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   Kashmiri Writers

Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri



Early Kashmiri Society-Social Life

By Dr. S.S. Toshkhani

With this we come to another important aspect of our study of the early Kashmiri society  -  social life. Here too we do not have enough source materials to base our investigation on. Even so the few literary sources that are available to us can provide us with considerable, though still not adequate, guidance. Beginning with the Nilamata again, we find that the sylvan valley of Kashmir was full of “ever sportive and joyful people enjoying continuous festivities”. Living in perfect harmony with their beautiful surroundings, “they played, danced and sang to express their joys, to please theirgods and to appease their demons”, as Dr. Ved Kumari puts it. Music and dance, it appears, were an integral part of their life, the key to their cultural DNA. The Rajatarangini and Kutttanimata Kavya further testify to what the Nilamata indicates  -  the enormous popularity of vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theatre performances among the early Kashmiri people. Music was popular even among the Buddhist monks, Kalhana tells us.

There were festivals galore that they celebrated  -  festivals that evoked devotion for the divine, festivals that celebrated the blooming of flowers in spring, festivals that expressed joy at the ploughing of the land and sowing of seeds, festivals related to the ripening of barely in the fields and harvesting the first crop of the paddy in autumn festivals, and even festivals evoking the Bacchanalian spirit on the ripening of grapes. But there was not one festival which did not have music and dancing as its essential feature. Any pretext was enough for people to celebrate with snatches of a song and jigs of a dance  - be it the birthday of a god or the new snowfall day ! What is interesting is that while their context was social, their setting was religious.

And what was the nature of this music and dancing ? Mostly folk, of course, but also classical, in accordance with the precepts of Bharata’s Natyashastra, as we learn from Nilamata and Kuttlanimata-Matakavya. Musical instruments of all the four types  -  tata (stringed), avanaddha (percussion), ghana (cymbals), and sushira (wind) were in vogue.

Veena or tantri, pataha (drum), muruj (tabor) mridanga (double drum), venu (lute), shankha (conch), ghanta (bell) and turya (trumpet) were among the more commonly used varieties. Harmony between vocal and instrumental music was highly appreciated. In an 11th century pen-portrait of Abhinavagupta, Madhuraja shows him with his fingers strumming the veena. Bilhana extolls the skill of Kashmiri women in dancing and theatrical performances. It is no wonder then that Kashmir produced one of the greatest Indian masters of music, Sharangadeva, the writer of Sangeet Ratnakara, which is perhaps the best treatise ever written on Indian music.

What Literary sources say about the popularity of music and dancing in early Kashmiri society is supported by archaeological evidence. Thus, in one of the tiles from Harwan, we see three musicians one playing a flute, another cymbals and the third a pair of drums.

Another tile shows a female musician playing on a drum which is hung over her shoulder. Yet another tile depicts a female dancer in an actual dancing posture. She is shown holding a long scarf in her hands and waving it. Kings of Kashmir patronized music, dancing and theatre. King Kalasha had a craze for dancing girls and so did Harsha who kept awake through the nights to personally instruct dancing girls in the art of acting in his own royal palace.

A unique thing about theatrical performances in Kashmir during the Nilamata age was the idea of “prekshadana” or “giving a dramatic show as a gift”. Professional theatre groups (rangapjin) would give such “gifts” to entertain people on certain occasions and they in turn were supposed to sustain these groups. In Damodaragupta’s time (9th century), big business magnates, the shreshthis and the vanikas patronised the dramatic art. According to him there were large theatre halls in his native land fitted with cushioned seats and back-rests. In an interesting reference, Kalhana, compares fleeing armies to theatre-goers caught in a down-pour, which suggests, however, that common people must have watched such performances in open-air theatres. Kshemendra too refers to the existence of theatre halls in Kashmir.

Puppet-plays also appear to have been popular in early Kashmir. Kuttanimata Kavya refers to wooden dolls which were manipulated by means of a mechanical thread (yantrasutra) and made to dance. There were many other games and amusements with which people in early Kashmir entertained themselves.

Among these, garden sports seem to have been extremely popular, and naturally so because nature has gifted Kashmir with plenty of gardens and beautiful parks. On festivals like Iramanjari Pujana or Ashokikashtami they would throng to these gardens and enjoy themselves with a variety of sports. Such sports have been described at length in the Kamasutra and several other works.

“Special meals taken in gardens in the company of friends and members of the family", writes Dr. Ved Kumari, “were a part of such garden sports”. Young maidens could have their fun and enjoy water sports on the Shravani festival, according to Nilamata.

Kuttanimata also refers to these sports as a favourite form of amusement for young men and women who would sprinkle water on one another with a karayantra or syringe.

Kanduka-krida or ball-playing, which is said to have been “one of the most favourite games of ancient India” was equally popular in Kashmir. Particularly among girls Damodaragupta’s Kuttanimata as well as Shyamilaka’s Padataditaka vouch for its popularity.

Chess and dice playing were among the favourite indoor-games of the people of Kashmir from very early times. Nilamata prescribes playing dice on the Sukha Suptihka or Deepavali night.

Rajatarangini offers ample evidence of their prevalence. Kuttanimata refers to it as a popular pastime. Women too played chess, it informs us.

Hunting was one of the favourite pastimes of men, and was particularly popular among princes. Some tiles from Harwan depict huntsmen on horseback chasing deer. Common people enjoyed watching wrestling bouts and animal fights. We find interesting depiction of ram fights and cock fights on some Harwan tiles.

Goshthis or social gatherings provided good entertainment to sophisticated and culturally refined people in ancient India. There is evidence in Kuttanimata Kavya that such gatherings were common in early Kashmir also. Kshemendra refers to asthanis or sitting rooms where friends would gather for conversation after having meals”. Respect was shown to gifted people known for their learning or their skill in the arts, at such gatherings.

It is indeed intriguing that we do not come across any evidence, literary or archaeological, of ancient inhabitants of Kashmir dressing or adorning themselves like its present day inhabitants.

The typically ‘Kashmiri’ articles of maleand female costume, like the pheran, the turban, the.proofs, and taranga are totally absent from literary works or sculptural representations. Is is becausethese were imposed on the Kashmiri Hindus at some later time ? How close is their resemblance to the pairahan of the Middle East and the traditional headgear of Egypt and Sudan ? What we find instead is the early Kashmiris using a variety of costumes and adornments suited to the requirements of “time and clime”, as dictated by good taste. Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese traveller who visited Kashmir in 631 AD tells us in his account that people wore leather doublets and clothes of fine linen. Other sources inform that both male and female attire consisted of vasana yugala or an upper and lower garment. And these garments were made from a variety of fabrics - cotton, wool, china silk, patika (a course variety of silk) and hemp. As the climate was cold, they covered their bodies with woolen garments in winter. Kalhanauses the word ‘pravara' for the woolen cloaks he says they wore. Nilamata calls them 'pravarana' The poor used kambala or sthulambala (coarse blankets). “Garments interwoven with threads of gold, dazzling the eyes” were also worn, according to Kuttanimata.

But the most detailed information about dress and ornaments (worn in 11th century Kashmir) is provided by Kshemendra’s works Narmamala,Samaya Matrika and Deshopadesha.

Men wore a long-sleeved tunic called kanchuka as the upper garment. Women’s upper garment too was called kanchuka, but in their case it was both a long-sleeved and a half-sleeved one  - a kind of jacket not much different from the modern choli. As their lower garment men wore a kind of trousers called patnga or janghala, according to Kshemendra. He has used the terms karpari and samputi also for trousers, but perhaps these trousers were of a different kind or made from different fabrics. Dhoti or pa(i was also worn by men, but pati sometimes meant a kind of scarf. They wore angarakshaka also over the kanchuka and wrapped their bodies in tusti (perhaps a precursor of the present day shawl). Kshemendra also refers to kambala or woolen blanket they used to cover the body. The male headgear generally consisted of shirahshata, a kind of turban. Caps of different sizes and shapes called the tpika (Hindi topi) were also in vogue.

Kshemendra refers to mochot, a type ofsocks, or perhaps boots, reaching partway up to the knees, as being commonly in use According to Damodaragupta, men, rich and poor alike, used leathe shoes  -  a necessity in a cold place like Kashmir. The rich, he says, wore fashionable shoes having floral decorationsfrom outside and fitted with steel soles imported probably from Central Asia.

Bee-wax was placed inside these shoes to make them comfortable to wear. The more fashionable men. according to Kshemendra, wore mayuropanah or peacock shoes.

We do not get much informationabout female dress from Kshemendra, except that they wore kanchuka as the upper garment. According to Damodargupta, they also were varabana, which he describes as an item of dress similar to a kanchuka Men also wore varabana, but in their case it was a kind of short fur coat. Kalhana tells us that ladies generally attired themselves in a Sari and jacket {kanchuka) . For the upper garment they used uttariya or amshuka. They also wrapped themselves in wollen shawls.

“Fashionable ladies”, says Ajay Mitra Shastri quoting Kuttanimata, “loved to wear soft, clean and perfumed clothes”.

They were fond of Chinese silk, he writes’. In Harsha’s time, they wore half-sleeved jackets and lower garments “which were so long that their tail ends touched the ground”’ .

People, both men and women, were fond of wearing colured clothes, except widows who were always dressed in white. Garments coloured with saffron dye were more preferred by fashion conscious men and women.

Women as well as men in early Kashmir were very fond of wearing ornaments and adorning themselves.

Women were naturally more crazy than men for embellishing themselves with a variety of jewelleries. Kalhana mentions necklaces, ear-rings, armlets, wristlets, anklets etc among the ornaments that ladies would wear, Damodaragupta takes great delight in describing various kinds of necklaces hugging the bosoms of pretty women of his times. He speaks of pearl necklaces (mukta hara) having several strands of pearls. Kshemendra speaks of coral collars (kanthi) and conch-shell necklaces (shankhalatika).

They were fond of wearing earrings of various shapes. Both Damodargupta Kshemendra speak of palm-shaped ear-drop known as kanaka-tadi that came to Kashmir from the South. King Harsha introduced new types of jewelleries in the 10th century which too seem to have come from the South.

These included ketaka-leafed tiaras, pendants which rested on the forehead (tilaka, modern tikka) and golden strings at the end of the locks, perhaps something like the ornament called talaraz in Kashmiri. Ladies also loved to wear a number of bracelets known as valaya or kataka, on each of the wrists which would make sound on moving. They wore small finger-rings of gold known as balika in root of the finger. But jingling girdles adoring the hips and tinkling anklets on the feet were a great craze. Strangely enough there is no reference to dejiht the ear ornament which identifies married Kashmiri ladies. Perhaps it came later.

Men also liked to wear ornaments of different designs. These included necklaces, earrings, wristlets, armlets, bracelets and finger-rings. Men of ordinary means wore ornaments of cheap materials like glass-beads and conchshells.

What is very interesting is that both men and women used unguents and cosmetics as beauty-aids. They applied various kinds of perfumed pastes known as angaraga and

vilepana on the face and the body to enhance their physical beauty. These were prepared from ingredients like saffron, sandalwood, camphor and andropogon. Men applied mustard on forehead and saffron pomade on beard. They painted their nails too, and perfumed their clothes with various kinds of powders.

Ladies of course were even more conscious about enhancing their bodily charms by using different cosmetics. They anointed their body with sandalwood and saffron pastes.

Using leaves soaked in musk to scent their cheeks, they applied collyrium in the eyes and reddened their feet and lips and, of course, nails, with lac dye (alaktaka). Women were also extremely fond of painting different designs and beauty Marks on their faces.

Ladies' coiffures were amazingly beautiful and elaborate. Three kinds of hairstyles were particularly popular among them, we learn from Damoadaragupta. These were veni, dhamilla and alkaavali. Veni was a long dangling braid decked with flowers. Dhamilla, explains Ajay Mitra Shastri, was a form of coiffure in which the hair was tied into a single big knot over the head and adorned with flowers.

Bilhana's refernce to it in 'Chaurapanchashika' shows that it was quite popular in Kashmir. Alaka-avali according to Shashri, "consisted of arrangements of hair in rows of spiral locks on the forehead".

Various modes of dressing the hair were prevalent among men also. Fashion-conscious men wore their hair long with coloured tassels attached to them. According to the Damodaragupta, kings and nobles braided their hair in several ways. Damadarguptawrites that affluent men arranged their hair with a long piece of cloth covering three fourths of the head and leave one fourth open. Men also decorated their hair with floral garlands.

Much of what has been said in literary works about the costumes and ornaments in vogure in early Kashmir is corroborated by sculptures and terractto figures of an earlier time. For instance, in one Harwan tile we see a lady carrying a flower vase. She is wearing a diaphanous robe and large ear-rings. On another tile a woman water carrier is shown wearing a Sari. On some tiles appear women wearing close fitting caps. Yet some other tiles depict men wearing trousers and loose fitting robes.

Dr S.C. Ray finds the influence of Central Asian dress on these representations, but this needs to be further investigated.

Several splendid terracotta figurines from Ushkur show women in beautiful coiffureswith their hair fixed with hairpins. Several busts show them wearing kanchukas and necklaces. Terracotta fragments showing girdles and finger rings have also been found from Ushkur.

Food & Drinks

Coming to food and drinks, it hardly needs to be stated that rice was the staple food of people in early Kashmir as it is now. Several preparations were made from rice which included boiled rice, rice sweetened with sugar, rice mixed with pulses (khichari), rice mixed with sugar and milk, rice cakes and dfried rice.

Barley, and not wheat, was the other important item of food Apupa and pishtaka (bread and cake) of barely were very much relished. A special festival was observed to celebrate the ripening of barley in the fields.

Pulses like mudga (moong), masura, kulatha and channa were widely consumed by the early people of Kashmir, we learn from literary sources. And of course, parpataka or papad made of pulses was taken as an appetiser. But perhaps the most popular items of the Kashmiri cuisine were meat and rice. This was found by Macro Polo in the 13th century also. Dishes were prepared from the meat of ram (mesha), fowl (kukkata) and other birds, literary sources tell us. Flesh of domesticated pigs also came to be consumed towards the end of the 11th century, according to Kalhana. Meat-soup was considered to be a tonic. Fish also was a popular item of the cuisine. Fish broth (matya supa) taken with onions and garlic was considered as strength-giving, as both Kshemendra and Kalhana mention.

Among vegetables, Kshemdra makes mention of lotus stalk or nadru as it is called in Kashmiri. It continues to be a favourite dish of the Kashmiris even today.

Common people consumed upalshaka (Kashmiri 'vopalhakh') and 'shand' (Kashmiri 'hand'). Fruit was grown abundantly in ancient Kashmir, as testified by Hsuan Tsang. He mentions pear, plum, apricot, peach and grapes as the principal fruits of the Valley. Kashmir perhaps grew an excellent variety of grapes, a fruit which was widely cultivated. Every Sanskrit writer of Kashmir, Kalhana and Abhinavagupta included, speak of it effusively.

Kshemdndra mentions walnuts also., which appeal to have been grown in Kashmir from early times. In a place abounding with fruit, fish andfowl, people are bound to develop a taste for rich food.

Honey was popularly consumed and used as a sweatener along with sugarcane. Among condiments, saffront of course was the king Black pepper (maricha), ginger (marichadraka) and aesfotida were among the spices used make food tastier.

Drinking of wine appears tohave been prevalent in early Kashmir, despite restrictions of the religious texts. Nilmata Purana, in fact, allows it on certain festivals as, for instance, the new snowfall day, Mahimana and iramanjaripujana.

It was prepared from grapes as well as sugarcane, which were distilled, cooled and scentled with flowers to make a delightful drink. Among nonalcoholic drinks, Kalhana mentions tuhyina sharkaram, a cold drink enjoyed during the summer. People of Kashmir seem to have been very fond of betel leaves, which were imported. There are numerous references to the habit of chewing betel-leaves with limein Damodargupta,Kshemendra and Kalhana's works.

These are many notions about the Kashmiri way of life, which a study of these literary sources shows to be wrong. For instance, it is widely believed that Kashmiris generally sleep on the ground, but we find Damodargupta and Kshemendra telling us for our information that canopied beds (vaitanikas), couches (paryanka), cots (shayya), bedsheets (astarana), bedding (shayana) and pillows (upadhana) were very much used in early Kashmir. They also mention the pada-pitha or the fool-stool on which ladies sat for doing their make-up.

Among other articles of furniture we come to known of the seat (asana, asanda) and thick cushions (vrisee) which were used for sitting upon. A kind of carpet known as patalika was spread as a floorcovering, besides the humble reed-mat.

Another fallacious notion, for which Alberuni was responsible, is that Kashmiris did not have any riding animals or carriages. "The Kashmiris are pedestrians.

The noble among them ride in palanquins called kull carried on the shoulders of men", writes the Arab scholar in his Kitab-ul-Hind. But this is totally erroneous. There are numerous references to horses, carriages and elephants in literary sources. From Hsuan Tsang's travelogue, for instance, we come to know that the 7th century Chinese traveller was received during his visit to Kashmir in 631 AD by King Durlabhavardhana's

maternal uncle who had come with horse and carriage to escort him to the capital.

Incidentally Durlabhavardhana himself was an official in charge of the fodder for horses (ashva-ghasakayastha).

King Ananta, as Kalhana tell us, was so fond of horses that he was exploited by his horse trainers during the early years of his reign. And then, of course, there are several references to mounted troops in his chronicle and a reference to the stables of elephants too which indicates that the elephant was used as aristocratic conveyance in Kashmir.

Belief System

Having discussed how society was structured in early Kashmir and what were the mores and manners that characterized social life, let us have a glance at the belief systems that prevailed during the period and inspired and guided the people. As we have indicated already, the early Kashmir society derived its attitude to life and approach to reality from a sense of harmony with nature. This gave rise to a spiritual and cultural climate in which different religious faiths flourished side by side without any antagonism. Thus, even before history was recorded, we find the religious fabric of Kashmiri life woven out of mature strands of Buddhist, Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions with patterns of other heterogeneous modes of worship like that of the Naga cult revealing themselves on the margins. Not only did these different forms of worship co-exists peacefully, they also influenced each other through a process of osmosis of concepts and ideas. In the age of Nilamata, for instance, we notice popular Naga deities like Nila, Ananta (Shesha), Takshaka, Sushruvas etc. entering the Hindu pantheon.

We also see Buddhist deities like Avalokiteshvara and Tara assume qualities and attributes of Hindu gods like Shiva and Durga. At a later stage, the Buddhist term of shunyata entered the lexicon of Kashmir Shaivism, though with a different interpretation.

In the same manner, the Shaiva concept of universal consciousness provided the basis for the concept of reality in the Buddhsit school of Yogachara.

Buddhism in Kashmir

Buddhism is said to have come to Kashmir in the 3rd century B.C. when Emperor Ashoka included it in his empire and sent his emissary Majjhantika to spread the Dhamma. We learn from the Mahavamsha and Ashokavadana that he had to contend with the local Nagas and their king Aravala, and only after convincing them of his superior spiritual powers was he able to win them over to the Buddhist way of life" Buddhism supplanted the Naga cult, but there is enough evidence to show that its vestiges continued to survive long after that. In Kashmiri language the very name 'nag' came to denote 'a spring'. Both Kshemendra and Kalhana described a popular festival of their times, the Takshaka Yatra, in which crowds of singing and dancing people joyfully participated.

Buddhism itself changed its entire complexion in Kashmir when Kanishka chose it as the venue for his Fourth Buddhist Cuoncil to "revise, review and reinterpret" the Buddhist texts so that the purity of its canon could be preserved. It was a monumental event at which 18 different sects accepted the conclusion of the Council, leading to the emergence of the Mahayana school. It was an altruistic doctrine with its emphasis on idealism, disinterested love, relief of the suffering of others and salvation for every living being.

Mahayana deified Buddha and the concept of the divine Bodhisattvas came into being together with an entirely new pantheon of gods and goddesses. This had a tremendous appeal for the common people. Soon Kashmir became and important centre of the school, providing intellectual inputs to sustain it and sending missionaries and scholars from its soil to different lands for its propagation. Kashmir had its married Bhikshus long before other places in the country.

However, it was in the 9th century that Buddhism started loosing ground to Shaivism and Vaishnavism, yet it continued to occupy an important position right up to the advent of Islam.

King after king and queen after queen kept providing liberal patronage to it by building viharas and stupas. And at a time when the barbaric hordes of Mahmud Ghazni were putting thousands to the sword, Kashmiri artists were painting murals in Western Tibet.

Shaivism & Vashnavism in Kashmir

Despite their reverence for Buddha, Karkota rulers of Kashmir were worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu. So were the rulers of the Utpala dynasty, who were ardent followers of Vaishnavism. With Buddhism receding to the background, Shaivism and Vaishnavism gained dominant position along with the worship of other Hindu gods. Festivals and rituals connected with them gained more popularity, impacting social life in many ways including a renaissance in art and architecture. Shiva, however, was a popular deity from a very remote period.

According to Kalhana, Ashoka worshipped Shiva at an existing ancient temple Shiva Vijayesha, when he came to Kashmir. He built two temples Shiva Ashokeshwara and Shiva Bhutesha dedicated to Shiva. Ashoka's son Jalauka is said to have been a staunch Shaiva by faith. The Pashupata system of dualistic Shaivism was most popular in early Kashmir, but soon numerous Shaiva sects, having their basis in Agamic Shaivism, came to flourish.

Among these the Kaula, Krama and Trika schools integrated themselves into Kashmir Shaivism, acquiring monistic undertones, eventually leading to a new non-dualistic school founded by the sage Vasugupta.

The new school interiorised the Agamic rituals and interpreted non-dualistic doctrines in accordance with its own monistic framework. The core concept of Kashmir Shaivism is that the Supreme Reality is one pure and indivisible consciouness which manifests itself as the world and the phenomena. It is all-inclusive as nothing exists apart from it.

Recognition of one's identity as Shiva or universal consciousness is, according to Kashmir Shaivism, the ultimate experience of enlightenment. As it is the universal self of whih all things, animate and inanimate, are a manifestation, Shaivism regards the world as real and celebrates the joy of creation. This has implications at the societal level also, with Shaivism rejecting all differences of caste, creed or sex and allowing one and all to be initiated into it. The Shaivas maintain that Shiva manifests himself as the universe through his Cosmic Energy Shakti, who is inseperable from him. At the temporal level, these two cosmic principles, one transcendental and the other immanent, are represented by the male and female principal.

As Shaivas consider all females as manifestation of Shakti, they regard woman as equal to man so far as her social position is concerned. Even today in a Kashmiri Pandit marriage the bridegroom and the bride are worshipped as Shiva and Shakti.

In fact, Shaktism, which found expression in the mother goddess cults, also became very popular in early Kashmir and is so even today. Considering God as a woman is something unique that Tantric vision of reality has contributed to religious thought. Intense devotion to the goddesses Sharika, Ragya, Tripura and Jwala as different forms of Jagadamba or the mother of the Universe, is an integral part of Kashmiri Hindus' religious life. The Shaktas regard ultimate reality as feminine in essence, as we have pointed out earlier, and this is a factor that has contributed to reverence for women in the Kashmiri Hindu society. Being Mother, she is kind and benevolent and grants all wishes of the devotees even as she upholds the cosmic order and destroys the demons, they hold.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel



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