Those offering namaz are already inside the mosque, in deep prayer.
Visitors are more than welcome to the precincts. The eminent playwright MK Raina has brought us to the sacred site. MK knows his way through the city’s roads like the back of his palm. He was born in Srinagar and his love of the city is contagious.
Two guards guide us gently through the designated corridors and openings at Hazratbal. “Topi…” he courteously reminds me, pointing to a basketful of head coverings that visiting men can use. One of the guards talks to a group of tourists from the plains, just ahead of me. A 10 or 12-year-old boy, also a visitor, asks him something. The guard smiles, places his hands on the boy’s heads and explains in Hindustani, the procedures for visitors. The scene is blessed.
Meanwhile, some people come up to where I am. “Sir, aapni…?” They are tourists from Kolkata. About five of them. They have recognised one who worked in their state not long ago. We talk for a while about the indescribable beauty of Srinagar, the sublime atmosphere of this mosque. Visitors from all over the country are coming to Srinagar in happy numbers.
Srinagar’s Jama Masjid is a revelation. The all-brick structure with its wooden finials so reminiscent of Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh drains my brain of every thought other than of the grace of the building, the silence around it, of the power of sanctity. As we leave, a man who has come to the masjid to offer prayers tells MK to make sure we see the “Devi-ka-Mandir” nearby which has been worshipped for centuries.
Srinagar’s old buildings, made of brick and wood, are a wonder.
We have gathered, some of us, in memory of Dara Shukoh, the never-to-be-King Prince. Jyotsna Singh is organising this festival in Dara’s name for the fourth time on the edges of Dal Lake, just above which stands the Pari Mahal, or Faeries’ Abode that Dara built in the mid-17th century to serve as a garden and an observatory.
A garden and an observatory?
A garden is designed by the human imagination and shaped by human hands to see and show how a balance between nature and human creativity can result in something exquisite.
An observatory is meant to help us see the vastness, the infinity of Creation, in which the Earth is but a speck, and where human design must bow before that of the Maker.
Pari Mahal. An abode , palace, in truth, of angelic beings, rooted in the earth’s beauty and linked to that of the spangled sky.
Vivek Menon, author of Field Guide to Indian Mammals is in town at the same time as us. He arranges for my wife Tara and I to visit the Dachigam National Park, just outside Srinagar.
Walking deep inside that sanctuary, we see a herd of hangul climbing up a steep mountain side, hear the glacial melt flowing in the Dagwan, spot panther pugmarks and black-bear pugmarks. Surrounded by mesmeric mountain-sides and being treated to a soft orchestra of avian calls, I understand why Jahangir said what he said of Kashmir: “Agar Firdaus ba roi zameen astu, hami astu, hami astu, hami astu”, meaning, “If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
Menon tells us about the hangul. This Kashmir deer that we have seen moments earlier in slow fleecy motion, is resident of the Kashmir Valley and is in fact the state animal of Jammu and Kashmir. The hangul, with two other ungulates, symbolises the natural heritage of the state: first, the markhor, the flare horned goat, the largest goat in the world, is resident of the Kazinag and the Pir Panjal, and is found not just in the mountains of J&K but right on the Line of Control and in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Second, the chiru or the Tibetan antelope, resident of the plateau of Ladakh.
The three ungulates of J&K, its rivers and streams, the Dal and Nagin Lakes, its forests and especially its walnut tree, its built heritage best symbolised by the Pari Mahal, need the attention of peace and the security of protection, no less than all that which we know so well.
Nazeer, an extraordinary forester, is an encyclopaedia about Dachigam. A slightly-built man, with binoculars slung across his chest, he goes up and down the coniferous slopes of Dachigam like an athlete. At one point, he is standing on a groundswell of grass and sweet-scenting herbs. The blue sky above him, trees around him, the river flowing not far down, and the sun illuminating him, he says: “This is also where mushrooms grow, several species of them… Some people took them to the West to grow them there… But no…” And then spreading his hands, with the sun lighting up the whole of his slight frame,” he says: “The mushrooms of Kashmir need Himalayan thunder”. It is a moment which choreographers would not be able to recreate, photographers fail to capture. It is Nazeer, it is also nature itself, speaking.
The phrase ‘Himalayan blunder’ has entered the political lexicon. A ‘Himalayan thunder’ originating from J&K in the shape of a unique bio-diversity conservation model could give the world a model of life in an area known so unfairly as a zone of strife.
Of all the enchantments of Kashmir, the highest is that of its people, so strong and so gentle, containing their pain in dignity, their dignity in pain. Listening to a group of college students I am stunned by their determination to not be tethered to the past and to find their own solutions that go beyond politics, beyond countries and continents, to those of Planet Earth. They are not unrealistic. “The masses need an answer. They have been betrayed, time and again.” There is wide agreement among them when one of them suggests, “The future is now”.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal