Book Review: An illustrated and illustrative account of Kashmir

Book Review: An illustrated and illustrative account of Kashmir

By Ajaz Baba

A visit to Kashmir at the turn of the 19th century along with ‘The last imperial adventurer’ and an ‘Artist Major of the (British) Indian army’

At the turn of the 19th century, a British major who happened to be a painter persuaded his comrade-in-arms and a fellow countryman to add descriptions and detail to his collection of paintings and sketches of Kashmir. Little is known of Major Edward Mary Joseph Molyneux’s stay in Kashmir except for his delightful sketches and paintings in which he vividly captured the scenic beauty of this place. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband was a British army officer, explorer and a writer who wrote 26 books on topics ranging from travel, adventure and British foreign policy to spirituality. He visited Kashmir for the first time in the autumn of 1887 and after extensive travels in Asia he settled in Kashmir as the British representative in 1906.

A view of Srinagar market. Paintings by Edward Molyneux who was commissioned by Sir Frances Younghusband to illustrate his book “Kashmir”

Just like Bernier whose eulogising words he quotes at the beginning of the book, Younghusband is enamoured of the beauty of the Kashmir Valley. ‘The country with which one is most apt to compare it is, naturally, Switzerland. And Switzerland, indeed, has many charms, and a combination of lake and mountain in which, I think, it excels Kashmir. But it is built on a smaller scale. There is not the same wide sweep of snow-clad mountains. There is no place where one can see a complete circle of snowy mountains surrounding a plain of anything like the length and breadth of the Kashmir valley, for the main valleys of Switzerland are like the side valleys of Kashmir… Again, when at length Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, was reached, and I was back in my much-loved garden, still other signs of spring’s arrival were evident. Violets, pansies, wallflowers, narcissus, crocuses, and daisies were out. A few green blades were showing through the brown grass. Rose leaf-buds were bursting. In one garden near a few apricot blossoms had actually bloomed. And the whole garden was filled with the spring song of the birds lightly turning to thoughts of love thrushes, minas, sparrows, blue-tits, hoopoes, starlings; bold, familiar crows, and, most delightful of them all, the charming little bulbuls with their coquettish top-knots…’

The native population evoked mixed feelings in Younghusband. He admits that the Kashmiri race is handsome and intelligent and enterprising, but he is not as charitable when describing their character. ‘Good as is their physique, the Kashmiris are, however, for some quite unaccountable reason lamentably lacking in personal courage. A Kashmiri soldier is almost a contradiction in terms. There is not such a thing. They will patiently endure and suffer, but they will not fight.’

The nineteenth century was witness to a political and diplomatic confrontation between the two major imperial powers of the time, Great Britain and Russia. Both Great Britain and Russia had expansionist designs in Asia and consequently were wary of each other’s plans. This stand-off came to be known as the ‘Great Game’ and it started in 1830 with the British gambit of establishing a new trade route to Bukhara the ultimate intention being the annexation of Afghanistan and the creation of a buffer zone which would protect the British dominions and sea routes from Russian incursions. The ‘Great Game’ lasted till the 1907 signing of the Anglo-Russian treaty. With the ‘Great Game’ as the background it can be easily deduced that most of the activities in this region, even if apparently innocuous had political overtones.

There seems to be little doubt that Younghusband was an active player in the ‘Great Game’. Though Kashmir is a slim volume which devotes most of its pages to the description of various scenic places in the Valley, which is expected since it was written as an accompaniment to Molyneux’s paintings, reading the book gives an insight into the various political developments in the region which followed subsequently. One can get a glimpse into how the unfolding of events in this Valley has always been influenced by major players in world politics. Younghusband solves the conundrum as to why the British handed over the territory of Kashmir to Gulab Singh instead of annexing it themselves. ‘Surprise has often been expressed that when this lovely land had actually been ceded us, after a hard and strenuous campaign, we should ever have parted with it for the paltry sum of three-quarters of a million sterling. The reasons are to be found in a letter from Sir Henry Hardinge to the Queen, published in The Letters of Queen Victoria. The Governor-General, writing from the neighbourhood of Lahore on 18th of February 1846 that is nearly three weeks before the treaty of Lahore was actually signed says it appeared to him desirable “to weaken the Sikh State, which has proved itself too strong and to show to all Asia that although the British Government has not deemed it expedient to annex this immense country of the Punjab, making the Indus the British boundary, it has punished the treachery and violence of the Sikh nation, and exhibited its powers in a manner which cannot be misunderstood.” “ For the same political and military reason,” Sir Henry Hardinge continues, “the Governor-General hopes to be able before the negotiations are closed to make arrangements by which Cashmere may be added to the possessions of Golab Singh, declaring the Rajput Hill States with Cashmere independent of the Sikhs of the Plains.” This was the reason we did not annex Kashmir… In 1846 the East India Company had no thoughts or inclinations whatever to extend their possessions. All they wished was to curb their powerful and aggressive neighbours, and they thought they would best do this, and at the same time reward a man who had shown his favourable disposition towards them, by depriving the Sikhs of the hilly country, and by handing it over to a ruler of a different race.’

The stated ‘favourable disposition’ of the Dogra chieftain brings about another insight. There are efforts nowadays to paint the erstwhile Dogra monarchs as heroes and nationalists as opposed to the native population of Kashmir but the fact is that Gulab Singh and his progeny were collaborators of the British and time and again allied with them to crush any uprising or resistance against British imperialism thereby helping to consolidate British rule in India. ‘Ranbir Singh, who rendered valuable services to Government during the Mutiny, and received, in recognition, the right to adopt from collateral branches an heir to the succession on the failure of heirs-male of Gulab Singh on whom alone the country had been conferred by the British.’ This was a significant concession being a departure from the British annexation policy of the ‘doctrine of lapse’ by exercise of which any vassal state under British paramountcy was automatically annexed if the ruler died without a male heir. The Maharajah of Kashmir obtained a reprieve from this doctrine by helping the British to crush the Indian mutiny in 1857.

Spring in Kashmir












Younghusband’s stay in Kashmir coincided with the rule of Maharajah Pratap Singh, whom he describes as a benevolent and popular ruler as compared to his predecessors. He notes that as compared to the rule of Gulab Singh his son and successor Ranbir Singh had instituted some improvements in Kashmir but admits these to have been grossly inadequate. ‘Even the new assessment of the land revenue was three times as heavy as that of the amount demanded in British districts in the Punjab. And there was still much waste land which the people were unwilling to put under cultivation, because under the existing system of land revenue administration they could not be sure that they would ever receive the results of their labour… In matters of trade there were, too, still the impediments of former days. Upon every branch of commerce there was a multiplicity and weight of exactions. No product was too insignificant, and no person too poor to contribute to the State.’

Kashmir was afflicted by a famine during 1877-1879 which decimated the native population by nearly half.  There was heavy rainfall during autumn which continued into the winter and destroyed the standing crops including maize and rice which are the staple diet of the people. Younghusband blames the callous administration and the rapacious tax collection system for this famine. ‘In the autumn of 1877 unusual rain fell, and owing to the system of collecting the revenue in kind and dilatoriness in collection, the crop was allowed to remain in the open on the ground, and then it rotted till half of it was lost…These were the causes of the scarcity of food supply; and when this calamity, which nowadays could be confidently met, fell upon the country, it was found that people had nothing in reserve to fall back on; that the administrative machine was incapable of meeting the excessive strain; that even the will to meet it was wanting; and that corruption and obstruction impeded all measures of relief, and even forbade the starving inhabitants migrating to parts where food could be had. In addition, the communications were so bad that the food, so plentiful in the neighbouring province, could be imported only with the greatest difficulty.’

Younghusband is all praise for Pratap Singh and in fact dedicates his book to him. He details the land settlement undertaken by Walter Lawrence at the behest of the Maharajah which for the first time attempted to rationalise the collection of taxes. ‘The present ruler, who succeeded his father in 1885, is Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh, G.C.S.I., a major-general in the British Army, and a Chief of strong religious tendencies, who is much respected in India and loved by his own people… It has been during the twenty-three years of the present Maharaja’s reign that the most real progress has been made. First and foremost the land revenue has been properly assessed; it has been fixed in cash for a definite number of years, and the share claimed by the State has been greatly reduced. Then a first-rate cart-road up the Jhelum valley has been made. The heavy taxes on trade have been reduced. A well-trained set of officials have been introduced, and they have been well paid. Increased, though not yet nearly sufficient attention has been paid to education.’

The native population evoked mixed feelings in Younghusband. He admits that the Kashmiri race is handsome and intelligent and enterprising, but he is not as charitable when describing their character. ‘Good as is their physique, the Kashmiris are, however, for some quite unaccountable reason lamentably lacking in personal courage. A Kashmiri soldier is almost a contradiction in terms. There is not such a thing. They will patiently endure and suffer, but they will not fight. And they are very careful of the truth. As an American once said to me, they set such value on the truth that they very seldom use it… Their good points are, that they are intelligent and can turn their hands to most things. They are, says Lawrence, excellent cultivators when they are working for themselves. A Kashmiri can weave good woollen cloth, make first-rate baskets, build himself a house, make his own sandals, his own ropes, and a good bargain. He is kind to his wife and children, and divorce scandals or immorality among villagers are rarely heard of.’

The residency and club












It needs to be understood that these travelers or representatives from the West were invariably guests of the rulers who extended generous hospitality towards them. Of course, the interests of their own country were always paramount for them but if the same were not in conflict with the reigning monarchs they tended to view them as favorable allies and it is natural that their opinions about the local population would be coloured by this close association with the rulers. Nevertheless, Younghusband does remark that the local population was under-represented in the administration of the region. ‘What is chiefly remarkable is the very small number of Kashmiris who are employed. Though the majority of the inhabitants are Mohamedans, very few Mohamedans are employed in high positions. Though the Kashmiris are very intelligent, extremely few have posts in the State service.’

While Sir Francis Younghusband’s Kashmir has preserved a slice of history of this troubled, land the illustrations by Edward Molynuex delight one with scenes of the innocence and beauty of a bygone era. Molyneux the painter died in 1913. Younghusband died in 1942 in England. The book Kashmir was published in 1909.

This book review appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s April issue. To subscribe to Narrator’s print edition, please mail here: [email protected]

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    By: Ajaz Baba

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