Invitation to Gurez

Do we ever ask why God-chosen-Mecca happens to be such a “desolate”  hilly landscape and why stay in Arafat and Mina under the naked sky is such a challenging and liberating one? Why should one of the greatest scenes – the storm scene – in arguably the greatest play King Lear that unfolds Lear’s redemption be about encounter with nothingness and disowning civilization’s artificialities?  Why is that mountains are treasured symbols of spirit and mountaineering a mantra/wazeefa and pastoralism/sheep-goat rearing in mountains treasured spiritual experiment/experience? Why do religious and spiritual traditions propose periodical retreats for their adherents?  Why we should opt for culture over civilization is we are forced to choose only one? Art and religion – the manifestations of what is called culture – are treasured means of giving meaning to lives  against science fostering civilization that gives only comfort.

If our task is to live and live well and live on our own terms and in greater harmony with cosmic rhythms and keep the corrupting influence of civilizational project at bay, we may consider living in far flung mountainous areas for some time. It would constitute a true spiritual retreat and one may experience beauty and  purification for which shrines/monasteries are well known. For a student of cultures and world’s spiritual traditions (that in fact hold a key to our psycho-spiritual health) spaces like Gurez are providential  exits from the aridity of city life. If we really cared about higher things in life that science or civilization can’t buy we would consider living in Gurez for extended period of time and not just visiting it like tourists. One is invited to sacred landscapes to heal, to rise high above the fret and fever of life of cities and markets. If we want to travel backwards in time – if only to remind ourselves about the cost of progress and address of our great ancestors who lived healthier and more meaningful lives – consider visiting Gurez where people live without any need to buy anything from market and are healthier, more contended and have far greater score on Happiness Index than  denizens of cities or towns of Kashmir.

Let us guard against romanticizing filth, diseases, overpopulation, lack of privacy, illiteracy, superstition and failure of individual growth which one can also find in plenty in isolated less accessible spaces like Gurez. The question is how we preserve the best of traditional cultures without allowing the pathologies to encroach. Here is where thinking is needed as against unthinking ideology of development that has brought irredeemable evils along with it.   The idea of development has been a mixed blessing and has been imposed from above resulting in “submerging culture,” and emasculating people’s sense of being themselves – proud Gurezis who have inherited Aryan values and various streams of world’s religions and embody some of the treasured virtues of spiritual humanitarianism.

The fact that we can consent to drown Gurez in the developmental projects, watch precious wildlife and biodiversity getting lost, pass by as a great legacy of culture and language (Dardistan and Shina) face oblivion and see people selling their souls to petty gains of the market – jobs/amenities/perks shows – we are spiritual dwarfs.

Gurez, arguably  “the most beautiful of Kashmir’s Margs,” and “hub and a vital link between towns such as Kashgar and Gilgit in the north and Srinagar and Kargil in the south”  from which “renowned potatoes would be taken to Skardu on a day’s march from Chorwan,” is now waging its battle for survival. At stake are language, culture, and the last remnants of Dard Shin people and certain priceless archeological treasures – “hundreds of inscriptions in Kharoshthi, Brahmi, Hebrew, and Tibetan that provide insights into the origins of the Kashmiri people and the early history of Buddhism”.

A Kashmiri may visit Gurez to experience virgin nature or wilderness that has increasingly been exiled from Kashmir and its tourist spots due to maldevelopment of tourism, to see how big dams threaten everything we treasure – ecology, lives and livelihoods, cultures and histories –, to see what Kashmir conflict means to generations of separated families, to understand how razor fencing of pastures may or mayn’t prevent across the border movement but does prevent development of livestock sector and obstruct livelihoods of farmers, to understand better the tragedy of Kashmir – its exile from homeland or separation from the beloved/mother – as symbolized in the story of Habba Khatoon  who is believed to hover around even today in the mountain named after her longing and wailing for her husband and see, first hand, the legacy of  partition that required dividing the child into half to appease warring mothers as none of them  willing to let go her claim. Gurez has been pushed into a life of “isolation, and, to a certain extent, oblivion, tucked away in a corner of India that they are unfamiliar with.”

We could have used the best of modern science to help people overwinter in a spirit of celebration and better experience the abundant grace that descends in the form of snow. I  wish every Kashmiri read anthology of verses on snow (Jalaen Aateshkadaey) compiled/translated by Manzoorul Amin during winters and thank God for tons and tons of snow. One needs to be a poet and have a keen eye for the aesthetics of snow to appreciate why for traditional people like Gurezis the snow wasn’t a curse that was to be cleared by snow clearing machines but special Heaven sent gift that called forth gratitude and joy. Six month lull may be experienced as an extended Sabbath by workholics and this would cure ten thousand ailments resulting from our inability to repose – a semblance of eternity – or failure to enjoy long leaves from work and return kisses from God in the form of snow flakes.    It is one’s good fortune that one lives in or near Gurez  for which God be praised. Our failure to love snow and embrace more traditional or natural life style wedded to longish retreat from humdrum of life shows sickness of soul. In a way Kashmir needs to cultivate Gurez like spaces and not vice versa.

What makes Gurez more valuable to Kashmir experiencing transition to modernity is regard for traditional architectural heritage and climatic requirements in home design. Wood based housing needs to be appropriated and not replaced by concrete. This especially applies to livestock housing and other associated infrastructure. The wood-log houses plastered with mud are known to help overwinter where temperatures drop as low as -40ºC.Thre fact that women are primary caregivers/workers in Gurez calls for anthropological studies.

We, the dwellers of cities and towns/modern villages are living in exile; we have little idea of the treasures and glory we have inherited and keep losing. Gurez is losing the tradition of hospitality that construes Guest as God and not a customer. Gurez is not yet fully consenting to sell its soul to market.

Though much has already been lost and much is fast losing before our very eyes, a few points and observations on the economy and culture of the region that should bother authorities if they want to salvage something valuable and plan less destructive modes of development of the region.

Many traditional industries like manufacturing woollen pherans/caps could be boosted if government or employees associations choose to encourage the sector by consenting to buy at least one locally made item once in life for personal use or gifting at the time of special functions including retirement and promotions. Market ideology generally outcompetes traditional art/beauty centric products and as such communities need special interventions to patronize such arts and crafts.

A few observations on livestock resources are in order. Though it has been noted that the name by which the people of Gurez call their valley is “go-hara‟ (cow pasture), not Gurez, its significance has generally been missed. Gurez had ample resources to support cattle and sheep in large numbers and  traditionally its people “used to sell their milk, meat and wool in plains of Kashmir and purchase grains with the money thus earned.” In fact animals have been driving their economy. Almost every family, till recent times, has been rearing some livestock, especially sheep. Although extended harsh winter is a veritable punishment for many, especially visitor type and comfort addicted mindset, for some locals,  if they have “grass for the animals, wood for fire and potatoes for food, they can survive the harsh, six-month winter.” Now this access to resources has been squeezed and one wonders who care.

Given currently endangered status of Gurezi breed remarkable for  its competitive edge in milking capacity and many other parameters, it would constitute irreparable loss of biodiversity and economy of the State if speedy steps to restore its original habitat and access to fodder resources are not undertaken. In fact Gurezi breed has the potential of transforming local economy in the area and constitute a long term solution in rural and peri-urban areas for the development of milch breed of sheep. My recent visit along with District Sheep Husbandry Officer Bandipore, a geneticist and a linguist to different blocks of Gurez including Tulail confirmed my worst apprehensions about cultural and economic problems of farmers. Gurezi breed is fast dwindling as grazing area has squeezed a great deal and demotivated a number of farmers who are fast abandoning their livestock farming. As such it is prayed that the District administration, research institutions and other authorities make concerted efforts to salvage Gurezi breed and farmers.