A Week in Paradise-I

Kashmir May 2009 077The Mughal emperor Jehangir loved Kashmir and traveled often from his capital of Agra in the North Indian planes all the way to the valley beautiful. So much was he in the thrall of the valley  that he called it the ‘paradise on Earth’.

Now having driven from Delhi to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley, I can only wonder at the difficulties he must have faced 500 years ago and yet he couldn’t resist the allure of the valley. Today, Srinagar is connected to Delhi (and Agra) by a modern 6 carriage highway all the way upto Jammu (the work is still on between Jullandhar-Pathankot and Jammu). From Jammu to Srinagar, the road is a 2 lane carriageway, well maintained by the Border Roads Organisation and is the lifeline of the valley.

We drove from Delhi to Jammu, a distance of approx 630 kms in about 11 hours, stopping twice at roadside dhabas for refreshments. The next day after breakfast we set off for Srinagar a distance of approx. 300 kms. Soon we were in the hills, passing by quaint towns, ascending to Patnitop at 2024 m and than coming down to Ramban, where we crossed the Chenab, flowing swiftly to our left. We than climbed to Banihal and crossed the Jawahar Tunnel to enter the Kashmir Valley. The Jawahar Tunnel is an engineering marvel. Opened in 1956 and named after Jawahar Lal Nehru, the tunnel connects the valley to the rest of the country and allows India round the year access to the valley.

Once across the tunnel we swiftly descended into the Kashmir Valley and drove to Srinagar approx 80 kms away. The first views of the snow capped mountains ringing the valley, the magical greenery and free flowing springs everywhere made me switch off the car air conditioning, lower the windows and breathe lungfuls of the clean air of the valley. The drive on the road leading to Srinagar is an exhilarating affair, the accumulated fatigue of the earlier days drops off, the road is lined with clusters of beautiful, erect tall trees, locally called safeda (they have white bark) and the green paddy fields on either side of the road are filled with water fed by small streams flowing from the mountains. We reached Srinagar by the twilight hour and settled down in our hotel on the Boulevard, on the Dal.

SrinagarKashmir May 2009 272

Srinagar, lies on the banks of the river Jhelum a tributary of the mighty Indus. Srinagar is an ancient city with a recorded history of more than 2500 years. In the 3rd century BC, the city was a a part of the Maurya empire and Asoka the great is credited to have introduced Buddhism in the valley. Subsequently it was ruled by the Gupta Kings, the Kushans and the Huns. The valley came under Muslim rule in the 14th century and Akbar the great assimilated it in the Mughal empire. in 1814, Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered the valley after the fall of the Mughals and the valley came under the influence of  Sikh rulers. In 1846, a treaty was signed at Lahore with the British, providing them control over the valley, a dogra king by the name of  Gulab Singh was installed as the ruler of the valley. Gulab Singh and his progeny ruled Kashmir till the Indian independence, when the princely state was absorbed in the Indian union.

Srinagar today is a bustling city. Lal Chowk, its main market has shops full of exquisite Kashmiri handicrafts and dry fruits. Big malls are yet to arrive and the entire market has a quaint, old fashioned charm about it. The old city boasts of grand mosques, traditional eatries and a rich and vibrant culture of  Sufiana Music. The shrine of Hazrat Bal on the shores of the Dal Lake attracts devotees from across the valley and beyond. We too visited the shrine and paid silent obeisance.

The DalKashmir May 2009 082

The Dal is a mesmerising sight. The stately victorian era houseboats, the beautiful shikaras, the hawkers selling Kashmiri handicrafts, saffron, trinkets and baubles all add to its magic. The boulevard around the lake is lined with huge safeda trees casting a deep shadow on its placid waters and the reflection of the hills surrounding the lake gives it an aura of immense depth and tranquility. In the evening as we went on a Shikara ride, the setting sun bathed the lake in its golden glow, and all the world seemed to be at peace with itself.

We soon moved into a Houseboat called Shah Parie and spent a few days with Bilal Hakroo and his family the owners of the Houseboat. The houseboat has a balcony in the front, a living room, a dining room and four rooms along a narrow corridoor. It has exquisite teak wood carvings, embroidered curtains, linen and soft wall to wall carpets. My father spent a lot of time chatting with Bilal’s father on the balcony, watching the shikaras go by and enjoying the sounds and the sights of the beautiful lake. Bilal hesitantly talked about the turmoil of the last two decades and how it has ruined the valley, he blamed fellow Kashmiris and their Pakistani masters for fomenting trouble and driving away tourists. Bilal also talked about the humiliation of living under the shadow of the gun. The Indian Army seemed to be omnipresent in the valley and even on the Boulevard, every 500 metres or so one would see an alert soldier, armed to the teeth keeping a sharp eye on things.    Kashmir May 2009 262

While on the houseboat we discovered that the Dal also sustained a unique way of life. The kids go to school on the shikara, the faithfuls go for prayers to the mosques located on the lake, there is a busy market floating on the lake selling everything from vegetables, to groceries, toiletries, Kashmiri handicrafts, saffron, and flowers. We also saw a hotel now being used by the Central Reserve Police Force, restaurants offering Kashmiri and North Indian cuisine,  nice houses with vegetable gardens at the back- all floating on the lake.

Kashmir May 2009 090The Mughal Gardens

The world famous Mughal gardens in Srinagar are a sight to behold. Shalimar, Nishat and Chashm-e-Shahi are all located on the shores of the Dal, along the boulevard. Shalimar Bagh, was built by the Mughal emperor Jehangir in 1616 for his beloved wife Noor Jehan. The garden is symmetrically laid out along a stream, which flows into the Dal. The stream has beautiful fountains and each terrace is punctuated by a ‘baradari’. We visited the Shalimar on a glorious morning, with the sun playing hide and seek with candy floss clouds in an azure sky. The garden was a riot of colour with flowers in full bloom. (I counted at least 9 different colours and shades of roses, each flower the size of my fist or more). The massive chinars gradually recede into the hills at the back giving the impression that the entire garden is laid out in the lap of a gigantic mountain.

Nishat, though a little smaller than the Shalimar is just as breathtaking as the Shalimar. It is a lot closer to the Dal and has the entire lake spread out in front. The garden has 12 terraces with a stream running through the middle creating small waterfalls on different levels. Nishat was built by Asif Khan, Noor Jehan’s brother more than 400 years ago. The garden with a mountain in the backdrop, the massive expanse of the Dal in the front and huge Chinars presents an awesome sight.

Chashm-e-Shahi is the smallest of the Mughal Gardens and was built by Emperor Shah Jehan. It is set up the hill facing the Dal and has a natural aqua duct (chashma) flowing through the garden. Many people believe in the medicinal powers of the spring, though I must admit we refrained from having a sip.

Kashmir May 2009 156Pari Mahal

As we drove up from the Chashm-e-Shahi the road became narrower and we went past hair-pin bends with dense foliage on either side. We pulled up at the door of the Pari Mahal late on a fine evening. Pari Mahal is a terraced arched garden built by Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh. The Pari Mahal overlooks the Dal and offers a monumental view of the city of Srinagar. The facade of the retaining wall of the Pari Mahal has 21 arches, in the descending order and on the sides are specious rooms. Sitting on the thick walls of the Pari Mahal, we watched the sun gradually slip behind the iconic Hari Parbat across the city and we witnessed the Dal change colours from blue to ochre, to golden and finally to inky black.

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