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A Garden of Many Secrets

Many Secrets Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of Its People, Places, and Crafts by Brigid Keenan; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006 (first published 1989); pp ix + 226, Rs 350 (paperback).

A Garden of Many Secrets

Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of Its People, Places, and Crafts

by Brigid Keenan; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006 (first published 1989); pp ix + 226, Rs 350 (paperback).


ver the centuries, Kashmir has been many things to many people: for some a homeland like no other, for others a place where religions interacted harmoniously to produce an exceptional culture, and more recently of course a battleground for conflicting religious and political ideologies, but a recurrent theme in representations of Kashmir, particularly by non-Kashmiris, has been as a travel and tourist destination par excellence. Brigid Keenan’s book, Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of Its People, Places, and Crafts, gives us some sense, perhaps inadvertently, of the process through which Kashmir acquired that reputation. Working mainly with 19th century travel writings of European – in particular British – men and some women, she paints a lively and often humorous picture of the vagaries of their peregrinations through the valley. In the process, she illustrates the ways in which these individuals are to a great extent responsible for cementing ideas about Kashmir – such as its breathtaking landscapes, its dishonest yet ingenious people, and of course their handicrafts – in the popular imagination, which make it worthy of at least a visit in one’s lifetime. This is evident from the fact that the author herself, a contemporary traveller to Kashmir, echoes these ideas, uncritically accepting them as historical or anthropological facts about Kashmir.

Travels in Kashmir is a curious entity, not quite a travelogue, certainly not a history, popular, informal, or otherwise. It could more appropriately be termed a travel guide from the 17th century to the present peppered with historical anecdotes for travellers to Kashmir interested in its past, but not to the extent of wanting their vacations ruined by a nuanced understanding of its complicated, often contested, history. In some ways, this makes the book perfect reading for a contemporary traveller to the valley.

Keenan begins the book with a 68-page quick review of Kashmir’s past, which she titles “an informal history”. This informal history takes the reader through an oftrepeated narrative, beginning with the legend of Kashmir’s emergence from a lake, as outlined in the Rajatarangini, through its celebration as a paradise on earth by Mughal rulers, to the tyrannical rule of Afghans and Sikhs, to the creation of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846 and its entrance into the ambit of British Indian politics under Dogra rulers, and finally its emergence as a disputed region between India and Pakistan. That Keenan devotes a mere three pages to the events surrounding Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 and its problematic past since that decade says something about her intent to steer clear of the contested aspects of Kashmir’s history. In fact, Kashmir’s (his)story is told entirely through anecdotes, albeit very interesting ones, of travellers’ interactions with Kashmir, in particular its landscape, both natural and architectural, clearly with the intention of pointing out the origins of key Kashmiri landmarks and the changes wrought on them over the years. As they make their way from the Mughal gardens to the Char Chinar to Tangmarg, Keenan wants contemporary travellers to commune with the ghosts of travellers past.

Continuing the Imperial Tale

Not uncharacteristically, since this is ultimately a travel guide, and an imperial one at that, travellers abound, but the people of Kashmir are absent from the narrative beyond making an appearance as either adjuncts to the travel industry – as cooks, bearers, waiters, houseboat owners, and craft sellers – or as benighted souls in need of western medicine and education. This partial presence is particularly apparent in the book’s second and third chapters, which recount European travel adventures in the valley and record the observations of those who spent a significant amount of time in Kashmir, usually as missionary doctors or teachers. Whether she is describing Francois Bernier’s observations of Kashmir in 17th century or the observations of William Moorcroft in the early 19th, Keenan accepts their descriptions without question. In fact, she provides little context for these writings, in particular the obviously imperial context in which they were produced, presenting instead the writers, especially the women, as intrepid explorers who set out to not only explore this distant and often perilous land, but also bring to it the light of western civilisation.

For instance, in discussing the stay of the female missionary Irene Petrie in Srinagar, Keenan describes her attempts at reading to Kashmiri women: “Shut away in their airless room, bored and very often sickly, these women looked forward to Miss Petrie’s visits and crowded around her…Once or twice Miss Petrie was overcome by the stuffiness and smells and fainted clean away, but the only complaint she was ever heard to murmur was, ‘Oh my dear Kashmiri

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

women, why don’t you wash?’”(p 137). Or, in discussing the work of Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe, another missionary in Kashmir, she writes, “Biscoe found these youths so arrogant, selfish, dishonest and idle that he could not bring himself to refer to them as men but called them ‘bipeds’, and for more than half a century, he threw himself into the task of transforming his bipeds into men” (p 141). Since there are no references in the text, one can only assume that these words are taken from Petrie and Tyndale Biscoe’s writings, but more importantly, since Keenan does not question these conclusions, or even draw on historical writing on Kashmir that would put them in some context (the most recent book in the bibliography, from 1982, is about lacquerwork in Asia; no historical scholarship on Kashmir, recent or otherwise, is included), it is difficult to distinguish between her words and those of late 19th century imperialist missionaries. The book, then, reads as a curious late 20th century extension or equivalent of 19th century imperial travel writing.

The last chapter of the book outlines the changing fortunes of Kashmiri arts and crafts, but it too relies almost exclusively on late 19th and early 20th century European accounts. This is also the chapter where Kashmiris make an appearance, albeit almost always as oppressed craftsmen practising beautiful craftsmanship in dingy surroundings. Keenan details the rise and development of the papier mache and shawl industries and their popularity in south Asia, Persia, and the west, and the deleterious effect of tourism on the practice of these crafts. She ends with a call for a new appreciation for the beauty of Kashmiri crafts to prevent their slide into decline and eventual disappearance “as a result of the meanness and mediocre taste of our own affluent society” (p 211). Here again, she echoes the 19th century colonial official, George Birdwood, who spent his career militating against cheap middle class taste by attempting to restore Indian handicrafts to their original purity. There is no attempt here to place the rise and fall and rise again in the fortunes


of Kashmiri crafts in the context of the imperial capitalist economy, the emergence of a middle class consumer culture in 19th century Europe and India, or the economic imperatives of the post-colonial Indian state in marketing hand-crafted wares to the west.

But perhaps this is too much to expect from a travel guide, and Travels in Kashmir makes a competent and more than usually interesting one. However, despite the author’s claim that she is not an historian, the book does title itself a history and presents a history in its pages, which places an onus on the author to not simply use historical sources, but to also interrogate them. Interestingly, it is precisely this lack of interrogation that gives us an insight into the origins of the idea of Kashmir as a “garden of so many secrets” (p 11) that calls out to be explored by the adventurer within us, an idea that continues to thrive in the south Asian and western popular imaginations.



Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

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