In the beginning, there was a lake called Satisar

Kashmir’s Contested Past begins with a mythological legend about how the name Kashmir came to be.  With the introduction and the conclusion, the book is divided into eight chapters. The introductory part focuses on Kashmir’s origin where author tries to inform the reader that, in the beginning, there was a lake called Satisar, which was named after the goddess Sati, who cohabited with the god Shiva on the mountain peak Harmukh. The demon Jalodhbhava (born of water), who resided in the lake, was cruel in his consumption of the local population of people. Sage Kashyap arrived to this area on pilgrimage one day and saw the barren landscape. Realising that Jalodhbhava had to be vanquished before humans could live there, he then prayed to the god Brahma to defeat him. Jalodhbhava retreated into the lake as the gods gathered around the lake to slay the demon, delaying their sustained efforts for a while until the nearby mountain was pierced with a hole to drain the water and kill the hidden demon. The place that resulted was known as Kashmir; it was a lush valley tucked between mountain ranges that became a haven for both people and gods. The history of Kashmir’s beginnings is told in this manner, with numerous modifications and continuations including the other version that sage Kashyap  was a Jinn (servant) of Solomon, by whose orders he affected the desiccation of Kashmir.

Chitralekha Zutshi has made an effort to concentrate mainly on three overarching ideas about historical thinking and practice in the past that have wider consequences for the study of historiography: First of all, as Romila Thapar reminds us in one of her works, individual historical tales need to be situated not just within particular civilisations and groups but also within far older literary and storytelling traditions, of which they are a crucial part. The second point is the close relationship between historical practice and religious expressions. Finally, historicity is characterised not only by how time is organised but also by how space is interacted with. This shows that history is more than just a record of events that happened in calendrical time and is more important than the practice of writing about the past.


The book’s upcoming chapters pinpoint concepts like political, institutional, and intellectual contexts, including the Sufi shrines, Islamic universalism, Mughal statecraft, regional identities, nationalism, and daily life. In addition, it includes historical narratives that were crucial in negotiating Kashmir’s relationship with various imperial entities like the Mughals, Afghans, and Dogras. The author argues that Kashmiris were not merely passive participants or tools in a series of imperial conquests, but rather actively engaged thinkers who, through the historical narration process, defined Kashmir’s identity and, by the 19th century, their own position with regard to larger empires and their more immediate social contexts. Additionally, the concepts of place, community, and identity were given voice in their narratives. In turn, the character of narrative practice itself was shaped by these concepts. This book examines the significance of tradition as it has been variously described in relation to Kashmir’s historical practices and concept of history. The book therefore reveals the intricate linkages between the Kashmiri storytelling and performance culture, the Persian historical tradition from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and the corpus of Sanskrit literature from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Kashmir witnessed the three languages perform a variety of tasks while collaborating and borrowing from one another. Sanskrit developed into the language of tradition, Persian into the language of literary-narrative culture, and Kashmiri into the language of intimacy and poetry. In Kashmir today, where history is just as much an embattled territory as Kashmir itself, the book finally examines the politics of the past as they are currently manifested.

The first chapter looks into the Persian tazkiras and tarikhs of the late sixteenth century to make the case that they were a part of a shared narrative practice that made little distinction between facts, memories, and myths and incorporated various forms of spatiality and temporality within their narrative frameworks. The second chapter focuses on the tarikhs, or Sufi narratives, that were produced during the Mughal era in the 17th and 18th century to assert the uniqueness of the region of Kashmir within the Mughal Empire. And by the late eighteenth century, as Kashmir passed from Mughal to Afghan rule, they gave voice to the category of people living in Kashmir, not just the geographic region. At a time when Mughal texts like the Ain-I-Akbari included Kashmir into the Mughal landscape of power through a reading of its Sanskrit literature, Kashmir’s Persian narratives engaged the Sanskrit corpus on problems surrounding the manner and intent of presenting the past as both tradition and history.

The next chapter exemplifies the continuation of these concepts into the tradition of historical composition in the 19th century, which not only struggled with the new political environment under Sikh and Dogra rule but also with the growing efforts of Orientals to map Kashmir’s Sanskrit literary past. A stronger connection with Kashmiri oral and written traditions led to these Persian narratives’ interesting incorporation of new idioms of factcity and historicity in recounting the past, as well as a more localised definition of Kashmir as a unique mulk (country) in the larger global setting.

The fourth chapter goes into great detail about Rajatarangini’s various lives as well as how Nationalist and Orientalist knowledge was produced in Colonial India and Kashmir. It examines how Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and the Indological obsession with original writings and unique concepts of authorship affected Kashmir’s oral culture of storytelling. The Persian tradition and literati were pushed to the background in this new historical discourse, which elevated a fresh group of interlocutors—the Kashmiri Pandits—to the forefront of knowledge creation. However, these sources filled indigenous narrative traditions with motifs and concepts for orientalist projects.

The narrative, textuality, orality, and performance in Kashmir are the focus of the book’s fifth chapter. It talks about the intricate processes that went into creating Kashmir’s oral tradition of storytelling as well as the environment in which it was shared and consumed. The analysis of a specific play, which demands a resuscitation of Kashmir’s flexible and open performance traditions, is included in the chapter’s hotly debated topic on the narrative public in the postcolonial era.

The last chapter of the book makes note of how the history telling in modern Kashmir is becoming more and more shattered. In fact, it contends that the narrative public is no more a single, cohesive domain since it has become divided into numerous, antagonistic publics that support various interpretations of Kashmir’s history and, ultimately, Kashmir’s meanings. These interpretations portray Kashmir’s past as exclusively Hindu or exclusively Islamic, making it seem like either Hindus or Muslims are the only people who have ever called Kashmir their home.

The author arguably appears to emphasise the importance of upholding disciplinary history and objective truth by taking a more nuanced approach to history-writing in Kashmir. The book is enjoyable to read and comes close to meeting the intellectual and academic requirements to be considered the magnum opus of Kashmir historiography. The book’s lexical difficulty may have been slightly reduced to prevent readers from becoming bored while reading through some specific topics. This is where the lacunae exist.

Shah Munnes Muneer has got her Masters degree from Aligarh Muslim University.

 Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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