The Vale of Vineyards |By Syed Aamir Sharief Qadri


The Vale of Vineyards

Grapes, writes Kalhana, ‘which were scarce even in heaven were common in Kashmir’ Harud, the harvesting season of Kashmir starts from mid-September to mid-November. The soil and climate of Kashmir have always been suitable for horticulture. Viticulture or winegrowing is the cultivation and harvesting of grapes. In old days Kashmir was known for its luscious grapes. Grapefruit, its Kashmiri name Dach, is a fleshy citrus fruit which is highly nutritious and has numerous health benefits. These days, though, people harvest grapes only to keep a share for themselves and to give away the rest to neighbours, relatives and friends. Except for a few areas of Kashmir, grapes are not grown for commercial purposes.

Throughout Kashmir’s history, ruling dynasties and monarchs took interest in the cultivation of grapes. But today neither the government nor the people make any effort to revive this age-old practice. The grape plant is found in many a home garden in Kashmir, but people don’t think of cultivating it extensively.

The Vale of Vineyards The majority of historians agree with the fact that Kashmir produced many varieties of fruit in abundance. Kings, nobles, merchants and religious saints together planted every kind of tree, whether fruit-bearing or shady, to promote garden culture in Kashmir. Fruit cultivation, especially grape cultivation, in Kashmir has been practised since ancient times. We have a glimpse of the aristocratic ashrama life of the Saiva gurus standing on a mandapa with a goblet full of wine in the middle of a vineyard (M.A. Wani, Islam in Kashmir). Many nobles had their fruit gardens. Raja Amar Singh and Diwan Amar Nath during the Dogra period maintained their vineyards.

Grapes, writes Kalhana, “which were scarce even in heaven were common in Kashmir”. There is a reference to grape, grapevine, and vineyards in many ancient chronicles of Kashmir. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions: “The town of Martanda (present-day Matan) was swelling with grapes during king Lalitaditya’s time.” Huen Tsang, who visited Kashmir in the seventh century CE, makes it clear that Kashmir produced abundant fruits and flowers (Samuel Beal, Si-Yu-Ki). The 11th-century Kashmiri poet Bilhana while praising the beauties of his homeland mentioned grapes growing in abundance in Kashmir.

“One side of it yields saffron,

lovely by nature, the other grapes, pale as the sweet cane that grow alongside the Sarayu” (Bilha’a, Vikrama kadevacarita; trans. Whitney Cox) Fruits formed a regular article of diet in Kashmir. Among the principal fruits that were eaten during medieval times, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, grapes, apples, and peaches were prominent. An excerpt from the book, ‘Kashmir Under The Sultans’, says, “Fruits was grown in such abundance that they were rarely bought or sold. The owner of a garden and the man who had no garden were all alike, for the gardens had no walls, and no one was prevented from picking the fruits.” This claim is supported by medieval records like Tarikh-e-Rushdi and Tarikh-e-Firishta. Different kinds of drinks were made from fresh fruits; among them Sharbat Angoor was quite famous. The grapes were also used for making jams (murabba).

Grapes were cultivated all over Kashmir, and vineyards were found at every nook and corner of the valley. The vines were allowed to grow on the poplars and mulberry trees (Mutamad Khan, Iqbal Nama Jahangiri). Since the local grapes were not of superior quality, Akbar introduced new varieties like Sahibi, Kishmishi, etc (Jahangir, Tuzuk-i- Jahangiri). Bagh-e-Dilawar Khan was a famous site for vine culture and there were more than 18 varieties raised in this orchard (Moorcraft & Trebeck, Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Ladakh and Kashmir). Superior varieties were cultivated in Lar and Raipur (Hassan Shah, Tarikh-i-Kashmir).

While Abul Fazl praises some fruits and considered them better than the tropical fruits of the plains of India, he held an adverse opinion about grapes. He said, “Though grapes were in plenty, finer qualities were rare”. This view is supported by Bernier who says, “With the introduction of better grafts from foreign countries and by paying more attention to planting and soil, the Kashmir fruit would attain the same degree of perfection as the French.”

The quality of indigenous grapes was improved over time. In 1590 CE Muhammad Quli Ifshar, the Daroga of the gardens, grafted Kashmir fruit trees with peaches brought from Kabul. The experiment succeeded and grafting has since then been widely practised. Zafar Khan Ahsan, the governor under Shah Jahan, also improved the quality and taste of cherry, plum, peach, and grapes by using better grafts and planting imported saplings from Persia and Kabul (P.N.K. Bamzai, Culture and Political History of Kashmir, Vol 2).

During the Sikh and Dogra periods, thousands of acres were covered with vines in full bearing. Moorcraft proclaimed, “There are said to be eighteen or twenty varieties of grapes in Kashmir of which four were of foreign introduction. These are the Sahibi, of an oblong shape and red colour; the Maska, round and yellowish-white; the Hoseini, of the same colour but long; and the Kishmish, yellowish-white or green, round and seedless; this last is small but the other three are large, the Sahibi sometimes measuring four inches in its largest circumference. They are all thin-skinned, and grow in considerable bunches; those of the Maska is not infrequently of the weight of five or six pounds. The Sahibi and Maska are both fine table- grapes; wine and raisins might be made from the other two. These sorts are usually cultivated on high horizontal trellises of wood. The indigenous vines are generally planted at the foot of poplar and run up to the height of fifty or sixty feet, bearing an abundance of fruit. The grapes are commonly thick-skinned and rather rough and astringent, but juicy”.

There are six varieties of grapes mentioned in ‘A Gazetteer of Kashmir’ by C. E. Bates which was published in 1873.

Grapes in the market It seems the difficulty of terrain and transport discouraged fruit growers to export fruits from Kashmir. Besides, the perishing nature of pulpy fruits, which lost their taste and texture within weeks of harvest, did not attract the merchant class. These delicate fruits were too fragile to be transported from one place to another. Due to the long journey, they used to spoil before reaching the market.

We don’t have enough sources to know about the export of fruits from Kashmir. But a few references are there to make us believe that grapes were exported, though not on a large scale but in limited quantities. Abul Fazl in his work Ain-i-Akbari mentions that “Kashmiris bring grapes on their backs in long baskets.” Though not a primary article of trade, fresh fruits and dried raisins in limited quantities were included in the export list (Jahangir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri). It means both grapes and dried raisins were in demand in mainland India during the Mughal period.

Niccolo Manucci, an Italian traveller, mentions large quantities of vegetables and fruit being exported to the Indian market. During the 17th century, the fruit merchants reached as far as south India (Kalimatu Taibat, Ed. Inayatullah Khan). Grapes used to sell at 108 dams a maund in Mughal times (Abul Fazl, Ain-e-Akbari).

The heaven of grapes Sind valley in the past as well as in the present day is known for its finest grapes. Walter R. Lawrence in his famous book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ mentioned a few vineyards at the mouth of the Sind valley. He also praised the white and red grapes of the state vineyard at Raipur during the Dogra period in Kashmir.

Thakur Janak Singh, a military commander, had built a bungalow there known as Bungli Bagh which is now in ruins. This is the present-day Repora village located in Lar block in central Kashmir’s district Ganderbal – the grape town of Kashmir.

[The writer has a Master’s in History from the University of Kashmir. He also writes poems in English as well as Urdu. [email protected]]


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