The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxi.

Of the Province of Keshimur.

Keshimur also is a Province inhabited by a people who are Idolaters and have a language of their own.1 They have an astonishing acquaintance with the devilries of enchantment; insomuch that they make their idols to speak. They can also by their sorceries bring on changes of weather and produce darkness, and do a number of things so extraordinary that no one without seeing them would believe them.2 Indeed, this country is the very original source from which Idolatry has spread abroad.3

In this direction you can proceed further till you come to the Sea of India.

The men are brown and lean, but the women, taking them as brunettes, are very beautiful. The food of the people is flesh, and milk, and rice. The clime is finely tempered, being neither very hot nor very cold. There are numbers of towns and villages in the country, but also forests and desert tracts, and strong passes, so that the people have no fear of anybody, and keep their independence, with a king of their own to rule and do justice.4

There are in this country Eremites (after the fashion of those parts), who dwell in seclusion and practise great abstinence in eating and drinking. They observe strict chastity, and keep from all sins forbidden in their law, so that they are regarded by their own folk as very holy persons. They live to a very great age.5

There are also a number of idolatrous abbeys and monasteries. [The people of the province do not kill animals nor spill blood; so if they want to eat meat they get the Saracens who dwell among them to play the butcher.6] The coral which is carried from our parts of the world has a better sale there than in any other country.7

Illustration: Ancient Buddhist Temple at Pandrethan in Káshmir

Now we will quit this country, and not go any further in the same direction; for if we did so we should enter India; and that I do not wish to do at present. For, on our return journey, I mean to tell you about India: all in regular order. Let us go back therefore to Badashan, for we cannot otherwise proceed on our journey.

NOTE 1. — I apprehend that in this chapter Marco represents Buddhism (which is to be understood by his expression Idolatry, not always, but usually) as in a position of greater life and prosperity than we can believe it to have enjoyed in Káshmir at the end of the 13th century, and I suppose that his knowledge of it was derived in great part from tales of the Mongol and Tibetan Buddhists about its past glories.

I know not if the spelling Kesciemur represents any peculiar Mongol pronunciation of the name. Plano Carpini, probably the first modern European to mention this celebrated region, calls it Casmir (p. 708).

“The Cashmeerians,” says Abu’l Fazl, “have a language of their own, but their books are written in the Shanskrit tongue, although the character is sometimes Cashmeerian. They write chiefly upon Tooz [birch-bark], which is the bark of a tree; it easily divides into leaves, and remains perfect for many years.” (Ayeen Akbery, II. 147.) A sketch of Kashmiri Grammar by Mr. Edgeworth will be found in vol. x. of the J. A. S. B., and a fuller one by Major Leech in vol. xiii. Other contributions on the language are in vol. xxxv. pt. i. p. 233 (Godwin–Austen); in vol. xxxix. pt. i. p. 95 (Dr. Elmslie); and in Proceedings for 1866, p. 62, seqq. (Sir G. Campbell and Bábú Rájendra Lál Mitra). The language, though in large measure of Sanskrit origin, has words and forms that cannot be traced in any other Indian vernacular. (Campbell, pp. 67, 68). The character is a modification of the Panjáb Nagari.

NOTE 2. — The Kashmirian conjurers had made a great impression on Marco, who had seen them at the Court of the Great Kaan, and he recurs in a later chapter to their weather sorceries and other enchantments, when we shall make some remarks. Meanwhile let us cite a passage from Bernier, already quoted by M. Pauthier. When crossing the Pír Panjál (the mountain crossed on entering Káshmir from Lahore) with the camp of Aurangzíb, he met with “an old Hermit who had dwelt upon the summit of the Pass since the days of Jehangir, and whose religion nobody knew, although it was said that he could work miracles, and used at his pleasure to produce extraordinary thunderstorms, as well as hail, snow, rain, and wind. There was something wild in his countenance, and in his long, spreading, and tangled hoary beard. He asked alms fiercely, allowing the travellers to drink from earthen cups that he had set out upon a great stone, but signing to them to go quickly by without stopping. He scolded those who made a noise, ‘for,’ said he to me (after I had entered his cave and smoothed him down with a half rupee which I put in his hand with all humility), ‘noise here raises furious storms. Aurangzíb has done well in taking my advice and prohibiting it. Shah Jehan always did the like. But Jehangir once chose to laugh at what I said, and made his drums and trumpets sound; the consequence was he nearly lost his life.’” (Bernier, Amst. ed. 1699, II. 290.) A successor of this hermit was found on the same spot by P. Desideri in 1713, and another by Vigne in 1837.

NOTE 3. — Though the earliest entrance of Buddhism into Tibet was from India Proper, yet Káshmir twice in the history of Tibetan Buddhism played a most important part. It was in Káshmir that was gathered, under the patronage of the great King Kanishka, soon after our era, the Fourth Buddhistic Council, which marks the point of separation between Northern and Southern Buddhism. Numerous missionaries went forth from Káshmir to spread the doctrine in Tibet and in Central Asia. Many of the Pandits who laboured at the translation of the sacred books into Tibetan were Kashmiris, and it was even in Káshmir that several of the translations were made. But these were not the only circumstances that made Káshmir a holy land to the Northern Buddhists. In the end of the 9th century the religion was extirpated in Tibet by the Julian of the Lamas, the great persecutor Langdarma, and when it was restored, a century later, it was from Káshmir in particular that fresh missionaries were procured to reinstruct the people in the forgotten Law. (See Koeppen, II. 12–13, 78; J. As. sér. VI. tom. vi. 540.)

“The spread of Buddhism to Káshmir is an event of extraordinary importance in the history of that religion. Thenceforward that country became a mistress in the Buddhist Doctrine and the headquarters of a particular school. . . . The influence of Káshmir was very marked, especially in the spread of Buddhism beyond India. From Káshmir it penetrated to Kandahar and Kabul, . . . and thence over Bactria. Tibetan Buddhism also had its essential origin from Káshmir; . . . so great is the importance of this region in the History of Buddhism.” (Vassilyev, Der Buddhismus, I. 44.)

In the account which the Mahawanso gives of the consecration of the great Tope at Ruanwelli, by Dutthagamini, King of Ceylon (B.C. 157), 280,000 priests (!) come from Káshmir, a far greater number than is assigned to any other country except one. (J. A. S. B. VII. 165.)

It is thus very intelligible how Marco learned from the Mongols and the Lamas with whom he came in contact to regard Káshmir as “the very original source from which their Religion had spread abroad.” The feeling with which they looked to Káshmir must have been nearly the same as that with which the Buddhists of Burma look to Ceylon. But this feeling towards Káshmir does not now, I am informed, exist in Tibet. The reverence for the holy places has reverted to Bahar and the neighbouring “cradle-lands” of Buddhism.

It is notable that the historian Firishta, in a passage quoted by Tod, uses Marco’s expression in reference to Káshmir, almost precisely, saying that the Hindoos derived their idolatry from Káshmir, “the foundry of magical superstition.” (Rajasthan, I. 219.)

NOTE 4. — The people of Káshmir retain their beauty, but they are morally one of the most degraded races in Asia. Long oppression, now under the Lords of Jamu as great as ever, has no doubt aggravated this. Yet it would seem that twelve hundred years ago the evil elements were there as well as the beauty. The Chinese traveller says: “Their manners are light and volatile, their characters effeminate and pusillanimous. . . . They are very handsome, but their natural bent is to fraud and trickery.” (Pèl. Boud. II. 167–168.) Vigne’s account is nearly the same. (II. 142–143.) “They are as mischievous as monkeys, and far more malicious,” says Mr. Shaw (p. 292).

[Bernier says: “The women [of Kachemire] especially are very handsome; and it is from this country that nearly every individual, when first admitted to the court of the Great Mogul, selects wives or concubines, that his children may be whiter than the Indians, and pass for genuine Moguls. Unquestionably, there must be beautiful women among the higher classes, if we may judge by those of the lower orders seen in the streets and in the shops.” (Travels in the Mogul Empire, edited by Archibald Constable, 1891, p. 404.)]

NOTE 5. — In the time of Hiuen Tsang, who spent two years studying in Káshmir in the first half of the 7th century, though there were many Brahmans in the country, Buddhism was in a flourishing state; there were 100 convents with about 5000 monks. In the end of the 11th century a King (Harshadeva, 1090–1102) is mentioned exceptionally as a protector of Buddhism. The supposition has been intimated above that Marco’s picture refers to a traditional state of things, but I must notice that a like picture is presented in the Chinese account of Hulaku’s war. One of the thirty kingdoms subdued by the Mongols was “The kingdom of Fo (Buddha) called Kishimi. It lies to the N.W. of India. There are to be seen the men who are counted the successors of Shakia; their ancient and venerable air recalls the countenance of Bodi-dharma as one sees it in pictures. They abstain from wine, and content themselves with a gill of rice for their daily food, and are occupied only in reciting the prayers and litanies of Fo.” (Rém. N. Mél. Asiat. I. 179.) Abu’l Fazl says that on his third visit with Akbar to Káshmir he discovered some old men of the religion of Buddha, but none of them were literati. The Rishis, of whom he speaks with high commendation as abstaining from meat and from female society, as charitable and unfettered by traditions, were perhaps a modified remnant of the Buddhist Eremites. Colonel Newall, in a paper on the Rishis of Káshmir, traces them to a number of Shiáh Sayads, who fled to Káshmir in the time of Timur. But evidently the genus was of much earlier date, long preceding the introduction of Islam. (Vie et V. de H. T. p. 390; Lassen, III. 709; Ayeen Akb. II. 147, III. 151; J. A. S. B. XXXIX. pt. i. 265.)

We see from the Dabistan that in the 17th century Káshmir continued to be a great resort of Magian mystics and sages of various sects, professing great abstinence and credited with preternatural powers. And indeed Vámbéry tells us that even in our own day the Kashmiri Dervishes are preeminent among their Mahomedan brethren for cunning, secret arts, skill in exorcisms, etc. (Dab. I. 113 seqq. II. 147–148; Vámb. Sk. of Cent. Asia, 9.)

NOTE 6. — The first precept of the Buddhist Decalogue, or Ten Obligations of the Religious Body, is not to take life. But animal food is not forbidden, though restricted. Indeed it is one of the circumstances in the Legendary History of Sakya Muni, which looks as if it must be true, that he is related to have aggravated his fatal illness by eating a dish of pork set before him by a hospitable goldsmith. Giorgi says the butchers in Tibet are looked on as infamous; and people selling sheep or the like will make a show of exacting an assurance that these are not to be slaughtered. In Burma, when a British party wanted beef, the owner of the bullocks would decline to make one over, but would point one out that might be shot by the foreigners.

In Tibetan history it is told of the persecutor Langdarma that he compelled members of the highest orders of the clergy to become hunters and butchers. A Chinese collection of epigrams, dating from the 9th century, gives a facetious list of Incongruous Conditions, among which we find a poor Parsi, a sick Physician, a fat Bride, a Teacher who does not know his letters, and a Butcher who reads the Scriptures (of Buddhism)! (Alph. Tib. 445; Koeppen, I. 74; N. and Q., C. and J. III. 33.)

NOTE 7. — Coral is still a very popular adornment in the Himalayan countries. The merchant Tavernier says the people to the north of the Great Mogul’s territories and in the mountains of Assam and Tibet were the greatest purchasers of coral. (Tr. in India, Bk. II. ch. xxiii.)

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