By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
From the sweltering heat of Delhi we reached the wet and cold capital of Kashmir. It was nothing like the Meluhan Srinagar but a city just like any other in India. Cars and traffic jams and flyovers and ongoing construction work, all the same. But then came the mighty Jhelam in sight and the mightier mountains to frame its calm and serene nature which she portrays once on these flat lands.
The Kashmir valley is about 100 kms wide and is at an average elevation of approximately 6000 feet. The Pir Panjal range (inner Himalayas with average elevation 16000 feet) surrounds it in the south and west (where we have the LOC with Pakistan).
Gulmarg is on one of the shoulder’s of one of the peaks (Apharwat) on these ranges.
The north eastern sides of the valley are flanked by the mighty Himalays. The Amarnath peak, Mount Kolahoi and a lot of other peaks pop up from this side when the skies are clear.
Pahalgam is a little valley tucked in between the lower ranges of the Himalays, 16kms from the base of Amarnath peak.
The centre of attraction in Srinagar is undoubtedly the Dal Lake. Funny though it is like saying the ‘lake lake‘ as ‘Dal’ in Kashmiri means lake. According to local legend, Kashmir is a land desiccated from water.
Our hotel was a stone’s through from the Boulevard that runs beside the Dal. Walisons is a mid range hotel which gives heavy discounts on online bookings with complimentary breakfast and other goodies. We had booked their family room for 2 nights before and a night after the Pahalgam trip. It was more than a pleasant stay with exquisitely decorated clean rooms and bathrooms, loads of good restaurants nearby, one being at the hotel itself. The Stream and Shamiyana are two renowned but tad expensive food joints on the boulevard. We enjoyed various Kashmiri Wazwan’s, the best being Mutton Yakhni.
Our Kasheer (Kashmir in Kashmiri) trip began with rains and as long as we stayed in Srinagar 90% of the time it rained. The “burkha clad” Autos, as I called them were a great relief. Though they hamper visibility, the chill winds accompanied by the showers are kept out by the covers on both sides of the auto which also has a door.
It takes only an evening to see the beautifully decorated ancient mughal gardens of Pari Mahal and Chashme Shahi along with the new Tulip Garden (only from 3rd week of Mar to mid Apr); but to the initiated heart, they are worth spending a life time in, specially Pari Mahal, which gives a panorama of the city being situated in the Zawarban ranges. The garden with 7 terraces was Dara Shikoh’s Library and place for meditation. We visited them amidst light showers, slipping in the mud trying hard to capture the beauties.
The Zabarwan ranges (sub mountain ranges of the Himalays) also houses the other two famous mughal Gardens, Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh. They are rectangular gardens sloping uphill. The spring water from the hills is channelized downhill and ornate stone structures adorn the garden in the true Persian style of the Mughals.
The Tulip Garden in the lap of the Zabarwan ranges; the largest in Asia will remind any hindi film buff of the famous Amitabh – Rekha starrer song, “Dekha ek khwab to ye silsile huye”. There are almost 50 varieties of tulips.
On the second day in Kasheer, we paid a visit to the Nishat Bagh. Beautiful as it is, but would be further enjoyable on a sunny day in full bloom around June.
After Nishat we then drove past Shalimar Bagh, again in a burkha auto to Burza Hamma or Burzahom. It is about 4.5kms from Shalimar Bagh. Our driver bhaijan had a faint idea about the place but had never been there. He had to put some effort into finding it and finally he did!
Burzahom was the home of our species around 3300BCE, when we lived in pits. We continued to live there even after stone-age but this time on the ground in mud houses. Loads of excavated artefacts are on display in the Museum in Srinagar. They date till 800BCE, thus Neolithic age. But as usual we believe more in folk lore than archaeological finds, so the locals believe that a sufi saint lived here 10000 years ago and thus the area was populated.
Amish, in his fictional story book assumes that Kashmir was part of Lord Ram’s domain centuries before Shiva was brought down from the mountains by Nandi to save the Meluhans. The recorded history can only take us back to the times of Emperor Askoka. There after the Indo-Greeks, Kushans, Sakas and Huns occupied Kashmir. The first true king of kasheer is considered to be Praversena II (580 CE). Karkota Empire established themselves as the rulers of Kashmir in the 8th Century. Lalitaditya Muktapida the third ruler of this dynasty extended his kingdom significantly. He is also credited with the construction of one the only three sun temples in India (the others two being Konarak-Odisha and Modhera-Gujrat); Martand Sun Temple near Anantnag. We visited it from Pahalgam, hardly an hour’s distance.
Suhail, our driver was unaware of the sun temple, so he took us to ‘Martand Mattan’ in the town of Mattan which is nearby. It is a Shiva temple cum Gurudwara.
Eventually, some army officers were able to help us find our destination. The locals know the Sun temple as ‘Pandav leni’, the place where the Pandavs from Mahabharata stayed for a while. Again folk lore beats history and archaeology!
The other magnanimous creation of Lalitaditya was Parihaspora, about 20kms from Srinagar, which we visited on the way to Gulmarg.
In the times of Ashoka the great, Buddhism crept into Kashmir and many places of worships were established, none of them are in existence today or may have been converted to Hindu temples.
Talking of temples, the famous Shankaracharya temple atop one of the edges of the Zabarwan range is attainable by any vehicle or even a jog by the enthusiasts. Bags and cameras are not allowed from the base of the stairs. There are about 250 of them to reach the top. Not only the top but even the way to the temple gives very scenic, far and wide views of the Srinagar town below.
Srinagar has many mosques in the old town, which is best visited in a hired car or auto. Some of them might be closed for tourists from time to time. The architecture of these mosques is of great interest to the enthusiasts.
The Hazaratbal mosque in particular, gives a very pleasant feeling. The imposing structure in white with its dome against the backdrop of the Zabarwan ranges makes it very appealing. The grounds as we went were flooded with the beautiful people of Kashmir, children playing around, men and women sitting in circles, chatting up happily made a very happy scene.
Two of the most unique attractions of Kashmir are the Houseboats and shikaras rides. We stayed in a House Boat called Martin’s House Boat in the ‘jewel in the ring’ – Nageena or Nigeen Lake as the locals call it, to the south-west of Hazratbal nearby. This is part of the Dal, but secluded, away from the hustle bustle connected to it only by a small strait.
We lost an entire day which we had preserved for shikara ride to the torrential rains but we managed an hour’s ride on the day of our departure and the experience of having breakfast in a shikara is the “must do before I die” kind.
The day we arrived from Gulmarg back in Srinagar was also a wet one but it wasn’t really pouring so we didn’t take a chance and rushed to Shalimar Bagh – ‘the most famed mughal garden’. The Chinars, one of them 400yrs old are a delight along with many other beautiful and strange flowers.
We met three Kashmiri boys in the bagh, who approached us to shoot them. They were mere kids studying in 11th grade and as a testimonial that the school was indeed closed that day and they were not bunking, they showed us the sms sent by the school.
We agreed to click and later send their photos through whatsapp, which we did; but what we didn’t apprehend was that they would give 75 shots!
There are many amazing things that one encounters on a trip, one such was the ‘kashimiri Dosa’ available right outside the bagh.
Of all the Mughal Gardens, I liked the one in Achabal the most; its in Anantnag and we went there from Pahalgam. It is smaller than Nishat or Shalimar but is none the less ornate.
In the land of natural springs and gardens, Kokernag is another beauty tucked amidst the mountains a little further away from Achabal.
Anantnag also has another gem, the Verinag spring which is considered to be the major source of the river Jhelum. The Mughal Arcade surrounding the spring is declared as a monument of special importance by the ASI.
We missed it.
We met two more wonderful Kushir (kashmiri people) at the temples of Awantipora in Anantnag. Both temples are in ruins and yet are a testimony of the days of glory they had once witnessed.
At Awantiswami dedicated to Shiva, we met a local guide who approached Rajib as he becomes very approachable when the camera hangs from his neck. A fine friendly neighbourhood man, a muslim, well versed in history, he poured out his own ruinous condition and that of the valley as he narrated the story of the ruins.
Less than a kilometre away is Avantishwara, a temple dedicated to Vishnu. We met a Sikh caretaker here, who was sweeping the floor of this bundle of ornate stones that once stood arranged in an array of well-structured walls and roofs. He was more than happy to see a visitor and was overwhelmed when he was tipped.
All said about the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir, if I have to pick only one from a dozen days experience, it would undoubtedly be its beautiful people.