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Quake revives horrors of 1885 temblors

By Mujtaba Ali Ahmad in Srinagar
October 10, 2005 13:47 IST
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It's a question that 95-year-old Hajira Begum heard many times as a little girl in Kashmir: "Where were you when the great earthquake came?"

The Himalayan region's worst recorded earthquake in almost two centuries has revived terrifying memories among Kashmir's elders of the devastation they had heard of as children-- a 7.0-magnitude temblor in 1885 that killed more than 3,000 people in the Kashmir Valley and nearly destroyed the picturesque expanse.

"When my mother used to tell us about it, she would tremble," said Begum, who was reading the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in her first-floor room when Saturday's 7.6-magnitude quake began shaking her home. She rushed to the corner of the room and hunkered there for several minutes.

More than 30,000 people have been already reported dead in Saturday's devastating earthquake that flattened dozens of villages, killing farmers, homemakers, soldiers and children, and triggered landslides that blocked rescuers from reaching many devastated areas.

For Begum, it was as if the horrors of the May 30, 1885 quake, recounted in stories told by her mother, had come to life.

"I was dazed by the tremors. But strangely it reminded me of my parents and their stories," said Begum, a widow who was born in 1910 and now lives with her grandson and daughter-in-law in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.

"Back then, my mother said many had thought that it was the end of the world. Today news travels so fast. Within hours, my son called from Saudi Arabia to inquire (about) my well-being. He had heard the news on TV," she said. "I told him that it was like the stories I had told him when he was a kid."

Records of the Indian Meteorological Department say that the quake that shook Kashmir 120 years ago was of 7.0-magnitude and killed at least 3,000 people.

"My mother said that for weeks, there was no news of relatives from villages. For some time they had taken for granted that they wouldn't have survived," said Begum. "There were thanksgiving celebrations when news of relatives' survival reached them."

She said of Saturday's quake: "I was wondering if any one of us would escape the shocks alive. But perhaps now the houses are stronger."

The 1885 quake also damaged the riverside palace of the king of Kashmir, the Hindu Maharaja Ranbir Singh. Built of stone, brick, timber and limestone, in Gothic style, the palace now houses government offices. Saturday's tremors did not do any harm to the building.

According to historical accounts of the time, the 1885 quake was accompanied by loud noises and the creation of large fissures that spewed water and fine sand smelling of sulfur. The quake was followed by a cholera epidemic.

"In later years, my mother would start trembling if there was a tremor or a loud thunder. She had bad memories of that time," Begum said. "She used to tell us about an aunt who had a fall while trying to run out and escape that earthquake. It left her with a permanent limp."

That incident had left the family with a superstition that was passed down generations-- if you run out of the house when an earthquake occurs and get hurt, the limps and injuries never heal.

So even as thousands of residents screamed in panic and scurried from their homes, Begum quietly walked to the corner of her room and sat down, walking down the staircase slowly only when the earthquake had ended.

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Mujtaba Ali Ahmad in Srinagar
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