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Gandharvas and Kabuliwalas: The Long and Rich History of India-Afghanistan Links

Gandharvas and Kabuliwalas: The Long and Rich History of India-Afghanistan Links

  • But today, many Afghans fleeing the Taliban may not be able to find refuge in India because of the policies of the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi. It remains to be seen what the relationship will be between the two great South Asian nations in the years to come.

I first learned about Afghanistan through the famous story of the Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, “Kabuliwala.” In Tagore’s story written in 1892, Rahmat Sheikh is a dry fruit vendor from Afghanistan who sells his wares on the streets of Bengal to make a living. He meets the author’s little daughter, Mini and a friendship develops between them. The close bond develops primarily because Mini reminds the exiled Afghan of his own daughter Mina, back home in Kabul. The story was first made into a Hindi film directed by Tapan Sinha in 1957 but the version that is etched into the memories of many Indians of that generation is the 1961 version directed by Hemen Gupta starring the great Balraj Sahni as the Kabuliwala.

Indians of that generation first heard the stirring song, Ae Mere Pyare Watan in the film, where the exiled Afghan dreams of his beloved homeland and its snow-capped mountains. This picture is echoed in many other works such as Khaled Hosseini’s poignant image of two boys from two different classes and ethnic groups, Amir, a wealthy Pashtun, and Hassan, his Hazara servant, fly kites and relish eating pomegranates as they cement their friendship.

Tagore’s tale of the uprooted Afghan in exile continues to be relevant even today, even in the U.S, too. When I was a graduate student in Colorado, as a homesick Indian student I often visited the food stall of Abdul, attracted by his gentle South Asian courtesy and his delicious garbanzo stew. Of course, it had to be the Kabuli channa for me, prepared in a fragrant stew with spinach and potatoes, for garbanzo beans in India are known as Kabuli channa as they are believed to have been first brought from Kabul to India.

I recall asking Abdul what he thought of the Taliban. He gazed gravely into my eyes and said simply, “They promised us protection.” Protection from whom, I wondered. The Soviets or the Americans, or both? But he would say no more except that they were not what he had imagined and that he has daughters. That is what the famous activist Malala Yousafzai states too in her autobiography, where she comments on the clever manner in which the extremist group had won over many locals in the area, using the media to spread their propaganda.

The fate of Afghan exiles has not changed much since the Tagore story was written in the late 19th century. It remains mired in chaos and despair as they petition various countries to accept them. But it is important to know that there was a time not too long ago that the country was a successful nation under liberal monarchs who supported women’s rights, and that was just a little over half a century ago, in the 1950s and 60s. Even after the arrival of the former USSR in the 1970s, this continued, as the Soviet Union supported women’s rights in the lands they occupied, leading to the opposition of Islamic extremists. The extremists were kept at bay and women’s rights were supported in Afghanistan, their right to dress as they wished, their right to education and the professions, their reproductive rights, et al. Religion was treated as the enemy of the people, a factor that was exploited by the U.S. under President Ronald Reagan who lauded the Islamic extremists as the Mujahideen or freedom fighters, and provided them with advanced weaponry and funds to oust the Soviets from their land.

But Afghanistan was far from being the bane of women’s rights even before that era, contrary to the images disseminated in much of the Western media. In fact, a women’s rights activist from that country, from the early 1920s, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1927 as one of the 100 most influential women in the world. Educated at the University of Oxford in the UK, she was the consort of the reigning monarch of the country, Amanullah Khan. Queen Soraya Tarzi and her husband were ahead of their time as they campaigned against polygamy and the veil, and had opened the country’s first school for girls, all of which won them the disapproval of the religious extremists, leading eventually to their abdication and exile. On the Time magazine cover, she is unveiled and wears a sleeveless dress which might be considered racy especially in that era.

One of the key figures of the Indian epic “The Mahabharata” is believed to have been a princess from the kingdom of Gandhar, now known as Khandahar, hence she was known as Gandhari.

But what of Afghanistan in ancient times? The region had a lot of ties with India as some historians contend that the ancient Aryans had lived in that region before migrating to other parts of the world. One of the key figures of the Indian epic “The Mahabharata” is believed to have been a princess from the kingdom of Gandhar, now known as Khandahar, hence she was known as Gandhari. Her name is believed to be derived from the word Gandhara, a region straddling northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. According to the story, King Subala ruled Gandhara some 5,500 years ago and his beautiful daughter Gandhari was brought as a bride to the Kingdom of Hastinapura where she was wed to its prince, Dhritarashtra.

But it was not just mythical figures who have a strong connection with Afghanistan. The most negative figure was of course Mahmud of Ghazni, who looted and plundered his way across the plains of North India. But there were other figures from the region who went on to make their home and build an empire in India. Such was the founder of the Mughal empire in India, Babur, who ruled parts of Afghanistan for some time before he decided to try his luck across the Khyber Pass.

In ancient times, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty too had a special relation with Afghanistan as he was initially appointed by his father Bindusara as the Viceroy of this region, with Taxila, currently located in Pakistan, as his headquarters. His children Mahendra and Sanghamitra went on to play a great role in the spread of Buddhism when their royal father sent them to preach that religion outside India. In fact, before the arrival of Islam there, there were several religions practiced in ancient Afghanistan, including Paganism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. But even after the arrival of Islam, Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, had remained strong in the region before the introduction of foreign ideologies, including Wahhabism which insists on a literal interpretation of Islam and sees Sufism and its ideas as anathema.

Vestiges of those religions remained for many years, such as the famous Bamiyan Buddhas that guarded the Silk Route for well over a thousand years until they were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. They had been the largest standing Buddhist statues in the world, towering from 38 meters (125 feet) to 55 meters (180 feet). In addition to the two tall standing figures, numerous smaller seated and sleeping Buddhas are carved into the cliff, some of which are still in the process of being unearthed by archaeologists. The Bamiyan region remained predominantly Buddhist up until the 9th century when Islam gradually displaced Buddhism in the area. The statues had remained undamaged even when Genghiz Khan and his nomadic troops from Mongolia invaded the Bamiyan Valley in the 13th century. Scholars report that genetic testing confirms that the Hazara ethnic group who remain in the Bamiyan region are descended from the Mongols.

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The ancient Vedic scriptures described Afghanistan as the land of the Gandharvas or the celestial beings, skillful in music, with magical powers, and beautiful in appearance. This image of a land of musicians is apt as the country became the seat of classical music in the 19th century, when the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, brought a number of classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court. Over the next century, Indian musicians thrived there, and Kabul became a center for Northern Indian classical music. These musicians created a distinctive form of vocal art that combined elements of Persian and Indian music. Musicians in Kabul also cultivated the art of playing the Rubâb, which was prominent in regional folk music and is considered the national instrument of Afghanistan. Now that religious extremists have returned to power, many Afghan musicians have expressed fears of the country returning to a time when musicians, many of whom followed Sufism, were forced to burn or bury their beloved instruments and flee to distant lands.
Among those musicians who have expressed deep concern over the return of the Taliban is the country’s first rock band, Kabul Dreams. When thinking of South Asian music, most people in the U.S. do not consider rock and pop music bands but these are very much a part of the contemporary music scene, be it in India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, as depicted in the popular Pakistani film, “Khuda Kay Liye” (In the name of God) by Shoaib Mansoor. One such popular rock band that became well known in the U.S. and especially in the Bay Area of California is Kabul Dreams. California has the largest concentration of Afghan immigrants in the U.S.

Afghans have been displaced to neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran as refugees during the initial takeover by the Taliban in the late 1990s but the young men returned to Kabul and formed the band in 2008. The band is made up of Sulyman Qardash (vocals and guitar), Siddique Ahmed (bass), and Mojtaba Habibi Shandiz (drums). The latter has been replaced since by Jai Dhar as the band’s drummer. After the fall of the Taliban, they returned to Kabul but relocated to California in 2014 after receiving death threats in Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban. This was because in its ultra-conservative, hardline interpretation of Islamic law, music in general, and Western music in particular, is considered haram (forbidden), although music is sacred to the Sufis. Sufi shrines, tombs and mosques in Afghanistan and neighboring countries have been bombed by the Taliban for this and other reasons.

The band went on to release their first U.S album, called Megalomaniacs in 2017, with a statement that holds even more true today in the wake of the takeover of their homeland. “If a kid in California finds out about Kabul Dreams being from Afghanistan and being an Oakland-based band, I’m pretty sure they would change their perspective about immigrants and people from different backgrounds.” The title of the album is a critique of those who rule the world today, be it in Afghanistan, or in the West, turning citizens into immigrants and refugees. In 2017, the band members got to meet one of their childhood heroes, Metallica, when they starred in an award-winning Indie movie “Radio Dreams” with Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich.

India is one of many countries that Afghans had fled to after the Soviet invasion and during the civil war that followed. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had come to India in 1976 and studied in the northern city of Shimla for six years. A large number of students from Afghanistan had continued to come to India for higher studies and many of them have appealed for special status as refugees after the Taliban came to power. But Afghans and many other refugees have a delicate legal status in India as India’s Hindu nationalist government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. This Act provides a pathway to Indian citizenship for migrants from neighboring Muslim countries, but only if they are Sikh or Hindu, and not Muslim. It remains to be seen what the relationship will be between the two great South Asian nations in the years to come. I can only hope that the haunting strains of the song “Good Morning Freedom” recorded by Kabul Dreams in 2008 will prove to be a reality in that land again someday.


Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies, at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she works as Chair of the Dept of Ethnic & Gender Studies, and teaches courses on Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before she arrived in the United States, she worked for seven years as a broadcast journalist for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-state. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers in the U.S and India.

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