Kashmir – a name that resounds beauty and fear. It’s been remarked as a garden from heaven by those who have seen its beauty. India claims it to be its crown jewel. Politics aside, it’s not hard to understand why. But politics have also brought the world’s attention to Kashmir, and kept most of the world out. But things are changing. Kashmir’s beauty is being found by outsiders once more.
As the flight from Delhi started its descent to Srinagar, the cradle of Kashmir, it was as if we were about to land in a hidden valley. Enclosed on all sides by the mighty peaks of the Great Himalaya and Pir Panjal, the brilliant white, snow-capped mountains made way for a lush, sprawling valley. I was enchanted even before stepping off the plane.
Owing to its disputed borders, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has a heavy military presence. Even the airport at Srinagar is military run (which on my return flight, I found to have some of the most laborious and unnecessary security checks). Throughout my three days in Kashmir, their army camouflage didn’t successfully hide their presence. The political situation has improved recently. I read an article in the Times of India wherein the government acknowledges that the military presence is off putting to tourists, and will begin the process of withdrawal from non-strategic points.
Despite the media reports and scare mongering, I found Kashmir to be one of my favourite regions in India. The warmth and friendliness of the people was genuine and the beauty beholding. To complete the scene of mountains and valley, Srinagar has at its heart Dal Lake. To get to the houseboat I was stating on, which was anchored away from the bustle of the main road, I clambered onto a shikara. Some of these low slung, wooden gondolas are decked out with cushions and were fit for a king. My hard case suitcases balanced precariously on the tip of the shikara, and seemed bizarrely out of place and time, as we glided across the lake.
Locals, in less elaborate shikaras, also made use of the waterways. Many still stay in homes on the lake shores. Mothers rowed their kids to school. Tradesmen sold fresh vegetables and flowers. Another local stopped at houseboats to collect laundry. Later that evening, the waterways become busy with traders selling silk scarves and jewellery. There was even a money changer and postman on a shikara.
I was welcomed on the houseboat with a cup of Kashmiri tea – an infusion of saffron, cardamom and cinnamon (saffron and cardamom send my taste buds on an orgasmic experience). Kashmir, is known for its saffron flowers, the prized gold that will cost you about $5 for 1 gram. Be careful you aren’t duped into buying the fake thing. Only Spanish saffron is considered superior. (I’ll be in Spain in just over a week, so I’ll do a taste test.)
It was somewhere along the short ride to the houseboat or after the warm cup of heaven that I felt at peace. After the rush of Delhi and the windy roads of Darjeeling and Sikkim, I was contemplating merely relaxing on the houseboat. But I also wanted to see what the Mughals had made from the piece of heaven. They had chosen the valley as a summer retreat and landscaped gardens for their pleasure. With elaborate names such as Nishat Bagh (Garden of Joy) and Shalimar Bagh (Garden of Delight), the gardens have romantic and colourful histories too, with the latter being built by Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan in the 1600’s. (The Mughals had poetic titles – Jahangir means Conqueror of the World, and his wife was the Light of the World.) The gardens are built along the principles of Persian gardens (a focal point with four radiating arms in a square pattern), but altered to take the hilly terrain into consideration. Nishat Bagh with the Zabarwan Mountains as the backdrop is built on twelve terraces with the axial water channel making its way down to Dal Lake.
Across the lake, in the old town of Srinagar, a gleaming white domed mosque (the Hazratbal) dominates the shoreline. A few streets away, is the largest mosque in Kashmir, the 15th century Jamia Masjid, with its tall wooden pillars and central courtyard. But the most striking is the elaborate, wooden mosque of Shah Hamdan, almost pagoda style with intricate patterns adorning the walls.
I left Srinagar for a day trip to Sonamarg, crossing the mighty river Sindh along the way. The mountain peaks become more jagged and the snow more thick. Sonamarg is not accessible during winter. To escape the crowds at Sonamarg, there’s a scenic trek to Thajiwas Glacier. There are pony rides and sleds to some viewing points, but the last stretch has to be walked.
Back at Srinagar in the late afternoon, I took a shikara ride along the water channels at Dal Lake. Away from the crowds it’s easy to find relaxation. I started thinking about returning to Kashmir to see the things I had missed (the yellow mustard fields that cover the valley, the hill resorts of Pahalgam and Gulmarg, experiencing the lavish feasts of a Kashmiri wedding, …). I had become enamoured with Kashmir and its beauty.