Agar Firdaus Ba-Roohe Zameenast Hameenasto Hameenasto Hammenasto
If there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this! These are perhaps the most frequently quoted lines to describe the matchless beauty of Kashmir – a veritable paradise on earth. Certainly the beauty of the valley delights, stuns and humbles the visitor. I have been lucky enough to visit Kashmir twice – once as a little girl with my parents and then recently again as an adult along with my husband and children.
So while Kashmir is a land of matchless beauty which could be jannat or paradise, it is not quite so. There are many reasons why being in Kashmir made me feel wistful, even rather sad; at times uncomfortable and not quite secure – not exactly what you want to feel when you’re paradise.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this may have been the time of year that we visited this time around – we were there during the last 10 days of December last year. Kashmir looked frozen, desolate, barren and bleak – it was a stark rather than fecund beauty: There were no flowers in those celebrated gardens, the mighty chinars had shed their leaves, the fields were bare of the delicate saffron crop, and the sky was frequently a lowering grey portending snow. Kashmir was clearly not in its most glorious garb.
Then there was the airport, crawling with security; again something of a spoiler. But it wasn’t the time of year and the security alone that were to blame. I also experienced a sense of sorrow for what could have been – the paradise Kashmir could have been, had it not been for so many different factors. There is so much of Kashmir that fails to live up to its promise:
The Kashmiri people were by and large hospitable, but I did sense some amount of underlying hostility at times. For instance there as an altercation we had with a man on our way back from Gulmarg – he as demanding money for a service he had not performed. There were sharp words and the man’s demeanor was clearly threatening as he glared and told us that this was Kashmir and that we had better be careful if we did not want to get hurt. This was an unsettling and souring experience.
It was more that once that we got the feeling of being interlopers – though we were giving people our custom, some locals managed to convey the impression that they were the ones doing us as favour – not an attitude conducive to the tourist trade it must be said. It wasn’t outright hostility, but something more muted; a certain resentment that communicated itself.
In my view, the privileges that Kashmiris enjoy, which prevent non-Kashmiris from owning property probably means that the hospitality industry is probably not as well developed as it should be. Take our hotel in Pahalgham for instance – though a prepaid booking was made on the internet weeks in advance and confirmed with the hotel by phone, when we arrived there, the people at the reception refused to acknowledge it and kept us waiting for a really long time, refusing to show us to our room– and this at a time when the hotel was practically empty. Any hotel worth its salt would have first attended to the guests and sorted out the nitty-gritty later – another unfortunate experience.
The Wazwan cuisine of Kashmir is among the best culinary feasts one can ever hope to experience. However if you want to venture into the older parts of Srinagar to experience what the locals eat, you will probably cautioned against this. We were lucky that a local took us into a part of old Srinagar to experience some of the real local fare, but most visitors would probably be told that it is not entirely safe to be wandering around the old city area.
Gulmarg with its pristine ski slopes, breathtakingly high rope rail and picturesque cottages was stunningly beautiful.
Even Pahalgham with its beautiful winding roads along the half frozen Lidder, stunning pony tracks and pretty log huts was beautiful, even though the market area was a little seedy and squalid looking; some of the restaurants definitely having seen better days.
The prettier parts of Srinagar were along the Dal Lake, around the golf course, the up-market residential areas and around the many beautifully grand gardens. But parts of Srinagar, particularly the outskirts were distinctly run down and ramshackle; much like any other untidy Indian town.
On the road to Pahalgham from Srinagar lie the stunningly beautiful ruins of Awantipur (Awantipora). Hardly anyone know seems to about them; few people stop to see them.
Kashmiri handicrafts are beautiful and unique. But one doesn’t need to be in Kashmir for that – you can get Kashmiri handicrafts pretty much anywhere in India. Smiling Kashmiri salesmen will sell you rugs, shawls, stoles, embroidered suits, papier mache items, and imitation phirans from Kashmir Emporiums practically in any corner of India. We ended up buying a lot of the really excellent local almonds and walnuts but shopped little else.
Alas militancy has sounded a something of a death knell for culture in the valley. There are few cultural events here, there are no cinemas (all cinemas are closed but you can get any new Bollywood DVD of your choice from the footpath near Laal Chowk). People constantly live under the shadow of the gun, fearing violence, curfew and curtailment of civil liberties at any time. Kashmir’s rich musical traditions currently languish in the wilderness. Srinagar streets are deserted late in the evening, the night life is virtually nonexistent.
Though it was a wonderful, memorable trip, what I took away from Kashmir was a predominant sense of what could have been.
By – Reena Daruwalla
Image Source – Original Photos of the Author