak, really a part of Tibet, Mr. Knight found himself in a strange country, —a land, as he says, of topsy-turveydom, where polyandry prevails instead of polygamy, where praying is carried on by machinery, where the traveller from beyond the mountains is every day bewildered by quaint sights, strange beliefs, customs, and superstitions. Ladak is still almost as theocratic a country as Chinese Tibet, and no less than one-sixth of the population are in the church. The Church is well endowed, and the lamaseries, several of which were visited, seem to be organized in a very business-like way. There are two classes of monks in each: the working monks, who attend to temporal interests, and the spiritual monks, who devote their time to dreaming and religious exercises, and to whom, our author thinks, "to judge from their abstracted expression and general appearance, the bladder-flappers of the Laputan sages would be useful attendants, to wake them up when it was time to wash." From the latter class the abbot is chosen, and in a few cases a lamasery has as its spiritual head no less holy a personage than a skooshok, or incarnation. It seems that after a man has attained a high pitch of virtue, and has thus escaped liability to re-birth in any of the six ordinary spheres, he can when he dies either enter the Nirvana, or return to earth as a skooshok. The Skooshok of Spitak Gompa, for instance, a very exemplary personage indeed, is believed to have been re-incarnated seventeen times, and to have been, in his first stage, a contemorary of Buddha. One of these holy men, the Skooshok of Tikzay, was visited by Mr. Knight:
"He appeared to be a man of middle age, and had a gentle, intelligent face. He spoke but little, and had a dreamy, far-off look in his eyes. For most of the time that we sat with him he was abstractedly gazing at the immense landscape that was extended before him — deserts, oases, the far-stretching Indus Valley, and the snowy mountain-ranges. . . . His incarnations have been many. He thoroughly believes that he was Skooshok of Tikzay at a date when we British were naked, painted savages, and has been gazing century after century over the same glaring wilderness from this high monastery top. At times he muttered prayers almost inaudibly as he sat by us, contemplating the scene with mild, sad eyes. He ordered a gift of sugar and dried apricots to be brought to us, and then we bade farewell to the incarnation, whom we left still praying and dreamily considering the world below."
Oddly enough, one never hears of Mahatmas in Ladak or in Tibet proper. The lamas know nothing of them, and the nearest approach to the mysterious beings seems to be the skooshok — though the author doubts whether a European esoteric Buddhist would accept one of these incarnations as his spiritual master.
Mr. Knight, like other travellers, notes the striking resemblance between the ritual of Tibetan Buddhism and that of the Church of Rome:
“The lamas, who represented the saints in this mummery, had the appearance of early-Christian bishops: they wore mitres and copes, and carried pastoral crooks; they swung censers of incense as they walked in procession, slowly chanting. Little bells were rung at intervals during the ceremony; some of the chanting was quite Gregorian. There was the partaking of a sort of sacrament; there was a dipping of fingers in bowls of holy water; the shaven monks, who were looking on, clad almost exactly like some of the friars in Italy, told their beads on their rosaries,” etc.
Several of the best chapters are devoted to a description of the Hunza-Nagar expedition of winter before last one of those innumerable little broils which England has had on her hands of late. Mr. Knight volunteered as an officer, thus securing excellent opportunities of observation. The book is, on the whole, one of the most graphic and entertaining of its class, delightfully written, and full of information regarding a region well out of the orbit of the ordinary globe-trotter. There are a number of capital illustrations from photographs by the author.

E. G. J.





  1. Where Three Empires Meet. A Narrative of Recent Travel in Kashmir, Western Tibet, Gilgit, and the Adjoining Countries. By E. F. Knight. Illustrated. New York: Longmans, Green, & Co.