Thursday, November 6, 2008

Who hasn’t heard of the Valley of Kashmir?

House Boat on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir

Photograph: House Boat on Dal Lake, Kashmir. April 2006

Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,

With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave,

Its temples and grottos and fountains as clear

As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave

Thomas Moore was born on 28th of May 1780 in Dublin, Ireland to a Roman Catholics couple. From as early an age as ten, he displayed an aptitude for verse. In 1793, the Irish Parliament opened Trinity College, Dublin, to Catholics and the following year Thomas Moore entered the College as a student. He became proficient in French and Italian, but showed little interest in Latin and other classic languages. He was to find fame as a poet, translator, balladeer and a singer.

In  1812, the idea of writing an oriental poem was first seriously entertained by Moore. Lord Byron (whose biography later Thomas Moore wrote) had already made Oriental Tales told in verses famous by inventing characters like Giaour, Abydos and Corsair.  Living at Mayfield Cottage near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Lalla Rookh: an Oriental Romance took shape as an idea in Thomas Moore's mind.

The poem earned him £3,150 from the publisher Mr. Longman even before he had started out to write it. At that time it was the largest sum ever offered for a single poem. However, it was a sound investment for the publisher as the poem, first published in 1817,  went through more than twenty editions during the author's lifetime.

The Poem gets its title from the name of the heroine of the famed tale, Lalla Rookh, daughter of  Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. Engaged to the young prince of Bucharia (Bukhara, in nowadays Uzbekistan), Lalla Rookh sets forth on a journey to Kashmir where her nuptial is agreed to be solemnized, but on the way she finds herself in a dilemma as she is smitten by love for a poet named Feramorz who regales her with wondrous tales as they journey together to a Kashmr. The dilemma is resolved in the end as it is reveled that the poet and the young prince are the same.

The poem consists of four interpolated tales supposedly sung by the poet: "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," "Paradise and the Peri," "The Fire-Worshippers," and "The Light of the Haram."

It is in the final section titled "The Light of the Haram",  that we get to see Kashmir of Moore’s imagination.

Since Thomas Moore had never been to Kashmir (and was never to visit it in his lifetime),  in order to write his Oriental masterpiece, he read the works of two of the early travelers to Kashmir. The wealth of footnotes to the poem bear witness to this fact.

One of the traveler whom he read was a French physician named Francois de Bernier. Bernier visited Kashmir in 1664–65  as part of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s Royal entourage and described Kashmir in the letters that he wrote. These letters later published as Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668, (Paris, 1670) are widely recognized as the first authoritative source on description of Kashmir. Mughals thought of Kashmir as 'Jannat' or 'Paradise' and so in the letters of Bernier the subject of Kashmir was covered  under the title: Journey to Kachemire, The Paradise of the Indies.

The other writer that Moore read was a little known traveler in service of the East India Company — George Forster. His "Letters on a Journey from Bengal to England, through the Northern Part of India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Persia, and into Russia, by the Caspian Sea" first published as a series of letters in 1798, was an interesting and entertaining narrative account of his two year long overland journey — starting in 1782 and ending in 1784. He traveled from Bengal to St. Petersburg disguised as a Mughal merchant, Turk, Arab and Georgian; and his work also chronicled his difficulties with language, customs and posing as a Muslim. Since foreigners were barred from entering the valley of Kashmir, George Forster tried unsuccessfully to escape the notice of spies of tyrannical Afghan ruler of Kashmir by donning the garb of a Turkish merchant. He left Calcutta on May 23, 1782 on his long and arduous overland journey to England and passed through the north-eastern hilly tracts of the Punjab in February - April 1783.

In 1783, on arriving in Kashmir, George Forster wrote about his first impression about Kashmiris:

On first seeing the Kashmirians in their own country, I imagined from their garb, the cast of their countenances, which were long and of a grave aspect, and the forms of their beards, that I had come among a nation of Jews.

Many other travelers including previous visitor like Bernier had voiced similar opinion on the subject. Bernier in particular discussed the matter at some length in his letters giving the impression that the subject must have been (even then) of a lot of interest to many westerners. Words from most of these works are now quoted in support of all kinds of Jewish-Kashmiri theories.

During his visit to Kashmir, Forster also wrote about the grave situation of Kashmiri Shawl makers. He estimated that in Kashmir there were 16,000 shawl looms in use compared with 40,000 in the time of Mughals. According to John Gorton’s A General Biographical Dictionary:

His information was derived from inquiry and observation than from books; and when he relates what he had seen, his veracity may be trusted; but his historical disquisitions are frequently inaccurate. He returned to India, and was preparing for farther researches in that part of the world, when his death took place at Allahabad, in 1792.

Between Bernier’s account of Kashmir written in 1664–65  and Forster’s account written in 1782 – 1784, the valley of Kashmir had in fact changed a lot. Although the account of beauty of the fabled land remained almost same, yet there were subtle changes in the life of people living in the valley. Forster's comment on the Shawl makers was just an indication, Kashmir was already well past its glories and yet in the works of Bernier and Forster, Moore found just what he was looking for – an exotic land, and managed to create a compelling image of the fabled beauty of  Kashmir, an image that inspired many European travelers to journey to this distant land. Kashmir was changing again.

In 1835, an early English traveler to Kashmir, Godfrey Thomas Vigne wrote "that Kashmir will become the sine qua non of the Oriental traveller". * He thought Kashmir could become "a miniature England in the heart of Asia", a place were the "sports and games of England" could easily be introduced ( a task that was accomplished successfully by Cecil Tyndale Biscoe in around mid 1890s – although with some initial stubborn opposition from local populace of Kashmir, both Pandit as well as Muslim) and a place that could become the stepping stone for the world to "become subject to the power of the Christians". In 1846 the Treaty of Amritsar saw British gain complete control of the Punjab and proxy control over Kashmir. The present situation in Kashmir can justifiable be traced back to this sardonic act of imperialism and yet it was this treaty that opened the doors of Kashmir to the European travelers. Vigne's words proved to be true, travelers came in droves. But most of these travelers were not seeking the kind of pleasure that religion provides. British civil servants and military officers came to seek respite from the oppressive Indian summers. Kashmir offered: walk in the meadows and climb in the mountains, it offered music and dance, ride in lakes and rivers, forest for game and of course –  it offered parties.

Kenneth Iain MacDonald  writes in The Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia
With the arrival of summer travelers, Moore’s world came alive, at least textually. The mid 1850s mark the emergence of Kashmir as the Happy Vale replete with the imagery of Moore’s verse. Kashmir was not simply a respite from life on the plains but became a place of romance, and for displaced Europeans, the ‘Eastern’ equivalent of ‘Western’ places of leisure: “Venice of the East”, “Playground of the East”, “Switzerland of the East”.
Most of the travelogues of that era mention Thomas Moore and his poem. Most of the travelers thought of Moore’s verses regarding Kashmir to be true. There were some disappointed travelers too, most famous among them Victor Jacquemont, a French botanist who visited Kashmir in 1831, was so disappointed that he called Moore “a liar” and “a perfumer”.  However, such voices were few and far, in fact even Jacquemont’s opinion was taken with a pinch of salt. For most travelers, Kashmir of Thomas Moore was a reality and providently it became a reality soon after Moore's death in 1852. By mid 1850s, Kashmir was a holiday destination.



Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,

With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave,[278]

Its temples and grottos and fountains as clear

As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?

Oh! to see it at sunset, --when warm o'er the Lake

Its splendor at parting a summer eve throws,

Like a bride full of blushes when lingering to take

A last look of her mirror at night ere she goes!--

When the shrines thro' the foliage are gleaming half shown,

And each hallows the hour by some rites of its own.

Here the music of prayer from a minaret swells,

Here the Magian his urn full of perfume is swinging,

And here at the altar a zone of sweet bells

Round the waist of some fair Indian dancer is ringing.[279]

Or to see it by moonlight when mellowly shines

The light o'er its palaces, gardens, and shrines,

When the water-falls gleam like a quick fall of stars

And the nightingale's hymn from the Isle of Chenars

Is broken by laughs and light echoes of feet

From the cool, shining walks where the young people meet.--

Or at morn when the magic of daylight awakes

A new wonder each minute as slowly it breaks,

Hills, cupolas, fountains, called forth every one

Out of darkness as if but just born of the Sun.

When the Spirit of Fragrance is up with the day

From his Haram of night-flowers stealing away;

And the wind full of wantonness wooes like a lover

The young aspen-trees,[280] till they tremble all over.

When the East is as warm as the light of first hopes,

And day with his banner of radiance unfurled

Shines in thro' the mountainous portal[281] that opes,

Sublime, from that Valley of bliss to the world!

But never yet by night or day,

In dew of spring or summer's ray,

Did the sweet Valley shine so gay

As now it shines-- all love and light,

Visions by day and feasts by night!

A happier smile illumes each brow;

With quicker spread each heart uncloses,

And all is ecstasy-- for now

The Valley holds its Feast of Roses;[282]

The joyous Time when pleasures pour

Profusely round and in their shower

Hearts open like the Season's Rose,--

The Floweret of a hundred leaves[283]

Expanding while the dew-fall flows

And every leaf its balm receives.

'Twas when the hour of evening came

Upon the Lake, serene and cool,

When day had hid his sultry flame

Behind the palms of Baramoule,

When maids began to lift their heads.

Refresht from their embroidered beds

Where they had slept the sun away,

And waked to moonlight and to play.

All were abroad: --the busiest hive

On Bela's[284] hills is less alive

When saffron-beds are full in flower,

Than lookt the Valley in that hour.

A thousand restless torches played

Thro' every grove and island shade;

A thousand sparkling lamps were set

On every dome and minaret;

And fields and pathways far and near

Were lighted by a blaze so clear

That you could see in wandering round

The smallest rose-leaf on the ground,

Yet did the maids and matrons leave

Their veils at home, that brilliant eve;

And there were glancing eyes about

And cheeks that would not dare shine out

In open day but thought they might

Look lovely then, because 'twas night.

And all were free and wandering

And all exclaimed to all they met,

That never did the summer bring

So gay a Feast of Roses yet;--

The moon had never shed a light

So clear as that which blest them there;

The roses ne'er shone half so bright,

Nor they themselves lookt half so fair.

And what a wilderness of flowers!

It seemed as tho' from all the bowers

And fairest fields of all the year,

The mingled spoil were scattered here.

The lake too like a garden breathes

With the rich buds that o'er it lie,--

As if a shower of fairy wreaths

Had fallen upon it from the sky!

And then the sounds of joy, --the beat

Of tabors and of dancing feet;--

The minaret-crier's chant of glee

Sung from his lighted gallery,[285]

And answered by a ziraleet

From neighboring Haram, wild and sweet;--

The merry laughter echoing

From gardens where the silken swing[286]

Wafts some delighted girl above

The top leaves of the orange-grove;

Or from those infant groups at play

Among the tents[287] that line the way,

Flinging, unawed by slave or mother,

Handfuls of roses at each other.--

Then the sounds from the Lake, --the low whispering in boats,

As they shoot thro' the moonlight, --the dipping of oars

And the wild, airy warbling that everywhere floats

Thro' the groves, round the islands, as if all the shores

Like those of Kathay uttered music and gave

An answer in song to the kiss on each wave.[288]

But the gentlest of all are those sounds full of feeling

That soft from the lute of some lover are stealing,--

Some lover who knows all the heart-touching power

Of a lute and a sigh in this magical hour.

Oh! best of delights as it everywhere is

To be near the loved One, --what a rapture is his

Who in moonlight and music thus sweetly may glide

O'er the Lake of Cashmere with that One by his side!

If woman can make the worst wilderness dear,

Think, think what a Heaven she must make of Cashmere!

Thomas Moore's Footnotes to the poem:

[278] "The rose of Kashmire for its brilliancy and delicacy of odor has long been proverbial in the East." --Foster. (Thomas Moore credits George Forster as George Foster. So do many later day writers and historians)

[279] "Tied round her waist the zone of bells, that sounded with ravishing melody." --Song of Jayadeva.

[280] "The little isles in the Lake of Cachemire are set with arbors and large-leaved aspen-trees, slender and tall." --Bernier.

[281] "The Tuckt Suliman, the name bestowed by the Mahommetans on this hill, forms one side of a grand portal to the Lake." --Foster.

[282] "The Feast of Roses continues the whole time of their remaining in bloom." --See Pietro de la Valle.

[283] "Gul sad berk, the Rose of a hundred leaves. I believe a particular species." --Ouseley.

[284] A place mentioned in the Toozek Jehangeery, or Memoirs of Jehan- Guire, where there is an account of the beds of saffron-flowers about Cashmere.

[285] "It is the custom among the women to employ the Maazeen to chant from the gallery of the nearest minaret, which on that occasion is illuminated, and the women assembled at the house respond at intervals with a ziraleet or joyous chorus." --Russel.

[286] "The swing is a favorite pastime in the East, as promoting a circulation of air, extremely refreshing in those sultry climates." --Richardson.

[287] At the keeping of the Feast of Roses we beheld an infinite number of tents pitched, with such a crowd of men, women, boys, and girls, with music, dances, etc." --Herbert.

[288] "An old commentator of the Chou-King says, the ancients having remarked that a current of water made some of the stones near its banks send forth a sound, they detached some of them, and being charmed with the delightful sound they emitted, constructed King or musical instruments of them." --Grosier.



Prithivi Nath Kaul Bamzai made a note of Vigne's writing in his comprehensive book Culture and Political History of Kashmir - Page 709



The complete poem Lalla Rookh


The biographical sketch of Thomas Moore written by William M. Rossetti for The Complete Poems of Sir Thomas Moore.

Francis Younghusband in his book Kashmir (1908) mentions a town called Hassan Abdal as the location of real Lalla Rookh's tomb. Hasan Abdal is a small town about 40 km. east of Attock, Paksitan.


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