Each Time They Came: Traveling Kashmir through Travelogues

Photo: onhisowntrip.com

By Subhajit Pal 


As soon as one is about to touch down the Srinagar airport, the in-air flight attendants request everyone to shut their windows for security reasons. Moments later as one nears the arrival lounge, she/he would confront the hoardings announcing, “Welcome to Kashmir, the Paradise on Earth.” These two incidents posed two questions to my mind: first, if this is paradise, why is a tourist not allowed to have a bird’s eye-view of the alleged heaven? Is it because of the view of the heavily loaded cantonments might disturb the imagination of a traveler to this heaven? Second, is the majority of those who land at the Srinagar airport come there only to travel through the gorgeous geographies of Kashmir? Is Kashmir only known for its visual splendor? Perhaps the answer from the annals of history would be an emphatic NO. While some sources maintain that travelers visiting Kashmir has a documented history since the 6th century, why did they come to Kashmir? More importantly what did they witness? This essay wades through these documents of the travelers in Kashmir to understand the political and social significance of these descriptions found in the travelogues.

Travelling is considered an ageless phenomenon for humans. However, it has changed its dimensions along the course of time. In other words, the purpose of travelling changed significantly over time. This essay focuses on this changing purpose of travel. The first part tries to see how it has changed and what the travelogues have to inform us. In the latter half it would make an attempt to delve into the socio-political impact of such travelogues, given the fact that these travelogues have become significant sources for historians, thereby contributing towards the formation of knowledge about the past of Kashmir. 

They came, they stayed and they engaged: From Xuanzang to Syyed Ali Shah Hamadani

Kashmir was part of the ancient Silk Route that stretched from the Far Eastern regions of present-day China to somewhere close to Southern Europe.[1] This had been the centre of heavy movement of goods, people and culture.[2] The history of these loosely connected land routes dates back to the 10th century BCE.[3] However, in the more recent past, these routes had become the center of global trade during and after the establishment of the Islamic Empire from near and around the Mediterranean to parts of Central Asia. Thereafter other empires such as the Mongol Empire continued to use these routes both for trade and to strengthen the empire. Kashmir has been part of these routes for transfer of various goods, thereby finding a place in the chronicles of many travelers and historians. 

One of the earliest references to Kashmir is found in the chronicles of Buddhist traveler Xuanzang (a.k.a Hiuen Tsang). Tsang in the 7th century describes three countries in this region, namely Kashmir, Paunch (could be modern day Poonch), and the kingdom of Rajapur (probably the modern day Rajouri). In Si-yu-ki, he talks about the condition of Buddhists and Buddhism in the region and about the people he encountered. The chronicle describes the Buddhist notion regarding the evolution of Kashmir amidst a giant lake and the then ongoing skirmishes with the Brahmin rulers whom Tsang refers to as ‘nonbelievers’.[4] The reference to Kashmir is also found in the writings of the 13th century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who described at length the qualities of the people and about their food habits. He also focused on the river system – probably he was referring to the Jhelum that is one of the tributaries of river Indus[5] – that connects the region to the ocean.

With the arrival of Islam and the spread of the Islamic Empire in Central Asia through Persia and in the Transoxiana, numerous scholars, spiritual leaders and travelers came to Kashmir. Kashmir also found a place in Al-Biruni’s account when he reached as close as Poonch with Mamhud of Ghaznavi.[6] Ray maintains, “Alberuni’s description of contemporary Kashmir is full and accurate… he probably had no chance of visiting the Valley but was fortunate enough to have at his disposal the service of some Kashmirian scholars who supplied him with necessary information.”[7] Among the travelers who had a lasting impact in the Valley during the 14th century were two Islamic missionaries: Hazrat Syed Sharaf-ud-Din Abdul Rahman (RA) from Turkistan and Sayyid Ali Hamadani (RA) from Iran. The former, also known as Bulbul Shah, was the first Sufi saint to have preached Islam in the Valley. In Kashmir his shrine is located in downtown Srinagar known as ‘Bulbul Langar’. However there is a lack of literary sources on him. Sayyid Ali Hamadani from Iran, according to scholars, was a powerful poet and scholar who wrote on the duties of the king and advocated against the Brahmanical caste system prevalent among the people of Kashmir. During his stay, the majority of people in Kashmir embraced Islam.

These travel accounts reveal the movement of religion throughout these loosely connected land routes. During the early period, Buddhism moved from central parts of what is now India towards Central and East Asia. Later Islam also spread with the help of these routes from the Mediterranean to Kashmir and in Central Asia. However, there is a vivid lack of description of the visual splendor of the region. The possible reasons for which are discussed later in this essay.

They came, they conquered and tried to own: Mughals, Sikhs, Dogras and the British

agar firdaus bar-rū-e-zamīñ ast
hamīñ ast o hamīñ ast o hamīñ ast[8]

As trade and commerce continued through Kashmir to Yarkand, to Kashgar, or to Tibbet, travelogues started to change. With the arrival of the Mughals in 1586, Kashmir got usurped in the larger Mughal Kingdom. With this induction, the way of looking into Kashmir became more as a piece of spectacle. Travelers who went to Kashmir via the Mughal Kingdom, engaged primarily with the visual splendor. Thus, Kashmir became synonymous with its physical beauty.

The Emperor Akbar first annexed Kashmir in 1586; the poet Abul Fazl traveled with him. In Fazl’s work, Aquill notes the suppression of the wars and violence, through which the annexation took place, and a negative depiction of Kashmiris. He notes in this regard, “Abu’l Fazl…does not provide details of horrendous violence and yet mentions different ways in which the “wicked” and “foolish” opposition were neutralized, either through winning over “untrustworthy” local collaborators or deploying massive military resources to crush any resistance.” This perhaps brought two marked changes in the course of Kashmir’s history. First, the gaze with which Kashmir was observed till then from a country within the land routes between Central Asia and Europe to a centerpiece of the Mughal Empire due to its visual splendor.[9] For the first time, under the Mughals, Kashmir or the Subha of Cashmere[10] became the periphery of a larger empire. Since then whenever any Mughal Emperor or Empress visited Kashmir, the travelogues noted the visual splendor, carrying a justification of it rightfully being part of the empire. This shift in gaze should be noted and, in the words of Tausig,[11] perhaps was the start of the commodity fetishism of the land of Kashmir.

Three centuries down the line the mantle of Kashmir passed onto the Dogras. After the Treaty of Amritsar 1846, the Dogra dynasty ruled Kashmir under the suzerainty of the British crown. In this phase, the advent of European travelers also increased significantly. With the British and the Dogras taking control of the region, two significant changes were brought in Kashmir which reflected in the travelogues as well. The British controlled Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan region as a frontier of their empire. The central Asian Khanates, according to Bhusan Das, were the buffer between the Russians and the British. The Dogras were forced from Calcutta not to meddle in Tibbet and complicate matters with the Chinese government. These policies not only did cut off the trade routes significantly but also hampered the fluidity of the region as a part of the Silk Route.[12] This competition between the Russians can be traced in the travelogues as well. Some of the travel expeditions were undertaken in order to gauge the Russian influence in the region. For instance, Younghusband’s 1885 journey with an Indian Civil Service officer reveals, “We may be handicapped in our competition with the Russian for the trade of Turkistan by having to bring our goods across the Himalayas… And it is a fact worthy of particular notice that Russian piece-goods are being brought over the Himalayas, in gradually increasing quantities, into the bazaars of Ladak, and even, I hear, into Kashmir.”[13]

Although the economic aspect of the routes are visible in Younghusband’s description, his contemporaries were more concerned with the Russians and their borders. For H.W. Bellew Kashmir was important because “the region lying immediately beyond the Northern Frontiers of our (British’s) Indian Empire…attracted the attention of Europe owing to the steady expansion of the Russian dominion upon its northern borders.”[14] On the other hand, there was also a contrasting narrative of Kashmir presented as the beautiful oriental landscape with vile and unworthy people and rulers. In his compilation, Bayard Taylor describes Kashmir thus, “In passing onward through the Valley, Mr. Vigne encountered scenes of ruin and desolation in striking contrast with its natural beauty and fertility.”[15]

O’Connor noted the Batal trek as “dangerous” yet a “dazzling citadel of snow, faceted like a jewel” and one with “no traces of conflict.”[16] The colonial and oriental trope is pointed out by Rafiq Ahmad as he quotes Charles Hugel describing Srinagar filled with “old dilapidated houses, streets of unexampled filthiness; a population strictly corresponding with them …. Such were my first impressions…thence, as I gradually turned my disappointed gaze from the works of man to the glorious mountain scenery above.”[17] While describing the beauty of Kashmir, Hugel also notes, “Even the apathetic eye of the Brahmin, and the cold-fixed thoughtfulness of the Mullah, are known to brighten up at the mention of its sweet retreats.”[18] Similar description also features in Walter Lawrence’s The Vale of Kashmir.

Since the end of the Dogra rule Kashmir has been caught between the quagmire of the two postcolonial nation-states of India and Pakistan, which has transformed Kashmir into one of the highest militarized zones in the world. However, the trope that was set during the Dogra regime by the British has continued its operation under the veil. 

They come, only to go: From Traveling to Tourism

As hinted earlier, after the independence of India and Pakistan, both the nations have continued to view Kashmir as a piece of desirable territory. In addition, both the states have aggressively promoted mass tourism as the driver for development and betterment of the region. While the age-old trade routes have continued to dwindle and die down under pressure of the heavily guarded borders, the modern promotion of mass tourism perhaps has done more harm than good for a variety of reasons. One, the economic deficit due to lack of trade has not been made up via tourism. More so because the region has been heavily militarized, restricting free movement of people. Also, the idea of tourism is associated with a sense of recreation. Therefore, it has been used to depoliticize Kashmir internationally as well.[19] On the Indian side, there has also been a string of religious tourism, where the places visited by an average mainland Indian remains mostly concentrated in two kinds of spaces. First, the visual splendours of Gulmarg or Sonmarg or Dal Lake; second, the Hindu pilgrimage sites such as the Amarnath Cave or more recently the Shankaracharya Temple. However, places such as Hazratbal shrine or Charar-i-Sharief shrine get hidden within this myst leaving the traveler either with Mughal history of glory in the Mughal Gardens or within the ancient Hindu trope of Sanskritised Kashmir. This phenomenon has been referred to, by Ahmad and Hertzog,[20] as ‘Tourismifying myths’ the memories of the past. Such promotion has also augured well with the nationalist agenda of the post-colonial nation-state which has effectively tried to fit Kashmir strictly within the prism of “Switzerland of the East.” The second effect of such travelogues has been on the knowledge that has been produced around Kashmir. It is heavily skewed, as Kashmir is looked only through these modern borders and frontiers rather than as an independent region with not so ancient economic ties with the Central Asian region and the Black Sea region.

[1] Kaul, Nitasha. “Kashmir: A place of blood and memory.” Open Democracy (2010).

[2]  Ibid.,

[3] Foltz, Richard. “Judaism and the Silk Route.” The History Teacher 32, no. 1 (1998): 9-16.

[4]  Beal, Samuel. Si-Yu-Ki Buddhist Records of the Western World: Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629) Vol I. Vol. 1. Routledge, 2013. p149-155.

[5] Komroff, M., 2011. The Travels of Marco Polo. Read Books Ltd. p. 49.

[6] Khān, M. S. “Al-Bīrūnī and the Political History of India.” Oriens 25/26 (1976): 86-115.

[7] Ray, Sunil C. Early history and culture ol Kashmir. Munshiram Manoharlal, 1970. p. XX.

[8] Amir Khusrao’s couplet was uttered by Mughal Emperor Jehangir to describe Kashmir when he travelled to Kashmir.

[9] Wani, Ashraf. “Sectional President’s Address: Akbar and Kashmir.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 184-204.

[10] Suba or Subha is generally a term used for provinces in the Mughal Kingdom.

[11] Taussig, Michael T. The devil and commodity fetishism in South America. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2010.

[12]Das Gupta, Jyoti Bhushan. Jammu and Kashmir. Springer, 1976.

[13] Younghusband, Francis E. “A journey across Central Asia, from Manchuria and Peking to Kashmir, over the Mustagh Pass.” In Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol. 10, no. 8, pp. 485-518. Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), Wiley, 1888.

[14] Bellew, Henry W. “Kashmir and Kashgar: A Narrative of the Journey of the Embassy to Kashgar in 1873–7.” London: Tübner. The mobilization of tradition 55 (1875).

[15] Central Asia: Travels in Cashmere, Little Tibet and Central Asia. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881. p. 45.

[16] O’Connor, Vincent Clarence Scott. The charm of Kashmir. Longmans, Green and Company, 1920. p. 129-33.

[17] Hugel, Charles. Travels in Kashmir and the Panjab: Containing a Particular Account of the Government and Character of the Sikhs. Asian Educational Services, 1995. p. 156.

[18] Ibid., p. 2.

[19] A happy picture of tourists beside the Dal Lake in Srinagar is enough to hide a military civilian clash in other districts.

[20] Ahmad, Rafiq, and Anne Hertzog. “Tourism, memory and place in a globalizing world.” (2016): 201-205.


Beal, Samuel. Si-Yu-Ki Buddhist Records of the Western World: Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629) Vol I. Vol. 1. Routledge, 2013. P. 149-155.

Central Asia: Travels in Cashmere, Little Tibet and Central Asia. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881. P. 45.

Khān, M. S. “Al-Bīrūnī and the Political History of India.” Oriens 25/26 (1976): 86-115

Subhajit Pal studies Global Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, New Delhi.


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