A brief history of Kashmir Literature – Part I

Dr. V. Mohan
Assistant Director and Head,
Department of Classical Languages, C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research, Chennai.

The literature of Kashmir dates back to many centuries and it revolves mainly around three languages, Sanskrit, Persian and Kashmiri besides Urdu, Hindi and other languages.

Kashmir and Sanskrit

In ancient times Kashmir was the ‘high school’ of Sanskrit learning and scholars from various parts of India came there to study the śāstras from learned teachers. “For upward of two thousand years,” states Grierson, “Kashmir has been the home of Sanskrit learning and from this small valley has issued masterpieces of history, poetry, romance, fable and philosophy. Kashmiris are proud, and justly proud, of the literary glories of their land. For centuries it (Kashmir) was the home of the greatest Sanskrit scholars and at least one religion, Saivism, has found some of its most eloquent teachers on the banks of the Vitasta. Some of the greatest Sanskrit poets were born and wrote in the valley, and from it has issued in the Sanskrit language a world-famous collection of folk-lore.”1 According to Bilhana, a famous poet of Kashmir, ‘even women in Kashmir spoke Sanskrit and Prakrit quite fluently’.

Rāja Taraṅgiṇī of Kalhaṇa  

Of all the literature covering varied branches of erudition in Sanskrit in which the Kashmiris credited to themselves, the availability of an uninterrupted series of written records of its history, reaching beyond medieval times, is remarkable. In fact, the writing of history seems to have been a traditional art. Kalhaṇa, the outstanding historian cum poet par excellence of Kashmir, mentions the existence of eleven earlier compositions on the history of Kashmir which he consulted to write his magnum opus, Rājataraṅgiṇī. Kalhaṇa mentions by name some of the texts on the history of Kashmir which he consulted – Nṛpāvalī of Kṣhemendra, chronicles of Padmamihira and Chavillakaran and the Nīlamata purāṇa. This belives Macdonnel’s statement that, “No work of a directly historical character is met with in Sanskrit literature till after the Muhammadan conquest. This is the Rājatarṅgiṇī or ‘River of Kings’, a chronicle of the kings of Kashmir, begun by its author, Kalhaṇa in 1148 A.D.”2

Kalhaṇa’s qualities as a historian are unsurpassed. His honesty of purpose is remarkable. He himself puts forth the ideal in the following words:

“That man of merit (poet) deserves praise whose language, like that of a judge in recounting the events of the past, has discarded bias as well as prejudice”3

After Kalhaṇa, scholars like Jonaraja, Śrīvara, Prājya bhatta and others followed suit by recording the chronicles of Kashmir history. Further, even after the advent of Muslim rule, Sanskrit continued to be the language for transacting official business. However, with the patronage bestowed upon the Persian language and literature by the Muslim rulers, Sanskrit was gradually driven to the background and histories written in Persian by eminent scholars in Kashmiri emerged.

Contributions from various scholars

The literature of Kashmir in the first thousand years of the Common Era was mostly in Sanskrit and the contribution of Kashmiri scholars like Dāmodaragupta, Abhinavagupta, Kalhaṇa, Ānanda Vardhana, Bilhaṇa, Kṣhemaraja, Māṅkha, Mammaṭa Bhatta, Kaiyaṭa, Vāmana, Piṅgalācārya, Kedāra Bhatta , Bhatta Udbhata and others is pre-eminent in the history of Sanskrit literature. The contribution of the erudite scholars of Kashmir to Sanskrit language and literature is indeed remarkable and outstanding. The pandits of Kashmir made an important contribution to the study of Vedic literature, grammar and philology. Kashmiri Śaivism, known as the Trika system of Śaiva Tāntric philosophy, is a gift, of Kashmir to the field of spiritualism and philosophy. This school is named as Kashmiri Saivism because the writers who developed it and enriched its literature belonged to and flourished in Kashmir.

New thoughts and developments in the field of Sanskrit Poetics- Rasa (Sentiment)

The contributions by the scholars of Kashmir in the fields of Sanskrit poetics (alaṇkāra śāstra) and prosody are quite outstanding and an outcome of an entirely innovative thinking. Lollaṭa (early 9th century) championed the theory of rasa (sentiment) in kāvyas, based on the aphorisms of Bharata, saying that the rasa belongs to the performer only; however, his contemporary Sankuka advocated that it belong to the spectators as well. Bhatta Nayaka, another scholar from Kashmir, explained further that the rasa in its final state as communion with the Highest Spirit. Abhinanavagupta, a scholar par excellence, defined rasa as His manifestation.

The theory of Dhvani (aesthetic suggestion)

But it is for their theory of Dhvani, a unique contribution to the science of poetics, that the Kashmiri authors deserve credit and appreciation. Ānandavardhana, (9th century CE) the innovator of this philosophy in poetics, asserts that ‘aesthetic suggestion’ is the soul of poetry. According to P.V. Kane, “the Dhvanyāloka is an epoch-making work in the history of Alaṅkāra literature. It occupies the same position in the Alaṅkāraśāstra as Pāṇinī’s sutras in grammar and the Vedānta sūtras in Vedānta.”4   The Dhvanyāloka marked the beginning of a new age in aesthetics. Abhinavagupta (10th century CE), a versatile and an erudite scholar, wrote a commentary on Dhvanyāloka. Abhinavagupta deserves our special mention owing to his mastery in many fields. Besides being a famous poet, he was a critic, philosopher, musician, dramatist and saint of Kashmir. He wrote profusely almost in all subjects. Tantrāloka, his magnum opus comprises of various matters.

Buddhist literature in Sanskrit

Buddhism found its root in the valley during the reign of Aśoka and the texts and literature of the new religion were written in Sanskrit in Kashmir while Pāli was used in the rest of the country. When a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts written on birch-bark was discovered in the regions of the Central Asian uplands and the only lot of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts ever discovered in India were from Gilgit in Kashmir. Moreover, during Aśoka’s period, Sanskrit was written both in Kharosṭhi and the Brahmi script. Later, the Kashmiri scholars developed a script of their own, Śāradā, though differing from the Devanāgari in details, follows its essentials.

Influence of the Persian Language

Kashmir was ruled by the kings of Zain-ul Abidin’s family till the first half of the sixteenth century followed by the reign of Muslim sultans of the Chak dynasty for a little over three decades from 1555 to 1586. The period from 1586 upto 1748 is known as the Moghul period in the medieval history of Kashmir. This period is an important phase in the history of literature as the influence of the Persian language started permeating. Persian replaced Sanskrit for the mass of the people and the Muslim religion was also well established. However, the affinity to bring about a harmony of Hindu thought and Sufism continued almost among all classes of people.

Literary writings in the Persian language

With the establishment of Muslim rule in the north-western parts of India in the middle of eleventh century, Persian words entered the Sanskrit vocabulary. As patronage extended to Persian scholarships by the Sultans, Sanskrit receded to the background and the study of Persian language and literature reached the forefront. Art and literature flourished well in the fifteenth century under the patronage of one of the most famous monarchs, Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470). The king knew both Sanskrit and Persian and encouraged the growth of literature in both the languages. However, Persian replaced Sanskrit as the court language. Under his patronage, Mulla Ahmed completed a Persian translation of Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅginī, under the title Bahr-ui-Asmar. Unfortunately, this work is not available now. The Mahābhārata too was translated into Persian by him. In fact, a number of Sanskrit, Persian and Kashmiri poets were patronised by the Sultan during his kingship.

The Sikhs under king Ranjit Singh of Lahore wrested Kashmir from the Afghans in 1819.  The Sikhs from Punjab intervened and helped the local people from the harassment of the Afghan rulers. Kashmir became a part of the Sikh state, governed by governors from Lahore till 1848. In 1848, Jammu and Kashmir became one state under the rule of the Dogra Rajput dynasty from Jammu. The Persian language and literature thereupon continued its influence as Persian was also the official language of the Sikhs.


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