Towards the end of November 2016, panic gripped the Gurez area of Bandipora district in north Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged heavy mortar shelling along the Line of Control (LoC).
The intensity of shelling by Pakistan was so high that dozens of mortar shells landed in Dawar area of Gurez. People ran for their lives and took shelter in safer places. The continued cross border mortar shelling made residents of this town highly apprehensive of an escalation in border tensions.
As the line of control between India and Pakistan again hots up and the ceasefire seems to be a forgotten memory, Gurez seem to be doomed to be among the sites of constant warfare between two nuclear powers.
Gurez is 86 kilometers from Bandipore, and 123 kilometers from Srinagar.
While its modern history plagued by war tensions, it may come as a surprise to many that this picturesque valley that was once the gateway to the famous silk route across Asia.
The Gurez valley is home to the Dard tribe, the aboriginals of this land. Gurez, spelt by some as Gurais, is part of Dardistan, an old civilization. The Dard people are an ethnic group found predominantly in Gurez and the adjoining regions, and also in northern Pakistan, North West India and eastern Afghanistan.
The language of the Dard tribe is Shin, also known by the names Sheena, Sina, Shinaki and Brokpa.
The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC, had mentioned about the Dard tribe in his works.
Gurez Valley is today one of the far-flung regions of Jammu and Kashmir, cut off for nearly seven months every year.
But it was not always a remote, far-flung land.
Gurez was once a vital stopover on the Silk Route connecting Kashmir to Kashgar, an oasis city in Xinjiang province of China. Gurez was part of this highly strategic route of the ancient world. Its unique location made the Dards a highly powerful tribe.
Michael Benanav, an author and freelance photographer known for immersing in foreign cultures and bringing compelling images and stories back from distant places, has done a most compelling photo-feature on Gurez. Benanav had recorded in his works that the Dard Shin people, who are ethnically different from Kashmiris, were so fair-skinned that they looked like descendants of a lost tribe from Ireland.
At the peak of their power, the influence of the Dards extended from northern Afghanistan to central Tibet.
At that time, the homeland of the Dard tribe was spread across multiple valleys in the folds of the Himalayas. The influence of the Dards was also recorded by other ancient Greek and Roman historians.
The region where the Dardic language Shin was spoken extended from Gilgit, Yasin, Satpara, Baltistan and other areas in this Himalayan belt. This wide belt spread over thousands of kilometers.
The Dards also find mention in the Rajtarangni, an exceptional historical chronicle written in 1148 in Sanskrit verse by the Kashmiri Brahmin, Kalhana. Rajtarangni is a Sanskrit word that means ‘River of Kings’.
The Rajtarangni covers the entire span of history of the Kashmir region from the earliest times. British historian Sir Aurel Stein had extensively studied Rajtarangni. After studying Rajtarangni, Sir Aurel Stein noted that the seat of Dards had not changed since the time of Herodotus.
With such a glorious history, it was not surprising that this region should be home to wondrous archealogical treasures.
The ancient capital of the Dards, Dawar, is located in the Gurez Valley and is an important archaeological site. Other archaeological sites of importance in the valley include Kanzilwan, where the last council of Buddhism is believed to have been held and, further downstream, the ruins of the ancient Sharada University are preserved along the Kishenganga/Neelum River.
Archaeological surveys in valleys north of Gurez have uncovered hundreds of carved inscriptions in Kharoshthi, Brahmi, and Tibetan. In particular, the carvings provide insights into the origins of the Kashmiri people and the early history of Buddhism.
Prior to the Partition of Kashmir, Gurez had been a popular destination for foreign tourists. In 1925, Ted and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of the 26th president of the United States of America, visited Gurez. The brothers had set out for an expedition to the Pamirs, Turkestan and the Tian Shan mountains.
Ted and Kermit Roosevelt also wrote a book on this expedition, titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The richly illustrated book, spanning over 284 pages, has a picture of Rahima Lone and his brother Khalil Lone, the celebrated and affluent hunters of Bandipore, on the cover of the book, along with the Roosevelt brothers.
During the colonial period, Gurais was often visited by trekkers. Nehru and Indira Gandhi, accompanied by Sheikh Abdullah, were among those who visited the area in the 1940s, fishing for trout at Naranag, one of the lakes in the mountains above the valley.
Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, the first Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir, wrote a travel book on Kashmir. The travel book, published in 1895, is recognized as a masterpiece of the history of the Kashmir region.
Sir Lawrence wrote in the book that he visited Gurez in 1894. He found this valley “the most beautiful of Kashmir’s ‘Margs’, those beautiful stretches of turf which, ringed round with great forests, lie at an elevation of from 7,000 to 9,000 feet above the sea.”
About Gurez, Sir Lawrence wrote: “Gurez is a lovely valley of substantial length lying at an elevation of about 8,000 ft. above sea. The Kishenganga river flows through it, and on either side tower mountain scraps of indescribable grandeur. Perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of Kashmir is the grove of huge poplars through which the traveler enters the Gurez valley.”
In India, the homeland of the Dard tribe is limited to the fertile, 50-mile cleft carved through the Himalayas by the muscular Kishanganga River.
Gurez is one of the most favoured destinations for foreign tourists who seek exciting trekking adventures. Trekking routes from Gurez and neighbouring Tilel lead up to Gangabal and Sonamorg to its east and Drass , Dahanu and Zanskar to its north.
The small village of Kunzalwan is a very important archaeological site in the Gurez Valley. The last council of Buddhism is believed to have been held here. In old chronicles, the name of the village is mentioned as Kundhalwan. Further downstream, a few kilometers from Bagtore, the ruins of the ancient Sharada Peeth (now under Pakistan’s occupation) are preserved along the Kishenganga River.
Michael Benanav, the photographer who extensively worked in Gurez, later founded the Traditional Cultures Project (TCP). Benanav was the first Western photographer to enter Gurez in at least six decades. In his report written for TCP, Benanav wrote about Gurez. “A deeply isolated place that was beautiful and weird, idyllic and surreal, at once an alpine Shangri-La and a militarized zone.”
Benanav and his traveling companion spent weeks walking the length of the valley, eating and sleeping in the homes of local Dards along the way. “They were both struck by how fragile Gurez seemed, both environmentally and culturally, and wondered what would happen to this very special place once tourists found out about it,” Benanav wrote in his Gurez memoir.
The physical isolation of Gurez Valley has protected and preserved its environmental and cultural treasures. It has also kept it largely unchanged.
Benanav visited Gurez Valley in the end of 2007.
Writing for the Traditional Cultures Project, Benanav wrote: The crooked wooden villages that dot the floodplain look like something straight out of an old folk tale. Most have no electricity, plumbing, or telephone. For half the year, the villagers are completely sealed off from the rest of the world, as the one road in and out of the valley is buried deep beneath snow. Most families farm small plots of potatoes, vegetables, and spices. In the highlands surrounding Gurez, nomadic shepherds arrive every summer from other parts of Kashmir, and from Punjab, to graze their goats.
It is remarkable that what he wrote about Gurez in 2008 is true about the valley even today, close to a decade later.
Even today, Gurez does not have regular supply of electricity. Generator power is available only for a few hours every day. Wifi and internet are alien words for most people of the Dardic tribe who have never been out of the valley. Houses are made of log wood. Potato and rajma dal are the major foods one finds here.
Today, rolls of concertina wires – barbed, razor wires – cut across the undulating slopes of Gurez, hurting cattle and smaller animals. The barbed wires confuse the gentle villagers of Gurez. They cannot figure out why their valley, where crime is rare, should be slashed haphazardly by these menacing wires.
These concertina rolls over Gurez are a sad addition to a land that has a rich, glorious history.
Gurez has a unique richness in terms of fauna and flora. The valley is home to beautiful, exotic flowers and plants. One can also find here the endangered snow leopard, hangul deer, barking deer, musk deer, black bear, markhor, ibex and marmot.
Almost 125 years later, what Sir Walter Lawrence had written about the verdant Gurez valley was still unchanged.
Michael Benanav correctly observed that most people in Gurez want tourists to come, imagining the money that will flow in with them to this poverty-stricken place. “Some dream of visitors arriving on helicopter tours from Srinagar; others want to promote fishing and hunting; one person even suggested that a golf resort could be built there,” noted Benanav.
Gurez has now become an area of international interest. In these hectic, modern times, the quiet and slow life of Gurez seems like a slice of history from an ancient time.
Many researchers may want to record how the traditional life in the Gurez Valley is affected by the introduction of tourism to the region. Benanav wrote in his Gurez memoir: “Having experienced it before any kind of tourist industry or infrastructure existed, we are in a unique position to gauge its impact over time – for better and for worse, and certainly for different.” He is right. As Gurez comes more prominently on the world map, it will change. Perhaps in a few decades from now, it will be different.
First Published on DailyO