|By Sucheta Pai, Shimoga [ Published Date: July 24, 2011 ]|
Pics: Dr P K Pai
We were looking for a hiatus in the dreary intercourse of daily life. The sultry days of May provided no respite from the heat. Like the sun-baked earth, we yearned for cool showers. Kashmir beckoned us with its infinite charms. With the passing of sheshur, the season of sonth had awakened the valley from its hibernation. The sweet-scented yamberzal or the narcissus had already heralded the arrival of spring. The white and pink almond blossoms in badamwari had put on a spectacular display of ‘badamphulai.’ Fresh green leaves adorned the boen, the shady chinar and the veer-i-kul, the Kashmiri willow mirrored in the waters of placid lakes. Visions of cottony clouds and snow-capped mountains welcomed us, as our plane entered the skies of Kashmir. The words of Ali Sardar Jafri echoed our sentiments-
Aabaad hain khwaabon ki tarah vaadi-e-kashmir
Fanoos hain taaron ke to phoolon ke chiraagaan
Daaman mein pahaadon ke latakti hain bahaarein
Patthar ki hatheli pe mehakta hai gulistaan
The ancient city of Srinagar is sustained by the waters of the river Jhelum. The Kashmiris call it Vyeth, a variation of the Sanskrit Vitasta -the sacred river of Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini,’ which begins its journey from Verinag at the foot of the Pir Panjal range. Gabled houses of burnt bricks and rows of doongas dot the banks of the river. The doongas are the forerunners of the houseboat. Nine narrow kadals or bridges connect the two parts of the city which has earned it the sobriquet “Venice of the East.”
For centuries Srinagar attracted royalty with its pristine beauty and cool climes. The Mughal vision of jannat or paradise finds its metaphor in the symmetrically designed gardens of Srinagar. The Nishat Bagh was envisioned as a garden of bliss by Asaf Khan, the brother of Noorjahan. Originally the garden comprised of twelve terraces for the twelve signs of the zodiac, one rising above the other. Now the lower terraces have given way to a ring road around the Dal Lake.
A panoramic view of the Dal Lake on one side is rivalled by the magnificent backdrop of the Zabarwan hills enveloped in blue mist. Cascading fountains in the middle of terraced lawns played a summer sonata, while the eyes feasted on a carpet of emerald embroidered with spring-awakened flowers in full bloom. Nesting birds warbled from the green canopy of the chinar and the cypress lulling the weary traveller to reverie. The innocent laughter of little children filled the air as they splashed water on each other. No wonder that the healing hands of nature inspired the Kashmiri poet Lalleshwari to write these lines –
Some have their life-partners like the cool chinars
Go to them and bathe in their cool shade.
The Shalimar Bagh was the summer retreat of Jahangir whenever the emperor desired to escape from the heat and dust of Delhi. The mountain fresh waters of Harwan feed the fountains of this abode of love .The water from the nearby Chashma Shahi or Royal fountains are reputed to have healing properties. The tulip garden of Siraj Bagh is a recent addition to the plethora of gardens. Unfortunately it was closed to tourists during our stay in Srinagar.
The road to Gulmarg was picturesque -- avenues of trees interspersed with green fields of paddy. The gradual ascent to ‘the path of flowers’ after Tangmarg took us through narrow roads winding through hills clothed in coniferous trees. Snow peaks stood like silent sentinels in the distance. A blanket of rain clouds covered the horizon, enhancing the chill in the air. Gaurimarg, or Gulmarg as it is called now, is a favourite skiing destination of the world. It also boasts of the highest golf-course in the world.
Vernal showers greeted us as we walked past the meadows towards the ‘Gulmarg Gondola’-the ski-lift that would transport us into the magical world of snow. When the blanket of snow melted, the meadows would burst into a riotous celebration of summer, a kaleidoscope of rainbow flowers. We could see gigantic trees of fir and pine rising from the lowly earth .The highest and longest cable car project in Asia took us to Kongdoor station at a height of 3050 m. A short walk on a cobbled pathway led to a spectacular view of the mountains. The sun had woken up from his siesta and the snow peaks were apparelled in celestial white. The skiers on the snow were tiny colourful specks moving down the slopes.
The vision goaded us on to ascend to Affarwat at a height of 3950 m. A gust of cold air chilled us to the bones as we came out of the station. We quickly beat a hasty retreat but the cable cars were not working. After an hour long wait in the biting cold, we snuggled into the warm comfort of the gondola. A hailstorm broke out just as we entered our car. Nature surprised us with her caprices every day.
The journey to Sonamarg, ‘the meadow of gold,’ had hidden gems along the way. There were manicured gardens which nestled in the foothills with little bridges spanning the sparkling rivulets that mingled their sweet songs with the Sindhu. Sonamarg is the gateway to Ladakh and the road to Ladakh across the Zozila pass opens in the summer after the snow is cleared. It is also a base camp for trekkers who explore the surrounding hills and valley. The majestic Thajiwas range fringes the wide expanse of verdant earth.
We set out to conquer the green mountains but were soon overwhelmed by the arduous climb. The melting snow created little puddles in the mossy grass and the ponies trotted in the splashy earth, carrying their riders with gay abandon. Toboganners slid down the treacherous slopes of snow on flat wooden sledges. Eddying currents of the river polished the dark craggy rocks into smooth pebbles. As we stretched our weary limbs on a rock, local sellers heckled us peddling their wares of saffron, shilajit and sundry other things. The shrill sounds of commerce had finally intruded upon our Elysian fields.
Pahalgam, the village of shepherds, was our next destination.
We passed the little village of Pampore with its fields of saffron. The delicate strands of the purple flowers- which lend their fragrance and colour to the Kashmiri pulao, Kashmiri tea called kahwa and various other delicacies-are harvested in October. Walnuts which are indigenous to Kashmir and other dry fruits such as almonds and pista are tempting buys. A quaint spectacle awaited near the village of Sangam. We saw huge stacks of cricket bats made from the Kashmiri willow lining both sides of the road.
We passed through the green tunnel of tall trees whose overarching branches wove a canopy of foliaged lattice. Before the timeless wonders of nature, man’s creations were shackled in the confines of time. The ruins of the ninth century stone temples of Avantipora are reminders of a bygone era when Hindu kings like Avantivarman ruled the region. Shaivism, Buddhism and Islam blended into the syncretic culture of Kashmir until militancy shattered its peaceful harmony.
Pahalgam, the village of shepherds, was a pastoral heaven. We followed the sonorous Lidder meandering through the valley creating a soulful symphony with the cataracts rolling down from the icy glaciers. Scenes of white water rafting and trout fishing enthralled us. We traversed forests as ancient as the hills that nursed them, to arrive at the idyllic spot where our hotel was located. A wooden bridge spanning the gushing waters led us to a haven far from the madding crowd of tourists.
The place presented a breathtaking view of the mountains and the river. The silent morning clothed the pinnacles of ice in veils of mist. Fleeting crimson shadows gleamed through the silver clouds. Little mountain bulbuls perched on the tops of lamp-posts and the branches of fir trees.
We travelled to the cool sequestered vale of Aru, where the mountains had opened out to make a hidden valley of their own. The green pastures merged into the quiet of the blue skies. Cattle grazed in the fields and flocks of sheep made their way home under the watchful eyes of the shepherds.
‘Betaab’ valley was the perfect location for a film shoot. It is named after the Hindi film ‘Betaab’ in which Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh made their debut. A paved pathway among tall trees leads to a wide expanse of green lawn set against the background of a serene stream and lofty cliffs. This was clearly a favourite spot for school picnics and family outings. School girls played hide and seek, and chased colourful balloons unhindered by their uniformed salwar suits and traditional hijab.
Our sojourn in Kashmir ended with a stay in a deluxe houseboat moored along the Dal Lake. Graded according to the facilities they provide, these houseboats are constructed out of walnut wood with intricate carvings. The Dal Lake is a labyrinth of waterways fringed by patches of land growing flowers and vegetables.
Shikaras decorated in bright colours ferry tourists to and from the houseboat to the nearest jetty. The shikara floated like a dream on the tranquil waters of the lake. Occasionally a gentle breeze ruffled the surface of the water with a soft caress. The evening sun wove threads of gold in the translucent lake.
The takht-e sulaiman and the hariparbat loomed in the distance. The ancient Shankaracharya temple crowned the takht-e-sulaiman or the Gopadri, as it was known earlier. Driving through a lush forest, we arrived at the base where a security check reminded us of the harsh realities of Kashmir. A steep flight of steps led to the summit where the great guru of advaita stayed during his visit here. Looking down, Srinagar opened out into a panoramic view of its riches- the shimmering lake, the azure mountains, and the sloping tin roofs of houses resplendent in the twilight.
The blanket of the night covered the lake. The Dal slept peacefully like an infant cradled in the arms of its mother. The lights on the houseboats came aglow to weave a diamond necklace. The world of silence spoke a language more powerful than words---
Phir zara zara mehkega
Khushboo ke mausam aayenge
Phir chinar ke shaakon pe
Panchhi ghar apna banaayenge
In raahon se jaanewale
Phir laut ke wapas aayenge.
Sucheta Pai is a postgraduate in English Literature and has served as a lecturer in Kuvempu University. She has contributed articles to various magazines and newspapers.