Monday, August 18, 2014

'Thass Mansion': A House at Sathu Barbarshah

Guest post by Sakshi Kaul Dhar about visiting her ancestral home and pieces she retrieved.

The house was constructed by my Great Grandfather Tara Chand Thass and was completed in June of year 1924. We called it "Thass Mansion".

Tara Chand Dhar was married to Posh Kuj who belonged to Kathlishwar  area of Srinagar . Together they had nine children - six sons and three daughters - among them my grandfather, Kashi Nath Thass was the eldest.

Tara Chand Thass 'Dhar' and Posh Kuj

I am Kashmiri, born and brought up in Delhi, but even then haven't been able to cut my umbilical cord with a place my father and grandfather were born.

I visited this house for the first time in 2012. Locating a house without a House Number can be hell of a difficult task in Srinagar now. And whose house should you say when they ask you the name of the owner of the House. A proud and naive me, in my insanity and emotional state/euphoria declared, ' It's my House .... I am the Makan Malik.' 

Nearly all families had moved out of the house before the breakout of militancy as the house was proving to be small for expanding families of six sons.

One of my Uncle's still lives in some of the rooms in the house. A couple of rooms are rented.

The furniture and the other fixtures were taken out during the period when no one was in the house at the peak of militancy. There is nothing much left in the house except for papers, photographs, old letters etc which were of no economic value for any one who ransacked the place.

It's nearly a three floor house. After first floor, all you find is papers lying everywhere and of course bats and the smell of dead rats. It took me almost three hours to sift through the dust and newspapers looking for things that meant something.

There were note books of my cousins, engineering project reports of my cousin who was in REC, Srinagar in the late eighties. Letters of my uncles and aunts filled with love, complaints, their joys and sorrows. Bills. The report cards of my cousin, which he surely did not want me to bring back.

Things I found scattered around and brought back:

Letters from year 1929 about my Grandfather Pt. Kashi Nath's training at Government School of Engineering, Rasul, Panjab [now in Pakistan] as an Overseer [Avarseer, as we say in Kashmir].

Pt. Kashi Nath Dhar Thass [seated first from right] as part of Football team.
Government School of Engineering, Rasul. 1930
The English Guy in the middle is C.E. Blaker, Principal of the School

My Grandfather Kashi Nath Thass was married to Kamlawati Kaul, daughter of Master Shanker Pandit, the famous Head Master of Biscoe School.

C. E Tyndale Biscoe wrote about Shaker Pandit, “I must express my thanks to my Headmaster Shanker Pandit BA who has allowed me to draw upon his knowledge of ancient history , and of various rites and ceremonies , both of Hindus and Muslims , with respect to birth, death, marriage etc. What my friend Shanker does not know concerning his country is not worth knowing. He remained Head master for 40 years in the school. A very successful teacher in the classroom, but as a leader in all social services for the welfare of his country , he was superb. ”

I found this picture of Shanker Pandit lying on the floor as if it was waiting for me to pick it up.

Picture was taken on November 14, 1946. Biscoe School, Srinagar.
Found on 17th October, 2012


My father was born in "Thass Mansion". I lost him very early in my life. This House represent's his birth to me. Hence the house seems to me like a harbinger of my birth, which was to follow. This house or rather home just reminds me that although he may not be here with me , the home where he was born (even though is miles away from Delhi) is overlooking me .

I may not be able to frequently walk on the roads that they walked or see the places they saw, but I know some where there exists a place…my father's birth place: Sathoo, Barbarshah, Srinagar , KMR.

Although the house is now old and crumbling , we still have not sold it. Like all Kashmiris, may be some where we still hope and nurture the dream of returning back to the valley some day. We have lost many near and dear ones in the family. We all are now scattered all over the Globe. Unfortunately, we could not hold on to lives but the home is what we have physically held on . 

Sometimes Kashmir seems as though slipping from my hands... The fear that I may not be able to go back again....The fear that I may not be able to see it again. Sometimes I think may be ours is the last generation that holds on to Kashmir in our heads as Home.... The place we belong to.

I don't know what will happen of Kashmir (The Physical Land) amidst political uncertainty and religious fanaticism…but I don't want to lose the stories and emotions of my people - The Kashmiri Pandits. I don't want their lives and stories to be buried under the debris like their homes are.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Sun Chasers in Kashmir, 1913-14-15-16

Photo: Jammu. 2012.
In August 1913 the strangest of pilgrim to Kashmir arrived in the valley. He was on a three month leave from work. But working, He found the valley to be a paradise, a place perfect for pushing the limits of his ideas. He returned in May 1914 with his wife for performing the perfect exercises recommended for men and women on new age.

"A doonga was hired, and all instruments and stores put aboard, and on May 11 we started on a prospecting tour up the River Jhelum as far as Islamabad, observing the sun from the river bank at various localities. A very convenient site for a temporary Observatory was found about 10 mile out from Srinagar near the village of Pampur. This was a small grass-covered hillock about 100 yards from the river bank, rising some 20 feet above the general level of the plain. On this, most conveniently arranged for our work, were some foundations of an abandoned building with stone walls about 3 feet high, and plenty of building material lying near. A very small amount of masonry work was needed to adapt these walls for mounting the polar heliostat, which had to be raised above the ground about 7 feet in order to reflect the sin downwards at the correct angle.[…]

On June 22, having obtained a satisfactory series of visual and photographic observations, both of the day and night definition, the Observatory camp was placed in charge of the official chowkidhar of the village of Tengan, and we started on a tour to various localities to test the influence of local conditions on the definition of sun. During this tour observations with the 3-inch portable telescope were made at a large number of stations in the valley and in the mountains, the route chosen being from Awantipur on the Jhelum river to Trall, and thence over the Bugmar pass to the Lidar valley, ascending this to an altitude of 11,000 feet at Zojpal. Returning from the high elevations, the Jhelum river was reached again at Bijbihara and the journey continued by river to near Awantipur and thence by two marches across the valley to the foothills of the Pir Panjal range near Romu. These last marches gave us an opportunity to test the definition in th midst of vast streches of wet rice cultivation, and also in low hills of about 200 feet elevation above the general level of the valley. From Romu the plain was re-crossed diagonally back to Pampur, the observing camp being reached on July 8. After a few further observations wight he 4 1/2-inch telescope the whole equipment was pack and transferred to the doonga, and the expedition reached Srinagar on July 13."

The pilgrims were spectroscopist-astronomer, John Evershed (1864 - 1956) and his wife astronomer Mary Ackworth Orr Evershed (1867 Hoe, Devon - 1949). John was known to have designed his own spectroscophic instruments and Mary was adept at taking readings. Together the two went on to photograph things like solar spots and the tail of Halley's comet. John Evershed was the first to observe the radial motions in sunspots, a phenomenon now known as the Evershed effect. Something we are taught as kids in Science class even in Kashmir. What is not usually taught is that Kashmir and Evershed played a little part in proving Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity of 1916. Around 1911, when man was still a couple of decades away from making his own 'miniature suns' - the 'Hydrogen Bombs', Einstein's theory of relativity was still fiercely debated and contested by scientific community,in such an atmosphere, Einstein started proposing another theory extending his theory of relativity to include theory of gravitation. Based on the new theory one of the claims he made was that the wavelength of light emitted by a massive body should be increased by an amount proportional to the intensity of the local gravitational field. This came to be known as 'gravitational redshift' or 'Einstein shift'. If the effect could be observed in case of Sun, Einstein's theories could be 'prooved' in real world. It was one of three basic tests of Einstein's theories that could be proved by observing the solar bodies. Astronomers around the world tried to find the proof by chasing the sun. 

One of the first proof of this particular effect was provided by Evershed by observing the sun in Kashmir in 1915. He was running the famous hill top observatory in South India, Kodaikanal of Tamil Nadu. He was known to make his own spectroscopic instruments while his wife helped him take the readings. He was part of the revolution in which 'observation' of solar phenomena were ahead of theories about sun. Around 1913, he was also looking for a better place to see the sun and other other stars. He found environmental conditions in Kashmir valley, particularly Srinagar, the city of the Sun, to be better than those in Kodaikanal even though he couldn't find a single local person who could be employed to help him photograph the sun. In a report titled 'Report on the Conditions for Astronomical Work in Kashmir' (1914), excerpts of which were previously quoted, he wrote:

"These islands were visited on June 13, and from the Sona Lankh in the Bod Dal the seeing was estimated as from 4 1/2 to 5 continuously between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. From this island the water surface is practically continuous for about 3 1/2 miles to the south or south-east, and there are many water channels and marshes to the south-west. No doubt this fact contributed to the good seeing, because of the absence of disturbances in the lower strata of the air by contact with the sun-heated soil or rock surfaces.

It was found that no particular advantage was gained by ascending the low flat-topped hills called karewahs that stretched out into the plain from either side of the valley. The definition here seemed slightly less good than on the level plain among the rice fields."

Out of these observations came the the theory that one of the best spots to observe the sun would be not the high mountains but islands surrounded by water bodies.  

It is interesting that Karl Alexander A. Hügel, the Austrian visitor to Kashmir in around 1835 should have noted, "We followed the course of the Jelam for two hours through an uncultivated district, ending in a marsh, and finally entered the Wallar Lake, into which the Jelam flows in two places. Not far from the shore is a little island called Lankh, a name which might lead us to imagine that the Kashmirians once had an observatory on it, where all their astronomical calculations were made."

It is interesting to note here that now most of the water bodies in Srinagar and around it would be considered unsuitable for such scientific activities as the water canals and the bodies have drastically shrunk under the pressure of human habitational activities. Island on Wular can be reached by foot, and no one in the valley cares that the two islands on the Dal Lake could easily have been developed as small space observatories. 


In 1916, a rather strange phenomena was observed across Britain. The population of wasps had drastically shrunk. While the previous year there had been many, in 1916 English people noticed that usual stingy visitors were missing. The same phenomena was reported from Kashmir by John Evershed. In a letter to 'Nature' magazine in September 1917, he wrote about 'Scarcity of Wasps in Kashmir':

"The abnormally dry season in Kashmir beginning' in May, 1915, may have been specially favourable for the development of these wasps, but if so it is not easy to account for their subsequent scarcity. As in England, the year 1916 was remarkable for the rareness of wasps. The winter was mild and dry, and the shortage of rain persisted through the spring. Scarcely a single wasp of the smaller species was seen during the summer and autumn following. The only nests of the larger kind I saw were two very small ones suspended from the woodwork of the spectroheliograph, where I could daily watch the process of construction. This, however, was a most tedious operation, for after several months the nests were no larger than 1 in, or 2 in. in diameter — that is, about a quarter the size attained in 1915 — and instead' of swarms of active workers, only one or two rather sluggish insects were seen on the nests. The apparent despondency of the wasps in 1916 was in strong contrast with their energy during the previous season. Yet, so far as human beings could judge, the two seasons were equally inspiring as regards clear blue skies and brilliant sun."


Did more Sun Chasers follow Evershed's path and reach Kashmir?

In the travel guide book, 'Beautiful Valleys of Kashmir' (1942), Samsar Chand Koul, gives the following interesting casual anecdote from his 1937 visit to Kausar Nag Lake:

"A certain American professor once came here to ascertain the depth to which ultra-violet rays can penetrate, 10,000 ft. above sea level. He adjusted his machine with proper screws and places it in the centre of the lake. The screws and somehow became loose and part of the machine sank, so the experiment was not successful."


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

True Legend of Kaunsa Nag

Further up, ten miles northwest from merchant town of Shikaspora, or ‘Trash Town’, nestled in the Himalayan glaciers is a lake of pure waters known as Kaunsa Nag, or the ‘Witch Lake’. All through the year, most of the lake is covered under a thick sheet of ice that moves with the wind. On the eastern shore of the lake can be seen a Muslim Mosque and a Hindu Temple. The construction is recent but the natives believe them to be ancient. The rugged old look of the two structures is due to the rather half-witted engineering by locals that relies heavily on abundant ice cut stones found strewn all around the lake. They look like piles of stones hurriedly put together by children, something like the beach castle that Little Elsie made last summer on the beach of Northumberland. Only these are much bigger.

I must say there is something mystical about this lake and its two ancient sentinels, standing next to each other, guarding the faithful from cold indifferent beauty of nature.  Hasn’t our lord said, “…for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

The place does cast a certain spell on you.  You can almost lose yourself here. The only thing that keeps you grounded to reality is the constant fluttering sound of the green banner on the Mosque and the Saffron banner on the temple. It found them a bit loud. Little Elsie however found those flags quite amusing. She took out the whitest of her handkerchief and holding it over her head went fluttering around the two shrines. Towards noon the wind grew a bit stronger. Our native helpers were mortally scared that he would be blown into the lake and captured by the Jinn. He claims the place is infested by a Jinni named Wav. Muslims of the valley believe Prophet Solomon commanded a powerful Jinni to guard this place. Hindus believes a divine snake of Vishnu (or Shiva, natives are always confused about it) sleeps under its waters. Native will swear on the truth of such fantastical tales. Only last year, Professor Knowtall in Lahore published a collection of the fantastical tales told by Kashmiris. At the lake I heard a story worthy of Professor Knowtall’s collection. My narrators were the two holy men, one Muslim and another Hindu, the lonesome inhabitants of the two shrines. These men stay here on the lake even in peak of winter. They claim it is just their faith and mutual hatred of each other that keeps their blood warm in the coldest of winters. The two came to dwell here atop this mountain in rather dramatic circumstances.

Many years ago, during the reign of Sultan Shamatudin, the two sects went to war with each other over the religious rights to the lake. Both had scriptural evidence to support their claim. One was rooting for Giant Serpents and another for Windy Jinn, both protectors of Kashmir. The leaders on both sides were very powerful and advanced in mystical prowess. Of them it was said, ‘Even a stare can silence a brook. A tear can flood a town. A laugh can make a lion pee.’ (My translation doesn’t do justice to the lines, but they sounds much better in native tongue). With power of righteousness on their sides they armed themselves with weapons that could shred hundreds in a matter of seconds. Many thousands died. Three times Kashmir was denuded of human population, three time they all were reborn, risen from dead after have accounts for their sins. Yet the solution was not found. After much bloodshed it was decided that the matter be settled by a duel of faith. It was a simple affair. Each side was to choose one man, the one most faithful among them. Then the two men were sent to live up at the lake for the entire duration of winter. At the end of winter, the man still alive could claim the lake for his people. Each side chose one pious man to whom were handed some Kehwa leaves (Kashmiri mild tea leaves), a handful of almonds and some sugar candies. Before sending their heroes off with a pat on the back, the tribesmen came out to greet them and shouted out loud, ‘Bala’ey Dafa’ (a most emotional Kashmiri farewell greeting meaning ‘I wish I could come with you but I love my life’. Natives have a knack for expressing their feeling in very few words). On reaching the lake, the first thing the two men did was to build their respective dwellings. These men built the first mosque and the temple on the lake.  Chanting ‘Blissmilla’ and ‘Wham Bham Bhoolay’, the two holy warriors went into their respective caves and waited for the winter to pass them by.

At the end of the winter, people waited with bated breath for their hero to arrive. But to their much surprise, both holy men walked down from the lake alive. Thus the Gods had spoken. The lake belonged to the followers of both religions. There were much celebrations and festivities.  People showered Kehwa leaves, almonds and sugar candies on the returning heroes. Thus was born the festival of ‘Daud-e-Dua’ for Muslims or ‘Chalo Bulawa’ for Hindus. But the joyous times lasted only a year. During this year, certain unknown powerful people jealous of the fame that the two holy men had attained started spreading scandalous rumors (the natives are highly prone to rumors). In whispers (at first) it was said the two men had become ‘humbistar’ (Shacked up) in the mountains. They asked, ‘How else could the men have kept themselves warm?’ Some said the deities of the lake had swallowed them up but were vomited out for their bodies were fouled by sin. Some said the men hadn't even been on the lake for the entire duration. They were hiding in the houses of their ‘in-laws’ in a nearby village.  In the beginning, afraid of the two holy men, people laughed at that these claims. The holy men sure of their clout, ignored the snide remarks. All these allegations were serious, but the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back came when someone accused them of stealing village goats at night during their stay at lake to satiate their bellies. When the holy men had gone up the hill, only days later the goats had suddenly started disappearing at night. At that time, the villagers had blamed  ‘Rantus or a ‘Demoness’ for the theft. They had even caught an old Rantus in the act of stealing and burnt her alive. But, in light of these new revelations, they blamed the holy men for all that had gone wrong in the village.  The holy men claimed innocence on all counts.  They rallied their supporters. The people started calling them ‘Drokhlads’ or the ‘Chronic Vomitters', the ones rejected even by Gods. (Even today their followers are known as ‘Drokhlads’, however the two are separated along religious lines owing to the position of goat in their theology).

At this point of the story, my two narrators broke into tears for they were the Drokhlads of their generation. After their eyes and nose ran dry, they continued:

As was the fair ancient law of the land, the men demanded that they be proven guilty of these crimes. The matter went to the court of Sultan Shahmatudin. The wise king asked for four witnesses to be presented. Readily four goats were presented in the court. The king asked them, ‘Do you bear witness to their crimes?’ Goats in reply just nodded their heads sideways. Among the natives, a sideway nod can mean a ‘Yes’ and even a ‘No’. The king took it as a yes nod and promptly delivered justice. The men were to be banished back to the lake.

Drokhlads and their sympathizers protested. They claimed the Goat had implied no. Abraham’s goat, God’s gentle creature that was ever ready to sacrifice its life for faithful could never lie. Surly, it meant no. We didn’t do nothing. The animal symbol of Prajapati Daksha would loose its proud head before siding with falsehood. We didn’t do nothing. Surly, it meant no. The Jinns and the Snakes left us alive, surely it meant no.  Our skins didn’t melt under mountain snow. We didn’t do nothing Surely it meant no. The sun on the lake rose in the east. Surely it meant no. The moon spilt in two. Surely it meant no.

[These lamentations went on for days it seems for they now form a bulky work of lyrics known as ‘Drokh-tar-Tarana', a MSC of which is easily procurable in markets of Srinagar]

After tearful farewell from even their enemies, whose hearts had by now melted on hearing these lamentation, Drokhlad at the start of winter were finally back at the lake and into their individual cave shrines. The villagers could be heard crying and chanting, 'Ek sindh Drokh Bey sindh Gizah' (One man's vomit, another man's food). It is said at the end of winter when their followers went to check on them, the caves were found empty with only two empty wine cups inside each cave. The holy men had descended to heaven after receiving the divine nectar. It is said the Day of Judgment and final Fair Beginnings shall be near when the two return with proof of ‘Na’.

The followers assigned two men, a Hindu and a Muslim, to keep watch at the spot and to wait for the two holy men. The watch has since been maintained. Every year believers throng the place on the day of Chalo-Bulawa-Daud-e-Dua (We got to go, faith calls). They drop Kehwa leaves, a handful of almonds and some sugar candies into the lake, hoping the lake would boil one day transform into a a giant teakettle that will serve the nectar of truth to all the dwellers of the valley, and later perhaps to the whole world. [It is quite a scene I am told when the natives visit the place with their wives and children in tow carrying samavars to the lake on their head.]

Centuries later, when Kashmir was annexed by Emperor Akhbaar, he had a grand mosque and a temple constructed at the lake. Great Akhbaar understood the true meaning of the story. His court poet, Aull Fazuul had the meaning inscribed on a black marble and placed at the spot:-

“This temple and this mosque were erected for the purpose of binding together the hearts of the believers in Hindustan, and especially those of His worshippers that live in the province of Kashmir,

By order of the Lord of the throne and the crown, the lamp of creation, Shah Akhbaar,
In whom the seven minerals find uniformity, in whom the four elements attain perfect mixture.
He who from insincere motives destroys this temple, should first destroy the mosque;
he who from insincere motives destroys this mosque, should first destroy the temple;
for if we follow the dictates of the heart, we must bear up with all men, but if we look to the internal, we find everything ought to be destroyed proper.

O God, Thou art just and judges an action by the motive;
Thou knowest whether a motive is sublime, and tellest the king what motives people should have."

 A few years later, Orangezeb had the two shrines sincerely cannoned simultaneously. His motives weren’t religious, he just didn’t approve of the design (and possibly out of environmental concerns) .

The mosque was again built during the Afghan governorship and the temple came up during the Dogra rule. The ticket counter I presume will follow soon. 

~ Extract from private diary of an anonymous European women who visited Kashmir in 1874 with her children.

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