Sunday Herald: Beauty continued...

Sunday Herald: Beauty continued...

The only paradise

Downtown KashmirPhoto by author

Rolling hills in 13 shades of green, craggy peaks at touching distance dressed in ice-cream-white snow, miles upon miles of emerald-hued fir trees, and a gurgling stream tiffany blue in colour with water so crystal clear that every pebble can be seen. The canvas is so naturally perfect that it’s mind-numbing. Through this terrain snakes a black tar road that connects Srinagar with Sonamarg, the ‘meadow of gold’. The 87-km distance is usually covered in a little over two hours. That, however, depends on the way you like to travel. When nature is this remarkably splendid, it’s a shame to be sitting packed inside a vehicle. We would have ideally liked to hike the terrain but did the next best during a journey on this road on a sprightly spring day. Our breaks were longer than the driving time as it was impossible not to halt frequently. We realised the painterly valley of Kashmir gently compels you to learn the art of pause.

Think Europe, and a majority of Indians will express the desire to visit Switzerland. The country has become generic for a European holiday. Think hills, and an Indian destination that pops up regularly as a favourite in travel polls is Kashmir. It had taken a backseat for a decade-plus when militancy was at its peak, but is back to being a ‘must’ on travel lists.

Some places get etched in the mind for the uniqueness factor they offer. Kashmir has been romanticised since centuries for its beauty. Didn’t the fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir immortalise its splendour in the 17th century when he set his eyes upon the valley and exclaim, “Gar firdaus ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto... (If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.)” During the fading years of his life, when the emperor was asked what he cherished the most, he’s believed to have replied, “Kashmir and Kashmir alone. The rest is worthless.” Typically, as with any legend, there is no historical authenticity for both these phrases, but the fact that popular recollection associates these words with the emperor only reflects his deep bond with the valley. Like Jahangir there have been countless others down the centuries who may be lesser mortals but are captivated by the valley in a similar fashion.

Voices from the valley

Let me share some recent thoughts on Kashmir through the impressions of two neighbours. I live in the northern plains and whenever the weather takes a pleasantly frosty turn, my immediate neighbour who is from the Uttarakhand hills almost always declares, “Today the city feels like Kashmir!” She has never been to the valley but has only heard about it from an uncle in the village who was posted there. On one occasion, I asked her why she didn’t think of comparing the clement conditions in the city to any other place in the mountains. “When the weather is uplifting and nature is at its peak, I always feel this is how Kashmir must be. Everyone says it’s the prettiest place in the country,” she said in all innocence.

The other neighbour has just returned from a tour of the US. While she praised the efficient systems of the country, she was in raptures over the natural beauty of the countryside. She is well-travelled globally, and after listening to her I asked if the places she had been to this time would rank amongst the best she had seen. “Oh well, they were quite striking, but if I were to think about the most breathtaking place I’ve been to, without a shade of doubt it will be the Kashmir valley. I have seen it at all stages of my life, and let me tell you, its beauty is unsurpassed. Even blood and strife on its streets have not been able to diminish its charm,” she tells me.

I couldn’t agree more with both of them. Since my first trip to Kashmir, to report on the commencement of railways in the valley, there have been numerous more, and each time I come away mesmerised by the beauty of the land and its people. Emperor Jahangir had been spot on.

Kashmir has always offered picture-postcard shots. There’s Srinagar’s Dal lake with its pretty shikaras, the trio of Mughal Gardens with cascading tiers and swaying chinars, skiing in neighbouring Gulmarg, or taking the cable car up to Khilanmarg, the lovely Lidder river gambolling through Pahalgam, the carpet of lilac flowers of the prized saffron at Pampore, and pony rides on the green-gold meadows of Sonamarg. This is the well-known, oft-visited Kashmir. Lying quietly beyond are comparatively lesser-known trails waiting to be explored.

In town

Despite unchecked urbanisation, Srinagar remains an attractive city offering quite a bit on its platter. After having done the customary spots — gardens, lakes, and the absolute-must shikara ride — head towards Downtown, the old city that sits on the banks of River Jhelum. For those architecturally inclined, there is a heady mix of brick and mortar in the bylanes here.

The 600-year-old Jama Masjid in Nowhatta is as tranquil in ambience as it is outstanding in design. Built with brick and wood, the mosque has similarities in structure to Buddhist pagodas, a reflection of the valley’s now-frail secular ethos. An exceptional feature is the 370 wood columns touching a height of 60 ft and supporting parts of the structure. Each pillar, incredibly so, is a single solid trunk of the deodar tree. If longevity and wood strength needed an example, these deodars would win hands down.

The other distinctive structure is the Budshah Tomb, the burial ground for the queen mother of 15th-century Kashmir sultan Zain-ul-Abidin. The main brick building with a huddle of five gumbaz or tombs is said to have been built in Central Asian style, replete with blue Samarkand tiles, which have all but disappeared now.

The Khanqah-e-Moula, a shrine built entirely of wood and adorned with delicate papier-mache work, completes the line-up of three exceptional spots to see. The shrine has been rebuilt many times over the centuries and is dedicated to Shah-e-Hamadan, the Persian scholar who is credited for sowing the seeds of Sufism in the valley during the 13th century.

Boutiques & bazaars

Srinagar has a blend of markets, from the quaint to the contemporary, offering something for everyone. A visit to the shops here, which lay out everything from craft to designer-ware and walnuts to handmade soaps, will definitely lighten your wallets. The newer parts of town have chic boutique stores at high-end streets like Polo View, while bustling markets crowd pulsating centres of Maharaja Bazaar and Lal Chowk, the infamous spot for all forms of protest in times of unrest.

Downtown follows the centuries-old tradition of having bazaars segregated according to trade, as is the case in all cities with old settlements. Though these are expectedly not as specific to original trade as they were once upon a time, glimpses of the past remain. At Zaina Kadal, rows of copperware shops hold on to an era gone by, while at Nawa Bazaar, the aroma of spices fills the air. Khanqah-e-Moula has artisans embroidering pherans with pure silver threads, and in the bylanes of Habba Kadal, vendors can be found selling huk-tsun or dried vegetables, and huk-gaad or dried fish, traditionally used a lot in Kashmiri kitchens when in winters fresh supplies were hard to come by. These days, that’s not the case, but some families do keep customs alive by preparing recipes the conventional way.

To see a market completely distinctive in character, you cannot not experience Srinagar’s Floating Market on the waters of the Dal Lake. This market on shikaras gets together around 6 am and wraps up by 7.30 am. Farmers and traders row up here every day to strike a deal for flowers and vegetables usually grown on the Dal’s floating gardens. Little piles of lotus stem, cauliflower, tomato, spinach and more sit quietly in shikaras rowed by pheran-clad boatmen. The buying and selling make for camera-worthy frames and enthusiasts from around the world can often be seen photographing this unique way of trade. Apart from the vegetable market, there are shops on stilts in the Dal Lake selling a plethora of goods.

Around town

Srinagar is a fine base for several rewarding excursions. The landscape of the valley with rolling hills and a network of waterways is ideal for the adventurer. Hiking and trekking paths appear almost magically as you drive into the countryside. Over the years some trails close to tourist spots have attracted their share of mountaineers, like Khilanmarg, Tangmarg, Drang, Alpather Lake (all around Gulmarg) as well as Thajiwas Glacier and Gangabal Lake (around Sonamarg). Amongst the newer spots gaining in popularity is the picturesque Yusmarg, reached via Charar-e-Sharief. The route offers a panoramic view of snow-capped hills almost all the way.

The road going south from Srinagar, towards Pahalgam, has a series of places with the ‘nag’ suffix, meaning ‘area with spring-water’. These have been developed for tourism and the list includes Anantnag, which is known for the ruins of an architectural masterpiece, the ancient Martand Temple (en route Pahalgam, Awantipora Temple ruins is another must-see). There’s also Kokernag, which has a spring whose waters spread like the claws of the rooster, and Verinag, the source of River Jhelum. Standing in a league of its own, about 45 km off Anantnag towards Shopian, is the valley’s showpiece Aharbal waterfall, which plunges to a fall of 24 m amidst soaring deodars.

A special experience during a trip to Kashmir is a ride on the train that runs from Baramulla in the north to Banihal, the southern tip of the valley. The 119-km distance is covered in three hours and winds its way through some exceptionally scenic landscapes dotted with hills and rivulets, carpets of mustard fields, chinars and poplars, fruit blossoms and wildflowers. It’s a new way of seeing the valley and gives a peek into the countryside from the comfort of well-equipped coaches.

Some station buildings en route are built in typical Kashmiri style with ceilings dressed in the local woodcraft of khatamband. A journey in winters, when the train ploughs its way through the snow, comes with its own set of thrills.

Culinary indulgence

What’s a visit to a region without savouring local cuisine? A host of popular restaurants such as Mughal Darbar and Ahdoos serve select dishes from the wazwan, including some widely relished mutton fare as gushtaba — meatballs in yogurt curry, rista, rogan josh, tabak maaz etc as well as some typical vegetarian dishes such as haak (spinach), nadroo (lotus-stems), chaman (cottage cheese), rajma-rice and dum-aloo.

When in Srinagar, do break bread the Kashmiri way. The region has an incredible variety rarely visible outside the state, like baqerkhani - a sort of puff pastry, tsot/tsochvuru - firm buns topped with poppy/sesame seeds, katlam - crisp and flaky bread; and lavasa - a thin, large pita-like flat bread.

A cup of kehva, Kashmiri green tea flavoured with almonds and cardamom, brewed to perfection in the samovar, is a welcome beverage anytime during a trip to a vale that age cannot wither nor custom stale.