Flowers of Mohand Marg: Kashmir’s Green Gold Across the Globe

More than a century and quarter ago, the Hungarian born naturalized British citizen and explorer cum archaeologist of the Central Asian fame, Aurel Stein, first arrived in Kashmir in 1888.

At the time, hardly did he know that Kashmir would become his ‘adopted home’ for the rest of his life. However, it was only in the summer of 1895 that Stein first spotted Mohand Marg, an alpine meadow hidden in the mountains, north of Srinagar about 15 miles along the road to Leh.

Stein fell in love with the Marg instantly, making the place his true home. His own work and response to Nature epitomized in his beloved Mohand Marg. It is here that he completed the Rajatarangini and wrote all his Reports on explorations in Central Asia.

In fact, all the three expeditions (1900-1901; 1906-1908 and 1913-1916) Stein made to Central Asia, he always started from Mohand Marg and there he returned, every time after completing the expedition.

Notwithstanding the captivating charms Mohand Marg held for Aurel Stein during his lifetime, and the importance it gained as one of the most scenic spots in Kashmir, the place, paradoxically, fell into oblivion after his death in Kabul in 1943. Sadly enough, even the Stein Memorial Stone there stood defaced and vandalized.

However, the situation changed dramatically in 2017 when, at the suggestion of the present writer, Yasin Zargar of the Indus Discoveries, London, reinstalled a new tri-faced memorial stone with engraved epithet in English, Urdu and Sanskrit. Currently, the Indus Discoveries is also spearheading efforts to conduct international tourists on Stein’s trail in Kashmir and organize camps to Mohand Marg.

While the products of Aurel Stein’s literary and scholarly work, Rajatarangini and his three Reports on Expeditions to Central Asia, were completed at Mohand Marg before they were sent out into the wide world of learning and scholarship, there was something equally significant that went out from Mohand Marg, perhaps more popular, to spread across the globe at his behest.

These products were the wild flowers that grew in the meadow. Stein arranged the export of their seeds to send to his friends and public institutions in Europe and America. Fortunately, these seeds took favourably to the new alien soils.

At present, they flourish as rare exotic wild flowers of exceptional appeal and variety, in some of the most important public and private gardens of Europe and America. But the story of spreading the ‘Kashmir gold’ across the globe has remained untold and unknown so far. It is through these columns the present writer, after a painstaking research into rare sources he has had access to, now announces the circumstances of their export and provenance.

Fascinated by the pine-scented air which he termed as ‘the avalanche perfume’ and the beauty of these flowers on the mountain slopes of his meadow in shades of deep yellow and dark blue with sparing of whites, Stein felt that the sight surpassed that of any beautiful carpet one could see.

From the Marg, he often sent bunches of flowers to his friends nearby Srinagar or in Europe. Among the recipients of these friendly marks included his most cherished Kashmiri scholar friends, Nityanand Shastri,  and Mukand Ram Shastri – who were his coworkers on the Rajatarangini. Some can still be found between the pages of his letters where they were left by Nityanand Shastri.

Among the earliest European friends who received the seeds of Marg flowers were Stein’s English friends, Fred Andrews and Percy Strafford Allen. Thus, the first sprouting of Marg flowers in Europe, blossomed in the lawns of Battersea Polytechnic, London and Corpus Christie College, Oxford, where his two friends worked and also, sometime, lived. 

Throughout his life Stein made several visits to England. The Allen House, at 22 Manor Place, Oxford, was his home. The house of the Allens’ had a large garden which the couple tended with care and love. Very naturally, the Marg flowers blossomed there as well.

In fact, sending the seeds of the Marg flowers to his benefactors goes back to Stein’s naturalization as the British citizen in 1904 that later followed with his knighthood in a solemn ceremony held in Srinagar in 1912. As a mark of his faithful allegiance to the Empire, Stein gifted the seeds of these natural marvels to the British royalty as well. Not long after, the seeds of the rarest and beautiful varieties of the Marg flowers reached the royal house in England. Fortunately, the seeds found the English soil fertile to thrive within the fortress precincts of the Balmoral and Windsor Castles.

Not alone the Marg flowers have found new home in England, they have also found the American soil equally favourable to grow. Having completed a successful short lecture tour at Harvard University in December 1929 and January 1930, Aurel Stein had the fullest support of the Vice President of the Harvard-Yenching Trust, Carl Tilden Keller. He had encountered his friendship some years ago in England through the kind courtesy of a common friend, travel writer - Ella Sykes during a tea-party given at her London club in 1924.

Stein reciprocated the courtesy by gifting the seeds of the Marg flowers to Carl Keller, whose wife, Marian Keller loved gardening. The Keller couple maintained a home garden at 80 Federal Street in Boston. After having received the seeds of the beautiful Marg flowers, Marian Keller gifted some to their close family friend in America who maintained a “very beautiful garden of tremendous extent”. That year (1930) sometime during the summer, the Kellers visited their friend who thanked them for the beautiful gifts. There, the Keller couple found several of Meconopsis Baileyii also called the Himalayan poppy in full bloom. The Kellers also saw a few of them their friends had put on exhibition at the Chestnut Hill Flower Show. For this the owners were proud beyond words.  However, the ones planted by Marian in her home were still to sprout even as she was tending them with “unceasing attention”.

To beat the scorching summer heat of Boston, the Keller couple, sometime in early 1931, decided to move temporarily to Cohasset, a small town in Norfolk County in Massachusetts to spend the summers. As an avid lover of flowers and not to miss the charm of those beautiful wild flowers of the Marg, Marian Keller carried them to her transit residence and planted them in various appropriate places in her new garden.  She “watched them with maternal interest and anxiety” to blossom and thrive.

Kellers’ fell in love with these marvels of Mohand Marg so much, that they often reminded Stein to send them a fresh supply of seeds every summer. It was an unfailing habit with Stein that he always camped at Mohand Marg in the summers, if he were to be in Kashmir. In August 1935, Stein was camping at Mohand Marg, when he sent a letter to the Kellers describing the charms of his camping ground and assuring his promise to send them seeds. In this letter dated August 10, 1935 Stein addressed to Carl Keller writing: “I am feeling very glad for the peace and the freedom on “my” alp. How I wish you and Mrs. Keller could see just now the wonderful display of its alpine flowers. They carpet the ground round my tent to a height of 2-3 feet so densely that even my narrow path is hidden by them. I am trying to get the seeds this time collected more systematically than in former years. The trouble is that the flowers get submerged in their luxuriance before the seeds are quite ripe. Of course, Cohasset will have its full share”.

As cold began to grip the Marg, Stein decided to descend to warmer Srinagar. He left Mohand Marg on September 30, 1935 after an early snowfall but not before having collected the flower seeds more systematically. By October 13, he was camped at Nagin Bagh on the Dal Lake and from there on October 21 he sent to Marian Keller a tin-box post-parcel containing limited quantities of 26 varieties of seeds. Stein expressed the hope: “May some of them take to New England”.

The seeds arrived in America some time about the end of November, where Marian Keller was delighted to receive them. This time, she took help of several friends, who were more experienced gardeners, to ensure they grow properly. Although the Kellers’ felt guilty to have caused Stein spend much time collecting seeds that otherwise, in their opinion, could have been dedicated by him to much more fruitful work. However, this time “after deep and careful thought” they decided to distribute the seeds. In their endeavour, it was not a proper kind of appreciation of Stein’s thoughtfulness “to have the seeds tried again other than by those who were intensely interested in such matters”.

Hence, in order to ensure that these exotic seeds went to the most deserving people and proper quarters, they sought the advice and guidance of Professor Barbour, the Director of the Harvard University Museum. On his advice, Carl Tilden Keller sent the packages of all the seeds to T.H. Everett of the New York Botanical Garden. Everett further divided these seeds into four sets. One he kept for use at the New York Botanical Garden. One set of the seeds was sent to Mrs. Arthur Lyman of Waltham, who had a “great reputation as a propagator of strange plants”. The third set of seeds was sent to Harvard Botanical Garden, and of course, the “last lot went to Paul V. Donavan, gardener to the Kellers at Cohasset”. While the Kellers’ hoped that something strange and lovely will come out from their germination, in anticipation they even gave new taxonomic names for them. Fancifully, for one they reserved the name “Cynoglossum Steinii” and for another they chose “Adonis Steinii”!

By the middle of June 1936, the New York Botanical Garden reported quite good success with the germination of the seeds. However, the two other gardens did not report on the status of their efforts. A week earlier, there was a meeting of the horticulturists and florists in New York that deliberated, among other things, on the experiments connected with the sowing of the Marg- flower seeds. Carl Keller attended this meeting and sat next to Dr. Moore, the head of the St. Louis Botanical Garden. At the meeting Dr. Moore frothed in rage for having been excluded among the recipients of the Marg seeds. Of these developments, Carl Keller informed Stein who was at the time in England and staying there with his friend Percy Strafford Allen in Oxford.

In a letter dated June 24, 1936 Keller wrote to Stein from Boston:  “So you see, your kindly efforts in our behalf have brought joy to several and pain to another”. Taking a serious note of Dr. Moore’s concern in the matter and making amends for his lapse, Carl Keller found out some more of seeds and sent them on to Dr. Moore.

Although so well known and acknowledged that Aurel Stein was the first among the Europeans to understand the ethos of Kashmir’s culture and recognize the value of its contribution to the history of world culture. This new story,  narrated for the first time in the preceding passages, however, must also credit this great European Savant of also having physically decorated the western soil with the ‘green gold of Kashmir’.

If many private lawns, public gardens and royal estates in the West attract the awe and admiration of people who visit them to appreciate and enjoy their colourful floral blossoms, some credit is due to Aurel Stein also. Today, if there is a bit of Kashmir’s actual and real ‘natural’ beauty that one can see thriving and flourishing in some corners and patches of the earth’s soil in the Western Hemisphere, the singular credit goes to Aurel Stein.

For not only Aurel Stein has brought the cultural and literary glory of Kashmir to the attention of the West, he has also physically embellished the western soil with the natural charms of Kashmir. Perhaps Kashmir has had no greater ambassador in the contemporary times than Sir Aurel Stein.

                           (The author is a Gurugram based Stein scholar and researcher.)

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By- S.N. Pandita

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