I travel alone partly by choice and also partly because I hate the effort required to convince others to join you, match calendars, desires budgets etc. So when I set off for a five day holiday in the Kashmir valley I didn’t even bother to ask anyone else. I can write a book about this trip, but what I ll do here is cover some aspects of my trip that I want to talk most about (but may not be that you might want to hear about).
My travel took me from the glaciers of Sonmarg (Golden Meadows), to the meadows nestled among the hills in Pahalgam (Village of the Shepherds), and the ever so popular peaks of Gulmarg. I spent considerable time exploring the Mughal gardens of Srinagar, the dal (water in Dongri) of the lakes in Srinagar and around like Manasbal in beautiful shikaras. The lost secularity of Kashmir unraveled in visits to Hazratbal (where a hair of the prophet is believed to be stored), to Shankaracharya (where he is supposed to have gathered enlightenment before establishing the 4 dhams of learning). Finally I drove quite a bit to see the Jawahar Tunnel (2.54 kms of rock blasted in the Pir Panjal range) to connect the valley with the rest of the country. A couple of highlights apart from this were the visits to the saffron fields and the cricket bats being made from Kashmir willow. Now, that’s the basic data of the trip J
Yes, Kashmir looks like a land at war. The Indian security forces are everywhere, and the threat of attacks from the militants is alive all the time in the minds of the people. Having said this, one must also realize that Kashmir is nowhere as bad as it was in the earlier 90s. It’s perfectly safe for tourists and over the past five years attacks on tourists have been negligible. Most of the militant activities happen in the Kupwara and Baramullah districts near PoK or Azad Kashmir, as it is called, depending on your point of view. The shelling across the border happens near Kargil in the areas of Dras and Batalik but even that has been on a decline. None of these places are on your normal tourist beat. However, everywhere you turn you will see the security forces training the guns on you, every now and then your car will have to move away from the road to let an army convoy pass through, and you will be frisked and searched at various points. The idea is that now that we have gained control, we cannot let the hard fought gains go easily, else we ll be back to 1989 when our security system had all but collapsed.
NH1A is the life line of Kashmir connecting Jammu with Srinagar and then moving onto Leh via Kargil (which is my next trip). Another branch of this road goes to Muzaffarabad across the border. In fact the journey distance from Srinagar to Jammu is about a hundred kms shorter if we could have traveled through Pakistan! Every two hundred metres on this road, all through the five hundred odd kms you have our security forces standing guard through sun or hail or snow. Periodically mine sweepers move over the sensitive areas to sanitize the road. The security forces come from J&K police (who unlike our city forces are armed with automatic weapons and have their fingers on the triggers at most times), CRPF and Rashtriya Rifles. The army regiments have withdrawn to the barracks, and only take part in operations and not vigil.
I won’t delve too deep into the heavenly beauty that Kashmir is. Suffice to say, that it is as beautiful as you have seen in pictures and your imagination can paint it to be. The snow of the glaciers is as white as you thought it to be, the meadows are as green as you can paint it to be and the mountains offer views panoramic enough to delight any photographer. I just stood marveled at the beauty and wondered “AGAR FIRDOUS BA ROYEE ZAMEEN AST, HAMI ASTO HAMI ASTO HAMI ASTO”. The women of Kashmir are by far the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world. They are all fair, sharp featured, flawless skin and pink cheeks. However guys, please be very careful about checking them out, as you risk your progeny trying to do so!
I couldn’t get to experience much of the local culture given the situation of Kashmir today. Whatever I managed was because of the very nice family who run a small cottage near the Dal, in Srinagar. They shared their Kashmiri bread, the nun cha, the gustaba et al during the meals and the grandfather of the house gave me books to read about Kashmir. In fact it was they who showed me how the local papers are all anti India, as it ensures sales.
Kashmiris are a disillusioned lot today. They have been taken advantage of by both sides and been made mere pawns in the power plays of the two nuclear powers. “Yeh thakt ki ladai hai, ye kursiyo ki jang hai, ye begunah khoon bhi, siyasaton ka rang hai”. Needless to say, they are also to blame for their present misery and they realize that twenty years of fighting has only adversely affected their own development. We should also realize that the accession of Kashmir to India was not the smoothest and nor did it have popular support. It’s a different matter that there is no going back today, but we have to be cognizant of the fact that the average Kashmiri does feel betrayed by both India and Pakistan and some are still today waiting for the UN promised plebiscite of 1948. For twenty years, they have seen their folks either die in the hands of militants, or disappear in the hands of the armed forces and been subjected to daily identification parades. Most of the buildings they grew up with were either bombed or burnt. Corruption is rampant among the politicans, and all the money the Indian state gives to Kashmir goes to those pockets. Thankfully, the realization is slowly dawning on all, and, once again it’s the Indian Army leading the way with “Operation Sadbhavna”- efforts to engage the local population with slogans like “Jawan aur awam, aman hai muqam”.
I ll leave you with a very interesting poster I saw when you exit from the Jawahar tunnel and enter the Kashmir Valley (which is a sight that is worthy of the Gods). It said “Welcome to Kashmir Valley (Paradise on Earth); Neighbours Envy, Owner’s Pride”