In April 1917, a month after the British and British Indian armies had captured Baghdad in the Mesopotamia Campaign, an exhausted Greek-origin officer was offered a month’s paid vacation in India. Ambrose Petrocokino was 53 at the time and was serving in his third war, having previously volunteered with the Greeks in the Greco-Turkish War (1897) and enlisted with the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The offer was a godsend for him. Petrocokino, an artefact collector and globetrotter, was more than eager to get away from the heat of Mesopotamia and so the holiday destination he chose was the salubrious Kashmir Valley.
Petrocokino’s notes and photographs from the trip were collected three years later in a book published in London. Titled Cashmere, Three Weeks in a Houseboat, the book details his journey apart from giving an interesting, albeit somewhat basic, glimpse into the life of the princely state.
The journey unsurprisingly started from Bombay, which was easy to reach by ship from Basra. Petrocokino spent a few days in the city before embarking on the long trip to Kashmir via western Punjab. On May 15, at 2.25 pm, he took a train to Rawalpindi. “Though the weather was hot and the carriages crowded, the ride was not unpleasant, and though we lost an hour or two during the second day, we steamed into Rawal Pindi after our 50 hours’ run exactly on time at 4:50 pm,” Petrocokino wrote. From Rawalpindi, he hired a car to Murree, where he spent the next couple of days. From there, Srinagar was only 255 kilometres away.
“After a short ride, we topped the ridge and started our long descent to the River Jhelum,” Petrocokino wrote, describing the journey from Murree to Srinagar. “The view on this side was very grand, for straight over the valley North and East were the gigantic snow-capped Himalayas with some of its loftiest peaks standing out; though the country close around and the valley at our feet, through which the Jhelum rushed, were not as pretty as the view from Murree.”
He entered Kashmir by crossing the Jhelum in Kohala and proceeded to Srinagar via Baramulla. “The whole ride was a continuous source of pleasure,” he wrote.
At that time, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by Maharaja Pratap Singh, with the British Resident keeping a close eye on its affairs. Judging by Petrocokino’s travelogue, the state had ready infrastructure to welcome tourists.
The government required all foreign tourists to register their arrival and departure at the Motamid-Durbar office. This office, which also issued hunting and fishing licences, had a list of authorised tour guides, boatmen and others whose services a tourist would use. “The great advantage of getting servants, boatmen etc from the Motamid-Durbar is that, in case things turn out unsatisfactorily, a complaint soon brings redress, and also that the servants etc, obtained from him knowing this and fearing to lose further jobs or recommendation, are more careful and as honest as they must be,” Petrocokino wrote.
Srinagar, even then, had its fair share of tourist touts. The difference was, they called themselves merchants, agents, bankers or some such.
Petrocokino arranged his Kashmiri houseboat or “dunga” through the Motamid-Durbar office but had to constantly deal with touts throughout his stay. He wrote, “Once in your boat, though you arrive after dark the attack will be postponed till dawn, you are besieged and all your stay in Srinagar you will be stormed by traders of every kind and description, both from land and water; some are only small pedlars, others touts of the large houses and even the heads of these themselves.”
He reckoned they were among the most skillful and persuasive businessmen he had ever met. “To show their extensive custom the usual ever-present large book is produced where you are shown all the illustrious buyers and others, and after you have made your purchase your write in it your name and order and anything else you can be persuaded to, with the idea of catching any acquaintance who may read it.” Petrocokino wrote.
The traveller mostly had good experiences with all the service providers he used, except with his “Boy” who he called an incompetent valet, a “liar” and a “thief”. At the end of the trip, this person apparently told Petrocokino that he was owed Rs 80, whereas the traveller’s meticulous records suggested the valet owed him Rs 15. Whatever the truth, Petrocokino gave him a complimentary testimonial, saying he found him to be “a good guide and useful in getting about”.
Petrocokino liked both the older part of the city, which was inhabited by Kashmiris, as well as the newer areas, which had European residents. “The streets, which for an Asiatic town, are remarkably clean, are lined with picturesque if not attractive shops on either side,” he wrote. “The older mosques have a small pointed sort of steeple, while the newer ones have beautiful domes which glitter in the sun like silver, but which on closer inspection betray their humble origin of flattened-out kerosene oil tins.”
He also seemed to like the riverside houses of the Kashmiris in the old city: “The houses, which are almost entirely made of wood, above flood level, are usually of three stories and very picturesque, the windows often latticed as in Egypt, with the roof of shingles usually covered with grass and flowers growing on it.”
The famed bridges over Jhelum enchanted him: “The river in its journey through the town is spanned by seven solid and picturesque wooden bridges on very substantial square piers of stone and logs; from the river canals run round the Baghs or gardens and to the Dal Lake, the entrance to which is just behind the European quarter.”
About the dungas and shikaras on the water, he wrote: “In the canals and off the European quarter lie long lines of houseboats and dungas, from the simplest to the most extravagant; and opposite the extraordinary building the Maharaja has for his palace lie fantastic state-barges.”
He seemed a bit disappointed that the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir could only be seen clearly from Dal Lake early in the morning, before they were clouded over for the day.
Anantnag and others
Apart from Srinagar, Petrocokino appreciated a few other places in Jammu and Kashmir. One of these was Anantnag, or Islamabad as he frequently called it in his book. “Islamabad is a long straggling town at the foot of a hill about 500 feet above the plain, but nearly 6,000 above the sea, which rises precipitately from behind the mosque at the far end of the square and is a very busy place, though it has no local industry,” he wrote, “Its prosperity it owes to its situation on the main road from the Punjab to Kashmir, Laddakh and the district to the north.”
The traveller writes that the town had a good school, where English was taught, and had fairly high living standards. As proof, he notes that the teachers, post officials and those playing lawn tennis were all locals. The landscape reminded him of home: the “nestling orchards with green fields beyond them” looked “not unlike an English country town”, he said.
Another town he took a liking to was Verinag, or Vernag as he spelled it: “The village of Vernag is one of the prettiest I have seen here; it is situated at the foot of a fir-clad spur of the Pir Panjal Mountain range with large poplars and shady walnut and chinar trees, and the streams of water running through it, full of fish, flow alongside its main road, and a little to one’s right on entering is the long ruined arched wall of the old palace in a frame of greenery.”
The writer makes no mention of religious strife or communal disharmony in his travelogue. Indeed, with mentions of Hindu priests, Muslim festivals and ruins of Buddhist temples, he gives an impression of a state where the diverse communities lived peacefully.
In his book, Petrocokino uses Islamised names of many places, referring to Anantnag as Islamabad and using Takht e Suleiman instead of Shankaracharya Hill. He said cattle slaughter was banned in the princely state, with the result that the only beef that could be obtained was in tins. He was told of a lake where fishing was banned because locals believed a former Buddhist ruler had reincarnated as a fish in it.
Once he was done with Jammu and Kashmir, Petrocokino went back to Bombay, travelling through Muree and Rawalpindi. Just three decades later, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned. This was followed by the invasion of Jammu and Kashmir by raiders from the newly-formed country of Pakistan and the first Indo-Pakistan War. The undivided country that Petrocokino had freely moved through became consigned to the past. It is now next to impossible to follow in his footsteps to Kashmir from Bombay via Rawalpindi and Murree.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.