Geologists and Hindu mystics agree that the Kashmir Valley was once a vast lake. Where they disagree is whether it was drained by a post-ice-age earthquake or by Lord Vishnu and friends as a ploy to kill a water demon.

In the 3rd century BC the Hindu kingdom of Kashmir became a major centre of Buddhist learning under emperor Ashoka. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Islam arrived through the inspiration of peaceable Sufi mystics. Later, some Muslim rulers such as Sultan Sikandar ‘Butshikan’ (r 1389–1413), set about the destruction of Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. However, others such as the great Zain-ul-Abidin (r 1423–74) encouraged such religious and cultural tolerance that medieval visitors reported finding it hard to tell Hindus and Muslims apart. Mughal emperors including Akbar (1556–1605), whose troops took Kashmir in 1586, saw Kashmir as their Xanadu and developed a series of extravagant gardens around Srinagar.

When the British arrived in India, Jammu and Kashmir were a loose affiliation of independent kingdoms, nominally controlled by the Sikh rulers of Jammu. In 1846, after the British defeated the Sikhs, they handed Kashmir to Maharaja of Jammu Gulab Singh in return for a yearly tribute of six shawls, 12 goats and a horse. Singh’s autocratic Hindu-Dogra dynasty ruled until Independence, despite rising resentment from the majority Muslim population.

Partition & Conflict

As Partition approached in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh favoured Kashmiri independence rather than joining either India or Pakistan, but he failed to make a definitive decision. Finally, to force the issue, Pashtun tribespeople backed by the new government in Pakistan attempted to grab the state by force, setting off the first India-Pakistan war. The invaders were pushed out of the Kashmir Valley, but Pakistan retained control of Baltistan, Muzaffarabad and the valley’s main access routes. Kashmir has remained divided ever since along a tenuous, UN-demarcated border known as the Line of Control. A proposed referendum to let Kashmir’s people decide (for Pakistan or India) never materialised, and Pakistan invaded again in 1965, triggering another protracted conflict.

In the 1970s a generation of visitors rediscovered Indian Kashmir as an idyllic summer getaway. But armed rebellion became intense during the later 1980s, and Kashmir was placed under direct rule from Delhi in 1990. For several bloody years, massacres and bomb attacks were countered by brutal counterinsurgency tactics from the Indian armed forces. Significant human-rights abuses were reported on both sides.

After the brief India-Pakistan ‘Kargil War’ of 1999, a ceasefire and increasing autonomy for Kashmir were matched by a significant reduction in tensions. Coordinating relief after a tragic 2005 earthquake also helped bring the Indian and Pakistani governments a little closer. Militant attacks dwindled, and domestic tourism blossomed anew despite disturbances in 2008 (over an arcane land dispute at Amarnath) and 2010 (after the shooting of juvenile stone-throwers).

In July 2016 months of unrest were ignited by the army's killing of Burhan Wani, a prominent pro-independence activist and 'commander' of Hizbul Mujahideen, considered to be a terrorist organisation. Dozens of people died and thousands were injured, over 100 blinded by pellet guns, as the valley was put under 50 consecutive days of curfew.

Disturbances continued into 2017, when a by-election was marked by violence and a record low 7% voter turnout. The situation was quieter at the time of writing, but resentment and violence bubbles just under the surface and can boil over without warning.