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Historicising the Culture of Travel: In Conversation with William Dalrymple

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Historian and author William Dalrymple discusses travel, history, history of travel, and the responsibilities of historians and conservators in times and places of conflict. Interviewed by Parshati Dutta in New Delhi, 14 November 2017.


Parshati Dutta: What are some significant cultural routes in India that you are familiar with? And where does the Mughal Road of Kashmir feature in your list of routes?


William Dalrymple: It is in a sense historians who make roads famous. The Silk Road was invented really by the German geographer Von Richthofen. The phrase Silk Road didn't exist. Marco Polo was travelling a very well established route but no one called it the Silk Road in those days. Likewise, I suspect that the Grand Trunk Road, the most famous of Mughal roads (actually created by Sher Shah Suri), probably had no name at the time. It was not thought of as the single enterprise we think of it. Very rarely the roads are made, but they spring up through efforts to improve communication. And I think many of the great rulers of Indian history, like Ashoka, have made a great point of opening communication between distant ends of their realms and created messengers services of one sort or another. Certainly when the British came, one of the things that we were most keen to keep going from previous regimes were the harkara services (the postal services; the runner carrying mail was referred to as the harkara), and they kept up the system of postal ponies linking different harkara centres. And while I have been reading 18th century letters from British Residents and so on, the decisions on whether to send a camel or a horse, and by which route... these are things that people spent a lot of time worrying and thinking about!


P.D.: But were you aware that a Mughal Road exists in Kashmir or of the architectural remains around it?


W.D.: I am not aware of a route called the Mughal Road, no. But I am sure that there are many. The Mughals had to get to Kashmir and there would have been an Imperial Highway.  Whether it is on exactly the same route as the modern highway, I don’t know.


P.D.: You spent a lot of time in Kashmir in the early 90s as a journalist in Srinagar, and you have worked and contributed extensively to the body of knowledge surrounding Mughal heritage since. What in particular do you find significant about Mughal heritage in Kashmir and how does it contribute to the understanding of Mughal heritage in a sub-continental scale?


W.D.: I am historian of the 18th and 19th Century Mughal history and by no means know much on Kashmiri history of any sort! But as an amateur reader of 17th Century history we all know there are stories recorded, described beautifully by Bernier and so on, of Roshanara and her entourage leaving Shalimar Bagh in the north of Delhi for the long road to Kashmir. We know the stories of Itmad-ud-Daulah dying on his way back from Kashmir and his body being taken in mourning to Agra. So there were clearly established Imperial Highways.


The ones we often forget are the ones that no longer lead out of India. Because Kashmir has remained within India, we remember the main route to Kashmir. We often forget that the other main route was to Kabul which now passes up through Pakistan, past the Pakistani nuclear establishments of war (which is not a place any Indian researcher would be very welcome, I hear), through to the beautiful Nimla Garden outside Kandahar (or between Jalalabad and Kandahar), and then Kabul. So of the Mughal processional routes to their summer capitals, which went from garden and caravanserai to garden and caravanserai, and which were laid out often by Shah Jahan, we remember the ones in India, and we forget the ones that lead elsewhere out of the modern geographical accident that is the modern border of India!


P.D.: It was during the time that you were in Kashmir that what used to be a small scale insurgency radicalised into what continues to be a popular movement following some incidents such as the Gawkadal and Kunan Poshpura massacres for instance. In ‘Kashmir the Scarred and the Beautiful’, you talk about how the conflict and violence in the Valley has now gained so much momentum and prominence that it now completely overshadows 'the tradition of high culture, artistic inventiveness, and religious syncretism' that Kashmir once epitomised. But in a situation like this when national security, and livelihoods, and lives are under threat, where do you think culture and the need to conserve cultural heritage feature in our (or the government’s) list of priorities?


W.D.: I think whether in war or peace, conservation is equally important. I don't think that the fact that there is an insurgency or battle going on means that the ethics of conservators and historians should slacken in any sense. In fact the opposite is true! All these major UNESCO projects to save places which are being wrecked, such as Dubrovnik, or now Aleppo or Palmyra, are all the more pressing in the time of war.


When I first went to Pari Mahal it was a government barracks and they had been armed... they’ve still got a few soldiers around it! But in those days it was sand-bund bunkers and barbed wire everywhere.


And I think it is very important to keep pressure up on governments not to let conservation efforts slip or let historical monuments become victims to war when there are other alternatives. So I think no, I think the opposite is true. I think that during times of insurgency or war, the need to conserve and the need for vigilance on the part of architectural historians and conservators is all the greater. And given that the Kashmir Government is doing so badly in so many other ways, perhaps the one thing they could successfully do is put more money into conservation, they are certainly not succeeding in any of their other main tasks.


P.D.: A lot of people in Kashmir seem to think, or are perhaps led to think, that Yusuf Shah Chak’s rule was the last time Kashmir was ‘free’ before it was annexed by Akbar in 1586 CE, after which the reigns changed hands from Mughal to Afghans to Sikhs to Dogras and finally the Indian Government, all of whom are deemed essentially as ‘foreigners’ leading to their contributions to the Valley’s cultural heritage being perceived through a colonial lens as a somewhat tier 2 heritage. Even elsewhere in contemporary India this appears to be a growing trend where political ambitions are problematising the understanding of history and thereby the protection of cultural heritage assets. In such a climate of intolerance and censorship, how does one approach, navigate, and celebrate culture? Especially if it is Mughal? That too in a region as conflicted as Kashmir?


W.D.: I think in the same way that it is all the more incumbent on conservators and art historians to preserve monuments during a time of war and insurgency, in the same way, I think one should make special efforts to save ‘unpopular’ monuments. I know that for a fact that there was pressure, for example on the Aga Khan’s people to preserve Hindu monuments when they came to India wanting to conserve the Humayun's Tomb, and the Aga Khan had to explain the remit of his organisation was specifically to conserve Islamic heritage. So I think it is very important to preserve all periods of history, but perhaps there is more effort needed to preserve unpopular periods such as say the Afghan period… such as the Fort (Hari Parbat) is the fabric that guides all talk about as Akbar’s Fort when actually it is mainly Shah Shooja Period (from about 1800 to 1810 CE) that most of the fabric of Hari Parbat dates from. And the same is true of Sikh monuments. Across the border if you go to Skardu in the Pakistani held part of Baltistan, you find gorgeous Sikh monuments that were built by Ranjit Singh's forces which are lying neglected for the same reason – that the Pakistani State is not interested in preserving Sikh history. And the gurudwaras are in a terrible state of collapse.


I think it is very important that academics, conservators, and art historians should be colour blind, religion blind, and sort of ethnically blind. An important fort needs preserving weather it happens to be built by people of the same religion or ethnicity or colour as you or not!


P.D.:  Your very first book, In Xanadu, narrated your journey following the historic travel path of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Shangdu. Since then you have gone on to write several more books, bestsellers, on history and travel and some combinations of the two. What is it about travel and history that you find so compelling?


W.D.: I never know how to answer that question though I get asked it a lot! I think one's tastes and interests are not things you can pinpoint the causes and motives of. Either you are interested in history, and art, and travel, or you’re not!


And if anything it comes out of, I had a wonderful Scottish nanny who used to sit, when I was in my cot, reading me stories. Scottish Keeps and Castles was her favourite book and I was brought up on stories of knights in armour, Robert the Bruce, the wicked English, and all the Scottish stuff. And I think since I used to be taken off by her to see castles from when I was very small, I have always carried on. It has been my primary way of enjoying myself, it is my favourite way of spending my leisure time. I go off and look at old ruins, and works of art. And in due course when I was at college, I started writing about it too. I am just one of those very lucky people that was able to make a living out of doing what I love to do anyway! So I might say that if I might win the lottery tomorrow and suddenly inherit some wonderful fortune, I don’t think I’d change doing anything much…except stay in nice hotels (laughs)...


P.D.: But in a way that historic monuments enrich our understanding of history, what is it about cultural routes and the history of travel that you think is particularly important as a student of culture?


W.D.: Mankind is not static; mankind moves. And history is formed by people moving through a network of places along not fixed, but usually well-worn, well-rutted, and travel worn paths.


I certainly was always very interested by cultural routes. My first book was about the Silk Road and the Silk Road as such doesn’t exist! The phrase was invented in the 19th century by the German geographer Von Richtoffen. There was never one Silk Route which connected two points in the globe. But it is a real thing to say that there is a selection of routes moving from East to West and back again that were primary travel routes that brought silk and spices and the other great gifts of the East to the West. And I think you cannot understand economic and social history without understanding the trade routes and travel routes and the way people moved. And also as important is the difficulty of travel in the Pre-modern periods. It was always very difficult to travel. The Mughals travelled mainly by rivers. I think as soon as you study the history of travel and the history of travel routes, you begin to understand much more about the period.


As a student, I think the most revolutionary text I read was Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society which had this extraordinary chapter on communications, and it did more to bring the Middle Ages into focus than anything else I had ever read. It talked about the difficulty of communication – how communication was certainly possible but extremely difficult – and the slow speed was in a way the single physical difference between the Middle Ages and our own time. And therefore to study communication routes, and the methods of travel, and the mechanisms of it – where people stayed, how people travelled, the places that they took shelter in, the caravanserais – these things seem to be essential to understanding the society which one studies.


P.D.: With the advent of modern modes of transport, a lot of these historic and cultural routes have fallen into disuse. The kind of trans-boundary travel that they facilitated are also often impossible now due to the heavily militarized nature of the regions that these ancient routes now traverse. So how does one keep these routes alive and ensure that they are not completely erased from public memory?


W.D.: The irony is that while travel in the Middle Ages was much more difficult, or indeed up until the Modern Period was much more difficult, during an age of empires, sometimes to travel within an Empire was very easy. So Marco Polo’s journey, this extraordinary journey from the Middle East through to China, was only possible because of the Mongol conquests! The Mongol conquest created a Pax Mongolica – a Mongol Empire which ruled all the way from what is now Turkey right through to Mongolia. So once the Polos had passed the boundary into the Mongol territories they didn’t need any more passports. There were no more boundaries, there were no more toll taxes, or anyone to stop them travelling. And the Polos had an invitation from Kublai Khan himself about coming and doing his business, so they were well looked after at every phase. So while it is true that pre-modern communication was in almost all cases more difficult physically, and slower, there are occasions such as in the Mongol Empire, or indeed the Mughal Empire, when travelling within the empire was sometimes very easy –  at least politically, or in terms of law and order, or in terms of practicalities.


Today the Mughal Empire is split between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, and a slither of it is in Iran. Therefore to follow Mughal Routes means to cross often completely closed political borders - the most obvious being the Line of Control in Kashmir, where if you are a nation of diplomatic relations with Pakistan you can travel in Pakistan, but you still can't cross the border. While if you are an Indian citizen, obviously you can stay only on the Indian side of the Line of Control.


Can ancient trade routes be kept alive? I don't think in the sense it is the job of the historian or the writer to keep a trade route alive. The trade route is formed for a purpose. People in two different places want to trade with each other, and there is money to be made by working those routes. But it most definitely is the job of the historian to record those routes, and to record those spider webs lost in the geography of the land, to reclaim those lost routes, to map them, and in architectural terms, to conserve and look after the architecture of travel – in this case, caravanserais and the associated infrastructure of travel that the Mughals built – the whole network of kos-minars, the road buildings (most famously by Sher Shah Suri, but also by the Mughals) and the network of caravanserais and hamams which often lie in ruins.