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Kashmir then and now: tracking 19th century footsteps


There were soldiers in the cornfields. They picked their way along the field boundaries in pairs; dark, smooth-skinned men, Bengalis and Punjabis and Biharis. They peered from under the broad brims of their khaki helmets and clutched their machineguns possessively as they stepped from the spiky stubble to the cracked blue edge of the road, or passed into the dappled shade beneath the pale blossom of the orchards.

Kashmir mountain viewIt was spring, and the country was all soft-edged. Long, marching ranks of poplars strode away across the plain, and the road wound through crooked avenues of enormous chenar trees, black-trunked and full-canopied. Old men in white skull-caps ambled at the roadsides and the light coming through the foliage flashed red-black-red-black against my eyes as the jeep sped north, away from Srinagar. To the west the long white line of the Pir Panjal ranges, faint in the blue haze, floated enormous and unattainable above the sunken plateau of the Kashmir Valley. The first hurried harvest of the year was already in – even though the snow had yet to clear from the high passes – and gusts of chaff-scented air buffeted through the open windows. In all this sunlit softness it was easy to miss the soldiers, but somehow hard to ignore them.

The driver, Mushtaq, wore blue jeans and a white shirt. He had pale hazel eyes. As we had bent through the clamouring fringes of Downtown Srinagar – the old quarter, a place of Sufi shrines, half-timbered houses and rock-hurling rioters – and around the weedy edge of Dal Lake we had exhausted our mutual stocks of English and garbled Hindi-Urdu pidgin on pleasantries and small-talk. For the last 15 miles there had been only easy silence as Mushtaq drove and I smiled out at the green-and-gold-and-white landscape.

There were stony mountains on the right, close at hand. Somewhere behind them hid great snow ridges, higher even than the levitating Pir Panjal across the Valley. The smooth, empty road made a double bend over a low ridge. From the top a stretch of pale water, sunken between low red hills and thickets of trees, opened. Mushtaq slowed up and we both peered forward. “Manasbal Lake,” he said. It was certainly beautiful, but I didn’t recognise the view.

***

For a year I had been following the paper trail of the shadowy 19th century explorer George Hayward. I had spent long hours amongst the files in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and the British Library in London, leafing through his original letters and reports, poring over the erratic scrawl of his handwriting as he described audacious crossings of mountain passes, and clashes with local chieftains.

Hayward was a middle class orphan from Leeds, born in 1839. After a brief and undistinguished career in the British Army in India he took to travelling in the high mountains around Kashmir. Clearly a man possessed with a strange and dangerous sort of wanderlust, in 1868 he presented himself to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) as “desirous of active employment”. They sponsored him to try to reach and map the unexplored Pamir Mountains, in what is now Tajikistan. Hayward was a spectacularly tough traveller, and for two blazing years he did everything he could to reach his goal, crossing the Karakoram without a tent, going on the run in the Kun Lun, being held hostage in the Silk Route city of Kashgar, and traversing the Indus Gorge in midwinter.

He was thwarted by politics and geography at every turn. And with his unnerving, unsettling intensity and drive, he trod on plenty of toes along the way. Eventually he stumbled upon a dirty little war, fought far from prying eyes in the area around Gilgit in what is now Northern Pakistan. Troops of the expansionist Maharaja of Kashmir were aggressively annexing formerly independent local fiefdoms – with tacit British approval, for Kashmir was a British ally, and this was the arena of “the Great Game”, the struggle for dominance in Central Asia between Britain and Russia.

Never one to keep quiet, Hayward spoke out about evidence he had seen of massacres in the region, and earned the ire of Britain and Kashmir as a consequence. Ultimately he was murdered in unimaginably brutal circumstances at the head of the Yasin Valley. His killing has never been satisfactorily explained.

When the long months of research were over, and Hayward’s story was laid out before me, I realised that if I was truly to understand the contexts and the consequences of his journeys and his death I would need to follow in his footsteps on the ground, just as I had traced his trail on paper.

Kashmir had seemed like the obvious place to begin. It was here that Hayward had first really faced the mountains, long before presenting himself to the RGS in search of “active employment”. And what was more, after the recent decades of turmoil, Indian-occupied Kashmir seemed to be enjoying an interlude of melancholy calm. The soldiers, the razor wire and the checkpoints were all still there, but for once, people were saying, Kashmir might see a summer without violence. Later, my journey in Hayward’s footsteps would take me to Xinjiang and Pakistan; in light of that Kashmir seemed like a gentle place to begin my own journey.

I took a cheap flight to Delhi – shuddering through turbulence over Afghanistan – then a third-class sleeper train northwest through the blustery, smoky heat of the Punjab, though dozing stations with white platforms and countryside full of stones. In Jammu, a dirty town of pilgrims and soldiers and liquor shops, I had clambered into the back of a white share-jeep with three Sikhs from Baramulla and a Balti from Dras and rocketed north though the endless switchbacks of the Siwaliks. There were car wrecks in the ditches and monkeys watching the traffic with arrogant contempt from the pine trees. Troops of Gujjar and Bakarwal nomads with trains of goats and lean horses were heading north to the Kashmir Valley from their winter camps around Jammu, plodding at the roadside with long, wolfish faces and ragged clothes. Then, at 7000 feet in a green rainstorm, the road plunged into the dripping darkness of the Jawahar Tunnel, a mile and a half of gloom and flickering headlights, before we burst out into the sodden sunlight beside a muddy yard full of broken trucks. Behind a tangle of razor-wire and a pair of shivering soldiers with machineguns a rust-streaked sign read: “Welcome to Kashmir Valley – Heaven on Earth”.

***

The Srinagar lakesides had been full of clamouring Punjabi trippers eating ice cream, snarling houseboat touts and hustlers who sidled from the shadows to hiss, “Hashish? Good shit?” Further afield, in the alleys of the old city, and in the mountains beyond, there had been warm handshakes and saffron tea. But there had been a slow, gently smiling sadness to the place – the Sufi shrines of Srinagar were full of sobbing women and malevolent dervishes. I could not help but take conversations and enquiries to the more recent past. The unimaginable traumas of more recent years had all but obliterated the era of colonial explorers, it seemed.

I was charmed and saddened in equal parts by Kashmir, but I had all but given up on it as a place to connect with Hayward. Soon I would be heading into the high mountains, following more closely in his footsteps. I had already booked my bus ticket to Kargil – a remote and rocky township, under the Himalayan rain-shadow beside the grey torrent of the Indus River on the far side of the Zoji La Pass – when I remembered the little sketch in my notebook.

Amongst the faded letters and creased reports that I had looked through in the RGS archives in London there had been one folder that was a little different. In the catalogue it was listed as “The Hayward Collection”, and inside, safe from grubby thumbprints behind protective cellophane envelopes, were a dozen simple watercolour sketches by George Hayward. The colours were remarkably fresh and bright after a century and a half. Most of them were deliberate, practical outlines of unknown topography: mountain passes, riverheads and forbidden cities new to geographical science. They were made during his first real exploring journey and were not the product of a whimsical pastime: they were part of his meticulously professional record-keeping.

But one was a little different. It was painted in Kashmir, and was not of some new scene that no Englishman had ever looked upon. It was an image of what seemed to be a tourist attraction. In a pencil note on the reverse Hayward had given a few details. The painting was of Manasbal Lake, “the most beautiful in the valley of Cashmere”. The water there, the traveller claimed, was “clear, soft, and of a deep green colour”. There were many red and white lotuses.

The watercolour showed a low sheet of water. To the left a promontory jutted out, stepped down to the shore in three blocky, yellowish tiers. I could not work out what they were supposed to be, whether they were buildings or just some curious natural feature. A rank of tall poplars stood on the far shore, and behind them two toothy, interlocking jaws of mountains clenched together in ragged, darkening ridges. This ominous cleft was, according to Hayward’s note, the “entrance of the Sind Valley”.

Hunched at the Reading Room desk as gusty winter rainstorms lashed across London, I had copied the outlines of the picture into my own notebook, tracing the jagged skyline in pencil, and, where my own feeble artistic talents failed, making written notes of the colours and shades. Now, many weeks later, I was sure that if I could visit this same lake, here in Kashmir itself, I would make my first physical connection with George Hayward.

At first I could not find Manasbal Lake on the map. Clearly it was much smaller than the other great bodies of water that blemished the valley floor in bright sheets – Dal, Anchar and Wular. It was not listed in any guidebook, or even in the florid text of the hyperbolic brochures handed out at the Srinagar tourist office. But then I spotted it on a large-scale sheet – a bow-backed slug of water about twenty miles north of Srinagar, up against the mountains beyond the point where the road bends away towards Ladakh.

On that bright spring morning I had hurried to the jeep stand near Dal Gate in Srinagar and asked the drivers if I could go to Manasbal.

“Why not!” Mushtaq had shrugged, slowly raising himself from tea-drinking and gossip, scooping up his bunch of keys and ambling across the cracked tarmac to his jeep.

***

But now that I was here I could see nothing that resembled the toothy, mountainous skyline that Hayward had painted.

Mushtaq parked at the roadside and wandered off in the direction of a teashop.

“How long do I have?” I called after him.

“No problem,” he shouted back; “one hour, two hours, five hours. Up to you my friend!”

This place was a far cry from the almost-desperate bustle of Srinagar’s beleaguered tourist industry. Here there were no hotels, no restaurants or gift-shops. There was no crooked smile of houseboats tiered on the lake and no candy-coloured mob of Indian day-trippers thronging the shore.

I walked down to the water and looked out at the scene. I fumbled with my notebook and found the page where I had made the copy of Hayward’s picture. The wall of mountains were those behind me, I supposed; but looking over the water, squinting in the sharp sunlight, I could not see anything that might be the little promontory, and the lake was far too big to walk around the entire shore in search of the right perspective.

A few faded, peeling shikaras – the little paddle-powered pleasure boats of Kashmiri waterways – were moored at the shore for tourists who might, one day, drive out from Srinagar for the afternoon. Today they had no custom, and the shikara-wallahs were snoozing in the shade of the boat awnings. They grunted, slipped on tattered sandals and stumbled ashore when I approached. The sun was warm on the back of my neck and everything seemed to be moving very slowly. I showed them the scrappy little sketch. There was a mumble of bafflement. None of them spoke English, and my drawing was not very good.

“Sind Valley?” I pointed up the slope behind me; they made non-committal noises. I pointed again at my sketch. “This is Manasbal Lake, a painting, done a long time ago.” Vague nods all round.

Hoping perhaps to brush aside the baffling issue of my meaningless squiggle by suggesting the standard Manasbal Lake tourist trip, one of them pointed to the opposite shore. “Mughal gardens,” he said; “take shikara.” It seemed like a pleasant idea, and perhaps on the opposite bank Hayward’s image might materialise.

The boatman was a teenager called Ashraf, a slow-moving, clean-faced youth in a coarse grey pheran – the loose robe of Kashmir. I clambered aboard the rickety little craft and settled down on the faded cushions as he pushed us out over the waterweeds. This boat, like all of the boats here, was old and weather-worn, without the elaborately maintained colour scheme and lurid upholstery of Srinagar’s shikaras. It had flaking green paint and cracked boards, like an upside-down tender abandoned on a Cornish quayside.

Ashraf dipped the flat-bladed paddle into water and we skittered out over a forest of weeds. The water was indeed soft and clear and deep green, and full of flickering fish. The lotuses were not in bloom yet, but their fleshy, succulent stems rose to red buds above the surface. In the far distance, above the line of dark woods a grey military helicopter sliced back and forth like a speck of dirt on a camera lens, but it was too far away for the roar of its rotors to carry. All I could hear was the splash and drip of the paddle and the voices of children and roosters from the villages amongst the trees on the shore. We moved out over deeper water and tiny wavelets slapped under the prow and the faded white curtains of the shikara’s awning snaked in an easy breeze. The breeze carried just the faintest hint of far-off snow, like eating cool watermelon on a summer day. Delicate white terns with black heads and narrow beaks dipped and skimmed over the water and suddenly I was very calm and happy.

Stretching my Hindi-Urdu pidgin to snapping point, Ashraf told me that he lived in a village on the shore to our left, that he was 17, and that he thought England was “good”. By the time this was all clear we were wallowing through the rafts of weed on the far bank to grind onto a little beach of stones at the foot of some crumbling yellow walls. These were the Mughal Gardens.

During their reign over north India the Mughal emperors had celebrated Kashmir. Muslim princes with ancestors among the Mongols and Afghans, a few generations in the heat of Delhi had fried them to enervated fops, but they still dreamed of high country, snow and pine trees, and came up through the ranges to the Valley whenever they could. They built pavilions and gardens on all the lakeshores, places to recline by moonlight and recite Persian poetry. A hoary old tale that Kashmiris love to repeat has it that the great Mughal Shah Jehan originally wanted to build the Taj Mahal on the banks of Dal Lake. It was only the prohibitive cost of shipping hundreds of tons of white marble up to Kashmir that made him settle for the Agra flatlands instead. His father, Jehangir, had laid out many of the best gardens in Srinagar, and when he was dying after a lifetime of wine and opium he was carried north one last time from the heat of the plains, up along the winding road through the Siwaliks. But it was too late. He died at the wayside on the wrong side of the Banihal Pass. As retainers and courtiers stood around solemnly in the sharp mountain sunlight and the old rake gasped his way towards the end, someone stepped forward and asked if there was anything he wanted. “Only Kashmir,” he whispered, and slipped away.

As soon as I stepped ashore and started to pick my way up the crumbling sandstone steps to the first level of the terrace I realised with a start of excitement that this – this terraced garden with its dozy bumblebees, chirruping finches and weedy borders – was the blocky structure on the promontory in Hayward’s picture. Turning and looking back the way we had come I now saw the mouth of the same rocky valley he had painted. From here it was thrown too widely open; the ridges did not meet in the middle, but it was recognisable. I looked in the opposite direction, further along the lake. This bank bent away to the right. Hayward, then, must have painted from the far shore, where a steep slope of pale-red earth, studded with a few spindly pines ran down to the water.

I hurried back down to the shore where Ashraf was waiting.

“I want to go over there!” I said excitedly, pointing.

He frowned at me and pointed at the terraces. “Yeh Mughal Gardens hai…” Clearly this was the only place that tourists were expected to visit in the vicinity.

“I know, I know, but I want to go over there! Udher!”

He glanced over his shoulder at the other, empty shore – “Udher?” – and said something that I guessed amounted to “but there’s nothing over there…”

I fumbled with my notebook and showed him my ridiculous sketch, copied that rainy afternoon in the RGS Reading Room. “Look! This is the gardens, so the picture must have been made over there!”

The sketch was nothing more than a bad copy of a none-too-brilliant original. Ashraf looked at me as if I was a lunatic, but he shrugged compliantly and took up the paddle. “Challo!”

We backed and turned over the skeins of thick, clogging weed, scattering the fish, and Ashraf dug into the green and pulled us out towards open water. I sat keenly upright, glancing between the mountains to the left and the sketch in my notebook. As we slid out into the middle of the lake I felt a delicious delight as the great mouth of the distant valley slowly closed, ridge slotting into ridge, peaks rising into position like stage scenery. Every dip of the paddle, every long-drawn draught that Ashraf struck, brought it closer to the configuration of Hayward’s painting. The Mughal Gardens seemed to edge out into the water on their little headland. There was a large tree growing at the base of the terraces now that had been missing in Hayward’s time, but everything else was the same. This was definitely right. As soon as I stepped ashore under those threadbare pines on the far bank, I was sure I would be in the very spot…

But then the visage of mountains that had been coming together so perfectly to match the outlines on my page began to come apart again. Ridges overshot their mark; peaks began to hunker down, and the promontory of the gardens began to retreat back into the general line of the shore. I glanced confusedly at my sketch, then back at the skyline, then ahead and behind. Ashraf was paddling deeply now, plunging the blade straight down into the glassy cool and drawing it along the flank of the shikara in long strokes. I realised instantly: Hayward hadn’t painted his picture from the far shore; he had painted it from a boat.

“Ashraf, stop!” I shouted, twisting to face the stern.

He paused, the raised paddle trailing a beaded thread of drips along the velvety surface. “Kya?”

“Go back, go back!” I pointed.

He turned his head very slowly and his mouth came open with incredulity. He raised an eyebrow, wondering, obviously, what this ridiculous foreigner wanted now. “Mughal Gardens?” he asked, with a doubtful look, angling the paddle at the place from which we had just come.

“Nahin! Not the gardens; just go back…”

Shaking his head bemusedly he turned the shikara in a slow circle and began to draw us back in the opposite direction. I twisted so that I was looking intently to the left now, and sure enough, the scene came back together within a few yards; the valley opened again, just enough, and the promontory re-emerged from the shore.

“Stop Ashraf!”

With a flurry of back-paddling – oily gulps of skulled water – the shikara came to a halt, rocking gently on the smooth surface of the lake. I looked at my notebook, then out towards the mountains. There it was. I smiled. A hundred and forty years earlier George Hayward must have sat in a shikara very much like this one, in this very same spot, the same white terns flickering over the lotuses, the same soft breeze from the mountains ruffling the surface. And as he sat there, balancing a paint-box and pad on his knees and filling in the greens and browns of the landscape, perhaps a young boatman from one of the villages on the shore nearby had sat at the stern of his shikara, paddle across his knees, watching as he painted and wondering what on earth this crazy Englishman was doing.

I took out my camera, fumbled with the lens-cap and lined up the scene, then scrambled back towards Ashraf.

I held the camera, with the image on the screen alongside the sketch in my notebook. “Look!” I traced the matching skyline with my finger.

He glanced at me with a certain degree of understandable alarm.

I tapped furiously at the page and the camera: “Look! Here!”

Ashraf stared at it blankly, and then, slowly, an enormous grin of recognition spread across his face…

The full story of George Hayward’s wild life and violent death – and of Tim Hannigan’s travels in his footsteps – is told in ‘Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game’, published by the History Press. This article is an out-take, not an extract: for more information see www.murderinthehindukush.com. For more travel writing and photography by Tim Hannigan see www.tahannigan.blogspot.com

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