There is a traffic jam on Indian National Highway 1, connecting Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, to Leh in Ladakh. To call it a highway is an overstatement—more like a dirt road along which lorries trundle on their long journey from Leh to Srinagar, carrying chickens, fruits, oil, and other supplies. The landslide has occurred at the worst possible location. At 11, 575 feet, Zoji-la or Zoji pass, is among the highest in the world with snaking mud roads, plunging ravines, and feathery clouds, encompassed by the snow-capped Lower Himalayas that rise in the horizon like frozen tidal waves. During the Indo-Pak war of 1947, Zoji-la gained notoriety for being captured first by the Pakistan army, and later recaptured by the Indians in a daring infantry attack, code-named Operation Duck at first, and then after it failed, rechristened Operation Bison. Men wearing armor engaged in combat, the remnants of which still exist in the high-altitude training army center nearby.
There are no bison or ducks in Zoji-la today. Instead, mountain goats perch on vertiginous rocky outcrops and gaze curiously as our convoy of cars comes to a standstill. There is a landslide up ahead. A long line of trucks gaily painted in peacock blue, vermilion and yellow screech to a halt all along the road. We see them across the bend, perched like toy trucks along the side of the mountain.
Our driver executes a nifty move. He quickly backs up a bit and zig-zags his way through the makeshift road to a better one at a higher elevation. We let out whoops of glee at continue on before screeching to a halt some time later. Every other lorry, it seems, has had the same idea and we see up ahead another long line of lorries at a standstill. There is high-altitude combat; what we have is a high-altitude traffic management problem. We could have easily passed each other on the mountain road if some idiot driver hadn’t pulled up to the one narrow spot that has enough room for one truck and no more. Twenty other trucks have pulled up behind him and so we are at an impasse. Dusty haired drivers with gaunt suntanned faces leap out and confer in soft Kashmiri about what to do. How are we going to pass each other on a single-lane mountain road?
As tourists, we can only wait. Some of us take pictures; or blow smoke into the thin mountain air, overwhelmed by the scenic beauty all around— beauty so abundant, it is almost a caricature, somewhat like Queenstown, New Zealand. Far below, in the grassy plains of Baltal where the river Sindh rushes headlong to meet the Baltal River, pilgrims en route to the holy cave of Amarnath have populated a massive campsite. Turquoise and yellow tents look like candy wrappers from where we stand. Tiny buses move like ants through the camp. Frequently, helicopters take off from one of the six helipads, carrying wealthy pilgrims straight into the cave and back. Amarnath is the abode of the Hindu God, Shiva, epitomized by an ice-lingam (phallus) that waxes and wanes according to the season. Legend has it that Lord Shiva explained the meaning of life and immortality to his consort, Parvati, in this cave. Devout Hindu pilgrims like my mother make their way from Srinagar to Sonamarg to Baltal over several days and then trek by foot or horseback into the cave to get a whiff of that eternity—Moksha as the Hindus call it, or nirvana as the Buddhists would have it. We, on the other hand, wait on the dusty road a few thousand feet above, for what seems like eternity but is actually an hour.
After much discussion between the drivers, the patrolling army men clad in olive-green uniforms and bearing assault rifles, take charge. They direct one line of cars and trucks to reverse into a small, precarious dirt track going down the mountain. We hold our breath as our driver backs terrifyingly close to the drop before inching back near the mountain wall. Finally, after several trucks pass us in the opposite direction, our convoy continues on the slushy wet road to Dras, where we are headed. Dras, we are told, is the second-most coldest inhabited place on earth, after Siberia. We are a group of journalists and photographers, on our way there to witness a polo tournament, organized by the Lalit group of hotels that owns the sumptuous Lalit Grand Palace, Srinagar, where we are based.
The word, Srinagar, means ‘abode of the Goddess Sri,” and harks back to a Hindu past in a region that is predominantly Muslim today. Kashmir’s origins are steeped in poetry and mythology. Legend has it that the entire region was a lake inside which lived a demon that terrorized the native Naga tribals and gypsies. Kashyap, a Hindu saint, killed the demon and gave the land his name. “When the Mahabharat war was fought 5000 years ago, Kashmiris didn’t participate in it, saying that we are saints and don’t like wars,” says Yousuf Chapri, a historian, who owns Kashmir Trekking, one of the oldest tour companies in the area. “Look at us now.”
We are sitting in his office right across from the Dal Lake. It is a mild sunny day and the shikara boats are out, plying their trade. Crowds mill at the entrance– tourists haggling with the boat-owners. In one corner, men in government rafts are dredging the lake for rubbish. The Save Dal campaign has been going on for a few years now, says Chapri, but without any real effect. Over cups to masala tea, he recounts Kashmir’s long history.
The land was first colonized by the Hindus, starting in 800 BC when King Damodar I began his reign. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, Buddhism came to the valley, thanks to Emperor Ashoka, who convened large congregations of Buddhist monks to spread the word and debate the finer aspects of the relatively new religion. In response, Hindu kings melted the gold in their stockpile to finance their armies. When war broke out between the Hindus and Buddhists in the 5th century, the pacifist Kashmiri Pandits (scholars) fled the region.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister was a Kashmiri Pandit, as presumably, was the family of Citibank’s current CEO, Vikram Pandit. Over the next two centuries, Kashmir became a center of mysticism and learning, according to the Rajatarangini, widely regarded as the world’s oldest historical treatise, chronicling the kings of Kashmir. Travelers from the Far East, such as Hien Tsang and Fa Hien, visited the area.
Muslims entered the valley in the 12th century, but their syncretic Sufi way allowed all three religions—Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—to coexist. Bulbul Shah, a sufi saint was venerated as a Hindu Rishi and Hindu Pandits were revered by the Sufis. Legend has it that a Kashmiri Sufi saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani, first saw Srinagar through the misty veil of the clouds. Upon beholding its pristine mountains and lakes, he stopped in his tracks and told his disciples to go no further. When asked why, he is reported to have said, “Every minute that I spend in that Jannat (heaven) will be deducted from my time in heaven.”
In the early 14th century, things changed. A ferocious warrior called Dulucha, invaded the area from Turkestan, using an army of 60,000 men. He massacred thousands and established a dynasty of Muslim kings, some of whom were tolerant of their Hindu and Buddhist subjects, while others were not. King Sikander, for instance, ordered all Hindu gold and silver idols to be melted and Hindu temples destroyed. This led to the second exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. By the 16th century, 70 percent of Kashmiris were Muslim.
The Mughals, beginning with Akbar came to Kashmir in 1586 and began building gardens and artificial water bodies. Akbar’s son, Jahangir was so besotted with the place that he died saying the words, “Kashmir, only Kashmir,” in 1627. Jahangir is also responsible for Kashmir’s most famous description: a Persian couplet that is still repeated. “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto,” he said. “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.”
In the 17th century, Kashmir came under Afghan and then Sikh rule. When the British took over India in the 19th century, they sold Kashmir to Maharajah Gulab Singh Dogra for a mere Rs. 7 million during the Treaty of Amritsar. In exchange, the story goes, the Maharajah presented the Queen with saffron, honey, almonds, and shahtoosh shawls, woven so fine they could pass through a toe-ring. In the 1850s, when the English came to Kashmir as missionaries, Maharajah Gulab Singh—perhaps smarting from being a British subject– did not allow them to acquire land or build homes. The British remodeled their canoe type boonda-boats into houseboats, which exist today bearing fanciful English names such as Jewel of the Thames and Queen Victoria. The Dogra dynasty ruled Kashmir till the partition of India when Maharajah Hari Singh, the Hindu king who ruled over a Muslim population decided to annex his kingdom to the Indians. The rest, as they say, is Kashmir’s gory recent history. “If the dispute between India and Pakistan had been settled during partition, we wouldn’t have had to suffer so many decades of terrorism,” says Chapri. “Now, we have lost our infrastructure, our education, our youth. Politics can be settled overnight at a table. But if we lose the Dal Lake, the chinar trees and these mountains, then what do you have left to fight over?”
Kashmiris are given to such poetic turns of phrase, partly out of nostalgia and partly out of a sense of what could have been, had the rulers had taken a different fork in the road. History, for many locals, would have, could have, should have been rewritten. The Japanese call this ‘wabi-sabi’ or an appreciation of the transience of things. The Kashmiris has a strong sense of being let down without knowing whom to blame. “Disillusionment is a cottage industry in Kashmir,” says the driver who picks me up at Srinagar airport. He takes me to the “Palace,” as locals call the hotel.
The Lalit Grand Palace is almost perfectly situated with the mountains as backdrop and the Dal Lake in front. Perfectly symmetrical Chinar trees (Platanus orientalis) stand in the sprawling lawns where tables have been set up for tea. The older wing was the original palace, but the newer extension has been artfully and tastefully added. The Oberoi group ran it for a while and now it belongs to the Lalit. After a quick wash in my wood-panelled room, I head down to the alfresco lunching area, and run into Daisy Nedou, whose family owns the Nedou group of hotels in Srinagar and Gulmarg. Founded by Michael Adam Nedou, an architect who moved to Kashmir from Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia, Nedou hotels are 125 years old. Over lunch, we talk about Kashmir’s famous cuisine, both the vegetarian cuisine of the Pandits, and the meat-based 36-course wazwan-feasts, where guests are seated around a common plate called the traami, and share dishes such as tender lamb rogan josh, minced meat kababs, mutton kurmas, and yogurt-based yakhnis. Nedou invites me to ski in Gulmarg during the season, which begins in October. There are professional ski patrols these days, she says, to watch over the world’s best natural ski slopes. The army presence is strong and there is a ski school as well. Lunch lasts almost three hours, and by the end, we are sated with food and the view. “Where else can you find this?” asks Nedou rhetorically. “You look up and see pine forests; you look down and see the lake. This beauty….” We are speechless.
That evening, I go downtown to the shopping district near the river Jhelum. Almost everyone directs me to Suffering Moses, a handicraft store owned by Sadiq (“Just Sadiq of Suffering Moses. That’s all you need to say. Everyone will know.”). In his tiny office, shaded by towering chinar trees, Sadiq shows me a rare khani shawl, seen these days only in museums. He is working with craftspeople on a lacquer tray that he has designed. “The British did us a huge favour,” he says as we walk on the promenade by the Jhelum. “They taught us to incorporate a certain utilitarianism in our arts and crafts so that we could create lampshades, cigar boxes, biscuit tins and other household items instead of mere objects of beauty.” Only in Kashmir is beauty taken for granted.
The Jhelum is narrow but the breeze is strong. Families sit on the lawns, eating corn. Women wearing scarves peel oranges; boys play ball; girls in pink frocks hold up matching cotton candy; men wearing white caps talking softly about politics and the state of affairs. At Asia Craft, also by the Jhelum, Afzal Abdulla, the third generation owner of the store, walks me through two floors of high-quality carpets, lacquer boxes and carved walnut furniture. He shows me Persian designs and a reproduction of the oldest surviving carpet that is now in the Hermitage. Abdulla is retailing it for close to US$10,000. It takes 18 months to make, he says, and has 600 knots per square inch. “Most of the Kashmiri crafts came from Iran,” he says, referring to Shah Hamadhan, a 14th century Sufi mystic who brought many of the Persian crafts to Kashmir. “Unfortunately, 20 years of terrorism has taken its toll on our crafts. Who wants to sit on the floor for a year and make a carpet these days? They’d rather move to Bangalore and join a BPO.”
For every Kashmiri who flees the valley, there are several who don’t, preferring to live with the ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over their head, rather than leave the land they love. The tragedy, of course, is that Kashmir is no longer the heaven on earth that it once was. Like a beautiful bride, she is caught between two warring families, neither of who is ready to give up their claim on her. South Indians like me, who grew up in the eighties, know only this version of Kashmir— as a war-torn disputed territory. Some Indians blame Nehru for being “too gentlemanly” and not annexing Kashmir into the Indian Union more decisively. Others blame the Pakistani government for being a dog in the manger, refusing to give up their claim, even after defeat by the Indian army. Kashmiris—even the Muslims– took flight, setting up “Kashmir Emporiums” in all parts of India to sell their Pashmina shawls, carpets, lacquer boxes, carved walnut tables, papier-mache vases, and silver filigree jewellery, in exchange for a safer life. The region still bears the stigma of terrorism, but in the last two years, life has slowly limped back to normalcy, with 500,000 to a million tourists visiting the region. “Today, we are seeing the lowest levels of violence ever,” says A.M. Sahai, the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, from the central Police Control Room in Srinagar. “This year, violence is 50 percent lower than last year. I am very optimistic that we are not going to allow this kind of violence to continue. Even if it comes up in some form, it will be controlled. Kashmir is as safe or not safe as any other part of the country or for that matter the rest of the world.”
Kashmir’s youthful chief minister, Omar Abdullah would agree. Abdullah, who tweets regularly, and connects to the Kashmiri diaspora through Facebook, tells a group of us journalists that while the 2011 tourism numbers haven’t surged dramatically, they haven’t collapsed either. “The Yatra (pilgrim) season is going well so far. No incidents. We will have to wait and see how the year plays out,” he says, echoing the sentiment of pretty much every Kashmiri who is waiting to exhale.
I meet Abdullah in Dras, where he arrives by helicopter midway between the polo match between a professional Delhi-based polo team and the local Dras players. Dress in a business suit, he greets Jyotsna Suri, the dynamic head of the Lalit group of hotels, with a hug and sits in the VIP tent, chatting and checking his Blackberry.
Polo is a traditional sport in Dras, where it has been played for decades. Matches are often accompanied by spirited cheerleading type music from the stringed instrument called surna and the beats of the daman-drum. The entire town has gathered to see their men play. Horses run, swirling dust, the Delhi-ites in smart red shirts and the locals in white. Dras’ polo horses are smaller, but “generous” in allowing other players to mount them, says Mr. Rao, the commentator. After the match—predictably, the Delhi team wins—there is a filling lunch by the banks of the river with the army standing guard to make sure no city-dweller ventures into the raging but inviting waters. Right after, the Srinagar contingent leaves for the five-hour trip back to the capital.
The next morning, I wake up early to take a shikara boat to the morning vegetable market in the middle of Dal Lake. I learn that Dal isn’t a lake; it is an ecosystem. There are families living on the lake; there is a school; vegetable gardens; lotus ponds; fishermen; and of course the market in the middle of the lake where about two-dozen canoes filled with cucumbers and carrots, are parked beside each other. Men haggle with each other and lift sacks of vegetables from one canoe to another. They hold aloft balance scales and count change. As the sun rises, the market disperses. The boatmen carry their wholesale produce to bazaars all over Srinagar to sell at a profit. My 20-year-old shikara boatman named Ashraf rows me back to the hotel. He works in Bombay during the year, he says, and has returned for the summer to see his family.
That evening, a group of us drive half an hour to Hazratbal, where the Meraj-ul-alam festival is taking place. Thousands of devotees stand on the lawns facing the mosque and pray. The women wear hijabs but are not dressed in black. Instead they hold aloft colourful dupattas (scarfs) as if to get a blessing. At the appointed hour, a black-robed imam comes out on the balcony, holding aloft the holy relic that is displayed ten times a year. Called Moi-e-Muqaddas, it contains a lock of hair that belongs to the Prophet Mohammed. Upon seeing this, women break out into tears and chant verses from the Koran. Children chase each other around their parents, seemingly oblivious to the drama and tears. Within a few minutes, it is over. The imam slowly walks back inside. Families continue to picnic on the lawns, enjoying the views of the Dal Lake.
The roads outside are packed. Lines of stalls sell giant fried parathas or flatbreads, served with yellow halwa, a soft sweet. We sample a piece—it tastes like a Latin American churro, without the dusted white sugar. On the way back around the Dal Lake, we spot the new Taj hotel that is perched right on the water. Nishat Bagh (garden) is manicured but crowded with families enjoying a Sunday sunset outing. I stop at a store to buy almonds, walnuts and saffron to take back home.
The gardens of Srinagar are best enjoyed alone. For this, you have to go early in the morning, which I do, the following day. Pari Mahal, where the builder of the Taj Mahal, emperor Shah Jahan and his Queen Mumtaz Mahal stayed is near the hotel. Beside it is Chashma Shahi, a garden that allowed Queen Mumtaz to recuperate from her illness. The spring water from here is considered medicinal, and men come in to fill water bottles.
I spent a solitary alone at the Kashmir Art Museum, which has a fine collection of textiles, weaponry and relics. My phone rings. I have left my notebook at Yousuf Chapri’s office. He instructs me to stop by on the way back, “after afternoon prayers,” since it is Friday. I go to the giant Jumma Masjid to watch men clad in white kurta-pyjamas stream in, kneel and pray. Like all religious spaces, it is oddly moving, even for a non-believer like me.
Chapri is waiting for me at his office. He hands me some flyers and sees me off. His sons are in Delhi, running a successful travel company. They have a great life in the nation’s capital. They why is this elderly grandfather still in Kahsmir, I ask.
Chapri pauses on the steps. “I love Kashmir,” he says finally. “I love its lakes and mountains and the valleys that nestle between them. I pray to Allah to give me paradise after death, but if for some reason he does not give me paradise, then I am satisfied here.”