Old Pictures

Old picsI look at old photographs and wonder where did life go? My thoughts are not, who these people are or were – I am not curious about their lives as present in the pictures, but more about the future that befell them. Who did they become? What happened to them? I cannot put a picture down without feeling a little sad that I will never know what happened to the characters.

Recently someone posted a picture on Twitter of four Kashmiri women laughing. That was the caption and very much the contents of the image – it showed four young women in beautiful ornate pherans, with daejj on their heads, sitting cross legged in front of a dark background, laughing. Like friends laugh among themselves – merrily and with abandon. As if one of them had said something absolutely ridiculous about the photographer and others had heard it. There wasn’t a frown in sight.

I wonder what became of the women after the photograph? It wasn’t a really famous photograph; I have no idea who the photographer is or who the nameless women are. But I know the photograph was taken in 1986 or thereabout. Did the women live through the 90s? did they have the same experiences as the rest of us? Or did they become someone really important and famous? Or were their lives hidden in the mires of insignificant details of family connections.

Or was this one photograph, now circulating the internet, a special memory. Are they still friends? Do they remember the joke? The immortal laughter? Did they ever walk down the Goni Khan Market and looked enviously at the displays? Or did the store away money to buy novels at the Hind Book store?

Cartier Bresson Henri’s iconic picture of Kashmiri women praying at dawn holds the same secrets. All we know is that they were Kashmiri women who probably climbed a hill (Hari Parbat) for prayers – fajr prayers. What did they pray for? One woman holds out her hands in prayer towards the skies – on that slightly clouded morning in Srinagar in 1948, what did the lady ask for? Was her wish granted?


I look at these old pictures cannot but wonder what happened in the life of these people after that moment. Do they realize how famous their stances have become?

It becomes even darker if you see the pictures from old newspapers of the 1990s. The people, mourning, crying, running or lost. They are nearly indistinguishable from one another and yet hold unique secrets. I wonder if they are alive, if they survived the nineties, because so many didn’t. They were here, where did they go?

These pictures from a different time are a privileged entry into a world which no longer exists. Kashmir and the people, changed by war and fear have very different stories to tell across the years. The women caught laughing in 1986 could have never imagined how the times would change just within a couple of years and nothing would be the same again. I hope they remained friends, however. Perhaps its my longing to know the life of the city before my time, how the people lived before history got written.

The uncertain charm of past moments and the locked mysteries of the climax of the characters’ stories makes me wonder if someone long after see me in an old picture and think what became of me?  When these books are balanced, someone might come across a picture fallen off the table and weave a tale around it. Someone’s private life would be scrutinized by a stranger’s eyes. What would I, who secreted so many sections of my life to nameless diary, say to that?



A Gujjar, His Buffalo and Ghee – An Excerpt from Lawrence’s "Valley of Kashmir"

Walter R. Lawrence who was the “Settlement Commisioner” of “Kashmir and Jammu State” during the time of Maharaja Pratab Singh wrote a detailed account of the valley of Kashmir in his book “The Valley of Kashmir”. This volume deals with “subjects of general interest”. 

I came across these passages in his book regarding trade in Maharaja’s Kashmir. Of all that was exported from Kashmir to India and other places, the most important item was Ghee. Its value in trade far exceeded that of shawls and timber, something one would easily guess in respect of Kashmir. 

Ghi is by far the most important article of the export trade of Kashmir, and is made chiefly by the pastoral Gujars and the nomad goatherds, who find the mountains of Kashmir a convenient and cheap resort, as the forests of India become more and more closed to the destructive buffalo and goat. The trade in ghi is entirely in the hands of middlemen, chiefly Panjabis, and the producer is at their mercy. There is still room for the expansion of this trade, and forest conservancy need not in Kashmir cause any serious diminution in the area of grazing-land. There can be no doubt that the Gujars with their buffaloes and the Bakkrwals with their goats cause great and wanton injury to the forests, nor that the grazing tax of Rs. 1.40 per milk buffalo and Rs. 5 per hundred head of goats is an inadequate payment for the grazing and the damage caused thereby to trees. But Kashmir is a favourite haunt of the graziers, and even if forest conservancy be made stricter and grazing fees be enhanced, buffaloes and goats will still be brought. (Page 392)

Lawrence further notes the following figures of exports  of Ghi: (page 388)
Year               Amount in Rs.
1886-87          9,19,219
1887-88         11,99,048
1888-89         13,15,862
1889-90         15,49,744
1890-91         14,55,813
1891-92         15,79,640
1892-93         16,58,172

(Note: this was the amount in currency as given in the book which was published in 1895. Adjusted for inflation the figures would be far greater. )

The price of Ghi as noted by Lawrence is found on page 245:

“Ghi used to sell at 4 seers per Rupee. Now sells at 3 or 2.5 seers.”

Kashmir produces a large quantity of ghi (Kashmiri rogan), and though cows and goats furnish a part of this ‘ butter of India,’ the great proportion of ghi is made from the milk of the buffalo. It has been the policy of the rulers of Kashmir to encourage the Gujars to take up their abode in the valley. Exemption from forced labour and an assessment in cash have induced these nomads to settle down, and all around the valley on the
fringe of the forest the flat-topped Gujars’ huts, hidden in maize crops, may be seen. The Gujar cares little for his hut or his fields. He calls himself the lord of the forests, and directly the snows have melted on the high mountains he and his family, putting on their best clothes, hurry off with the buffaloes to the heights. There they live a healthy gipsy life in wigwams, and make butter. This butter is bought up by Panjab traders, who convert the butter into ghi. In the summer months, when the grass is rich, 40 seers of butter will yield 32 seers of ghi. The middleman, of course, makes all the profit, and he increases his ghi by adulteration. Into 8 seers of ghi he will put 2 seers of walnut oil, but as walnut oil is now rising in price this form of adulteration will possibly cease. When the middleman receives the butter from the Gujar he salts it, and sometimes keeps it two months before he makes it into ghi. All Gujars are slaves of the middleman, by virtue of the rekh, or system of advances. I have often urged the Gujars to set themselves free and to participate in the rise in the price of ghi, but the Kashmiri Gujar is as stupid and slow as his friend and companion the buffalo. It is touching to notice how absolutely bound up in his buffalo the Gujar is. He thinks of nothing else and cares for nothing else. (page 360)

The Fourth Bridge

“Srinagar : The Fourth Bridge, Hari Parbat, and in the distance Kotwal and Harmuk.”

Zaina Kadal, The fourth (of seven) bridges of Srinagar.

Photo from, A Woman’s Life for Kashmir – Irene Petrie (1903)

Zaina Kadal was (in)famous for rumours. The Kashmiri saying “Zaen Kadalich khabar”, (literally, the news of Zaina Kadal) means ‘a rumour’.

The Zaina-kadal, or fourth bridge of the city, used to be the place where false rumours were hatched, but now the news makers have moved to the first bridge, the Amiran-kadal. Though the wise knew that Khabar-i-Zaina-kadal  was false, the majority are not wise, and much misery is caused to the villagers by the reports which emanate from the city.

Walter E. Lawrence – The Valley of Kashmir (1895)

A Coffee Revolution in Egypt

From Aden, the use of coffee extended to Mecca, Medina and other cities and towns of Arabia, the knowledge and taste for it rapidly spreading outwards from that country to Syria and Persia. Public coffeehouses being everywhere established, also in many of the other countries in western Asia, affording, according to one authority, ” a lounge for the idle and a relaxation for the man of business, where the politician retailed the news of the state ; the poet recited his verses, and the Mollahs  delivered their sermons to the frequenters.” But the  mania for coffee becoming so great about this period,  particularly in Syria, that an effort was made by authority  of the government to check, if not to entirely suppress, the further growth of its consumption among the inhabitants, on the alleged ground of ” its intoxicating properties,” but in reality because of its use leading to social and festive gatherings, incompatible with the strictness and teaching of the Mahometan religion.


PS: Aden is a seaport in Yemen.

On Kashmir

“… it is a life of small things played out amid gigantic surroundings, this existence in the happy valley hidden away from the outer world behind the great mountain barriers. Shuttered-in boats float by on the river, camps of unknown folk pass one on the road, occasionally greetings are exchanged with folk whom we knew not before and shall not meet again. It is a restful, unfettered, unique life amid all the beauties of a country decorated by Nature in her most varied manner, a land that is like a dream when one is in it, that haunts one with the reality of an obsession when its snowy peaks and flower-filled valleys have been exchanged for grey skies and grimy towns.”