Kashmir – Heaven on earth!

With the pick-up of tourism, the Kashmir Union Territory creation has been a huge relief as it has brought about peace and development opportunities for all walks of life

Travel Diary

By Jan Arden

This was not pre-planned, and I had neither appropriate woollies and jumpers nor any preconceived idea of what to expect for an autumn trek into Kashmir, as well-meaning friends had recommended Shimla or Mussoorie as hill stations near Delhi and away from the capital’s tiring smog, wearisome bustle, and endless traffic din. Many of them back home thought Kashmir was a risky venture and their recurrent first question, was it safe? So,I thought it appropriate to share a few memories for their benefit and those who might wish to wander there.

Kashmir boathouse. Pic – That Trending

First though some general thoughts on India’s incredibly fast-paced developments. Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport is a far cry today from what IGIA was some 25 years ago. Spotlessly clean, running entirely on green energy (a combination of hydro and solar), with sufficient immigration booths and baggage security to make entrance or exit painlessly smooth with minimum queues. A huge relief also that the new Airport metro line three floors below, can whizz you to Delhi city center in 19min in uncrowded impeccably clean air-con coaches for a modest 60 INR, quite a feat, particularly when our own Metro express after some Rs 40 billion investment is still far from our only airport.

Smog at some periods of the year has been a recurrent theme for Delhiites, due mostly to those innumerable diesel rickshaws and the widespread burning of agricultural wastes after harvest season. Seems odd that very competent Indian agricultural scientists have not over the decades evolved a masterplan to convert or compost those annual agricultural bundles of field left-overs, nor that a mass program to replace diesel by electric rickshaws has not materialised. The authorities reckon a day in Delhi is equivalent to smoking nearly twenty cigarettes a day. Fortunately, very few Indian citizens actually smoke either in Delhi, Rajasthan or Kashmir.

If we used to marvel how the mobile had percolated all strata of our society, India has already left us way behind in its applications of widespread use to facilitate life for ordinary citizens. Every local dhaba, every shop displays its plastified A4 QR code which pays for your INR 20 samoosa effortlessly in a click, while numerous mobile applications allow Indians to do their banking, shop for essentials or groceries, catch taxis, reserve, and buy train and airline tickets or their seat reservations/boarding passes without much fuss if you get yourself an indispensable Indian SIM card.

Gone are the older rickety, overcrowded trains or even station ticket booths as the fast, clean new generation fully air-con Shatabdi or Rajdhani express and the even newer Vande Bharat and the Regional Namo Bharat trains all with mobile charger and many user-friendly features crisscross the sub-continent’s main cities with superfast online bookings. As a corollary of this entrepreneurial Indian mobile and software industry (Huawei and Chinese applications were banned years ago after foiled Chinese military adventurism at the northern frontiers), most dhabas, shops and ordinary Indians do not carry much change, a factor that has certainly reduced petty theft, pickpockets, and criminality.

But back to my flight to Srinagar and the spectacular window views over the majestic snow-clad Himalayan chain below, a mesmerising sight in these autumn days spread over endless kilometres. Several local air-couriers make the flight daily from Delhi/Mumbai to Srinagar airport, where, by prior arrangement, a driver and his Honda private car were waiting, had made the necessary hotel bookings and was at my disposal daily for a Srinagar city tour and trekking out over a week to various sites of interest, including the most reputed nearby valleys. It bears reminding that Jammu is mostly Hindu; more northerly Ladakh (little Tibet) now a Union Territory, half Buddhist, is a barren but spectacular enclave dotted with many monasteries and spiritual centers, while most Kashmiris are Muslims, and I was somewhat eager to interact and find out what they felt and whether old animosities and conflicts with non-Kashmiris, or Hindu minorities and their Kashmiri pandits were still a reality. 

Along Srinagar’s main throughfares, many posters for the 5th anniversary celebration of Kashmir as a Union Territory a few days before were still on prominent display. So were the giant posters of PM Modi and the G20 Tourism Summit held a few months back and which had propelled Kashmir as a tourist destination of excellence for high-level delegates from around the world who had marvelled at the peaceful serenity exuded by Srinagar, the capital, and its awesome surrounds. No doubt there were occasional reports of some cross-border firings from the usual culprits, but clearly, reports of discontent that had become so associated with the capital Srinagar, the territory and its inhabitants were no longer the order of the day in Kashmiri minds as far as I could gather. With the pick-up of tourism (some 80 % of Kashmir’s economy and activities are tourism-related), the Kashmir Union Territory creation has been a huge relief as it has brought about peace and development opportunities for all walks of life.

There is also perhaps some subdued realisation that the billions of INR being poured into massive health, education, university, and infrastructure investments, making Srinagar a clean, green and a model smart city for all Kashmiris, come from all Indian taxpayers. Hundreds of initiatives have and are considerably transforming Srinagar and its roads, connectivity, and beautiful surroundings, including a mammoth program to clean up the Dal Lake, where the picturesque old houseboats and shikaras ply their trade with renewed zest.

Armed security personnel and check points, although manifest along the main thoroughfares, were neither obtrusive nor unfriendly, living up to their displayed motto « We are here for your security and safety ». There was certainly little desire for a return to the old administration where a few wily and wealthy politicians held sway and kept out all investors, without much concern for the livelihoods of ordinary Kashmiris. So said my Kashmiri hotel owner, his welcoming staff or any run-of-the-mill Muslim resident, as he outlined the region’s history and culture over a cup of the ubiquitous Kashmiri Kahwa tea. Shrouded in the mysteries of time, he nonetheless confided that the most accepted derivation was from the legendary Kashyap rishi, one of the Saptarishis, who undertook the major civil works to empty the huge lake that was the valley then, hence the name Kash-mir (huge lake) and that the Kashmiri language was a derivative of Sanskrit.

As for my youthful Muslim driver, married with a daughter to raise, he too held no sympathy for any separatist narrative or infiltrated brewers of unrest and so busy was he and many others in the tourist trade. He took me to a fourteenth century Srinagar Mosque of indigenous design around peaceful courtyard gardens (no minaret or Middle-Eastern import features), its halls propped by hundreds of solid wood (walnut) pillars. He asked if I would be interested to participate in the October Amarnath congregation, plastered over town, or visit the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi or the old Adi Shankaracharya Temple overlooking Srinagar, all welcoming millions of pilgrims, and visitors.

No trip would have been complete without its share of sightseeing of the magnificent scenic beauties of Pahalgam, Doodhpatri, Sonmarg and Gulmarg, the poney rides over sprawling greenery of pine forests, the ubiquitous walnuts and almond trees, the miles of tasty Kashmiri red apple orchards, laden with fruits in October, or the six-mile stretch of Zaffran farms, each with its specialty boutique, all very friendly and doing brisk business. To cap it all, a last night in a houseboat, soaking the evening prayers from a nearby mosque, followed by Vedic rhymes chanted by Hindu priests, reverberating over the peaceful Dal lake, all paying their homage to the same Eternal, so close in these high mountainous abodes surrounded by the majestic snow-clad peaks and glaciers of what is undoubtedly close to heaven on earth!


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 24 November 2023

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