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HindustanTimes Thu,21 Aug 2014
Trailing an ancient emperor
Text and pics by Rishad Saam Mehta, Hindustan Times
July 06, 2013
First Published: 17:40 IST(6/7/2013)
Last Updated: 18:25 IST(6/7/2013)

Kashmir, opium-laced wine and his wife, Nur Jehan were the three passionate loves of the Mughal emperor, Jehangir.

The Mughal connection with Kashmir began in 1586 when Jehangir’s father, Akbar, stomped into the vale, leading an army that included a regiment of 1,500 scimitar-tusked armoured elephants. With Kashmir within the empire, Jehangir reaped the fruit of his father’s blood, sweat and toil. Often his entourage would leisurely stroll into Kashmir, the elephants now shambling along in mufti, for his annual summer vacation. This would probably be a month-long migration, given that the distance from Agra to Srinagar was 1,500km.
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Road to yesterday
Today, the road most travellers take to Srinagar goes via Jammu and the Banihal tunnel or the NH1A, but during the Mughal era, this road didn’t exist. The path to Kashmir went from Delhi to Lahore and then to a place called Gujrat (now in Pakistan). From there it went to Bhimbar (today, just within the border of India) and then started zigzagging up the Pir Panjal range to crest it at 11,450 feet at a beautiful place called the Pir ki Gali, before descending into the valley of Kashmir at the idyllic town of Shopian.

My friends and I didn’t have a month, or a week. But what we did have was the Audi Q7 for a four-day drive from Delhi, and we decided to give the old imperial road a shot.

We drove from Delhi to Jammu in an overnighter, and Google Maps on our smartphones directed us from Jammu to Akhnoor. A stern shepherd directed us towards Sunderbani and Naushera, after which we met the old Mughal road at a historically significant place called Chingus.

A nondescript village today, Chingus’s connection to history lies hidden in the forests bordering the road. Almost swallowed by the forest is the Chingus Sarai, one of the many medieval rest houses built on this road for travellers to rest and water their beasts.
On Monday, November 8, 1627, Jehangir died here en route to Delhi. Knowing that the Mughal throne in Delhi would be up for grabs should the word get out, Nur Jehan embargoed the news of his death and had his innards (chingus in Persian) buried at the sarai. Jehangir was then embalmed and placed upon his elephant to ride into Delhi, creating the illusion that he was still alive. Standing at the desolate Chingus Sarai, I caught an eerie whiff of putrefaction still tainting the air – but then realised that it was my imagination going haywire.

Jehangir, on the other hand, didn’t like taxing his imagination too much, which is why he had a mirror set up at the Noori Chamb (a waterfall) along this route. Nur Jehan used to frolic under the glacial water, and, according to local legend, Jehangir would often use the mirror to keep a lusty eye on her while bubbling away at his hookah.

GurezFrom peak to peak
We continued to drive this road, trying to imagine how it would have been 400 years ago when elephants slowly made their way from Chingus to Rajouri and then down the twists and turns to Bafliaz on the banks of the Poonch River.

Another seemingly ordinary village, Bafliaz has a link with hallowed antiquity going all the way back to 326BC. It is believed that it is here that Alexander’s beloved Bucephalus – the tempestuous horse that he trained as a youth – finally breathed his last after Alexander’s defeat at the hands of Porus in the battle of Hydaspes.

Fortunately for us, the 200 horses within our car’s crankcase were frisky and well, and we zipped up the recently reconstructed wide and smooth road up to the Pir ki Gali. The uninterrupted views of the snow-capped Pir Panjal range, the absence of heavy traffic and the presence of well-preserved serais make this road to Srinagar worth the extra time. Pir ki Gali is almost always peppered with snow, except during the height of summer in July.

Zig zag: up the Pir Panjal range to crest at the Pir ki Gali

It was even prettier descending from the pass into the vale of Kashmir. The famed Chinar trees soon appeared on the outskirts of the rustic village of Shopian, from where we drove the final 50km to Srinagar via Pulwama and Kanipora to get into the capital just as dusk was coming on. It had taken us 21 hours from Delhi.

Hidden wonders
All of us had already explored Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg – the touristy Kashmir quartet. So we decided to head
somewhere new instead. When we’d stopped at Shopian for tea and sweet Kashmiri bread at the local bakery, the baker told us, “Go to the hidden valley of Gurez”.


So the next morning, once again aided by Google Maps, we headed out towards Bandipora, 55km to the north of Srinagar. When we stopped at a little village en route, some of the locals insisted we have breakfast with them. This consisted of piping hot and salty sheer chai and hot and chewy bakarkhani bread. It was heavenly!

All the good people: Don’t be surprised if you get invited to share sheer chai and bakarkhani
This was the first of many such impromptu invitations to meals and tea we would receive in the days ahead. The local bakery also handed out a fresh batch of coconut macaroons which were so tasty that we promptly bought a kilo.

This looks familiar
Once we’d registered ourselves at the Bandipora police station and obtained permits for Gurez, we headed off towards the 11,672-foot-high Razdan Pass. Gurez is 80km from Bandipora over this pass and most of this is a mud track with some very rough sections. This region of Kashmir has only recently opened its doors to tourism, so there is still a large army presence, and every few kilometres we had to stop and register ourselves.

Some surprised army personnel from Ahmednagar were so amazed to see our Maharashtra-registered car that they unleashed a barrage of banter in Marathi and insisted that we have tea and snacks with them.

On the move: A nomad family near Chingus
When we drove into Dawar, the very pretty administrative centre of Gurez, it was like arriving at a trading post on an ancient caravan route. The light blue Kishanganga river flows calmly past the town in contrast to the bustle of the main market. We drove into the spanking new Tourist Guest House tooting our horn, and the caretaker – rudely awakened from his mid-day nap – arrived full of apologies, stunned that tourists had arrived so deep into the off season.

That evening, the talented and toothy cook of the local Noorani restaurant showed off his prowess by preparing a truly lip-smacking Kashmiri meal.

Four and many more
Since we were on a blitzkrieg trip, we had only the next morning to explore the Valley. We drove past little villages with ancient wooden houses inhabited by weather-beaten elders, rosy-cheeked children and very pretty women.

At the last village, Purana Tilel, everyone was busy preparing a wedding feast. The headman insisted that we stay back for the nikaah and the wazwaan feast, a labour intensive meal in which the meats are pounded hour hours by hand. Regrettably we had to be back in Srinagar that evening.

This was my fourth trip to Kashmir and I had been hesitant to go, thinking I had seen all that the state had to offer. Now I am glad to admit how mistaken I was.

TRAVEL INFO

Make a pit stop at the Aliabad Sarai just like Emperor Jehangir would have done
* The Mughal Road is truly a fantastic drive. Take time out to explore the Chingus Sarai, Pir ki Gali and Aliabad Sarai.
Accommodation options in Srinagar range from the upmarket Vivanta by Taj Dal View, Srinagar and The Lalit Grand Palace to more modest options. Also check out houseboats on Dal Lake. The Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar is at: 0194 2452691.
* To go to the Gurez Valley, you will need to obtain a permit from the Tourist Reception Centre in Lal Chowk, Srinagar, or from the Bandipora police station. This permit has to be stamped again by the police in Gurez.

TRAVEL TIPS
* Army personnel along the route at checkposts will take down names, ID card numbers (passport, voter’s ID card or driving licence) and may ask a few questions. Some might invite you for tea – consider that these men live and serve in harsh conditions and a few minutes of banter will go a long way in breaking the monotony for them.
* Carry all your car papers (in original as well as photocopies).
* When asked to follow a convoy, do so without question.
* Always ask for permission before taking pictures of seniors or women.

From HT Brunch, July 7

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