There is a sense of trepidation at the beginning of any holiday. Especially when a holiday is hard earned, and has burned a reasonably big sized hole in your pocket. When I am travelling so far away from the place I stay, and when I know that the place I am going to was and is a place which has had a troubled history. Kashmir. The name itself generates a gamut of emotions from within. A sense of fear,awe, a thrill of excitement, a surge of patriotism and a burning urge to go on and explore despite all of these.
They say that first impressions are the best impressions, and aptly, the sight of Kashmir from the plane window was enough to convince me that this was a holiday well taken. I have always had a thing for the mountains. They make me somehow invigorated. At one end, they convey a sense of peacefulness, and wisdom akin to an experienced patriarch quietly observing life and whose presence gives you a sense of security like no other. At the same time, they feel like someone young, rough on the edges, dangerous but beautiful like a sorceress. Bewitching, dragging you into her spell to never let you go again.
And Kashmir is a valley nestled between a ring of such mountains. Looking out from the window of any hotel room is guaranteed to give you a glimpse of all kinds of mountains. Some, dark, gloomy and jagged and others on which the clouds seem to be caressing the rich carpet of snow on top. The valley is filled with houses with slanting bright colored roofs which glitter in the sun. Everything appears sharper than it does in the rest of the world, as though you were looking through a HDR camera filter. One could keep looking forever and not get bored. Every look is click worthy and you finally get exhausted just trying to sort the photographs you have clicked in over enthusiasm.
Srinagar, the summer capital of J&K, is a large, sleepy city surrounded by lakes and gardens. The lakes are filled with shikaras (boats) and house boats. The boats men told us that they were born on small boats on the Dal lake, and as soon as they were old enough to learn to swim, they were taught to row and given a boat of their own to go about their everyday work, like the way we own bicycles! It is a common sight to see small kids in uniforms and hijabs being rowed by their mothers to and from schools. The houseboats in itself are grand affairs built in with intricate carvings, wall to wall embroidered carpets, four poster beds and delicate cutlery to eat out of. Our cook rowed back and forth in his small shikara to bring us piping hot food from his home, which happens to be (no prizes for guessing), another boat!
The city of Srinagar, is bustling and full of traffic. The best view of the city comes from across the Dal lake, with the backdrop of the Hazratbal shrine. This shrine contains the hair of the Prophet, which is displayed to devotees at different times in a year. This shrine allows people of all faiths to pray and visit. Lal Chowk, which got its name from the massacre of a few militants in 1963, looks like any other market area from any city across India. The only difference is the silent presence of army personnel everywhere carrying rifles and walking about as a routine. Apparently, according to our guide, incidences of stone pelting, and street fights between the police and locals are so common that they don’t scare them anymore! At first the omnipresent presence of the convoy of army trucks and so many weapons around makes you uneasy, but as time goes by, just like the kashmiris, you get used to them and then they seem to fade away into the scenery.
Another amazing landmark is the Adishankara temple. It is said that Shankaracharya climbed on to this peak and meditated, before he set up a shrine there. The small cave which he meditated in has been preserved intact. And it seems easy to understand why he chose such a place. It offers a grand view of the valley below, and mountains around. It must have been a hundred times more beautiful in his time, if that is possible. It also must have taken a lot of will power to close his eyes to meditate as against just continuing to look.
The Mughal gardens and Nishatbag are abodes to huge chinar trees which are hundreds of years old and have probably witnessed the turbulence and grandeur of Kashmir with equal poise. The gardens reminded me of the Forbidden City of Beijing, China,in the way they are built. The first portion for the commoners, an area behind for the harem and ministers, then on for the king and the queen. There must have been so much similarity in the culture and systems of the yore!
Away from Srinagar, the roads are winding, small, with small quaint picturesque villages all over, which gives it the name of Switzerland of India. But in contrast, most villages up close have dilapidated, burnt down houses, age worn creased faces of the villagers telling you of their suffering, schools where kids have to walk from afar, and people sitting idly smoking hookahs. Through their travails, people seem to have learnt to enjoy the small pleasures of life. We saw in these villages, boys lazily playing cricket ( incidentally, I never knew that Kashmir produced cricket bats and has so many bat factories), villagers distributing free rotis in wicker willow baskets as a part of some festival, giggly girls doing their washing near crystal clear streams just off the roads. It may be a sense of acceptance that keeps them happy, or maybe the sight of so much tranquil, natural beauty around them. Or maybe it is just the sight of the mountains.
Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pehalgaum each offered us snow and mountains to our hearts content. These places seem to be made for early morning walks to watch the sun rise on the mountains, listen to the gurgling, rushing sound of rivers, hot kahwa steaming mist on my spectacles, smelling the clear mountain air with a hint of pine, lazy evenings of huddling in front of warm fires with monkey caps and shawls, and a persistent sense of confusion whether you want to finish the book you started on the plane or just soak in the scenery for future reference (for once, I chose the latter).
Kashmir is a land of contrasts. The natural beauty is so abundant that you are scared to blink lest you miss something. But the cities and towns are crowded, stuffy and basic though quaint in its own way. The people are so extraordinarily hospitable and warm, that you wonder whether the history of violence and terrorism that haunts the place was all but a myth. You feel as if you belong, but then somewhere at the back of your mind, there is a voice nudging you that you may not be let in so close.
Definitely as our kashmiri guide called it — “jannat”, albeit a troubled one!