Sunday, 16th September: Not many people may know this, but for many years Kashmir in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by a series of Pashtun governors sent to the mountains of Kashmir from the Afghan/Pashtun capital in Kandahar or Kabul.
Pashtun rule started in the mid-eighteenth century and came to an end around 1820 when the province was captured by the Sikhs, who were rapidly expanding their realm from their capital in Lahore, now in northern Pakistan.
Not much is known about the period of Pashtun domination in Kashmir. But while preparing the Encyclopedia of Embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent (London: Bloomsbury 2019), we came across a Kashmir shawl now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA x.103.4). It measures 183 x 131 cm and was woven out of goat’s hair (pashmina). The Museum has dated this example to c. 1825. What is so exciting is a Persian text stitched onto the shawl, which reads (in English): ‘O Hoseyn; ordered by the most noble governor [nawab], Mohammed Azim Khan’.
The title of nawab was commonly used in the Indo-Iranian lands for ‘governor’. So who was ‘the governor’ Mohammed Azim Khan, who ordered this shawl? And yes, Mohammed Azim Khan Barakzai was indeed one of the last Pashtun governors of Kashmir, between c. 1813 and 1819. He was a younger brother of Fath Ali Khan Barakzai, the king’s vizier, who had obviously appointed his younger brother to the governorship in Kashmir. However, Fath Ali Khan was tortured to death (blinded, flayed and dismembered) in 1818 on the orders of the king, Shah Mahmud Sadozai. Upon hearing the news of his elder brother’s death, Mohammed Azim Khan left his position in Kashmir and managed, together with his many other Barakzai brothers, to oust Shah Mahmud and his Sadozai clan and take charge of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
A few years later, in 1823, Azim Khan was defeated by the Sikhs at Nowshera east of Peshawar, and soon afterwards he died of dysentery in the Lataband Pass, just east of Kabul. His son, Habibullah Khan, succeeded him in Kabul, but he was soon pushed aside by his uncles. One of these, Dost Mohammed Khan, would by c. 1825 take charge in Kabul and gradually extend his control, until, by his death in 1863, he would rule almost all of what today we recognize as the republic of Afghanistan.
The Barakzai family would dominate Afghan politics until the communist coup of 1978.
Gillian and Willem Vogelsang, 16th September 2018