Once upon a time, millions of years ago, the earth was a single garden island, an emerald studded on a sapphire. And in this garden, there were no fences or thickets dividing it. Nothing was out of bounds for anyone: it was a playground for all the children of nature. The earth was a single and vast clod—the United Continents of Pangaea—as all land masses had coalesced like a group of bubbles that stick together, back to back, to escape the surrounding water. Or, as cowherds would put it, “the land was like a lump of butter that has surfaced after the churning of the primordial ocean.” It was as if nature was forging a deal and making sure that its children—the plants and animals that would thrive in her garden—would play the same game and follow the same rules. But each one would wield the power to build a team or oust some player out. May the beast, er, best one, win. Pop! One bubble bursts and another one is eaten by a bigger one. Or, as our cowherd friends would insist, “If the butter can not be extracted by a straight finger, bend the rules.”
Touch base was over and from this deceivingly unified mass, out emerged two teams: Laurasia and Gondwanaland. The first team took position in the northern hemisphere, and the latter, in the southern. Like the scattered pieces of a colossal jigsaw puzzle, they went to occupy the far corners of this vast playground. The Laurasian team broke in its formation. North America you go there, Europe you take that position, and Asia, don’t let anyone through. The Gondwanaland players also took position. Antarctica, defend from the back with Australia-New Guinea and New Zealand. South America, you tackle North America. Africa, lead from the front and Madagascar, stand by. And India, go attack! Ahem, attach!
About forty-five million years ago, surfing on a tectonic plate, like a sperm on a collision-course with an egg, the northward-bound Indian subcontinent head-collided with Asia, forcing the crust to buckle and fold, forming the tallest mountains in the world, sentinels to the south and north, the Himalayas. In celebration of the reunion between North and South, a vast lake got raised like a flagon by the mountains, a trophy full of clear and bubbling champagne: Kashmir!
Kashmir was a submerged valley nestled in the north-western folds of the Himalayas, kept safe on all sides by grizzly peaks that poured the purest snow-melt sweet water into it. And adorning the vast lake’s beautiful face like a bindi was a volcanic island from which a plume of smoke arose like a serpent to eat the sun.
The greatest creations arise out of a crash landing and some of us say that life itself started after a meteor crashed on earth (true or false, I won’t tell). The point is that birth is never without its accidental big bang, without a ripping and rending of flesh, without the breaking of an eggshell. Rupture to rapture, the collision of India with Asia, this clash of civilisations, led to a unique creation: Kashmir!
Kashmir was an odd-eyed baby—blue in one eye and brown in the other—that had inherited the features of its two parents: North and South. She was a split-personality baby in whose mongrel mind contradictions thrived in the same time, leading to transmogrification and synthesis. She was a place where the crosscurrents of the world met, a place where the four corners of Time folded into a point (so now you understand why I chose the valley). Human had difficulty getting in and, because of its beauty, difficulty in moving out. So it became a place where the refuge of cultures thrived and survived. She was a cauldron of change, an epicentre of unrest that would occasionally rock the world—for India continued moving against Asia—and a microcosm that reflected the gigantic forces that sculpt the collective future of the human species.
Any sentient creature opportune enough to view this virgin lake would have exulted. And, perchance, if the hypothetical creature had any semblance of language, these are the words it would have spoken in its strange tongue:
Here is the central axis of the universal wheel!
Here is the microcosm that reflects
All the grandeur and glory of the heavens!
The omphalos of the divine mother!
It is here, it is here, it is here!
So, for millions of years, this vast lake remained in this pristine form, pregnant with possibilities. Then, one day, her waters broke and a daughter was born. What happened was this. A devastating earthquake opened the mountain wall on the west of this submerged valley and water gushed out of a gorge leaving behind fertile lacustrine mud on the margins of the mountains. Once the valley was drained, the small volcanic island was the first piece of dry land to get exposed, emerging from the receding water was Gopadhri or Takht-e-Suleiman.
Kashmir! Yes it was tiny, but it was an intricate place. This eighty miles long and twenty-five miles wide valley was adorned with Wular—the largest freshwater lake in the Indian subcontinent—and a host of smaller but even more regaling lakes. A placid river called Vyeth or The Way crossed the length of this valley and left the smooth grassy banks, hurrying headlong down its rocky course through the gorge to the southern plains.
There was a saying:
Kailash is the best place in the Three Worlds
Himalaya is the best place in Kailash
Kashmir is the best place in Himalaya
Thus was created the Happy Valley, the faraway Eden hidden in the mountains. So fertile was this oval womb-shaped valley that the human beings who came to occupy it aeons later likened it to Uma or The Womb, the cradle of civilization.
© Sualeh Keen