KASHMIRI CULTURE UNDER COVER & DUST
Date: 26 Jul 2009
(Glimpses of Kashmiri Pandit Cultural Heritage)
by Dr. S. S. Toshkhani
Respected Shri J. N. Kaul, Dr Lokesh Chandra and distinguished guests,
It is, indeed, a great privilege to welcome you all on behalf of the N S Kashmir Research Institute to this first ever exhibition on Kashmiri Pandit cultural heritage titled Unmeelan. The word 'Unmeelan' means 'opening the eyes', and this exhibition is literally an invitation to opening of eyes if only to have a glimpse of the heritage of the Kashmiri Pandits, a people who have contributed, most significantly, to Indian culture, philosophy, literature, art and aesthetics - quite out of proportion to their small numbers. That these people stand uprooted today from their native soil and are fighting a grim battle for their survival as a distinct social and cultural entity, is perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of post- independence India. There is every danger that these ancient people may be wiped out of existence together with five thousand years of their culture and traditions, their literature and lore. And, if such a catastrophe does take place, prosterity shall have much to regret.
It is most unfortunate that a state of amnesia is clouding the minds of people about the role that the Kashmiri Pandits played in shaping the country's cultural and civilisational history. It is they who evolved some of the seminal ideas and concepts that stimulated intellectual and creative activity in ancient India. Is it to be forgotten that Mahayana has been their greatest gift to Buddhism, a doctrine that penetrated into and swept across entire Central Asia, South Asia and the far eastern countries through the efforts of Kashmiri missionaries? One such missionary, Shyam Bhatt devised a script for the Tibetan language and gave it its first grammar. Does not Kashmir Shaivism represent one of the greatest heights that Indian philosophical thought has attained? In fact, contrary to the general impression that they remained cut off due to geographical isolation, the Pandits of Kashmir crossed their mountain barriers to unite north and south India through Shaivite thought. In the same manner, Shaktivad and the Tantric philosophy evolved in Kashmir linked the land of Vitasta with Kerala in the south and Bengal in the east. Surely, the best in Sanskrit literary tradition bears an indelible stamp of the genius of Kashmiri Pandits. It was Kalhana who started the tradition of histriography in India with his immortal work, the Rajtarangini, displaying a keen sense of history and sharp critical talent. Kshemendra, one of the sharpest critics of men and matters, was the first Sanskrit writer to have made satire as his main mode of expression. Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara is one of the world's most wonderful collection of tales comprehending a wide range of myth and mystery, fun and frolic, love and lust, ambition and adventure, cowardice and chivalry.
And what remains of Sanskrit aesthetical writing if Kashmir's contribution to it is taken out? The inquiry into the nature of aesthetic experience by such master minds from Kashmir as Bhamah, Udbhatta, Vamana, Rudratta, Kuntaka, Anandavardhana, Mammatta, and the greatest of them all Abhinavagupta soared. in the words of Krishna Chaitanya, "into philosophy risen from the world of poetry to a poetic world-view".
In the field of Indian music, one of the most important treatises ever written is Sharangadeva's Sangeet Ratnakara - the work which formulates the basis of Karnataka music and has few other works in the world to compare with it.
In the history of Indian art, Kashmir occupies a very important place, drawing to it all the power and beauty of the Gandharan and Gupta art, and at the same time evolving a distinct metaphor and style of its own. The Kashmir school of art had a deep impact on the adjoining Himalayan regions and was one of the principal formative forces of Lamaistic art. In the 9th to 11th century Kashmiri artists were producing exquisite bronzes and painting murals in Alchi (Ladakh), Western Tibet and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh). The grandeur of Martand and Avantipur temples testifies to the heights of glory which Kashmiri sculpture and architectural art had attained.
Can there be anything more tragic than the fact that the inheritors of this great cultural legacy, the descendents of the ancient people of the Nilamata Purana who gave Kashmir its own creation myth, are today facing a sinister threat of cultural extinctin. Shaken by such a horrifying prospect, a group of concerned members of the Kashmiri Pandit community set up the N S Kashmiri Research Institute in Delhi on January 19, 1997 to launch a concerted drive to preserve, protect and project the heritage and culture of the Kashmiri Pandits. It has been named after Prof. Nityanand Shastri, one of Kashmir's most outstanding Sanskrit scholars who was a contemporary and friend of great European Indologists like Sir Aurel Stein, Prof. J. Ph. Vogel, George Greirson and Winternitz.
The Institute has chalked out a well thought-out agenda and programme for achieving its objectives which have been endorsed by the intellectual of the community. This exhibition is an effort in that direction, but it is only a curtain raiser, being the first in a series of thematic exhibitions which the Institute proposes to organise in the near future. On display are rare miniature paintings of the Kashmir school, Sharada and Persian manuscripts, documents and books relating to Kashmiri Pandit intellectual attainments and scholarship. Also on view are Kashmiri Pandit costumes, artefacts and objects of ritualistic importance besides old photographs showing social and religious customs of the Pandits.
'Unmeelan' is an attempt to capture the real cultural face of Kashmir, battered and bruised, though it is today. A face that has for long been kept away from view. I along with my colleagues in the NSKRI hope that you will find the exhibition visually satisfying and intellectually stimulating despite the many shortcomings that it obviously has.
Kashmiri Overseas Association NS Kashmir Research Institute