Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gazelles, Rhinos and Sea-Elephants

An abridged version of it appeared in this months issue of Down to Earth magazine for their cover story on literature and Environmental concerns.


Whatever exists in whatever Mandala of the earth, exists in its quintessence in Kashmira, Whatever exists in Kashmira Mandala, exists within the waters of the Vitasta.” —Nilmatapurana, Story of Nila Naga, 6th-9th century AD


The story of Kashmir usually begins with its birth in water: Gods and Supermen emptying a primordial lake to let humans inhabit it and granting them rights to the land and its riches. The story was retold in various ways in Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic eras of Kashmir’s history. Though the story gradually changed with each retelling, the belief that life came out of water remained. Dwellers of the valley saw Kashmir’s water bodies, the rivers and the springs as the source of life. The change of seasons and the dramatic impact it had on environment were all too obvious to the valley’s dwellers. They marveled that their valley brimmed with beautiful life in the harsh Himalayan environment. Out of this awe of nature and its transformational powers came their first metaphors.

When matters of morality and ethics were given a thought, when earliest oral stories were put into text, much like the people in other parts of the world, like people living in other mandalas, the people of valley put their words into the mouth of animals and let them talk like wise sages. People, their lives still tied to a wild world over which they didn't have full control, understood and appreciated these primitive literary devices. Until a few decades ago, an average Indian child's introduction to wildlife were the stories from Panchatantra. It was a work that made the young mind conscious of the not so otherness of other beings on this planet. One of the primary sources of Panchatantra, as it is available to us now, is Tantrakhyayika, a work of 11th century prolific Kashmirian poet Kshemendra.


The stories and the storywriters from Kashmir became travellers. From pit-dwellers man had evolved into a modern man, an explorer of text and world. Stories now were intertwined in languages from various distant land and yet the metaphors derived from nature remained. 11th-century Kashmiri poet Bilhana was born in a rural Kashmiri village Khonamuh about 15 kilometres south of Srinagar. The English translation of his love verses, Caurapâñcâśikâ, are quoted extensively in John Steinbeck's Great-depression era American novel Cannery Row (1945), In his work Vikramankadevacharita, an eulogy dedicated to Western Chalukyan king Vikramaditya VI, the poet gives us a description of Khonamuh, a birth place of ancient legends, some say even of Brihatkatha the lost work that forms the source of Somadeva's 11th century work Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of streams of story), the pieces from which can even be found in Arabian nights and in writing of Salman Rushdie. About his birth place place Bilhana writes (trs. Georg Bühler):

"What shall I sing of that spot, the ancient home of wonderful legends, the sportive embellishment of the bosom of Himalaya? One part bears the saffron in its native loveliness, the other the grape, pale like a cut of juicy sugarcane from Sarayu's bank. […] When (Bilhana) took from Kashmir the pure lore of all Sastras, he, forsooth, made the qualities of the snowy mountains his own. Else, how could he, when angered, have reduced, in every land, the faces of disputants to the likeness of lotuses blighted by hoar-frost?"

In these lines not only do we find one of the earliest description of a Kashmiri village but also the way the metaphors born in Kashmiri's unique eco-system continued to be employed by a writer born in Kashmir and living as a immigrant in mainland where he was picking up new metaphors of a distant land where Sarayu was the source of life and metaphors. The influence of water, of rivers and springs on human life was too immense for the writers to ignore.


When the dwellers of the valley chose to tell their history, poetry was the medium and river the metaphor. So, the 12th century poet Kalhana titled his work Rajatarangini or ‘The River of Kings’. We read about formation of new cities after humankind’s triumph over unruly rivers, giving order to chaos. It tells us “that during the reign of Avantivarman (855 AD-883 AD), one Surya engineered alterations in course of rivers to control frequent floods” and “made the streams of Indus and Jhelum flow according to his will, like a snake-charmer his snakes.” River was a divine serpent that man had finally managed to master. Or, so he thought.

Literature produced in Kashmir, till then, was mostly in Sanskrit. But there is evidence to suggest that people in the Valley were multilingual. It was an ideal environment for a new language to emerge. In Rajatarangini, we hear the first echo of this new language. The line ‘Rang’assa Helu dinna’ (village Helu be given to Ranga) by a Domba singer named Ranga, around 10th century, is the first written record of spoken Kashmiri language.

The story of the birth of modern Kashmiri literature begins much later with the arrival of mystic poet Lal Ded (Granny Lalla) in early14th century just as Islam made its first appearance in Kashmir. However, Lal Ded’s life story was first written as late as 16th century and that too in Persian chronicles. In the intermediate two centuries, Kashmiri language was born out of oral traditions of ‘sayings’. Lal Ded narrated in a format that came to be known as vakhs, literally “spoken words”. In her words too, the story of Kashmir goes back to water (and would probably end in water?).

trayi nengi sarah sar’e saras
aki nengi sars arshes jay
haramokha Kausara akh sum saras
sati nengi saras shunakar


(Three times do I remember a lake overflowing. Once do I remember seeing in the firmament the only existing place. Once do I remember seeing a bridge from Haramukh to Kausar. Seven times do I remember seeing the whole world a void.) 
This collection of her vakhs was translated to English by Nilla Cram Cook, an American linguist and a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and published in The way of the Swan.

In her vakhs, Lal Ded was reimagining the Valley. She was weaving metaphysical ideas with objects in physical world, a literary exercise that had fascinated the Kashmiri Trika poet-philosophers of yore. Lal Ded’s words were often cryptic and yet the common folk followed them. Take for example the lines:

It is a lake so tiny that in it a mustard seed finds no room.
Yet from that lake everyone drinks water.
And into it do gazelles, jackals, rhinoceroses, and sea-elephants
Keep falling, falling, almost before they have time to become born

Lal Ded seems to be describing a karmic play in which all beings on earth come from the same source, a source that is inconsequential and infinite at the same time. She holds the attention of Kashmiris by mentioning familiar objects like gazelles and jackals and sets their imagination afire by mentioning the unfamiliar: rhinoceroses and sea-elephants. But why does she mention rhinoceros, an animal most of her listeners must have never seen? What are sea-elephants and what do people nestled in the Himalayas know of them? The lines, in fact, are a riddle from Lal Ded whose simple answer is: mother’s teats.

Kashmiri, for centuries, was an oral language and Lal Ded’s saying survived in popular parlance because her vakhs were passed on from generation to generation, as riddles for children. Though Lal Ded presented her personal experiences and thoughts in cryptic manner, her advice to people was always lucid:

Don but such apparel as will cause the cold to flee.
Eat but so much food as will cause hunger to cease.
O Mind! devote thyself to discernment of the Self and of the Supreme,
And recognise thy body is but food for forest crows.

This idea of a moderate life was extended and built upon by her spiritual and literary inheritor, Nund Rishi. Born in Kaimuh village of Kashmir in 1375(/7) AD to a weaver family, Nund Rishi’s sayings uttered in a format called Shruk, were to become the moist soil on which the Kashmiri language later bloomed. Love of nature, trees and animals was going to be one of the main teachings of this mystic poet and of the rishis that followed him. These teachings still form the core of environmental concerns of a common Kashmiri.

It is not uncommon to still hear some Kashmiri utter Nund Rishi’s words of advice: Ann Poshi Teli Yeli Van Poshan (Food shall last till forests last) This saying, in fact, is the first instance of a Kashmiri uttering environmental concerns. While most of Nund Rishi’s literary predecessors described Kashmir as a land of abundant natural beauty with ever-flowing rivers and great garden retreats, Nund Rishi’s environmentalism seems all too sudden and dramatic. To understand it, we have to understand the era in which his sayings gained eager ears.

Shivara’s Third Rajatarangini suggests that 13th-14th century was a period of not just political and religious unrest but also a period of intense growth in terms of urban population and economy. New cities and towns cropped up in Kashmir. Most of these were at the spots where modern towns and cities of Kashmir are still expanding. This urbanisation probably started during Lal Ded’s time. In one of her vakhs she tells us:

“My wooden bow shoots
only arrows of grass
This metropolis finds
only an inept carpenter”

Lal Ded compares the helpless imperfectness of human body to an ugly metropolis (Razdan’e) designed by a greedy human mind.

By the time of Nund Rishi, this urbanisation had intensified. Houses, bridges, shrines, all were made of wood. Even Kashmir’s crafts depended on wood and animals. All this could only mean an additional strain on Kashmir’s ecology. It was during this era that Nund Rishi, also known as of Sheikh Noor-ud-din, preached the need for preserving nature to rural agrarian people who could easily relate to the metaphors he employed.

During this turbulent era, Nund Rishi gave Kashmiris an ominous vision of future:

Dear Nasar,
listen to the words of Guru
The crown of hog shall bear
a crest of peacock
River Vyeth shall run dry
sewage drains overflow
Then you shall see
the chaotic Simians rule.



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