Journey through the Kashmir of 1780s through George Forster’s travelogue

Ajaz Baba

Little is known of George Forster’s life. He is said to have been born around 1750 though his exact date of birth is nowhere on record. From his book ‘A Journey from Bengal to England through the northern part of India, Kashmire, Afghanistan, and Persia, and into Russia by the Caspian Sea’ published in 1798 we come to know Forster as a lively and observant person who gave detailed accounts of people and the places he visited during the course of his travels. He was a civil servant in the employ of ‘The Honorable The East-India Company’ who lived in Madras for 20 years and then decided to embark on a journey from India to England via Kashmir, Afghanistan and Russia. Most of this journey was undertaken on foot or at times on horseback.  As one can very well imagine, travel during those days must not only have been arduous but risky as well. Forster did not want to risk his life by revealing his identity and faith, so taking his white skin into consideration he disguised as a Turkish businessman. Forster relates some rather amusing situations that he faced at times which could have easily blown his cover but for his ready wit. Since he was in the habit of noting down his observations, queries were raised once by a Kashmiri gentleman sitting near to him as to why he was writing from left to right. The Kashmiri having served on board an English ship must have had some knowledge of the roman script. However, an unfazed Forster retorted that Turkish was also written from left to right (which is true as of now but was contrary to the prevalent practice at that time). On another occasion, his habit of urinating while standing up rather than squatting was remarked upon as being contrary to the habits of the adherents of the Islamic faith. The intrepid traveler countered this with a clever excuse. He told the people who objected to this that having spent a lot of time among soldiers who peed standing as a strategy to be alert to possible danger, he had also got into the habit. Forster embarked on his journey in 1782 and finally reached England in July 1785. He later returned to India and died in Nagpur in 1792 while on an embassy to the Marathas.

Forster leaves from Jammu towards Kashmir on 17 April 1783 and travelling mostly by foot he gives us vivid ‘sketches of this beautiful country, which, in the language of Persia, is called Kachmire be Nazeer. The road from Veere Naug leads through a country, exhibiting that store of luxuriant imagery, which is produced by a happy disposition of hill, dale, wood, and water; and that these rare excellencies of nature might be displayed in their full glory, it was the season of spring, when the trees, the apple, pear, the peach, apricot, the cherry and mulberry, bore a variegated load of blossom. The clusters, also, of the red and white rose, with an infinite class of flowering shrubs, presented a view so gaily decked, that no extraordinary warmth of imagination was required, to fancy that I stood, at least, on a province of fairy land.’ 

Kashmiri people literally brought this misery upon themselves by inviting Afghans to rule over them. It seems that the people of Kashmir, or at least their leaders, have always had a proclivity for disastrous alliances

Forster reaches Pamper (Pampore) on 7 May 1783 from where he goes by boat to the city of Siringnaghur (Srinagar). ‘The city which in the ancient annals of India was known by the name of Siringnaghur, but now by that of the province at large, extends about three miles on each side of the river Jalum (Jhelum), over which are four or five bridges, and occupies in some part of its breadth, which is irregular, about two miles. The houses, many of them two or three stories high, are slightly built of brick and mortar, with a large intermixture of timber. On a standing roof of wood is laid a covering of fine earth, which shelters the building from the great quantity of snow that falls in the winter season. This fence communicates an equal warmth in summer, as a refreshing coolness in the summer season, when the tops of the houses, which are planted with a variety of flowers, exhibit at a distance the spacious view of a beautifully chequered parterre. The streets are narrow and choked with the filth of the inhabitants, who are proverbially unclean.’

When Forster arrives in Kashmir it is 30 years since the Afghans wrested the control of this land from the Mughals. The Afghan chieftain Ahmed Shah Abdali camping at Lahore after a victorious campaign in India was approached by two influential leaders of Kashmir Mir Muqim Kanth and Khaja Zahir Didamari. Apparently disgusted by the anarchy consequent upon the crumbling of the Mughal Empire, they invited him to invade Kashmir. Abdali gladly obliged, sending a strong force in 1753 under Abdullah Khan Ishq Akasi to conquer the territory. Little did the Kashmiris know that the Afghans whom they invited to rule over them were not a refined race like the Mughals. The Afghan rule proved to be one of extreme tyranny and cruelty and the beauty of this land and the nobility of its people has been brutally ravaged by the Afghans. Forster records this tyranny. ‘Azad Khan, the present governor of Kashmir, of the afghan tribe, succeeded his father Hadji Kareem Dad, a domestic officer of Ahmed Shah Duranny, and who was, at the death of that prince, advanced to the government of Kashmire, by Timur Shah (son and successor of Ahmed Shah Abdali), as a reward for quelling the rebellion of Amir Khan… though the Kashmirians exclaim with bitterness at the administration of Hadji Karam Dad, who was notorious for his wanton cruelities and insatiable avarice; often for trivial offences, throwing the inhabitants, tied by the back in pairs, into the rivers, plundering their property, and forcing their women of every description; yet they say he was a systematical tyrant, and attained his purposes, however atrocious, through a fixed medium. They hold a different language in speaking of the son, whom they denominate the Zualim Khan, a Persic phrase which expresses a tyrant without discernment: and if the smaller charges against him are true, the appellation is fitly bestowed.’

Indeed the 18-year-old tyrant seems to be a ruthless psychopath as evidenced by his wanton acts of cruelty. Forster gives a clear picture of Azad Khan’s wantonness. ‘While he was passing with his court, under one of the wooden bridges of the city, on which a crowd of people had assembled to observe the procession, he leveled his musket at an opening which he saw in the path way, and being an expert marksman, he shot to death an unfortunate spectator.’  No wonder then that the governor evokes fear among his subjects.  ‘Azad Khan had, in the three months of government, become an object of such terror to the Kashmirians, that the casual mention of his name produced an instant horror and an involuntary supplication of the aid of their prophet.’

Forster did not want to risk his life by revealing his identity and faith, so disguised as a Turkish businessman. He relates some rather amusing situations that he faced at times which could have easily blown his cover but for his ready wit

The depredations of the Afghans are very much evident all around. The beautiful gardens laid out by the Mughals and the monuments erected by them are in shambles.  ‘…the Afghans who possessing neither the genius of the Moguls, have suffered its elegant structures to crumble into ruins…’ Commerce too has collapsed under this rapacious rule. The people of Kashmir used to manufacture good quality writing paper and lacquer-ware but their fame rested mainly on the manufacture of shawls which are characterized by beautiful embroidery but ‘the heavy oppressions of the government, and the rapacious temper of the bordering states… have reduced the commerce of Kashmire to a declining and languid sate. In proof of this position, the Kashmirians say, that during their subjection to the Mughal dominion, the province contained forty thousand shaul looms, and that at this day, there are not sixteen thousand.’

Notwithstanding their penurious state, the cruel Afghans exact a very high tax from the inhabitants of this land which has impoverished the lot of the local population.  ‘In the reign of Aurungzebe, when the revenue of the different portions of the empire exceeded that of the present day, the sum collected in Kashmire amounted to three and a half lacks of rupees; but at this time, not less than twenty lacks are extracted by the governor, who, if his tribute be regularly remitted to the court, is allowed to execute with impunity every act of violence.’ 

Forster is a witness to the miseries that the people of Kashmir suffer at the hands of their brutal rulers but the character and behavior of Kashmiri people creates such a negative impression in his mind that he goes to the extent of saying that they deserve their miseries.  ‘During my residence in Kashmire, I often witnessed the harsh treatment which the common people received at the hands of their masters…Though the inhabitants of this province are held under a grievous subjection, and endure evils the most mortifying to human nature, being equally oppressed and insulted, the various testimonies brought home to me of their common depravity of disposition, made me less sensible of their distress; and in a short time, so faint was the trace of it on my mind, that I even judged them worthy of their adverse fortune… I never knew a national body of men more impregnated with the principles of vice, than the natives of Kashmire. The character of a Kashmirian is conspicuously seen, when invested with official power… He becomes intent on immediate aggrandizement, without rejecting any instrument which can promote his purpose. Rapacious and arrogant, he evinces in all his actions, deceit, treachery, and that species of refined cruelty, which usually actuates the conduct of a coward.’ 

George Forster’s A Journey from Bengal to England…  is a fairly accurate record of the circumstances in Kashmir in the 1780s and serves as an eyewitness account of the brutal Afghan rule in this place. Perhaps it also gives us some insight as to why the people of Kashmir have suffered centuries of tyranny. It is interesting to note that the Kashmiri people literally brought this misery upon themselves by inviting the Afghans to rule over them. Alas, it seems that the people of Kashmir – or at least their leaders – have always had a proclivity for disastrous alliances!

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