Rear Window: Something wrong with paradise: The British in Kashmir

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The Independent Online
HOW QUICKLY things can change - the name Kashmir has become, like Bosnia, synonymous with brutality, religious strife, fear, terrorism and torture. To the families of Kim Housego and David Mackie, the hostages who were released last week after being held for 17 days by a group of fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas, it certainly must have denied its old British reputation as a paradise on earth.

'Who has not heard of the vale of Cashmere/With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave' wrote Thomas Moore, an Irish poet who never actually set foot in the place himself, but wrote an epic poem about Kashmir called 'Lallah Rookh' which bewitched the Western world and indelibly glamorised the valley so that it came to be a sort of Eastern Camelot in peoples' minds. In fact, most of it was fantasy. Kashmir was - is - perfectly beautiful, but at the height of its Victorian popularity - when British sahibs and memsahibs would flee there from the heat of the plains - it was ruled by tyrants. Early British visitors were shocked at the poverty they found there and badly shaken when, on walks through the city of Srinagar, they would sometimes find themselves face to face with the body of a hanged criminal.

Kashmir belonged to the Sikhs in the middle of the last century. The British fought two wars with the Sikhs, won them both and demanded a hefty war indemnity. The Sikhs, short of cash, offered Kashmir instead, which the British accepted, and promptly sold to the Hindu raja who ruled neighbouring Ladakh and Jammu, and badly wanted Kashmir to fill in the missing part of his territorial jigsaw. In 1846 he paid Britain seven and a half million rupees (plus other perks such as three pairs of Kashmir shawls per year), and Britain transferred Kashmir to him and his heirs 'forever'.

The raja was hospitable to British visitors and set aside a couple of shady gardens near Srinagar for them to camp in. There, soon, down by the river in the shade of huge cedar trees, a British club was built, and a library and a mock Tudor timbered bank, and a grand house for the British Resident, and the British ladies would promenade with their parasols, and their 'nice clean English faces'.

In winter only 60 or 70 stout British souls lived in snowbound Kashmir. But in summer, more and more British visitors came up from India - on leave, on safari, on honeymoon - so that soon Kashmir's government felt obliged to publish rules for the British. Visitors had to be responsible for their servants' debts, wear uniform at state banquets, not fish in sacred pools, and they were not allowed to buy land.

Apart from the climate and the landscape, it was sport that persuaded the British sahibs to make the long trek to Kashmir - hunting, shooting and fishing. In a roundabout way, it was shooting that led to the invention of the famous Kashmiri houseboat. A hunter called M T Kennard wanted to spend the winter in Kashmir (to shoot ibex) and since he could not find a suitable house to rent, and camping was too cold, he designed himself a houseboat. The idea caught on and only a few years later, houseboats were where everyone stayed. In an early guidebook, British families renting boats were advised not to bother bringing their table silver up from India for the holidays 'for it is very likely that a few spoons and forks will fall into the river while being carried from boat to boat. In fact, in one case we know of, the servant, silver and all, fell in . . .'

Almost every British visitor to Kashmir, including myself, seems to have felt compelled to set down their thoughts: A Lonely Summer in Kashmir, Afoot through the Kashmir Valley, Summer Scenes in Cashmere, Diary of a Pedestrian in Cashmere, Our Visit to Kashmir - publishers were very tolerant then. Of all the thousands of words on the British in Kashmir, it is Margaret Morrison's description of evening in Srinagar by the club, the embankment under the trees, written in 1904, that I find most haunting. I see it in sepia, like a photograph in my Indian Army father's album. 'People stood in groups chatting, while the glow died away westward in the sky; small boats crowded the steps, waiting to take home their owners, people called to their servants to carry the books they had chosen from the library, the dogs got in everyone's way . . . Then each stepped into his canoe, goodnights were called, and to the splash of paddles each one was speeded to his boat or bungalow.'

(Photograph omitted)

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