The Making of Early Kashmir – The landscape and identity in the Rajatarangini by Shonaleeka Kaul is a delightful book. I picked it up to read, as I was curious about Kalhana’s Rajatarangini. It looked like a simple book to read on the basics of the Sanskrit Kavya that is always spoken in the reference to the recorded history of Kashmir Kings. I read the introduction. And I was worried if it would turn out to be an academic book where I would be lost in who said what about the book, rather than what the book said. Not many academicians have mastered the art of writing for the layperson.
As I read this small volume, I was lost in the narrative. I was discovering so much about Kashmir. Its history, its myths, its geography, its folklore, its linkages to the rest of the world. I gave up my day’s work to finish the book. As an Academic, Shonaleeka Kaul does refer to a lot of people who have written commentaries on Rajataragini – a 12th CE great poem or Mahakavya written in Sanskrit. She refers to Sheldon Pollock a lot. However, these references do not come in the way of a lay reader. You only come to know of what a non-native reader from other culture reads in Rajatarangini – a chronicle of the chronology of Kashmir Kings.
Shonaleeka Kaul starts by asking – How does a land become homeland? She then tells us that ancient past cannot be erased or wished away. It shapes the land and the people in intrinsic ways, it shapes the collective self.
Shonaleeka’s first and the strongest argument is that Kalhana’s Rajatarangini is meant to be didactic i.e carrying moral values or meant to deliver a message to the audience. She takes on the historians before her, including Thapar – when she tries to interpret the presence of tales from Puranas in Rajatarangini – especially its first three Tarangas. She argues – Didactic is inseparable from the aesthetic.
Those who interpret it a genealogical record, are answered with a living tradition of writing Vanshavalis in India, of which this may be a part.
Kaul questions the premise that ‘mythical is always fictive and false’. She says it is the rendition of truth values about the past. She adds – Myth is not about the ‘real’ as truth but about what is noble as truth. Do we not instinctively know it when we hear a fairy tale that the truth we are hearing is a version of how things should be?
See, how she defines Kavya:
Kavya is highly aesthetic poetry or prose (including drama) characterized by the use of indirect and figurative language (vakrokti, alamkara) and the evocation of essential emotional states or Rasa. Kavya is essentially literature as art. Among its stated objective is Updesha or instruction, usually about Trivarga – Dharma, Artha, Kama or the entire spectrum of human goals and activities.
A poet needs to have a capacity for a vision (darshana) and the power of description (varnana).
The best part of the book Making of Early Kashmir, I liked was where Shonaleeka Kaul says – you do not have to dissect the book, you have to consume it as a whole. I think this is the most powerful statement – the key difference between the approached of Analysis and Synthesis. When you analyze you miss the linkages – cultural, geographical, mythical. What you are left with is a raw data. When you consume it whole – you see it a part of a larger universe of literature both past and present.
I also liked the exploration of the use of Sanskrit as a language for the text along with the exploration of the place of Kashmir in the world rather than Kashmir in isolation. She argues that use of Sanskrit makes the poem local yet universal. Her arguments on script and language will tell you that Sanskrit was probably the language of general use. Kashmiri existed probably only in oral tradition. The intelligent use of a universal language to describe the local – be it landscapes or stories had a purpose. Could it be to tell the world your story – pretty much how we use English today to tell our stories to the rest of the world?
There is a description of the Physical mental map of the landscape. Which is endearing as you understand the Sanskrit Alankaars or the descriptions.
As someone who has not read Rajatarangini but has all intentions to read, here are some glimpses I gathered from this book by Shonaleeka Kaul:
Rajatarangini has 8000 verses in 8 parts called Tarangas.
- It refers to Nilmata Purana – a Sthal or local Purana of Kashmir that existed before Rajatarangini.
- Lord Krishna said – The land of Kashmir is Parvati, know its king to be part of Shiva.
- Mauryan King Ashoka is credited with the creation of the city of Srinagar.
- Kalhana was not attached to any court as court poets used to be in those days.
- It says single-minded application in protecting the subjects is the sacred duty of kings. And lists the qualities of a good king.
- Talks about the various lakes of Kashmir – the relationship of the land with the water.
- The myth of its creation that talks about Maharishi Kashyap, Lord Krishna, and Nagas.
- It mentions Kashmir as Tridiva or surpassing paradise. A description that was later picked up by the Mughal Kings and then Bollywood.
- It contains local imagery like local fruits and vegetables. Like saffron or lotus stem or items of everyday use like Kangri. Talks about Mathas, Viharas, Stupas, and Banlingas.
- Vishnudharmottar Purana – the one which is like a manual of Indian Arts, was written in Kashmir in 8th CE.
- Kashmir was one of the rare kingdoms who did not participate in Mahabharat. Though they were aligned with Jarasandh of Magadh.
Connected history is an interesting angle where the author tells you about how the various kingdoms of India were related either through marriage or trade. There is a mention of the pilgrims going from and to Kashmir. An angle that has not been explored as something that unifies India as a shared land. There are references to Xuan Zang called the country beyond Hindukush as Indu.
Buy The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini by Shonaleeka Kaul at Amazon IN
A good book leaves you with a lot of curiosity than you had about the subject when you began reading the book. I now want to read the Rajatarangini and know more about Kashmir.
Read this book Making of Early Kashmir, for an introduction to the history of early Kashmir. For a treatise on Sanskrit Kavya and much more.