When I land in Srinagar, I witness a heavy security set up – not surprising for a city that’s limping its way past a decade of insurgency – a decade which brought life to an abrupt halt in Srinagar and its vicinity. As I drive through the streets to my hotel, a poorly maintained infrastructure stands out and it’s hard to believe that this place was once deemed “paradise on earth.” But as soon as I open my hotel room window, a serene and majestic view of the Dal Lake greets my eyes – my spirits light up; I feel transported to a different world – nature all of a sudden, is in command.
A shikara (Kashmir’s version of the Venetian gondola) ride across the Dal lake is one of the must dos in Srinagar and when you are in the vicinity of the Dal lake, its vast expanse beckons you. The lake is swarming with shikaras rowing tourists across – it’s a pleasant sight. The local economy is booming again – you can see tourist occupied houseboats and shops dotting the lake. Overall the lake looks clean, but there are weed infestation and sanitation issues that need to be addressed. The Clean Dal Lake project has been in the works for a long time, but doesn’t seem to have borne much fruit. Here I get my first awareness of the corruption in the local administration.
The Shankaracharya Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, lies atop the Shankaracharya Hill and dates back to 200 BC. It was visited by Adi Shankarcharya and hence its name. Kashmiri Hindus (a minuscule minority in Srinagar now, after the insurgence) are essentially Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva). The temple is heavily guarded by paramilitary forces and that explains why it has survived the insurgency. Motor vehicles are not allowed up the temple, nor are cameras. I have to walk up about a 1000 feet plus a daunting flight of steps to get to the temple. But once I get there, I experience a unique sense of calm and I am overcome with obeisance.
The Pari Mahal or the fairies abode is a 7-terraced garden located on the Zabarwan mountain range and provides stunning views of the Srinagar valley. It was originally built by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh in mid 1600s and served as a library and an observatory for astronomy studies. The lush greenery, the terraced structure and great views of Srinagar make it a very romantic spot.
The trio of Mughal Gardens – Cheshmashahi, Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh were built around 1600s during the reign of Shah Jahan. Chesmashahi is the smallest of the three, but the most lush-green. Each of the gardens has a unique layout of the fountains. Nishat is the most opulent, exquisitely designed and well laid out. The design of this garden was conceived by Emperor Jehangir himself. The fountains here are the most grand as well – 7 levels with continuous streams. Shalimar though is most suited for concerts and it is here that the Zubin Mehta concert was held just a few weeks before my visit. These gardens attracted hordes of tourists and Bollywood movie directors through the 1980s – yes Kashmir was once a regular locale in Bollywood song and dance sequences. But all 3 gardens now seem to be in a state of neglect. Not much seems to have changed since I visited aeons ago. The entrance fee is a meager Rs. 10 (approx. 15cents). I expected a much higher fee, at least for the out of state visitors. Also, there is a glaring lack of souvenir shops – that is neglect at its peak. I leave disappointed. It almost looks like time stood still for a decade (the decade of insurgency) in Kashmir.
The Hazratbal shrine has its place in history – it houses the sacred hair of the prophet, but I like the Jama Masjid better for its elegant 14th century architecture.
The much anticipated visit to the Kheer Bhawani Temple proves to be fulfilling. Once again, I have to pass through heavy security and even sign myself in. Once in, the temple is very quiet. The deity is in a column in the middle of a sarovar (small lake). The sarovar changes color according to the mood in the valley. During the Pakistan-Qabali incursion of 1947, it is said to have turned black.
The drive to Sonmarg is very scenic. We stop around 8 Kilometres before Sonmarg to look at the mountains and the streams. My guide points out that this area is also used for military exercises – a barrage of military trucks passing by along with markings on the mountains, validates the information. He later points out that former PM Vajpayee’s initiative on National Highways has helped tourism to a great extent in Kashmir, making several areas accessible via road.
Sonmarg – the valley of Gold, has been named such because of the golden hue the Sun throws across its mountain, in the morning. I am off to a horseback ride as soon as we land. Some of the mountains are snow-capped and provide a great contrast to the lush green surroundings. Popular Bollywood movies shot in this area include “Satte pe Satta” and “Ram Teri Ganga Maili”. I scale a steep hill to witness a glacier. The view from top is scenic, but the walk downhill is steep and treacherous. Sonamarg is historically significant and was a gateway on ancient Silk Road along with Gilgit, connecting Kashmir with China and other Gulf countries. The Himalayan Birch (the Bhojpatra) tree is native to this region and was used as paper for writing scriptures in ancient times. My guide removes a thin bark from the tree and is able to write very clearly on it with a pen.
The visit to the nearby handloom factory makes me see weavers weaving carpets by hand. The design is captured on paper and it appears like a series of musical notes. The adjoining showroom has a huge collection of intricately designed shawls, carpets and scarves. It’s too tempting to avoid buying a few shawls and scarves.
I am now off to Pahalgam – the way is dotted with saffron and rice fields on either side. This is also the harvest season for walnuts – so you come across rows and rows of walnuts being dried.
A stop at a roadside dhaba for a fresh cup of Kehwa invigorates my senses. The stop at the Avantipora ruins is a pleasant surprise. Avantipora is named after Avantivarman – one of the ancient kings of Kashmir. The stone carvings are intricate. They reflect the Ganga and Yamuna on opposite sides, the 9 planets and King Avantivarman himself, flanked by his 2 queens. This is one Vishnu temple one comes across in an essentially Shaivite Kashmir. The ruins were excavated during the British era and two gold statues of Vishnu found in the ruins, now adorn one of the museums in London.
Pahalgam is not just the valley of shepherds – it is a carpeted meadow, buzzing with streams and the starting point of the Amarnath yatra. The yatra gets underway from June to August. All across Pahalgam you see signs wishing the yatris good luck. During summer, the streams are in full flow, attracting a lot of white water rafters.
Betaab Valley is on way to Chandanwari, which leads to the Amarnath Cave. From a distance you can see several mountain tops – Pishoo Top, Mahaganesh top, which give you an idea of the approximate location of the Amarnath Cave.
Betaab Valley gets its name from the movie “Betaab” which was mostly shot here. At the gate, I am approached buy a couple of guys requesting that I hire a local guide since this is the only source of livelihood for the locals. The guide is knowledgeable, but because of a lack of formal education, his knowledge is very limited. The streams here originate from the SheshNag at the Amarnath Cave. The valley is bright green – the rays of the sun adding to the brightness. But it is the story of my guide, Jabbar that has me fascinated. He lives on a surrounding hilltop and virtually goes into hibernation during the winter months when the valley is draped in snow. During the rest of the year, he has to earn enough to survive through winter. His case has me convinced that India needs to formalize the occupation of the guide, along the lines of its Kenyan counterpart. A certified guide could be a great occupation for folks like Jabbar.
The Pandava cave opposite the Betaab Valley is another interesting piece – the Pandavas apparently spent 3 of their years of exile in here.
The Aru Valley is another lush green valley with steams and lots of grazing sheep. A horseback ride takes me through several scenic points across Pahalgam. One of these is called mini-Switzerland and it does look like a mini-Switzerland – once again, greenery abounds and is dotted with shawl and scarf selling hawkers. And then there’s a spot from where the erstwhile Maharaja Hari Singh is supposed to have hunted a Lion and a deer with one shot of the arrow. The horseback ride is exhausting – at times the horse is climbing a gradient of 70° and I have to constantly lean forwards and backwards to control the center of gravity as the horse moves uphill and downhill respectively.
Before we leave Pahalgam, we pay a brief visit to an ancient Shiva Temple which has been mentioned in the classical Rajatrangini and another brief stop at the Chari Mubarak – the starting point of the Amarnath Yatra.
I am now headed about 86 miles west to Gulmarg – we will be crossing Srinagar en-route. Gulmarg (meadow of flowers) nests in the Pir Pinjal range of the Himalayas. So as we get closer, we have a fairly steep uphill drive. We stop at the Valley View Point to look at the picturesque view of the valley below. We drive further up and notice a few vehicles stopped on the side by a posse of cops. Why? The cops are collecting bribes from every passing vehicle! Yes – uniformed employees of the government of Jammu and Kashmir are collecting bribes in broad daylight from passing taxis and tourist buses. I see one of the tourist bus drivers express his helplessness and frustration to the cops – he has paid several cops enroute already and doesn’t have any cash to spare. My guide points out that this blatant corruption often pushes the youth into insurgency. I want to confront the cops, but realize that such blatant corruption has to be institutionalized – the cops have the blessings of the local administration.
Since it is fall, the meadow of flowers is just a meadow now. I decide to explore Gulmarg on foot. Incidentally, it is just a few miles away from the line of control between India and Pakistan. One of the key tourist attractions is the Gondola ride over the ski area. But while I am here, it is down for maintenance. So I have to stay content with enjoying the meadow landscape and views of the valley down below.
A bandh (lockdown of all establishments) has been called in the valley on the day I depart for Srinagar for my flight back home. The roads all look deserted. I have several things on my shopping list, but all that will have to wait another trip. I can only imagine the economic impact of a bandh like this, especially when nature itself will impose as lockdown on the valley soon – when snow will blanket the valley.
I go through three levels of security before I am allowed into the Srinagar airport. Besides an economic impact, the bandh has had a psychological impact as well. I leave Kashmir with a mild sense of satisfaction – satisfaction that the beauty across the valley is still intact, though weathered after a 10 year hiatus. The people are still welcoming, hospitable and respectful. But I have a huge concern about the future – blatant corruption, frequent hits to the livelihood of the common man and gross neglect of the tourist attractions could catapult the valley back into the dark days of insurgency. Hopefully Kashmir will witness a new generation of leaders – leaders who focus on growth and economics instead of separatist politics!