Kashmir is a land blessed with incomparable beauty and cursed with seemingly interminable turmoil. Both these things usually create a very fertile ground for powerful literature. Furthermore, Kashmir possesses a rich literary heritage that goes back many centuries. There is a vast literature in Sanskrit that was produced in Kashmir, including possibly the best and most scientific work of history that ancient India saw, Kalahana’s Rajatarangini. But great literature in the valley wasn’t limited to ancient period or even Sanskrit. As the Kashmiri language grew and evolved, a new and beautiful literature flowered. This literature was initially nourished by the two great streams of spirituality that flowed in Kashmir, Shaivism and Sufism.

In the 14th century, a great Shaivite mystic poetess, Lalleshwari, rose to prominence by writing verse in Kashmiri language known as Vakhs, devoted to Lord Shiva but also questioning certain dogmas related to religion. While she was a devotee of Shiva, her poetry had a profound influence upon people cutting across religious boundaries. She inspired many Sufis and one of them, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din-Wali, rose to prominence in the 15th century. His poetry didn’t just influence spiritual thought but also popular culture, and his verses are sung to this day in Kashmir on festivals and special occasions by both Hindus and Muslims.

These two pioneers paved the way for Kashmiri language to become rich in literary heritage. In modern times, a new wave of litterateurs arrived on the scene to add modern ideas and themes to this heritage. Dr Gauri Shankar Raina, one of the foremost figures in the world of Kashmiri literature and someone who has edited and translated several important books of Kashmiri poetry and prose, talked to Guardian 20 and gave a detailed insight into the course of development of this literature and the important writers who have affected it. He also recently edited and translated into Hindi the most notable stories of Rehman Rahi, the first Kashmiri writer to receive the Gyanpeeth award.

According to Dr Raina, Kashmiri literature is rich in poetry as that has been the preferred mode of artistic expression in the valley. One name that stands out among the poets is Dinanath Nadim, who, according to Dr Raina, “introduced a new kind of free verse poetic style in the Kashmiri language”. One of his poems was turned into the famous song, “Bhumbro bhumbro” in the 2000 Bollywood film Mission Kashmir. Apart from this he also holds the distinction of writing the first short story in Kashmiri called Jawabi Card.

Dr Raina informed Guardian 20 that a new wave of writers emerged post-Independence in Kashmir who, like their counterparts in other parts of the country, were influenced by Marxist ideology. Kashmir also had its own Progressive Writers Association. However, he says that, “it was only after they moved beyond Marxism that they discovered their own unique and independent poetic voice”.

Some of the major names in contemporary Kashmiri literature, apart from the ones mentioned above are Chaman Lal Raina, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Amin Kamil, Ali Mohammed Noor, Rafiq Raaz, Gulshan Majid, Shafi Shauk, Somnath Zutshi, Nazi Munnawar Nagrad, Mohiuddin Rishi, Gulam Nabi Aatish, Makkhan Lal Mahav, Sunita Raina Pandita and Ratan Lal Shant. But in the opinion of Raina, one of the greatest names in Modern Kashmiri literature is the noted playwright and short story writer Hari Krishna Kaul.

There are other great contributors also like Gulam Nabi Khayal who has translated Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat into Kashmir and has received the Sahitya Akademi Award for it. Another great name is that of playwright Moti Lal Kemmu who was presented with the Padma Shri in 2012.

There are other great contributors also, like Gulam Nabi Khayal, who has translated Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat into Kashmiri and has received the Sahitya Akademi Award for it. Another great name is that of playwright Moti Lal Kemmu who was presented with the Padma Shri in 2012.

One area where Kashmiri literature has lagged behind, according to Raina, is the genre of novels. He feels there are only around a dozen worthwhile novels that have been written in Kashmiri. But he sees a major breakthrough in this field in the form of a novel titled Lion of Wasturvan that consists of around 700 pages and has been written by the author Chaman Lal Hakhoo. According to Raina, “The novel takes the ancient traditions of Kashmiri literature and combines it with the style of modern Indian literature.” In the novel, says Raina, “Wasturvan is a forest that is a metaphor for Kashmir and the novel seeks to portray the story of Kashmir in an extensive manner.”

But how has the political troubles in the valley affected the writers? On this point, Raina believes that Kashmiri Pandit writers, after their exodus, “have started writing, what they call, literature of displacement which contains their pain and angst at having to leave their homeland”. But Raina also assures that literature continues to bring people together and the community of Kashmiri writers is not divided.

One major debate related to Kashmiri language is its linguistic ancestor. Opinion is divided between those who feel that Kashmiri descended from the Dardic family of languages and those who see it as a progeny of Sanskrit. Dr Raina is certain that Sanskrit, that too its Vedic variety, was the forefather of Kashmiri but doesn’t feel that this is a big issue. The question of which script should be used for writing the language is also debated. While writers in Kashmir continue to use the Persian script, those outside the valley are inclined towards using Devanagari. Amid all this, the ancient script of Kashmir, Sharda, is in serious danger of becoming extinct. Raina is concerned about its future: “Very few people understand the Sharda script so why would anyone write in it. As long as it is not recognised and taught to young students, it will remain marginalised.” Two leading scholars of Kashmiri, Dr Shashi Shekhar Toshkhani and Professor T.N. Banjoo have been working hard to keep the Sharda script alive but it remains an uphill task.

Inspite of all the political trouble, the world of Kashmiri literature is alive and active. Dr Raina, who has spent nearly four decades in the literary world, is happy about the interest and desire shown by Kashmiri authors for having their works translated into Hindi, “The writers want to reach a bigger audience and hence they are very keen to have their works translated into Hindi.” The one thing holding back the Kashmiri language is the lack of institutions dedicated to it outside the state. While there are students in the valley who are doing research on this beautiful language, it will benefit greatly if there are more faculties of it in premier institutions.

While visiting Kashmir is a special experience for travellers, diving into the treasure trove of Kashmiri literature has to be an equally beautiful experience.