A week in Kashmir: the cinema
Every time I come to Srinagar, this stump of a building in the central square seems to have crumbled still further. It's the Palladium cinema in Lal Chowk (Red Square). Or rather, it was. No movies have been screened here for almost thirty years.
Indian security forces use the ruins of the building as a bunker. It is, after all, very strategically positioned. But what a come down for one of the most historic buildings in the city centre.
Historic because of its political importance. In the turbulent autumn of 1947, the Palladium became the headquarters of the main Kashmiri nationalist party led by Sheikh Abdullah. It was a radical and secular movement, with closer links to India's Congress party than to Pakistan's Muslim League.
As an invading forces of Pakistani tribesmen approached, a men's militia and a women's self-defence corps were set up. And as part of this general mobilisation of Srinagar's population, a children's militia - the Bal Sena - drilled with wooden rifles in the shadow of the cinema building.
When in November 1947 India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to Srinagar and addressed a huge crowd alongside Sheikh Abdullah, the Palladium provided the backdrop.
After the excitement of the Maharaja's eclipse, and Kashmir's accession to India, the Palladium went back to doing what it was built to do - show films. This was the cinema in about 1980 -
With the start of the separatist insurgency in 1989, a small militant group bullied and threatened Srinagar's cinemas into closing their doors. The Palladium's key location and iconic political history also made it a target. There was an attempt to reopen some cinemas and indeed establish new ones - it didn't work. There are now no public cinemas in the city. Srinagar has lots of film enthusiasts, but they have to watch at home.
Local traders have appealed for the Palladium to be restored. However wonderful that would be, it doesn't seem likely.
When Kashmir has featured so often in Indian moves - the acclaimed 2014 film Haider being a prime example - it's a rich irony that this is the one corner of India without a cinema.
There's a good piece about the Palladium and its history here and more generally on Srinagar's cinemas here; and for a look at the reasons for the absence of cinemas in Kashmir, give this a read.
This is the last of my 'week in Kashmir' blogposts - if you want to catch up on all of them then click here.
It's humbling to realise that these ruins are thirteen-hundred years old. This is the 'surya' or 'sun' temple at Martand in south Kashmir, a Hindu temple built in the eighth century - and demolished on the orders of a Muslim ruler eight-hundred years later.
Just take a look at the ruins - and you get a sense of the majesty that this temple complex must once have radiated.
If you've not heard of the Martand temple, you can be forgiven - while it deserves to be well known, it isn't. What is less forgivable is the neglect it's been allowed to slide into.
The site is fenced - but there's basically open access, no ticket required. There's no sign of maintenance or care. There are no guides. This corroding notice board is the only information available at the site about what exactly the visitor is seeing. And whether cause or effect, they don't get that many visitors - when I went, I suspect I was the only non-local there.
I was fortunate that a local youngster, Azhar, showed me some key aspects of the ruins. He says the ancient script he pointed out has not been deciphered. I'm not entirely convinced about that but it was another interesting aspect to a completely absorbing location.
And another delight at Martand, my favourite bird was there: the hoopoe, or 'breg' in Kashmiri. It comes to Kashmir with the spring sunshine - not that the sun was much in evidence today. But I did manage to photograph a hoopoe on top of a temple pillar, no doubt praying for a bit of sun..
After more than twenty years of coming to Kashmir from time-to-time, I thought I knew Srinagar tolerably well. But today I discovered an aspect of the city that's completely new to me.
Srinagar is home to the biggest community of Tibetan Muslims anywhere. More than 200 families - that's about 2,ooo people - have made their home here since the early 1960s, They live mainly in an area known as the Tibetan colony, near the wondrous almond gardens (Badamwari) and within the shadow of Hari Parbat fort. There are smaller Tibetan communities, I was told, in Darjeeling and Kalimpong in north-east India and in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu, There's also about a hundred families still living in Lhasa.
The story of this tiny community reflects the ancient trade routes across this part of the world - and the way in which modern nation states have disrupted these patterns of commerce and migration.
If you go back far enough - a few centuries, that is - Tibetan Muslims are of Kashmiri (and Ladakhi Muslim) origin. Kashmiri traders travelling to Lhasa sometimes settled there, married Tibetan women and brought their children up as Muslims. They became a distinct community - known in Tibetan as 'Kachee', which means simply Kashmiri. And although there was no overt discrimiation, they were always regarded in Tibet as outsiders, even though they spoke Tibetan and ate Tibetan cuisine.
In 1959, when many Tibetans escaped from Chinese rule, the Muslim community was given a choice by Beijing: stay if you want to, go if you want to. Unlike the many Buddhists who made their way amid great hardships across the Himalayas, the Muslims who left - the greater part of the community - were allowed to take their possessions.
Once in India, they were regarded not as refugees, but as returning Indians. Unlike Tibetan Buddhist refugees, Tibetan Muslims are Indian passport holders and have full voting and other rights. They arrived in Kalimpong, but resisted efforts by the Indian authorities to resettle them alongside other Tibetans in south India. They argued that as Tibetans of Kashmiri origin they should be allowed to return to Kashmir - and they also preferred to go to an area in which Islam is the majority faith.
"We belong to this soil", Nasir Qazi told me. He's a Srinagar-based businessman who heads the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation. He was born in Kashmir and has never been able to travel to Lhasa and meet his few remaining relatives inside Tibet.
Many Tibetan Muslims in Srinagar work in embroidery - decorating burqas and women's garments in traditional Kashmiri style, or embroidering the top-end T-shirts sold to tourists visiting the remote Ladakh region (sometimes called Indian Tibet).
The Tibetan Muslim community does not regard the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader but reveres him as Tibet's onetime king. "We honour and respect him", Qazi says, "and he loves us a lot". With the help of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the community has established its own well regarded school in Srinagar, the Tibetan Public School.
Of the 700 pupils, boys and girls up to the age of about fifteen, under a third are Tibetans, the rest being local Kashmiris. The principal and most of the teaching staff are Kashmiri. But the school is run by the Tibetan Muslim community.
"I feel proud that this is something we have offered to our Kashmiri brothers and sisters", says Qazi. He's also pleased that the school has managed to keep fees down to an affordable 600 rupees (£7.50) a month. The Dalai Lama visited five years ago, and photos of that occasion or on display.
So is the pledge which the students made in the presence of the Dalai Lama: 'I shall uphold all human values through my words and deeds and shall not be a cause of suffering of any other being.'
It's not the obvious spot for a bookshop - in the middle of a lake, and only accessible by boat. But that's where Gulshan Books has chose to open its new branch - amid Srinagar's Dal Lake (the area is called Nehru Park, but it's a small island about a hundred metres from the lakeside Boulevard). The two-minute shikara ride costs fifty rupees each way (so about 65p) and it takes you to one of the best bookshops not simply in Kashmir (no, there's not a lot of competition) but in South Asia.
The shop also has a small but charming open-air cafe overlooking the lake - is there any book store anywhere which can beat this for a view?
And I have to declare an interest: Gulshan not only sells books, it publishes them. In particular it republishes volumes ancient and modern about Kashmir. Among its dozens of titles is my book A Mission in Kashmir. I am happy to report that it was in stock!
Gulshan Books' main Srinagar branch, on Residency Road in the city centre, has bounced back from the 2014 floods, which put the store out of action for months. It's as welcoming and well stocked as ever.
A week in Kashmir: the church
Christian missionaries established several of Kashmir's best schools and hospitals. But they achieved vanishingly few converts. Christianity is a marginal force in the Kashmir valley. The minister of All Saints, the church featured above (and which is loosely in the Anglican tradition), says his congregation consists largely of twenty-seven local Christian families, along with some Punjabi Christians who are living or working in the valley. There's also a Catholic church in Srinagar - I suspect its congregation is of a similar scale.
All Saints church dates from the 1890s - at the time when the opening of the Jhelum Valley road, and the establishment of a British Residency in Kashmir, prompted an increasing number of Brits to come to Srinagar. It was a hill station - a place to escape the heat of the plains. And for a few hundred among the British, it became their home. There was a club, a posh hotel (Nedou's), a social scene, lots of houseboats - and also, in time, a church. (indeed, there were two Protestant churches in Srinagar at one time, and one in Gulmarg, and perhaps a few smaller missionary chapels too).
All Saints has changed hugely over the past 120 years. Only the base of the tower remains from the original construction. The current minister - not a Kashmiri but from Himachal Pradesh - told me that the church had been burnt down during protests in the 1960s and again in the 1970s. It was rebuilt using a Russian design, and making less use of wood to make it less vulnerable to fire. It was badly hit - along with so much of riverside Srinagar - in the 2014 floods. But it has recovered and is well maintained.
Half-a-mile from the church, in Sheikh Bagh in the centre of town, is the Christian cemetery. This too was badly affected by the floods. Part of the boundary wall collapsed and has been crudely repaired with corrugated sheeting. There's no caretaker or gardener and I wasn't able to gain access. But looking over the walls, and through holes in the sheeting, I got glimpses of a beautifully tranquil burial ground of several acres - I do hope the resources can be found to ensure its upkeep. What an asset to the city this could be.
There's more about Srinagar's churches on the excellent Chinar Shades blog.
A week in Kashmir: the cafe
Whisper it quietly, but there are the first stirrings of a cafe culture in the Kashmiri capital. The renowned Coffea Arabica - which boasted of being Srinagar's first cappuccino bar - was swept away in the devastating floods of September 2014. The building remains forlorn and abandoned - the word is it will become a bank (just what Srinagar needs!) But the good news is that Books and Bricks in Gogji Bagh - which I visited last evening - is not just a worthy replacement ... it's distinctly better.
It's a funky sort of place - small, but well designed - a smart interior with lots of books to browse and read - and it does a really good cappuccino. And the waffles and ice cream wasn't bad either. No it's not the place for Kashmiri cuisine (and I am happy to report that Ahdoo's, quite a bit smarter and busier than I remember it from years back, remains the venue for traditional 'wazwan' dishes) but there's nothing wrong with burgers!
Books and Bricks was opened a year or so ago by two England-returned Kashmiris. It's had a tough time. In the turbulence and protests in the second-half of last year, the cafe was obliged to close for four months. But it now seems to be doing well - yesterday evening most tables were taken. And much like Coffea Arabica, it's the sort of place where women feel comfortable having a coffee and a chat.
Just next door to Goodfellas is a really interesting new venture - an up-market tea house. Chai Jaii has again a wonderful location, overlooking the river. It does both traditional English and Kashmiri teas - and, with notice, full high teas. The decor is sumptuous and it's a very relaxing place to spend an hour - though it is a touch (alright, more than a touch) expensive.
This weekend, Chai Jaii has organised a small spring festival on the park just outside - with food stalls from the old city, arts and crafts and live music. I popped by yesterday - attendance was modest, and largely (as far as I could tell) the Srinagar elite, but there was a nice feel to the event. It's something new. It doesn't change life for ordinary Kashmiris - it can't paper over the profound sense of anger here. But Srinagar is the better for all these new businesses and initiatives.
A week in Kashmir: the mosque
In a city of many mosques and Sufi shrines, Srinagar's Jamia Masjid is the biggest and to my mind the most imposing. It was built in around 1400 and rebuilt and renovated several times down the centuries, particularly after fires or damage caused by other forms of commotion.
Its most impressive feature: the wooden columns, 370 of them, all the trunks of deodar trees. They give a real majesty to the mosque.
And from the Jamia Masjid you get a stunning view of Hari Parbat fort - on top of one of two landmark hills which overlook Srinagar (the other is Shankacharya hill, on the summit of which is a Shiva temple dating back a thousand years). Hari Parbat fort was built two-hundred years ago by the Afghans who then ruled Kashmir, and did so with much barbarity. The fort itself remains in army use and is not open to the public.
The Jamia Masjid is in the old city and is the spiritual and political base of Srinagar's Mirwaiz, the hereditary chief priest. The current occupant is a very personable man, Umar Farooq, who is in his mid-forties. He's the leader of one of the rival Hurriyat (it means freedom) Conferences - there are basically three largely antagonistic organisations - and is one of Kashmir's most influential separatist leaders.
Friday Prayers at the Jamia Masjid is often a flashpoint, as the crowds leaving the mosque clash with Indian security forces. In the immediate surroundings of the mosque, there's anti-India graffiti, of which this struck me as the most telling ( a 'lack' or 'lakh' is 100,000).
A week in Kashmir: the news stand
Just as a comparison, the population of the Kashmir Valley is about the same as that of Scotland ... the circulation of the best regarded Scottish daily, the Scotsman, is a touch over 20,000.
Kashmir's newspapers have been bullied and shot at by both sides through almost thirty years of insurgency. Last year, all papers were closed down for a few days as Indian security forces grappled with the mass protests following the killing of Burhan Wani, an immensely popular armed separatist leader. A former BBC colleague described those protests as an 'uprising'. At other times, threats and acts of violence by armed militant groups has also sought to sway what the papers print, and what they leave out.
By and large, Kashmir's press has been one of the few areas of public life to emerge with credit from the years of turmoil. The papers give voice to Kashmiri sentiment, and allow debate about both political and social issues, in a way that conventional politics has not proved able to do. That's quite an achievement.
While I have been here, the papers have been preoccupied by an incident earlier in the week that says a lot about attitudes in Kashmir. Indian security forces got word that one or more armed separatists were hiding in a village not far from Srinagar. They placed a cordon around the location. Local youngsters started throwing stones at the troops in an attempt to break the cordon to give the militants a chance to escape. Three local boys were shot dead; a militant was also killed.
Young Kashmiris throwing stones at Indian troops and police is nothing new. Stone throwing not simply out of anger but to frustrate Indian security forces in an armed 'encounter' - in local parlance - against armed separatists is something new.
In the words of an elderly Kashmiri woman who has no great sympathy for armed separatism: in the 1990s young Kashmiris were angry and afraid - now they are angry and fearless. The Indian government, which so clearly gained the upper hand against the militants in military terms, needs to consider how to address Kashmiri grievances before this new assertiveness takes a more violent turn.
I was asked this week to write a brief, informal piece for a global audience about how the Kashmir conflict began in 1947 ... by the time the news organisation had decided that this didn't quite meet their purpose, the piece was written. It's posted below:
When I first arrived in Delhi as a correspondent – quite a while back – an old school Indian official promptly made contact. He was a ‘spin doctor’ of sorts – trying to persuade foreign journalists of the merits of India’s stand on Kashmir.
He took me out to lunch. ‘You see’, he explained with the sort of smile the knowing bestow on the innocent, ‘if you want to really understand what's been happening you have to know how the Kashmir conflict started - back in the autumn of 1947 …’ As we were sipping coffee about an hour or so later, he’d got as far … as the spring of 1948.
The history of the Kashmir conflict is complex – deeply contested – and both India and Pakistan give the impression that if they can demonstrate that they were ‘right’ back in 1947 then it follows that their claim to Kashmir is also beyond question.
That’s not quite the way the world works. But it’s true that you can’t really get to grips with a conflict unless you have a grasp of how it started.
During British rule in India, Kashmir had its own prince or maharajah. The princely family were Hindus; most of their citizens, Muslims. When the British pulled out in 1947, and rather messily carved up the region into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, Kashmir - stretching from the Punjab plains to the high mountain ranges - was caught between the two; it was up to the maharajah to decide which state to join.
He was more interested in hunting and polo than in politics – and he hoped that if he kept quiet, Kashmir might be able to become independent. He sometimes talked of Kashmir as a Switzerland of the East –mountainous, peaceful and politically non-aligned.
Two months after the end of the British Raj, Kashmir’s fate was still undecided. From Pakistan, a fighting force of tribesmen invaded Kashmir. The maharajah fled, signing up to India as he did so. Indian troops were flown in and the invaders repulsed.
India’s claim on Kashmir is that its princely ruler opted for India – and that in doing so he had the support, at the time, of the commanding Kashmiri political figure, Sheikh Abdullah. All that’s true.
Pakistan insists that the logic of Partition was that adjoining Muslim majority areas should become part of their new, explicitly Muslim nation. And that language, geography and trade tied the Kashmir valley more to Pakistan. They also argue that India’s pledge to allow Kashmiris self-determination has never been honoured. All that’s true too.
By the spring of 1948, Indian and Pakistani troops were at war in Kashmir – the United Nations got involved – the area was informally divided between the two countries, and has been ever since. Both continue to claim all of the sprawling former princely state. Though the active dispute is about just one part of it - the Kashmir valley, the crucible of Kashmiri culture, with a current population of about seven million.
So I've now got about as far as that Indian spin doctor when he introduced me to the origins of the conflict. An awful lot has happened since 1948, of course, but Kashmir has never escapade the legacy of that turbulence almost seventy years ago.
Freda Bedi - "attention!"
Freda's pioneering role as a Buddhist has been much written about - her earlier political involvement has not been as fully honoured. It's time to make amends!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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