By Satish Chandra
This summer I fulfilled one of my cherished desires of completing the Amarnath pilgrimage. My sister and brother-in-law gave me company. After four days of a gruelling walk and hike at an average altitude of 13,000 feet, we decided to rest for a few days in Srinagar. Being my very first trip to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), I was naturally enthusiastic about seeing the beauty of its flora, fauna and the people. What I briefly saw through the conditions in Pahalgam, or during a bus ride from Jammu to Pahalgam, I did not let them influence my judgment on the Valley of Kashmir (Wadi-e-Kashmir).
We entered the Valley at day-time by a bus from Baltal via Sonemarg. Pahalgam and Sonemarg are some of the very familiar names besides Srinagar. They are (not now) particularly known for some shooting locations of the Indian film industry when they could not go abroad due to foreign exchange controls. By today’s standards, what I could cursorily see in these cities did not hold my attention. The places appeared to have some stunted growth, and had a deserted look. There is a whole lot of military presence, and other defence personnel than of civilians. Since we did not spend a full day at any of these places, it may be premature to form a solid judgment on their tourist or commercial value. However, in Srinagar we spent four days, from August 9 to 12.
In a bus ride, as I would notice the decreasing road markers like Srinagar 15 km, 10 km away, my eyes would start searching for something that I could say, ‘Aha’. All along and up to the point the bus driver asked us to get off (and that was not a bus stand!), what I saw was dust-laden trees, bushes, old or unfinished houses, and narrow streets. On the roadsides, children were seen playing in filthy clothes, women toiling in house chores and menfolk squatting on the ground in small groups. I still consoled myself of a better side of Kashmir once we were nestled in Srinagar.
In the hotel, we found ourselves to be the sole occupants. It was an eerie feeling, but so was the case in a nearby hotel where we had dinner. We were the only diners there and the waiter was standing over our shoulders to see us finish our meals quickly! Yet, we were told that 1998 had been the best year since 1989, when the terrorists started taking control over the Valley. According to one estimate, they have successfully driven 95 per cent of the Hindus out of the Valley. It is appropriate to call it the latest case of ethnic cleansing in the world. Yet it is not known in many parts of India, forget the world. Perhaps they know what happened in history when Kashmiri Brahmins took refuge in a princely state of Andhra Pradesh.
Looking back, I must say that we went to Srinagar out of our ignorance of the current state of affairs. I will not go there again next month, even if the trip is all paid for. The political conditions are very unstable and personal safety is not guaranteed. Abductions and ransoms are a big-time business. Let me add at the outset that for the Amarnath yatra, the highest security measures were taken by the joint efforts of Advani’s Home Ministry and Fernandes’s Defence Ministry.
Also, we heard that Bal Thackeray had issued a warning to the secessionists that his Shiv Sena would retaliate on the Hajjis going through Mumbai, if any yatri to Amarnath was harmed in any way. On the security measures during the yatra, I would leave it for another article. Back to the point on Kashmir in general, such security measures could not be enforced in the Valley. It was all at your own risk and that too till the last day of yatra.
There were some big houses and mansions, unoccupied, burnt out, as if a heavy bombardment had taken place. On the banks of the river, it was all filth and garbage.
First day, I decided to go to the top of the mountain where Shankaracharya’s temple is situated. After walking for a while I discovered that I was the only person on the road. A few loaded three-wheelers did pass by me, but no person walked past me, up or down the road. Around midway, I nearly decided to turn back but a returning foreign couple encouraged me to continue going up. Heavy security posts were seen on the foot of the hill, at the entrance of the temple, and all around it! I tried to tune in with the vibrations of this holy place, but my mind seemed to be too concerned about going down again a distance of 10 km alone! Somehow, I made it back without any untoward incident. Maybe I was protected by the latent forces of the holy place.
On the second day, we strolled the neighbourhood and since we were staying right across the Dal Lake, we rented a boat (called shikara) for a three-hour outing. There were a few boats in the middle of the lake, but most of them were anchored at the shore. Once we were off the land, we found out that nearly all boats were floating shops! They carry all kinds of drinks, gift items, Kashmiri costumes for quick photographs, etc. In the middle of the lake, again we found ourselves to be the only ones in a shikara. On a landmark island of Char Chinar, only a couple of foreigners were noticed. Of course, a big posse of security was present. A part of the Dal Lake where the so-called hotel Shikara is permanently anchored, there was a deserted look due to very low occupancy. The area known for shopping in shikaras was almost non-existent. After a while we felt an urge for a hot beverage, but the boatman said there was no open place!
On the third day, we essentially went around the peripheral area of Srinagar. Starting from the fabled Shalimar Garden, Hazratbal, Hari Parabat area, Maqbul Sahib mosque, Jama Masjid, gurudwara, we rested in Lal Chowk, the heart of the city. In the afternoon, most commercial establishments were suddenly closed in response to a call on the death of a terrorist leader. It happens very often. So we rushed to the safer confines of our hotel.
Backtracking to the day of arrival in Srinagar, we had stopped at the headoffice of J&K Department of Tourism. It was nearly impossible to enter the building due to heavy security and a lot of questioning. Essentially, they were telling us that they were open but would not assist us, so better go away. But we managed to get some brochures. All of them were published in 1986! Being a compulsive reader, I went through all of them, knowing that the data and the information were old.
On the final day, we decided to take a boat tour of Jhelum river and see a bazaar only accessible by boats through the river, as described in a brochure. That boat cruise of three hours will remain as the most unforgettable visual experience of the Valley. Believe it or not, we were the only one cruising in a boat. Not only that, there was no other boat in sight even for rent! Security forces could be seen in all strategic locations of buildings on either side of the river. Obviously, the militants were indistinguishable. We felt like sitting ducks, the best targets for both! Buildings on either side were creaky, old, burnt and shelled. It was clear that this is the place where the army and secessionists engage in frequent skirmishes and shoot-outs. There were some big houses and mansions, unoccupied, burnt out, as if a heavy bombardment had taken place. On the banks of the river, it was all filth and garbage.
The most shocking sights were the destruction of nearly all Hindu temples as visible from the river. According to some estimates, nearly all Hindu temples are derelict now. Gurudwaras are left unscathed for political reasons to create a wedge between the Hindus and the Sikhs. We saw flourishing auto parts and gold jewellery shops run by the Sikhs. There has not been any large-scale Sikh exodus from the Valley as of the Hindus. We really felt a strange heaviness in our hearts as we were cruising by the areas.
At the end of this tour we spent some time in a state museum by the river. In the visitors’ book, I wrote: ‘Auction the collection in an international market before they are slowly stolen away with the connivance of the museum employees, or destroyed in a crossfire between the terrorists and defence forces. Some items are irreplaceable and very valuable and they will be far more safe and useful for the posterity in foreign places, like the US museums.’
Again, it was a long and tiring day. That being our last evening, I was set upon tasting the wazwan, a full Kashmiri cuisine with seven non-vegetarian dishes alone. But no alcoholic drink could be served in the restaurant for fear of retribution from the terrorists. Still, after such a long and tiring day, it remained a very satisfying culinary experience.
Coming back to my searching question about the beauty in/of Kashmir, truly I was very much disappointed. Shalimar Garden itself was all dug up for repairs. Yet, by modern standards, it has no appeal unless one measures it by some 400-year old engineering standards. All Mughal Gardens in India have the same architecture, layout and location. If greenery means beauty, then Kerala is far more beautiful round the year. Valleys and hills are no less beautiful in unravelled northeastern states of India.
About the beautiful women of Kashmir, forget seeing them! There are all kinds of horror stories. We did not see a single pretty face close to a poster one. Not a small disappointment were the fruits of Kashmir. I did not see even a single fruit orchard as one sees for miles while driving in California and Florida. At that time in August, the pink and white streaked apple variety was so tasteless, and the other variety so ugly looking and sourish. Maybe, there are no growers, no financiers, no transporters, and no local consumers either! The houses, buildings, roads and bazaars were all in a state of dilapidation.
A saying goes that from the ruins one can tell how lofty the structure must have been at its prime. Having seen a good part of the world, I could not imagine Kashmir ever being any extraordinarily beautiful. I kept wondering at Firdaus describing Kashmir as a paradise on earth. Why did he call it a paradise? With a little research I found the answer. Firdaus came from that part of Persia which was economically very poor. He was raised in poverty and in a region mostly cold, barren, and rocky. For him the Valley of Kashmir during the reign of the great Mughals has to be a paradise. The fact is at the time of Shah Jahan every part of India was a small paradise for foreigners, as USA is today! ‘Delhi chalo,’ was the only thing heard from the lips of the people all through Middle East and eastern Europe.