Romance in the hills

Naad ha layei, Myani Yusufo wallo
[Am calling out for you, come my Yusuf]
~quoted by the wandering Zoon, also known by her famous nom de plume, Habba Khatoon, the ravishing beauty, songster wife of Kashmir’s last independent king Yusuf Shah Chak

The year is 1579. The day is cloudy and unseasonably cool. There is talk that Emperor Akbar in a fit of secular benevolence has abolished Jizya – per capita tax on the unbelievers – and the plains of neighboring Hindustan are agog with songs of gramercy. Kashmir is a tiny independent kingdom, ringed by the mahogany mountains of Pir Panjal. A lot of wild strawberry has grown in the valley this season. Early morning a white horse has been seen cantering in the hills. The lone horseman appears regal. More than a huntsman, he looks like someone chasing Monarch butterflies.

Yusuf Shah Chak ascended to the throne earlier that year after a bitter power struggle with his uncle Abdul Chak. The Chaks originally came on horsebacks from the country of Dards, a beautiful but godforsaken land sandwiched between 16th century Afghanistan and Kashmir. Ghazi Khan Chak, the first ruler, established the Chak dynasty in Kashmir in 1555, around the same time that Humayun, the Mughal scion [who died a year later, catching his foot in the royal robe, while descending stairs at dawn] began his second reign in Hindustan. Over the years Kashmir grew on the Chaks.

The Chaks were generous but quarrelsome. They had unusual foes. On an expedition to Ladakh in 1562, Ghazi Chak got severe frostbites and was forced to abdicate to his brother Husain Shah Chak. After Husain Shah, the throne went to the younger brother Ali Chak. Yusuf Shah Chak, the tall, springy and nimble footed horseman, son to Ali, would be the last Chak king and the last independent Kashmiri ruler till Sheikh Abdullah assumed emergency powers 361 years later, in 1947. Ofcourse Yusuf knew not what fate had in store when he strode his fine steed that mild morning.

***

The young king was given to solitary bouts of roving in the hills. In those days people used to say that he was a tramp-king and he went to the woods to watch the mating rituals of woodpeckers. The court whisper was that the king likes the heady scents of the jungle. In the middle of a forest a faint wind laden with the perfume of a million perfumeries blew. It came from the bosom of the hills. Yusuf Shah Chak strode uphill to find out the origin. The horse was racing at 9,000 feet above sea level. Just when the ride would begin to feel schlepping, the king stumbled across the origin of fragrance.

It was a meadow that resembled a rainbow. Everywhere Yusuf looked he saw color.

Violet Wisterias made frenetic love to bumble-bees with orange tails. The king alighted from his horse and took off his sandals. He ran barefoot on pea-colored grass that had remained untrampled for ages. Where he stopped to catch some breath, lofty pines grew teensy carnation, near their bases. A little ahead pink roses bloomed by a brook that had lots of slippery cobbles in it. As the Sultan hunkered down to reflect at his sudden discovery, an ewe, white as full moon, appeared from nowhere. Yusuf was convinced that he had sauntered into a lee of paradise. He named it Gulmarg [the land of flowers].

***

Thick woods hide entire villages in them. And people in those villages too. And their little secrets. Yusuf was to unloop some of it. An incredibly captivating beauty named Zoon [Kashmiri for Moon] by her poor peasant parents lived in one such hutment called Chandhoor. She sang Kashmiri songs in a high careful voice in the orchards near to her hut. Local lore has it that the nature-loving king riding incognito nearby heard her one evening. Yusuf was in torpor upon seeing her. She too fell for the handsome royal having no knowledge of his superior pedigree. Though already married Zoon eloped with Yusuf. They spent warm nights on haystacks under moonshine. Zoon became Habba Khatoon [Lady Love] to the king of Kashmir. Srinagar’s Habba Kadal is named after her.

***

Courts are such sly places. Especially during the onset of winters. While the king was galloping in the country, exploring new pastures untouched by old miseries, the powerful courtiers in Srinagar put their scheming heads together. The fat men rallied around a rebel Syed Mubarak Khan. One evening — when the early winter wafts made chill against the skin if you rode too fast — Yusuf Shah Chak left Srinagar to greet a million migratory birds. The first light of morning brought with it the tweedle of whistling Mallards, Greyleg Geese and amatory Gadwalls. Shovellers made mystic melody-pipe music. Flocks of triangle-headed Pochards and bald Coots had come quietly in the dark. Now there was a chirruping riot. In Srinagar the king had been overthrown.

The first reign of Yusuf Shah Chak lasted a little over year. He was brought down by a band of rebels in 1580. An exile in his own land, the deposed king attempted to gather men and means with much difficulty to fight his well-entrenched adversaries. When at first Yusuf failed to take the crown back he approached Emperor Akbar for help, thereby sowing the first seeds of Hindustan’s interest in Kashmir. Akbar initially procrastinated. Yusuf changed his mind and decided to go it alone. He made a final push to reclaim power. The battle of Sopore, fought between Yusuf Shah Chak and Lohar Shah was decisive. It resulted in a resounding victory for Yusuf. With a dragon-lance in his hand he triumphantly marched on to Srinagar.

The tramp king was back.

**

Hobnobbing with big empires is often a risky affair. Akbar never took too kindly to Yusuf’s fickle change of mind. Emissaries came down from Agra – Mughal capital – asking Yusuf to attend Akbar’s court and pay respects. Yusuf, the mellow-hearted, might have obliged but for stiff opposition from the fiercely independent minded nobles and supporters who wanted nothing to do with Akbar or Hindustan. Eventually he didn’t go. Thus began the Mughal scorn for Yusuf and Kashmir’s much vaunted sense of independence.

The Mughal onslaught was swift. It came in 1586. Yusuf was called for secret talks in the middle of the war. Chroniclers write that escorted by four bodyguards on horses, Yusuf Shah Chak arrived at his advance post. A fine rain was falling. The wind blew the rain across his handsome face. He bade farewell to his kingdom and rode for Hindustan. That was the last he saw of his beloved Kashmir, his beloved Zoon. He was promptly imprisoned.

The Mughal imperialism was complete. Kashmir was their northern-most outpost.

To this day Kashmiris hum the poetry of loss sung by Yusuf Shah Chak’s peasant queen, walking the tracks of Kashmir’s hauntingly surreal landscape:

Katue Chuk nound Banyo

Walla Mashooq Myano

[Where are you, my dapper love/Come home my beau]

The effrontery may have been battered but the romance lives on.

PS: Yusuf Shah Chak, Kashmir’s last independent king, died in 1591. He is buried in a nondescript village called Biswak, near Nalanda in Bihar. Following year 1592 his son Yakub Shah Chak was poisoned. Habba Khatoon’s simple grave is located near Athwajan on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.

The Mughals ruled Kashmir for 167 years, with the help of 35 governors.

(Sameer Bhat is a middle-east based Kashmiri blogger and a free-lance journalist. He has written political blogs and essays on Kashmir for several leading publications. His poems have appeared in CounterPunch USA and Poet’s Basement)