Musings on Influential Travellers to Kashmir

Ashok Ogra
Initially, the book title ‘Eleven Unforgettable Travelers to Kashmir’ did not spark any excitement in me. Above all the travelers included in the book were not shrouded in anonymity. Their biographical sketches, while meticulously detailed by the author, offered scant new insights into their lives or contributions. And yet despite this initial disappointment, the book revealed its true essence as the author, blogger, poet, documentarian, Avtar Mota, brilliantly situates these travelers within the lush landscapes and rich history of Kashmir. The author evokes the essence of a place and a bygone era. Mota adeptly resurrects forgotten chapters of our past, illuminating them with a vibrancy that resonates from page to page. What emerges is the contribution of these travelers that are not typically in the spotlight but are significant to be retold.
The Nobel Laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, set foot in Kashmir for the first time in 1915. Through the discerning observations of Mota, we are privy to Tagore’s enchantment with the valley, particularly during the autumn season. It was here, by the serene banks of the Jhelum River, that he found solace and inspiration in thoughtful silence. Tagore drew parallels between the Jhelum and his beloved Padma, a connection that fueled the creation of his famed “Balaka” (Flight of Cranes) series of poems that vividly capture the frenetic dance of geese, their wings whipped into frenzy by the storm, their joyous cacophony a testament to the boundless wonder of the skies above.
An intriguing historical footnote reveals that the pilgrim register of the Martand temple bears the signature of this distinguished visitor from Bengal, marking his presence in Kashmir.
The authors dwells on role played by Master Zinda Kaul and Pandit Anand Kaul (Bamzai) in orchestrating Tagore’s visit, culminating in a memorable gathering of city’s leading intellectuals and writers at ZainaKadal, Srinagar.
The author rigorously chronicles the visit of another Nobel Laureate, V.S. Naipaul, who found solace in the beauty of Srinagar. Naipaul’s reflections paint a picture of silent boat lanes, the rhythmic passage of grass-laden boats, and the mystical interplay of clouds and mountains – a testament to the enduring allure of Kashmir’s landscapes. “The clouds fell low over the mountains, sometimes in a level bank and sometimes shredding far into the valleys. The temple at the top of the Shankaracharya hill, one thousand feet above us, was hidden. We would think of the lonely Brahmin up there, with his woolen cap and small charcoal brazier (kangri) below his pinky brown blanket.”
Acutely conscious of the voluminous literature already available on Mahatma Gandhi’s visits to Kashmir, Mota delves into the lesser-known aspects of his sojourns. From prayer meetings to heartfelt interactions with the local populace, these anecdotes offer a glimpse into the Mahatma’s profound connection with Kashmir. “The Mahatma visited Dr.Peshin’s hospital and interacted with patients there. He was also brought to Sheetal Nath by some Kashmiri Pandit leaders. Gandhi did not address any public meeting in Kashmir, but whatever he had to say, he conveyed it in his evening prayer meetings held in the spacious lawns of Kishori Lal Sathi’s residence at Barzulla, Srinagar,” Mota writes.
The author adds depth when recounting Bollywood legend Dilip Kumar’s affinity for the valley. Mota shares interesting anecdotes of the actor’s visits, from feeding fish in the Mattan spring to attending musical gatherings in Srinagar. One such Mehfil was organized by Bashir Bakshi, wherein Vijay Malla and Ghulam Nabi Sheikh sang Ghazals. The thespian was impressed by the Urdu Ghazals sung by Vijay Malla. Capt S.K. Tikoo remembers Dilip Kumar attending the marriage ceremony of Janki Ganju at Karan Nagar. Ganju used to work as a lobbyist for the Indian Embassy in Washington.
Despite the prominence given to these celebrated figures, the author also pays homage to lesser-known contributors like the Neve brothers (Ernest and Robert), pioneers of modern medicine in Kashmir. Mota informs us that in 1888, they both converted the allopathic dispensary at Drogjan (just below Shankaracharya Hill) into a full-fledged hospital with 135 beds. They also established the Kashmir State Leprosy Hospital. Both Ernest and Arthur travelled extensively across the length and breadth of the Kashmir valley and Ladakh and authored several books including ‘Thirty Years in Kashmir,’ ‘Beyond Pir Panchal,’ ‘Crusaders in Kashmir’. . Dr. Arthur Neve died in Srinagar in September 1919. He was given a state funeral with thousands of people attending the procession. The author laments that no memorial or hospital has been named after them.
As the narrative weaves through the diverse experiences of each traveler, it becomes evident that Kashmir has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of those who have wandered its paths. From the cinematic endeavors of David Lean, who shot the houseboat sequence featuring Victor Banerjee for the film ‘A Passage to India’ in 1983, to the poetic reflections of Firaq Gorakhpuri, the book captures the essence of Kashmir through the eyes of its visitors, offering an intriguing tapestry of encounters. Referring to an evening get-together that had been arranged in honor of Firaq, the author regales the readers with amusing situations: “the moment Firaq Sahib entered, the liquor and poetry session started once more in full swing.”
In the waning years of the 19th century, Swami Vivekananda emerged as a figure of profound distinction. His sojourns to Kashmir in September 1897 and again in the summer of 1898 were marked by moments of profound introspection and revelation. As a guest of Justice Rishibar Mukhopadhyaya and Nilambar Mukhopadhyaya, luminaries serving under Maharaja Pratap Singh, his presence in Srinagar was not just a visit but a mission to establish a spiritual haven-a Math-for his followers. Yet, this dream was thwarted by the British authorities, a setback that could not dampen his indomitable spirit.
With great devotion, Mota recollects Swami Vivekananda’s pilgrimage to the sacred Khirbhawani temple. “Swami Ji had been thinking over the vandalism of the temple by the Muslim invaders. Troubled at heart, he thought: How could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering tough resistance! If I had been here then, I would have never allowed such a thing. I would have laid down my life to defend the mother.”
Thereupon, he heard the voice of the Goddess saying: “What if unbelievers should enter my temple and defile my image? What is that to you? Do you protect me, or do I protect you?”

Mota’s singular skill lies in getting to the heart of ambivalences, particularly those that float to the surface in strange situations. Cecil Tyndale Biscoe, formerly a curate in London’s impoverished neighborhoods, ventured from Amritsar to Srinagar in December 1890. Assigned the leadership of four boys’ schools in Fateh Kadal, Anantnag, and two junior schools in Habba Kadal and Rainawari, these institutions were initially established by James Hinton Knowles. Biscoe’s educational philosophy underscored the importance of physical activities, including mountaineering, trekking, boating, football, and cricket, among others. His dedication to education and the upliftment of the marginalized is evident throughout his tenure.
Mota’s detailed observations also shine light on Hungarian born Marc Aurel Stein to whom goes the credit for translating Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’, -The River of Kings from Sanskrit into English. A true polyglot, explorer, archeologist, and geographer, Stein would spent his summers in the serene meadow of Mahand Marg in Ganderbal.
Surrounded by Pandit scholars, Stein’s dedication to Sanskrit manuscripts of Kashmir, inspired by luminaries like Prof. Rudolf Roth and George Buhler, underscores the rich tapestry of academic and cultural exchange.
Exploring the hidden aspects of eleven distinguished travelers to Kashmir, the narrative offers a captivating and immersive experience. Through detailed vignettes, surprising facts, snippets of dialogue, and keen observations, the book not only broadens the mind but also touches the heart. While the traditional elements of these stories may resonate with familiarity for some readers, the depth and diversity of the lesser-known details contribute to a rich and absorbing read.
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)