Earlier this year I made plans with my family to visit our summer home in Srinagar and I am delighted to have done so. As I sit on the balcony of Karan Mahal and watch the shikaras go by on the Dal Lake, I realise how privileged and blessed my family is, to have this magnificent home to come back to in this pristine valley.
Karan Mahal was built in the 1920s. It was the home of Sir John Wakefield who worked in the government of Maharaja Hari Singh. Later, it become home to my father, Dr Karan Singh, and his English guardians. From 1950 to 1968, while he was Sadar-e-Riyasat (head of state) and right up until the mid 1980s, Karan Mahal played host to several visiting dignitaries, heads of state, royalty and movie stars.
After seeking blessings at the two holy shrines of Shankracharya and Kheer Bhawani, we decided to drive extensively in different parts of the Kashmir Valley. The valley stretches 100 km wide and is 15,520 square km in area. My aim was to explore especially those areas that had been made inaccessible over the last 20 years as a result of militancy.
There has been an overflow of tourists in the valley this year and it is advisable not to plan trips out of Srinagar on the weekends, as all the popular places get very crowded with both local and visiting traffic. So we decided to make our first trip out to our all-time favourite destination, Pahalgam, on a weekday. I have to say that it is sad to see the kind of unabated construction that has happened over the last 20 years in this valley.
The drive to Pahalgam seemed most unfamiliar till I saw the gorgeous Lidar river and the bold signage that proudly says: ‘Welcome! Pahalgam Development Authority.’ I had heard about the newly redesigned 18-hole golf course and couldn’t wait to see it. It had just been inaugurated by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
As I walked onto the course, I couldn’t help but gasp in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. It was like being in any of the top golf courses in England or Scotland, with undulating meadows and forests and contrasting shades of green that almost hurt the eye! I felt an immense sense of joy and pride. Joy, to see the stunning natural beauty that surrounded me and pride to see our ability to create a top-class international golf course using that natural splendour.
We then had lunch and proceeded beyond Pahalgam to a popular fishing area in upper Aaru. You go past a picturesque spot where the Aaru and Pahalgam rivers meet. We had booked the fishing lodge there and spent the better part of the evening looking at the iris in full bloom along the river. Needless to say we had a large overdose of homemade walnut tarts, cookies and cakes. And to make the consequent digestion easier, doused ourselves with large quantities of sweet kahwa with an extra dose of sugar, almonds and saffron! Sitting by the river, it was so easy to forget that these were areas where no one dared to venture until two years ago.
On our return, we were very keen to visit the ancient Martand temple in Matton village dedicated to the sun god. My son is named after this temple built by the Hindu King Lalitaditya Muktapada in AD 724-61. This excavated monument is under the Archaeological Survey of India. The temple is unique for its size and grandeur. We reached just as the sun was setting. You could see multiple hues of blue and pink in the sky and the last rays of the sun falling on the arches and the massive gateway. It was as though time had stopped and you had entered a gateway to a different dimension. Martand was happy.
One afternoon we went to Manasbal Lake that lies between the towns of Ganderbal and Bandipur, just over an hour’s drive from Srinagar. It is soothing to see this large body of clear blue water free of toxic waste and pollutants. There has been a conscious drive to keep the waters clean and to develop a pedestrian pathway along the shores of the lake.
We were told that some of the tastiest freshwater fish in the valley comes from here. It was interesting to see the partially submerged ancient Hindu temple close by, surrounded by a perennial source of crystal-clear spring water. As you cruise on the lake, you can see just the parapet of what was once a Mughal garden ascribed to Empress Nur Jahan. The lake comes alive on moonlit nights. That would have to be a whole different trip!
The saints go marching in
Perhaps the most exciting of all my explorations was the drive to Pir Ki Gali on the ancient Mughal route. This stretch of road starts from Shopian in south Kashmir, going up to the mountain pass called Pir Ki Gali (the passage of the saints) situated at 10,600 ft. As you drive along the Hirpur river on the 45-km stretch of highway, it’s awesome to know that you are on the route once used by Mughal and other caravans to cross over from Kashmir Valley to the lower regions of Rajouri, Poonch and Jammu. As you peer down the steep mountainsides, you catch a glimpse of the ruins of the original Mughal sarai or resting place. Today it is used by shepherds as they traverse these mountains to graze their cattle.
A lot of the road is still under construction and makes for ideal four wheel driving conditions. As you approach the pass, you begin to see vast areas of gently undulating hills and meadows with lush green grass. These regions all form part of the traditional grazing lands of the Gujjar/Gaddi communities whose families have travelled deep into the mountains for centuries. This deep understanding of the high altitude mountainous terrain makes them very good guides and trackers. This special ability has been exploited in the recent past by security forces to gather information and also by militants still hibernating in remote areas.
River of history
The historic Jhelum river originates at a spring in Verinag and meanders through the old parts of Srinagar city. It then flows through the border town of Uri from where it crosses the line of control (LoC) into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There are seven bridges over this river connecting different parts of the town. These wooden structures were made during the reign of Muslim rulers and some are still standing strong. The tourism department has recently started the ‘Jhelum river cruise’ that takes you from ‘Zero’ bridge to fifth bridge at Fateh Kadal.
We decided to take this hour-long boat ride one sunny afternoon. I have to say that the authorities have made a concerted effort to clean up this section of the waters and its once heavily encroached shores. As you cross each bridge, you see some very interesting architecture and ruins of monuments. You come across dilapidated old buildings still inhabited by people. If you look carefully, you can see sections of precariously poised bay windows, arches and facades that are still intact. The intricate woodwork on the jharokhas and cornices reflects the richness of Kashmiri artisans.
When you approach the older sections of the town, the Persian influence on Kashmiri architecture starts to become evident. It is a photographer’s delight! I couldn’t stop hopping from one side of the boat to the other in an attempt to capture that perfect shot. I am not sure if I got it!
It was an emotional moment for me when we crossed the old Rajgarh City Palace built by my ancestor Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1900 on the shores of the Jhelum. My grandfather, Maharaja Hari Singh, moved out of this palace in the 1920s and set up home just outside the city overlooking the famous Dal Lake. Sadly, I never got to see this palace in its full glory. A large part of it was burned down in a fire 25 years ago. The rest is occupied by government offices. I am told that entire walls were adorned by exquisite papier mache work and the ceilings were decorated with the traditional Kashmiri woodwork called Khutambandi.
Between the third and the fourth bridges you approach the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan. This mosque in Feteh Kadal forms the oldest part of the city. Said to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani came from the city of Hamadan in Persia during the reign of Emperor Akbar and set up his monastery on which the present day mosque stands. The Persian influence on the architecture of this beautiful building is very strong. The structure is made of huge wooden planks filled with small brick tiles and oddly enough, reminded me of a monastery I recently visited in Paro, Bhutan. It was during his time that the process of conversion to Islam began. Kashmir was predominantly Hindu before that.
After shooting pictures from every nook and corner like a possessed person, I decided to settle down to say a small prayer. By now the sun had begun to set over the river and the light was filtering through the chinaar leaves onto the mosque. I asked for blessings for my family and peace for the people of Kashmir. I returned home that evening with a sense of reinforced belief that there are powerful spiritual forces at work all around us that most of us are not tuned in with. Every now and then when you visit special places like Shah Hamadan, regardless of their religious affiliation, it opens up your sensitivities to such forces. I felt settled and at peace with myself.
Protect us from all evil
No trip to Kashmir is complete without visiting the Dachigam National Park nestled in the mountains behind the Harvan reservoir, a 40-minute drive from Srinagar. This was a private hunting reserve of the maharajas and only a select few guests were ever invited to hunt here. The ‘hangul’ or Kashmir stag as it was popularly referred to, was amongst the prized trophies.
Leopard, Himalayan black bear and the musk deer also continue to thrive in this habitat. It was declared a protected area as early as 1910 by the maharaja. Strict guidelines and rules were laid down for the preservation and protection of its precious forests and diverse wildlife. Till date the local administration follows a lot of these norms and keeps the entry restricted through the office of the chief minister.
My best childhood memories are of frolicking in the sunny afternoon with my parents in the main garden, then setting off to spot the bears. There was an old forest guard called Wani who used to hug and kiss us and claimed that he had worked under Maharaja Hari Singh. As kids we never knew whether to run in the opposite direction when we saw him or to be equally affectionate and risk being smothered by this old man! That was always a tough call!
This trip of mine was special in more ways than one. To begin with, I was a little apprehensive about what I would discover whilst here, but then I decided to keep an open mind, to spend more time listening to what people have to say than go in with preconceived notions. I met and spoke to people in Pulwama, Shopian, Khannabal, Pahalgam, Daksum, Ganderbal, Kheer Bhawani and in Srinagar city. I remembered what my mother always taught me, to show compassion and understanding instead of being harsh and judgemental. I believe that if most people coming to visit Kashmir exercise the same expressions, it will help create a better understanding of where each side is coming from and what we can do to achieve common goals.
The interlocutors appointed by the central government are working overtime to gather consensus on key areas of disagreement. They have only a couple of months to present their recommendations. On the other hand, the people of Jammu & Kashmir are anxiously waiting to see what package is offered to them. This will play a critical role in shaping the course of events in Jammu & Kashmir in the near future. I hope the government of India realises that this is the last chance the country has to broker peace in this complex state with such distinct regional and ethnic aspirations.
Meanwhile, I extend a warm invitation to those of you who have been inspired to visit your Kashmir this year and enjoy its treasure of immense natural and spiritual beauty and the warm hospitality of its beautiful people.
From HT Brunch, July 24
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