[Continued from Dec. 6]
The ancient history of Kashmir, as narrated by me earlier in this column, is in sharp contrast to the present history of Kashmir. Except probably for the geography of the Kashmir Valley, every aspect related to human life and activity seemed totally changed from what we have read from the books of history and travelogue. I realised this when I actually landed in Kashmir Valley towards the end of November 2022 with my Rotary friends.
I have seen many historical and religious places all over India, but for some unknown reason I could not go to Kashmir. However this time, I could make it and thanks to my Rotary friend M. Lakshminarayan, who initiated the tour. Realising that it was my last chance to see Kashmir, I readily agreed. That was how my visit to Kashmir as a tourist became a reality.
We took a Flybus from Mysuru to Bengaluru Airport and then a flight of two-and-a-half hours to Delhi and from Delhi the flight continues to Srinagar for one hour. The passage to Kashmir from Mysuru appeared comfortable in one go. I had always thought, like an ignoramus, that some of the well-known places in Kashmir we often read in newspapers are in and around Srinagar — the places like Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens.
But then, our itinerary for seven days dispelled such wrong assumptions. The real winter sets in during the month of November which we experienced as our plane was landing. Seeing the snow covered peaks of mountain ranges reflected brightly due to the sun rays, it was clear to us there would be more of such snow covered mountains for us to see and wonder.
We checked into our hotel for the night only to leave the next morning after breakfast for a long journey of 85 kms to a place called Sonamarg. We were told that it lies in the Sind Valley. We stopped at a roadside tea shop for a break and moved on to another place where those who were adventurous went for what was known as mountain sledge. As expected, the mountains were covered with milk-white glistening snow while the River Jhelum was flowing quietly meandering through the Valleys.
Interestingly, a major work on a tunnel known as All Weather Zoji-la Tunnel connecting to Ladakh is underway at Sonamarg. It is 9.5 mts wide, 7.57 mts high and 14.2 kms long shortening the distance under the Zoji-la Pass in the Himalayas between Sonamarg and Dras town in Kargil district of our Union Territory of Ladakh route (NH-1). Work began on 15th October 2020 and the credit apparently goes to Prime Minister Modi’s vision for the country’s defence.
Seeing this work on the tunnel, I remembered the Kargil War of 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM of our country and Gen. Pervez Musharraf was the Chief of Pakistan Armed Forces. Our guide told us that from Sonamarg the road goes to Kargil and from there to Ladakh. Hearing him, I was wondering if Kargil was cut off from Kashmir (India), then probably India would be left with a PoL (Pakistan occupied Ladakh), like PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir). Thank God we won the Kargil War. Perish the thought. For India, with the kind of neighbours, eternal vigilance and military prowess are the only guarantee of national security, I said to myself.
We returned to the Srinagar hotel in the evening. The following morning we drove to Gulmarg, which is 56 kms away from Srinagar. I had visualised Gulmarg as one long, wide avenue lined on either side with Chinar trees for which Kashmir is famous. But, I saw meandering narrow roads leading to a golf course of 18 holes which was covered with snow already and Ski slopes supposed to be the best in the world. The Golf course has also the distinction of being at the highest altitude in the world for a golf course. One interesting activity for the tourist is a ride on the cable car known as ‘Gondola’ to have a bird’s eye view of the snow covered mountains and the pine trees in patches on the slopes of the mountains.
Overnight stay at a local hotel in Gulmarg. The next morning, another long drive of 145 kms to Pahalgam, commonly known as ‘Valley of Shepherds.’ Again you are in awe of the snow covered mountains rising vertically and a river flowing below, known as River Lidder. Those who are interested in trekking can follow the trekking routes. Ponies are available. There are places named Aru, Betaab (because a Hindi film by that name was shot there, we were told) and Chandanwari. Significantly this is also a place that has become notoriously famous because of terrorist attack on Amarnath pilgrims. We were told that from here it would be a 32 kms trek either walking or carried on dolis or ponies to the Amarnath cave shrine. While I have the satisfaction of visiting Vaishno Devi Temple at Katra in Jammu, here I have the satisfaction of at least going close to Amarnath Temple.
Pahalgam is also an interesting shopping centre and tourists often spend a day more here for the purpose. From Pahalgam to Srinagar it is about 85 kms and we could see the CRPF vehicles constantly moving along the road, while at the shopping area on footpaths we could see uniformed men toting guns keeping vigil at different points. We were told that the Pulwama incident happened on this road.
The final leg of our tour was back at Srinagar. Here we went to Mughal Gardens with great expectation, because of the name Mughal as a prefix to the garden, but totally disappointed with no flowers except for a few plants of withering Chrysanthemum of light violet colour. Of course, photographers were, ubiquitous like in all tourist places, ready with traditional Kashmiri clothes for men and women among the tourists who wanted the thrill of being dressed in Kashmiri attire to remember the historic Kashmir visit back home. A visit to the famous Shankaracharya Temple that I had written about last Tuesday would end the evening but not before a jolly ride in the boat around Dal Lake where other boats with many local items for sale chased you all through your boat ride, including taking of photographs.
Staying in House Boats is fancied by every tourist to Kashmir. So we moved into one of the ITDC run House Boats in Nigeen Lake, a few kilometres from Dal Lake. This too was a great surprise to me as it was contrary to what I had imagined staying in a House Boat to be. I had imagined a House Boat to be a boat with living accommodation in the middle of the lake, floating around while I spent the night…! But, no. The House Boat is stationary, rooted firmly in the Lake depth at the edge of the Lake. I did not find it any different from the regular hotel, including the heating system.
As I took flight back home, I wondered if Mughal Emperor Jahangir was right when he said in the 17th century, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here.” It was nothing but a gross exaggeration. I remembered our own Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, when asked on his return from the european tour for his opinion, he said, “East or West, Home is Best.” I was too eager to return to my own heaven on earth — Mysuru. However, it is axiomatic that to a Kashmiri his own home is best.
Whatever might be my opinion as a tourist of a few days, it is a fact that I have merely touched the tip of an iceberg about Kashmir. I am told one must visit Kashmir not only when it is snow bound, but also during apple picking in Sopore or cherry picking in Tangmarg or saffron picking in Pampore. There are also Tulip Gardens and Botanical Gardens to be seen during seasons. One may not find a broad Chinar-lined avenues in Gulmarg, but the sound of cracking of crimson coloured fallen Chinar leaves underneath your feet in autumn or making a snowman in Gulmarg in winter are some of the mesmerising experience for a tourist, I am told.
And how can we forget Kashmir’s own Pashmina shawls, saffron (kesari), walnut wood works. It is fascinating to see common people in Kashmir wearing a long gown with long sleeves known as Kashmiri Pheran with Kangri hidden inside to keep them warm in that cold climate. Some in our group really missed the very popular Kashmiri non-vegetarian dish known as Rogan Josh or Roghan Gosht. It is an aromatic curried meat dish originating from the Kashmir Valley. The reason: 1. Due to some disease lamb meat is not sold. 2. It is prohibitively costly for customers to pay! As we drove around Srinagar, we had a glimpse of the famous Hazratbal Mosque that made news when Nehru was the Prime Minister due to the theft of the holy relic which was later traced.
Finally, reflecting on my long cherished visit to Kashmir, I get a feeling of a blind man who imagined what an elephant is by merely touching one of its body parts. The parable is that six blind men wanted to know how an elephant is like by touching it. So each blind man touched different parts of the elephant’s body — its legs, tail, belly, trunk, ears and tusks — and described the elephant as per their experience of touching. One who touched its legs said it is like a tree, the one who touched its body said it is like a wall, so on and so forth. They could never comprehend the elephant holistically. Likewise, I am still in a state of imagining Kashmir in its reality — its geography, climate, people, the religions, agriculture, art, literature, flora and fauna.
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