Kashmir - Background information


Shey Palace in Kashmir, India, Asia by J&K TourismLocated in the first capital of Ladakh, Shey Palace is surrounded by artificially irrigated fields and holy fish ponds © J&K Tourism

History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Kashmir: the Bradt Travel Guide

The history of Kashmir, and in particular its history since 1947, is a deeply sensitive subject about which many different deep and often mutually incompatible views are held. No account, however bland, is going to satisfy everyone, and so our approach in this section is to present our own, personal understanding of, and opinion on, the region’s past. It is reflective of our own experiences, readings and conversations and is not aligned with any particular school of thought.

The history of Ladakh and Zanskar is, at least until the 19th century, quite separate from that of Kashmir.

Post-independence

British India gained independence on 15 August 1947 and was divided into two new countries: India and Pakistan. The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh (1895–1961), like other princely rulers, was given the option of acceding to either country or, at least in theory, heading an independent kingdom.

The expectation was that those states with Muslim-majority populations would join Pakistan, and those with a Hindu majority would accede to India. Kashmir had a Muslim-majority population but was ruled by a Hindu king. The local working party took the decision to support accession to India, but Maharaja Hari Singh preferred for Kashmir to remain independent and so offered a standstill agreement to both countries to retain the status quo. Pakistan accepted the suggestion, but India declined it.

Following an uprising in Poonch and Mirpur, backed by Pashtun tribesmen who then started advancing on Srinagar, Hari Singh called for support from the Indian army. The Indian government agreed to support him, but only if he acceded to India. Hari Singh agreed, signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October 1947, and volunteers from the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference supported the Indian army to drive back the incursion.

The history of Ladakh and Zanskar is, at least until the 19th century, quite separate from that of Kashmir.

Pakistan believed Hari Singh had no right to call in the Indian army, but in spite of receiving orders to send troops to the front, General Sir Douglas Gracey, commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, initially refused to do so. By the time Pakistani troops were finally dispatched, Indian forces had occupied the eastern two-thirds of Kashmir, though Gilgit and Baltistan were secured for Pakistan by the Gilgit Scouts. This was the start of the First Kashmir War, in which both sides grabbed territory in Kashmir, and the conflict ended with a UN-negotiated ceasefire in 1948 that required Pakistan to withdraw its forces but retain around 40% of the territory, India occupying the remaining 60%. The UN resolution also required a plebiscite to be held to determine the future of Kashmir (as of 2014, the referendum has still not taken place).

It is from this point on that we can discuss J&K as a state of the Republic of India, and Pakistan was by no means the only regional power pressing at its borders. Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, leading to the swift annexation by the Chinese of Aksai Chin, and the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (not to be confused with the Line of Control) between Pakistan, India and the Trans-Karakoram tract, now also claimed by China.

Two further conflicts broke out between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The first of these, the Second Kashmir War, erupted after the discovery of Operation Gibraltar, in which Pakistani insurgents were infiltrating J&K to destabilise the state from within. Some 30,000 Pakistani troops crossed the LoC on 5 August 1965 and the war began in earnest.

The Simla Agreement was signed by both India and Pakistan in July 1972. It committed both sides to settling future disputes, including those in Kashmir, by bilateral negotiations and effectively solidified the LoC that divided the Indian and Pakistani-administered areas of Kashmir into a de facto border.

Pakistan’s principal attack, code-named Operation Grand Slam, aimed to capture Akhnoor in Jammu, breaking India’s supply lines, and for the next five months both sides tore into each other with air strikes, tank battles and, albeit on a far smaller scale, naval hostilities. Independent sources estimate 6,800 soldiers died (3,000 of them Indian), and both the US and the USSR brought diplomatic pressure to bear to end the conflict and negotiate a ceasefire.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan War began when Pakistan launched pre-emptive strikes on 11 Indian air bases during Operation Chengiz Khan, prompting India to join forces with nationalists in East Pakistan fighting for their independence. Although the focus of the conflict was principally East Pakistan, Kashmir was drawn into the conflict too. The war ended with Pakistan’s defeat and the creation of the new sovereign state of Bangladesh. The Simla Agreement was signed by both India and Pakistan in July 1972. It committed both sides to settling future disputes, including those in Kashmir, by bilateral negotiations and effectively solidified the LoC that divided the Indian and Pakistani-administered areas of Kashmir into a de facto border.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural History and Conservation section in Kashmir: the Bradt Travel Guide

Paleontology

J&K is rich in fossils on account of once having been at the bottom of the sea. One of the oldest fossil beds, discovered by a British palaeontologist in 1886, is the Permian-period (approximately 260 million years old) Guryul Ravine to the south of Srinagar. The fossils found here, which are the remains of creatures that were wiped out during a period of mass extinction between the Permian and Triassic periods, are those of therapsids (large, reptilian land animals), small invertebrates, and primordial corals and plants. Though theoretically a protected site, the Guryul Ravine is allegedly mined for limestone and stone chips used in local cement factories.

Not far away, in the saffron fields of Pampore, Indian geologists have excavated one of the largest elephant fossils in the world: the skull alone measures 1.2m by 1.5m. Carbon dating has shown the fossil to be some 50,000 years old, revealing Kashmir must at that time have had a significantly different climate from the present day, as elephants are no longer found in the mountainous foothills.

The fossil record of Ladakh is particularly well preserved due to the dry climate and limited impact of humans. Ostracods and avian fossils have been found in large numbers around the southern lakes and Nubra Valley; palm leaf fossils in the Nidar Valley show there was once a tropical climate here; and fossilised woods have been found on both sides of the Indus River.

Flora

Partly due to the low population density, but also the diversity of climates, altitudes and eco-systems, J&K has the greatest biodiversity of any state in India. The varied natural environments are known to support 3,054 species of plant, of which 880 are found in Ladakh, though this does not include species of fungi and algae.

J&K’s flora can be roughly split into three categories, reflecting the principal phyto-geographic regions. Alpine desert vegetation is found in Ladakh, typically at heights above 4,000m where there is little soil, little water and extremes of temperature. Trees are exceedingly scarce (and hence such areas are often referred to as being ‘above the tree line’), and much of the flora you do see is either in small oases on river banks and surrounding springs, or is artificially irrigated and cultivated by man.

Ladakh is known for its medicinal plants, however, and practitioners of sowa rigpa (traditional Tibetan medicine) will travel for days on foot to pick plants such as Himalayan larkspur (Delphinium cashmerianum), Himalayan mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum), Himalayan rhubarb (Rheum spiciformae), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), atis (Aconitum heterohyllum) and manjistha (Rubia cordifoliam).

Partly due to the low population density, but also the diversity of climates, altitudes and eco-systems, J&K has the greatest biodiversity of any state in India. 

In the Kashmir Valley, where temperatures are less extreme but rainfall is more frequent, there is temperate vegetation that abounds around the lakes and lagoons, and also in the Pir Panjal forests. Here there are plentiful fruit and nut trees, including pomegranate (Punica granatum), walnut (Juglans regia) and almond (Prunus dulcis). The trees are not only more numerous but taller and with thicker trunks. Many of the varieties found in this region are broad-leafed. There are both coniferous and deciduous forests, though the cedar forests (Cedrus deodara) in particular have been over-cut, a problem that dates back to at least the 1500s. Reforestation programmes are important for the state’s future, and consequently sites such as the hill beneath Hari Parbat are being replanted and protected by the Department of Forestry.

In this temperate zone you will also find numerous aquatic plants, such as those that comprise the floating gardens in Srinagar (known as Rad in Kashmiri). In addition to the many beautiful varieties of water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) and lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera), cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and members of the melon family (Cucurbitaceae, which includes gourds as well as the sweet melon fruit) grow particularly well in the nutrient-rich gardens. You will see the finest examples of these crops for sale at the floating vegetable market. Saffron (Crocus sativus) grows particularly well in the fertile soil around Pampore and is an important export for the state.

Further south around Jammu, where year-round temperatures are much warmer, sub-tropical vegetation is to be found. Trees and plants here are typically deciduous and require little water, though in higher areas (such as around Patnitop) you will again find evergreen forests of deodar (Cedrus deodara), and also types of chir, or pine (Pinus). At slightly lower altitude, in the foothills, the forests are of fir (Abies pindrow); there are pockets of oak trees (Quercus) east of Batote; and large, mixed forests to the south-west of Udhampur.

Fauna

Mammals

One of the most ubiquitous creatures in the mountains is the fat and fluffy Himalayan marmot (Marmota caudate), a close relative of the steppe marmots of Mongolia which, at least according to Stephen Fry on QI, have killed more people than any other mammal, as it is from marmots that the bubonic plague first made the leap to humans. Equally cute (but rather less lethal) are the flying squirrels (Eoglaucomys fimbriatus), which are relatively common in the west of J&K towards the Line of Control (LoC).

J&K is home to a vast range of animals, and as Ladakh lies at the confluence of three zoogeographic zones, it is a superb place for spotting wildlife.

In all parts of the state you will see large numbers of herbivores, in particular domesticated sheep, goats, yak and dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak). The nomads’ flocks are nothing unusual – most of them will be slaughtered at Eid and eaten – but now and then you’ll come across a changthangi, or Pashmina goat, with its highly sought-after fleece that is used to make pashmina shawls.

The rarest of the wild herbivores is the critically endangered but stunningly beautiful hangul (Cervus elaphus hanglu). It is a subspecies of European red deer but has been hunted almost to extinction on account of its impressive antlers. The exact number of animals surviving in the wild is unknown, but there are thought to be between 400 and 500 in the Dachigam National Park. With a good guide, patience and a little luck, you may also be fortunate enough to see Tibetan antelopes (Pantholops hodgsonii), Tibetan gazelles or goas (Procapra picticaudata), markhor (capra falconeri), Himalayan musk deer (Moschus crysogater) and wild yaks (Bos grunniens).

Easier to spot on account of their larger populations and frequent apathy towards the presence of humans are J&K’s primates. The Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) is an urban pest and steals much of its food from humans living nearby. They can occasionally be aggressive, especially if they think they’re being challenged, so don’t try to get too close. Far rarer is the tree-dwelling Kashmir grey langur (Semnopithecus ajax) which lives in alpine forests above 2,200m. Urban development has encroached on much of its natural habitat and populations have consequently fallen to the point that this langur is sadly now considered an endangered species.

If you are travelling by car you’re unlikely to see a thing, so be sure to plan at least a short trek on foot to get away from the roads and out to quieter locations where the wildlife will be more at ease.

J&K is home to a number of species of large carnivores, and if you are fortunate enough to see one it will be a highlight of your trip. In Ladakh, particularly in the Hemis National Park, there are majestic snow leopards (Uncia uncia) and you can increase your chances of spotting one, albeit at a distance, by taking a winter trek to Zanskar with Tanzin Norbu. They are painfully shy of people (and rightly so, given that they’re attractive to illegal hunters), so be sure to carry binoculars. Here too you might see the strange-looking Pallas’ cats (Otocolobus manul) with their distinctive markings. They are indigenous to the area but more often seen in central Asia.

There’s a greater variety, and larger numbers, of large carnivores in the quieter parts of the Kashmir Valley, especially in mountainous areas towards the Line of Control where food is plentiful but the human population is still relatively small. Here you can hope to see Himalayan brown bear (Ursus artos), Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Indian wild boar (Sus scrofa cristatus), leopards (Panthera pardus), jackals (Canis aureus), jungle cats (Felis chaus) and Indian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus). If you are travelling by car you’re unlikely to see a thing, so be sure to plan at least a short trek on foot to get away from the roads and out to quieter locations where the wildlife will be more at ease.

Mountains with Brahmini ducks on the Indus River in Kashmir, India, Asia by J&K TourismBrahmini ducks on the Indus river – J&K is a fantastic birding destination © J&K Tourism

Birds

Around 150 species of avifauna have been spotted in J&K. Some of them are resident year round, and many more are seasonal visitors as the state lies beneath migration paths. The official state bird is the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis); there are just 5,000 of these birds worldwide and its only breeding ground outside of China is Tso Moriri in Ladakh.

Nearly a quarter of the birds in J&K are aquatic, favouring either the muddy river banks or the pristine waters of the high-altitude lakes. Very common local residents include the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), the red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) and the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), which in Kashmiri is called the tech. The pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) is a common summertime visitor, as is the whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), while in the winter months you can expect to see common teals (Anas crecca) and northern pintails (Anas acuta) with their attractive, if rather unusual, bright blue beaks.

Of the 150 species of avifauna in J&K, nearly a quarter of the birds are aquatic, favouring either the muddy river banks or the pristine waters of the high-altitude lakes. 

In the mountainous areas you will find J&K’s birds of prey. Common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) reside year-round near Gulmarg, and the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo), a kind of falcon that migrates vast distances, spends its summers in the mountains around Pahalgam, where it is also possible to see Himalayan griffons (Gyps himalayensis). The state is also home to black kites (Milvus migrans), bearded vultures or lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus) and, occasionally, long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus).

J&K also has birds in glorious, bright colours that are a pleasure to spot for amateur and aficionado bird spotters alike. The Eurasian golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), or posh nool as it is called in Kashmiri, is canary-yellow with a fetching black stripe; there’s no prize for guessing the striking colouring on the blue throat (Luscinia svecica); the long-tailed minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus) is flame red and black; and the slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) has a plumage predominantly in gorgeous, pistachio green.

Reptiles and amphibians

Living in India you become quickly friendly with geckos, and visiting J&K is no different. The Ladakhian or bow-fingered frontier gecko (Cyrtodactylus stoliczkai) is a small, stripy creature with a disproportionately large head. It comes from the area around Dras. There are also four different species of iguana, including Theobald’s toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi) and the indigenous Kashmir rock agama (Laudakia tuberculata).

A variety of snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, are found across J&K, though fortunately they avoid people as much as they can. The poisonous ones (and so the ones you really should try not to step on) include the Indian cobra (Naja naja), which is considered sacred in Hindu mythology and, despite protection under the 1972 Indian Wildlife Protection Act, is still sometimes used by snake charmers; the rat snake (Zamenis longissimus), a very long constrictor that feeds principally on rodents and birds; and the pit viper (Hypnale hypnale), a species endemic to India and Sri Lanka.

Drawing a deep breath and trying not to think too much about snakes, we move on to J&K’s amphibian population: there are lots of frogs and toads. Ladakh has its own high-altitude toad (Scutiger occidentalis) and plateau frog (Nomorana pleskei), while lower down you’ll find the Himalayan toad (Bufo himalayanus), green toad (Bufo viridis), the Indian skipper frog (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis) and the ornate narrow-mouthed frog (Microhyla ornata).

Fish

With its many rivers, lakes and reservoirs, numerous species of fish are found in J&K, though not all of them are indigenous; brown trout (Salmo trutta), for example, was introduced by the British, who thought it would be good for fishing. The brown trout flourished in its new environment, as did the rainbow trout (Oncorynchus mykiss), introduced at the same time, and we’re still eating their descendants today.

People and culture

Given its location, Kashmir’s history is one of human migration, in some cases from places as far away as Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus. 

Abridged from the People section in Kashmir: the Bradt Travel Guide

According to 2011 census data, the population of J&K state is around 12.5 million, just over 1% of India’s total. The population density is 56 people per square kilometre, which is about one sixth of the national average and there are 889 women for every 1,000 men, a nationwide problem that results from a preference for, and preferential treatment of, male children. The population of J&K has increased by just over 23% in the past decade, which can be attributed to the returning home of refugees as well as a greater life expectancy for residents.

Family in the mountains in Sonamarg, Kashmir, India, Asia by Maximum Exposure Productions 2013

Given its location, Kashmir’s history is one of human migration, in some cases from places as far away as Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus. Some people just passed through; others chose to stay. Many of them left their genetic mark. The largest ethnic groups you are likely to encounter are mentioned here, though their genetic identities are by no means separate due to centuries of inter-marriage with other communities.

Dards

The Dards have been known in the West since at least the time of Ptolemy, who refers to the community as the daradrai in his 2nd-century treatise the Almagest. Most Dards live in Dardistan in the northern part of the Kashmir Valley, as well as in Gilgit and Chittral in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and they are thought to be descended from Aryan-speaking tribes.

The Dards are one of India’s Scheduled Tribes and therefore benefit from positive discrimination when applying for higher education and government jobs.

(Photo: A family pauses to rest in the mountains of Sonamarg © Maximum Exposure Productions 2013)

Dogras

The Dogras are mostly Hindus who inhabit Jammu region and also parts of Punjab. A dynasty of Dogra kings ruled Kashmir from 1846–47, and they continue to hold prominent positions in politics, business and as military officers.

Gujjars

The nomads that you see driving their flocks of sheep, goats and cattle in the southwestern parts of J&K are the Gujjars. Again, their origins are unclear: there is some evidence that they came from the Caucasus and Iran, though many Gujjars believe that their forefathers migrated here from Gujarat and Rajasthan. In any case, it seems they have been present in Kashmir since the 5th or 6th century AD.

Hanjis

The Hanjis are the boatmen you see on the lakes around Srinagar. Some Hanjis claim descent from the Prophet Noah (and hence, one would hazard, a strong desire to keep their feet dry); others believe them to have come originally from Sri Lanka. Though most of the Hanji population are Muslim, prior to this they were probably ksatriya Hindus.

Kashmiris

Kashmiris are widespread in the state but concentrated in the Kashmir Valley. The community, which is thought to include ancient immigrants from Afghanistan, central Asia, Iran and Turkey, is predominantly Muslim, having converted to the faith from the 14th century onwards. A sizeable population of Kashmiri Hindus does, however, survive.

Ladakhis

The Ladakhis are not actually a single ethnic group: it’s a catch-all term used to describe the various ethnic groups (including Tibetans, Monpas and some Dards) that inhabit Leh and Zanskar districts. Many of them are descended from Mongoloid tribes from the Tibetan Plateau (including more recent Tibetan refugees who left at the same time as the Dalai Lama), and they are predominantly followers of Buddhism.

Back to the top

Kashmir articles

View all

The Mughal Gardens

According to authors Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare, the Mughal Gardens are far more than just collections of plants.

Read more...

The Chadar Winter Trek

Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare describe the challenging and beautiful six-day hike in sub-zero temperatures along the frozen Zanskar River. 

Read more...

Buddhism in Ladakh and Zanskar

Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare discuss the history of Buddhism in Ladakh and Zanskar and its legacy today. With thanks to Tanzin Norbu (www.mountaintribalvision.com).

Read more...

Related guides and other books

View all