PictoJournal©: Kashmir - Paradise on Earth

Text by Arundhathi and Photos by Suchit Nanda [http://photos.suchit.in/Travel]

When I was a primary school girl I happened to read and learn for the first time about the “Paradise on earth” which is our very own Kashmir. Of Kashmir, it was said, "Gar bar-ru-e-zamin ast; hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin asto!" (“If there be a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!"). Today, I am so thrilled that I am dying to share the exhilaration and joy we experienced after holidaying in Kashmir for 10 days, especially in Srinagar which is the traveler’s paradise and also the state capital of Kashmir.

Panoramic view of Dal Lake, Kashmir


Let me begin my chronicle now…
Both, Suchit and I have been to Kashmir, in our childhood back in the good old 1970's but this is our first vacation together to this state since the troubles began 15 years ago. Now that peace has returned to Kashmir after years of terrorism, the hospitable people of Srinagar welcome visitors and tourists to their beautiful valley. It is said a visit to Kashmir can partition your life into two halves- before and after Kashmir. True indeed, after a trip to this memorable land, you are never quite the same again.

To reach Srinagar either one can take a flight from Delhi or take the train route from Jammu, which is 300 kms away. From Jammu, Srinagar can be reached by road as well. The hill resorts of Kud, Patnitop and Batote fall en route. The 2.5 km long Jawahar Tunnel allows road access to Srinagar even in the winter. This 293 km long journey passes through a very picturesque landscape. We chose to fly to New Delhi and from there took another flight to Srinagar. While waiting at the airport before boarding the aircraft we gathered as much information as we could about Kashmir.

The Kashmir state, at the extreme north west of India, is bounded on the west and north by Pakistan, on the northeast by China and on the southeast and south by the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. More than 90 percent of the state is mountainous. From southwest to northeast the region contains the fertile Jammu and Punch plains, the coniferous Himalayan foothills from 2,000 to 7,000 feet, the heavily glaciated Pir Panjal range at 12,500 feet, the valley of Kashmir at 5,300 feet, the Himalayan ranges above 20,000 feet, the upper Indus River valley at 11,000 feet, the stark, barren plateau of Ladakh and the remote Karokaram range. The Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and Tawi are the principal rivers while the Dal and Wular are the major lakes. The climate varies from alpine in the northeast to subtropical in the southwest. The topography of Kashmir offers a wide variety of climate and vegetation making the state a wildlife enthusiast's delight as well. No animal better exemplifies the character and concerns of mountain environment than the snow leopard. Another rare animal that is present here is the hangul or Kashmir stag, one of the most endangered species of red deer in the world. The eco-system here is well balanced with animals and people coexisting peacefully and one third of the world's true mountain animals belonging to these mountains.

The excitement began when the Srinagar bound aircraft glided through the majestic Himalayan peaks. What an elevating experience! When the plane began to descend one could view the bright green fields and magnificent chinar trees. It was truly spectacular. Security at the airport was tight, and first thing we saw as we touched down was an army tank. When the stepladder was being attached to the aircraft, we both pulled out our still and video cameras but we were courteously told by the airline crew that photography at Srinagar airport is strictly prohibited. That's why Suchit has no image and I don't have any video footage of the Srinagar airport.

Dal Lake

Since we had planned for an exceptional holiday, as soon as we landed, we drove straight to locate our boathouse to the famous Dal lake situated approximately 25Kms from the airport. We must tell you that our first impression was that Srinagar is a heavily militarized city. There was a strong army presence from the airport all the way into Srinagar city. Bridges, road junctions and other strategic locations were heavily manned by troops and regular 'sweeps' were carried out along the main roads. But I must add that, if one can ignore the soldiers – not easy since they were everywhere, Srinagar is at once a compilation of images: a son-et- lumiere (sound and light show) that tells the tale of the love of the Mughal emperors for this paradise valley, full of deep green rice fields, gardens in bloom, snow clad mountains, nice-looking people and lakes rimmed by houseboats. I have read that Dal Lake is the world famous water body that has been described as Lake Par-Excellence by Sir Walter Lawrence. It is the Jewel in the crown of the Kashmir and is eulogized by poets and praised copiously by the tourists.

The car dropped us by the lakeside, on the beautiful Boulevard road lining the Dal Lake. The first glance at the Lake was mesmerizing and we lost ourselves for a few minutes admiring its beauty, standing in front of number of the world famous Shikaras (floats or boats with canopies carrying tourists on boat rides around the serene lake). We quickly pulled out our cameras for the first time to capture the magical moments created the sun set on the houseboats which vie with each other with a variety of eye catching colors, embellishments and fancy names. We knew that part of the charm of Kashmir is staying in a floating houseboat. So we got into a shikara and went boat-hunting to get an exclusive one to suit all our needs and fulfill our dreams. We noticed that these houseboats ranged from very economical to extremely pricey ones. They were classified into different categories: deluxe, A, B and economy. Maintained in perfect condition they had electricity and an efficient plumbing system. The cheerful and often aesthetically decorated houseboats with colorful awnings and flower baskets are a unique experience.

Then after 30 minutes of sailing around the Dal lake in a shikara we arrived at the cute little Houseboat house exclusively reserved for us by the driver of our taxi. This guy’s father owned a house boat. Before going to the house boat I must tell you that the shikara ride itself offers a dream like experience. It was very exquisite, adorned with silk and lacey curtains, multihued floral designed, velvet cushions and our boat man played Kashmiri music adding up to the grandiose. Our house boat was very beautiful and small. It had 3 bed rooms and a living room and a small verandah. As we were visiting in a low season, we were assured that we will be exclusive tenants in the boat. During high seasons the boat owners bring in more people to share a boat. So were very lucky to get an entire boat for ourselves and not just rooms. In addition to that the host family which lived just behind the boat turned out to be very friendly and pampered us by giving us lot of care and service.

The lake is 6x3 Km and is divided in four parts by causeways known as Gagribal, Lokut Dal, Bod Dal and Nagin. Nagin Lake is a paradise for an aquatic holiday, its waters are otherwise calm and peaceful. On the banks are a club, a bar and a tea pavilion. Manasbal Lake is a small clear blue water lake and is a bird watcher's paradise. We were enthralled by the chirping birds amidst blooming lotuses. There is a small rest house, two huts and a cafeteria. Dal Lake changes its moods and scenery right through the day and after every few kilometers. At the crack of dawn the lake was scintillating like an expanse of gold, during the day one could see the shimmering light of the dazzling sun and at dusk the entire water was set ablaze by the red light caused by the sundown. But nothing is comparable to the magic the night brought along with it…we were very privileged to be staying at the Dal on a full moon night.

The Dal Lake itself offers a world of recreational activities. One can spend days in and around it itself without ever getting bored. We spent almost two hours every evening, riding the shikaras in the lake watching the stars, the moon and moonlit hills around the lake – truly romantic. There are provisions for Kayaking and canoeing, water surfing, skiing, and angling (license is required). Or one can just laze atop the decks of the houseboats. From my terrace I could see: the mountains; the neighbors' house boat; a small vegetable patch with gourds growing up wooden poles. Next to our boat there were lush wild gardens of lotus and water lilies and some tiny birds perched on them. The noise of all the crows cawing and frogs gurgling was nicer to wake up to than the honking of Mumbai traffic. Believe me, it is altogether a new experience.
The Dal is connected to three other lakes by a series of canals bordered by lilies and little houses and shops on stilts. We were taken by the owner of the house boat to shop around these stilt shops selling silks, woolen shawls and Kashmiri handicrafts. The family which owned the boat in which we stayed was very welcoming and affectionate. They served us fresh kahva every morning and evening.

Shankaracharya Temple Visit

The first morning as soon as got up, after a delicious English breakfast on the houseboat, we went up to the historic temple of Shankarcharya atop a hill through city forest area. It is located at 1,100 ft. above surface level of the main city on the Shankaracharya hill, also known as Takht-e-Suleiman. This site provides a panoramic view of Srinagar's busy thoroughfares and shimmering blue lakes. The Shiva temple here was constructed by Raja Gopadatya in 371 B.C. and as such is the oldest shrine in Kashmir. Dogra ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh, constructed stone stairs up to the temple. In 1925, the temple was electrified. The temple, besides a prominent religious place of Hindus, is of great archaeological importance. The temple commands a magnificent panoramic view of the Srinagar city.

Mogul gardens

After visiting the Shakaracharya temple we drove to the Mogul gardens which include Nishad Bhaag, Shalimar Garden, Chashmashahi Garden. All these gardens have a charismatic and exceptional variety of flowers. They have their own magical charm in the sparkling ripples of cascading streams and fountains, limpid pools and airy pavilions. Laid out for the pleasure of the Mughal Emperors, they are ablaze with multi hued flowers and they astound the senses with their scents. Nishat borders the Dal Lake and was laid out by Asaf Khan, Empress Nur Jahan's brother. Chasma Shahi, the Royal Spring, with an illuminated garden, is the smallest. The spring from which it derives its name is credited with medicinal properties. Shalimar, the Abode of Love, was laid by Emperor Jahangir for his beloved Queen Nur Jahan and is the most famous of the three gardens.

 

Afternoon, we visited the Hazratbal Shrine, situated on the left bank of the Dal Lake, housing one of the most sacred Muslim relics, a hair of Prophet Muhammad, brought here in 1700 AD by Khawaja Noor-ud-Din from Bijapur. On specific days in the year, it is shown to the faithful who gather in the courtyard. The shirne is known by many names including Hazrathbal , Assar-e-Sharief, Madinat-us-Sani, Dargah Sharief and Dargah. Sadiq Khan, laid out a garden here and constructed a palacial building, Ishrat mahal or Pleasure House, in 1623. The construction of the present marble structure was started by the Muslim Aquaf Trust headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1968 and completed in 1979.

To get back to our houseboat at dusk, we headed towards the Dal Lake once again. We noticed that the Dal and Nagin lakes dominate the life and activities of Srinagar. Dal Lake is bordered with world famed Boulevard road, lined with Hotels and Restaurants suiting every budget. There are also European style hotels, private guesthouses and tourist huts. The lake can be viewed in its full grandeur by walking or cycling down Boulevard Road. Most evenings we went around shopping and dining on the mall at this Boulevard. As Srinagar is also known for the arts and crafts of the Kashmir region, shopping here is a handicraft lover's delight with a rich variety of available crafts. There is great beauty in Kashmiri artifacts: paper Mache, lacquered and painted in floral designs; wood carvings and screens; fine carpets in typical oriental designs; silks and woolen shawls embroidered in traditional paisley and crewel work. The bazaars of Srinagar are filled with handicraft stores; street vendors add their own color. The J&K Handicrafts Corporation has a large display of handicraft items, carpets, etc. at the Government Arts Emporium, housed in what was once the British Resident's mansion. The rates of all articles here are fixed and the quality guaranteed.

The Kashmir Valley is also known for its fruit orchards where dry fruits such as almonds and walnuts which are grown and processed locally. There are lots of tiny shops along winding streets selling everything from dry fruit baskets to cell phones to fine handicrafts to silk shawls. We could find everything from street food stalls to cybercafés in the market place.

It is said Srinagar is as much imagination as it is fact, for every season offers new vistas to this city of great antiquity. Spring breathes life again into a frozen world and the air is heady with the fragrance of a million flowers that blossom on trees, shrubs and creepers. Summer heightens the effect and autumn is poignant in its colors of warm introspection. Winter brings with it snow, sometimes the Dal Lake freezes and beneath a leaden sky, roasted chestnuts turn the atmosphere aromatic with the promise of warmth and comfort.

Gulmarg
Trek to Alpather Lake can be undertaken which is lake 13 Kms away from Gulamrg. This lake remains frozen even in June.
• Gulmarg-Khilanmarg-Apharwat-Alpather is one of the important trekking route

After seeing all the important tourist spots, we left the next day for Gulmarg situated about 60 km from Srinagar taking approx. 2 hours. Gulmarg, or meadow of flowers, is an apt term indeed for this idyllic flower-laden meadow at an altitude of 2,730 metres, in Baramulla district. The climb to Gulmarg begins through fir-covered hillsides. At one spot on the way up, known popularly as View Point, we stopped for a few minutes and to take a look at a spectacle of snow-covered mountains, almost within touching distance. After traveling a few more minutes we could see the towering peaks above the meadow, that were covered with dense forests of tall conifers and gigantic fir and pine trees, all vying with each other to touch the azure skies. As it was a clear day, it offered us some breathtaking views from Gulmarg: fields of rice; clusters of walnut, pear and mulberry; meadows, ridges and forests that lead to the snow slopes of Khilanmarg; the majestic Nanga Parbat peak over a 100 km away. We took a Cable Car (Gandola) ride, which is great hit with tourists and it takes people up to Kongdori. Gulmarg boasts of the world’s highest and Asia’s longest cable car project Gulmarg Gondola. The ropeway, which has 36 cabins, ferries about 600 tourists to and fro the Afarwat peak and comprises 35 towers and 30 stations and takes skiers to a height of 4,390 mt. The ropeway project is a joint venture of the Jammu and Kashmir government and French firm Poma Glaski. The cable car, which has been extended further by 2.65 km, connects the bowl-shaped Kongdoori Valley at 10,000 ft (3,930 mt) with Afarwat, situated 13 km from Gulmarg, and at an altitude of 13,400 ft (4,390 mt). Gulmarg gets snowfall periodically from November to April, sometimes above 15 ft and mostly gets the first and last snowfall of the Valley.


Gulmarg, is an equally popular destination in winter as well. It gets coated with a blanket of thick, soft snow, turning its gentle slopes into some of the finest ski slopes. Surrounded by crests of white, the air seems to sparkle against the ice as skiers flash past in the hush of the snow. The resort has one T-Bar Lift, three modern ski lifts and a chair lift. The beginner's slope makes learning easy, with perfect snow conditions and a gentle gradient. Trained instructors are available and equipment can be hired. Skating, curling, and ski bobbing are some of the activities offered. White Christmas celebration and winter festival including ski competitions are held every year in Gulmarg with much fan fare.

During summers, Gulmarg is a golfer's paradise. Its international lush green golf course is the highest in the world. Equipments are available on hire for the visitor allured by the golf greens here. Gulmarg was once an important trekking base and the Gulmarg-Khilanmarg-Apharwat-Alpather is still a great trek. We were told the trek to Alpather Lake which is lake 13 Kms away from Gulmarg can be interesting as this lake remains frozen even in June.

As we were visiting Kashmir valley in September, we were asked to visit Gulmarg again in the month of February to enjoy the winters in the valley. We made to promise to return each other as early as possible. Finally after treasuring all cherished memories of this glorious location we reluctantly headed for our way back home.

Flying out of Srinagar involved heavy security and as early as a mile back from the airport the checks began. At one point we (and our luggage) had to get out of the taxi into a bomb-proof building, a mirror-check was done under the car and our luggage put through an x-ray machine, this was the first of 3 other x-ray checks. It was all very efficiently and politely done.

While we were sitting at the lounge of the Srinagar Airport, waiting for our flight we were already making plans for our next visit to this wonderland, nestling in the lap of the dazzling, snow-capped Himalayas, the Kashmir valley is undoubtedly a jewel in India's crown. Over the years, Kashmir tourism has come a long way, it has evolved to love and look after its tourists, fulfilling their every demand. So now tourists were everywhere, soaking up all that Kashmir has to offer - the walks, the pony treks, the shikara rides at sunset on the Dal Lake. The lofty snow clad mountain ranges, sylvan landscape and remarkably good-looking people make this state a virtual paradise.


An inspiration for so much art, music and poetry, Kashmir is also honeymooners' paradise, a nature lover's wonderland and a shopper's dream come true...We are very passionate about Kashmir and believe it as possibly the most beautiful place on earth. We highly recommend people to visit this mesmerizing state. And once you have visited Kashmir, you will agree that what began as a dream lives on as an unforgettable experience …

 

~ Anu & Suchit Nanda, Oct, 2005
 
Official website: http://www.jammukashmir.nic.in/
Text copyright Arundhathi. All pictures copyright Suchit Nanda. All images shot with Nikon D70 DSLR camera with lens: Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED VR, Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro