Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Relating Paradise to Kashmir's Historical Gardens

Saleem Beg, an advocate for preservation of Kashmir's culture and heritage, discusses historical significance of our fabled gardens

(Mr. Mohammad Saleem Beg, 57, was born and raised in Srinagar. He was educated at the S.P. College and the Gandhi Memorial College, receiving his Bachelor's degree from the latter. He was awarded a EEC fellowship in 1998 which allowed him to attend study courses at Universities of Luven, Belgium, and Trinity College, Dublin. Mr. Beg entered the State government service in 1975 and retired in 2006 as the Director General of Tourism. In the 31 years of public service (which included two deputation assignments in New Delhi), Mr. Beg promoted local arts and crafts, and raised public awareness of Kashmir's rich heritage and architecture. He was a leading figure in getting Srinagar listed as one of the 100 most threatened heritage cities by the World Monument Fund in 2008. Mr. Beg has traveled extensively and has attended numerous conferences, including the 1997 UN Special Session on Environment in New York, and the 1997 Kyoto Convention on Climate Change in Japan. His articles and essays have been published in various publications. Since retirement, he has remained active as the Convener of the J&K Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage - INTACH.)

Historical Gardens of Kashmir, an Idea of Paradise

Recently Srinagar was gifted with two well laid out parks at Waris Khan ’chah and at the foothills of Zabarwan. Among many afflictions this city has suffered at the hand of successive regimes, the loss of open spaces is perhaps the most glaring of all. This State sponsored urban vandalism has reduced the one time Venice of East into the most unplanned urban concrete jungle and a slum.

In such a state of affairs setting up of parks deserves a big hand and would in the normal course be applauded. Not withstanding the fact that there is lack of symmetry or a landscape discipline, the Parks have been provided with fixtures required in a public park.

Though the Tulip garden at the foothills of Zabarwan is more a plantation than a proper garden, there is nothing wrong with converting large stretches of land into tulip plantations. Tulip plantations, like in Holland or elsewhere, look great here as well. However the tall talk and slyness that has become part of the social transaction of our society, was witnessed in abundant measure when these parks were thrown open to the public. In excitement of the moment, name of the Mughals was invoked and a comparison was made with the Mughal gardens, the most treasured representation of Islamic heritage. Such comparisons only depict faulty understanding of the historical architecture combined with lack of awareness about our cultural heritage. There is therefore a need to place the Mughal gardens in proper historical perspective. This write up will trace the origin and cultural relevance of these gardens.

The idea of paradise as a garden is one of the man’s oldest ideals. The historic gardens throughout the orient have been compared to the paradise Garden. Historians have often found that the societies which had nothing in common shared the concept of paradise as the ideal garden. This idea has persisted while many of the civilizations which adhered to it have perished.

The English word ‘paradis’ or paradise is a transliteration of the classic Persian word, pairdaeza, referring to the walled garden. The great Persian kings would lay out walled gardens in the territories they ruled. The early references to the gardens also known as paradis have been traced to Cyrus, the 4th century BC Persian king. The gardens of Cyrus with their regular layout shows a remarkable resemblance to the description of a garden depicted in a 2000 BC old bowl depicting four beds with a tree in each bed. The basic principle and the design grid of Persian gardens, the char Bagh traces its origin to this Persian tradition.

The central Asian art and architecture has been a part of the Persian cultural landscape. Mughals, the most prominent of the Central Asian tribes carried the Persian influence to their conquered territories. It may also be noted that the word Bagh was, perhaps for the first time used by Seljuks, the Turkish dynasty in 11th century. Seljuks also came from the Central Asian steppes. Mughal gardens of Kashmir belong to this universal stream of Islamic architecture, and therefore due care and caution should be exercised while drawing comparisons.

The idea of paradise has transcended all cultures and civilizations. Though the notion of paradise predates Islam, yet the association of a heavenly garden created on earth finds a universal appeal in the Islamic world. Interestingly Quran describes paradise as consisting of four gardens (char bagh) intersected by two perpendicularly arranged water channels. In Quran paradise has been described as the abiding mansion, watered by rivers, with abundant shade and fountains. This paradise, a series of walled gardens, is Allah’s reward to God fearing men and women, the humble and the forgiving and those who have suffered for God’s sake.

When Muslims conquered Persia, they found the Persian gardens were largely following the pattern and style that they had known about the promised paradise. Early Muslim rulers accepted the cultural influences of Iran and as has been witnessed through out the Muslim rule all over the Islamic world, also attested to the indispensability of Persians. Iranians provided the intellectual and creative capital to the rulers. The Iranian influence, now adopted and integrated into broad Islamic culture is manifest in tangible and intangible heritage of Muslim rulers of Hindustan and more so in the Mughal period.

Mughal have bequeathed to the south Asia a wealth of outstanding monuments in the shape of gardens, buildings including the mosques. Their rule has been the most creative and the richest period of the history. As a new dynasty which felt the need to assert its status among the people of different creed and culture, Mughal were aware of the potential of architecture as a means of self representation. Akbar’s historian Qandhari writes “a good name for the kings is achieved by means of lofty buildings and spaces and their high-mindedness is estimated by the state of their houses”.

Mughal architecture created a supremely confident style by synthesizing the most heterogeneous elements, central Asian, Indian, and Persian. The Mughals remained flexible towards regional conditions and building traditions. The historical gardens of the East have been a representation of the idea of paradise, the ultimate bliss that has held the imagination of man since the dawn of civilization.

Like other architectural marvels of the Mughal era, the gardens also carry visible Iranian inspiration and imprint on the landscape and architecture of the gardens. ‘The distinguishing feature of a Mughal garden is the water which flows from terrace to terrace, slithering down the marble inclines gouged with scallops to make it sprat, carving over a ledge like a sheet of ice, plunging into the ground to gush from fountains below or resting in a deeper pool on its way round a pavilion reached only by low stone bridges which look like floating on its surface’ This design and layout is what an authentic Mughal garden has to be.

The garden historians as also the specialists dealing with historical architecture have defined and described the Mughal gardens of Kashmir as true and authentic representations of a classic Mughal garden. There is therefore a need to bring to fore the essential features of these gardens and restore their historical stature and status. The recent effort by the state Government to create and convert open spaces into gardens has now been mired into avoidable controversies from the names given to the gardens to bringing in Mughal architecture in a vastly humbler and a typical departmental enterprise.

Drawing comparisons with tulip plantations or public parks at Zabarwan or Badamwari only betrays bankruptcy of knowledge and brings out lack of aware ness about the historical architecture among the people at the helm.