Farewell to India: Kashmir
After packing up the house and all its accoutrements – and throwing out a lot, and giving a lot to our ayah Asa – we performed a miniature migration of reminiscence. My mother in law is a Woodstock alumna and she remembered trips to Kashmir as a child (teen) as well as Varanasi; thinking this will be her last trip to India, she wanted to go to Srinagar and to Varanasi again. We took a taxi from Mussoorie to Dehradun (including a way to the airport brand-new to Adam and I), flew Dehradun to Delhi, overnighted in Delhi, and then flew Delhi to Srinagar.
A few friends of ours have gone to Kashmir previously; because of the kids, we couldn’t do all the stuff we would normally have wanted to (but that’s the price you pay for choosing to have offspring). We stayed in a houseboat on Nigeen/Nageen lake for three nights; compared to the chaos of Dal Lake, it was a peaceful respite even if it’s further away from “everything”. We saw lots of birds, including three different types of kingfisher (pied kingfisher, blue kingfisher & white-breasted kingfisher ), Pallas fishing eagles, and night herons. We were the only group on the houseboat, which was nice – it meant we could pick our dinnertime (and with a 2.5 year old, we wanted early rather than Indian-style late) and breakfasts to suit our schedule.
The houseboats were rather different than the ones in Kerala: they were moored very firmly to the land, for one (rather than sailing), the food was prepared in a communal kitchen shared by the property, and we had to take a shikara across the lake every time we wanted to go on or come off. Asha got to like the shikara rides… most of the time, anyway. The rooms were nice; each one had a double bed plus a single, so Asha was sleeping in her own bed every night. She was excited.
Srinagar has three Mughal era gardens (bagh), and we visited them all on our first day: we started with Shalimar Bagh, went to Nishat Bagh, and then ended our morning at Cheshmashahi Bagh. We were some of the first people into Shalimar, having arrived promptly at 9am: nonetheless, there was still rubbish on the lawns and in the channels from the night before, which was quite disappointing and detracted from the experience. The scent of roses and other flowers was heavy in the air, and it was easy to see why visiting the gardens is such an enjoyable experience for locals and tourists alike: there are trees and liberal splashes of shade, and in a city where you might be scrabbling for shade and greenery, the gardens are a respite. The next gardens, Nishat, were a bit busier (due to being later in the day), and were a little more built up, including having some people inside offering dress-up experiences in Kashmiri “traditional clothes” (which… well, I find hard to believe those are traditional in any sense). Asha had a grand time running up and down stairs with our guide Farooq. The last gardens, Cheshmashahi, were much smaller and are known for water coming up from a spring. That… was about it, and some of us were rather nonplussed about it, but it was still worth rounding out the three Srinagar bagh.
One morning we had a morning shikara ride from about 7-8 and it was interesting; we could see ‘floating gardens’, which were small plantings on built-up pieces of land jutting into the water, men fishing, women gathering lotus leaves, some people dredging the lake (they take the seaweed and some of the small surface plants, dry them, and use them for animal feed) and fish and birds galore. There were also, unfortunately, already some early morning vendors trying to sell us Kashmiri nuts/jewellery/apricots/other things, which was less than enjoyable. Adam calls them “interceptor shikaras”; they also show up at the back of the houseboat. Adam and I joked we wanted to write a sign in Urdu that said “no solicitation, no photos” (the latter due to the two blonde kids present).
We had an afternoon/evening ride on Dal Lake; the lake is amazingly busy compared to Nigeen. If you want to be right in the centre of everything, then it’s where to be; if you want quiet, Nigeen is it. There are evidently over 1,500 houseboats on Dal, versus around 500 on Nigeen.
There was an overnight outing from Srinagar to Pahalgam; we did about 30kph the entire way there. We all commented on the large number of soldiers present on the route (particularly the stretch of road from Srinagar to the turnoff to Jammu). We asked Farooq about it, and he said that it was the standard number of military officers/standard presence; I had been curious since our travel was the first day of Ramazan. We arrived in Pahalgam in the early afternoon (about 1pm) and I can absolutely see why it is so coveted by India, and why its people struggle with the current situation. We saw buildings that had clearly been hit by gunfire (and worse)… tragically, it was a building which was formerly a centre for Kashmiri innovation/development. Talk about depressing, as well as more than just a little symbolic: something which could set Kashmir apart, give voice to its youth, its clever and its determined people – a shot-up beast on the side of the road, a reminder that aazadi is not acceptable in this day and age. While on this trip I’ve been reading a fairly dense book called Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir and it discusses how Kashmir is presented in Indian media by Indians versus Kashmiris (among other things). We drove through a town, c, and it was just another blip on the map – and the book tells me it was once an ancient seat of Sanskrit learning, and is now the place where a massacre took place.
While we were in Pahalgam, there was a lovely thunderstorm… which rather effectively quashed any plans to really explore. Combined with the fact that our guide & driver could not actually drive us around – we’d have to hire locals for that – and the trip was a little frustrating but enjoyable. Asha and I were up at dawn and walked around the property we were at; nice, quiet, and surprisingly cool (temperature-wise!).
That said, I know we would love to come back when the kids are older to do some of the exploration that their current ages make prohibitive (Leh/Ladakh, going up to some of the lakes near the LOC with China and India), if the region is sufficiently stable – in whatever form that may take.
- Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir, Ananya Jahanara Kabir
- Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Hilal Bhatt, Angan P. Chatterji & Tariq Ali
- Haider (film), dir. Vishal Bhardwaj