White Kashmir!

For the average 90s kid, Kashmir, meant unrest, a slew of news revolving around the militants and the military, peppered by geography lessons of the Himalayas, the Pir Panjal range, the cultural aspects of the beautiful people, succulent apple orchards, salubrious summers, picturesque winters comprising of pherans and kangdis, political unrest followed by a hard-won Kargil war at the end of the decade. And I happen to be one of those average 90’s kid, growing up far away from Kashmir, who’s tales came to be either from school text books or newspaper headlines in the 90s. Kashmir – Paradise on Earth seemed to me to be simply a tourist jargon cause nothing that was told to be or shown to me about this Indian erstwhile Princely state seemed paradise-ish to me. The only connection that stood out to me, was it’s similarity with the erstwhile Princely state of Hyderabad that I was born in’s reluctance to be a part of the Indian Republic. The special status that was awarded to Jammu and Kashmir state was not awarded to Hyderabad, the Nizam crumbled under the invasion led by Sardar Patel while Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of the Kashmir state signed a treaty. A treaty which gave the state special status right upto 2019, which then changed it’s status to a Union Territory of this Country. What also changed from my learning days at school to the time that I actually set foot in the erstwhile special state is the mark of it’s territory. The head of India which I would draw proudly in my Geography test maps is now severely cut off, with a third of it called Gilgit Baluchistan, and another hurtfully titled parcel of China-occupied-Kashmir. Completely lost in the tidings of my own life, some historical tidings went amiss from my radar, and catching it while my plane began taxiing on the runway ready for take-off left me on a 2 hour flight to Delhi with an avalanche of questions on my head.

After my transit, again in the hands of Wikipedia, I was aghast at everything that has happened throughout history specifically things that pertain to the Kashmir valley and India’s northern borders. Not only was I shocked that my five years of architecture study in Delhi did not take me to Kashmir, I was surprised how the most beautiful city, aptly titled, Srinagar, was just over an hour’s flight away from Delhi. The snow-covered views of the Pir Panjal first come into view as the plane begins to enter into the Kashmir valley and in winter, during the Chillai Kalan period it is a wondrous sight to behold. Just like landing in Leh over the Zanskar Range, this view of the Pir Panjal is spell-binding. As we landed on a trusted Indigo aircraft into the defence airport of Srinagar, one cant help but feel a flutter in the heart, the snow is spectacular, covering fields, pine trees, slanted rooftops of houses, stationary cars, roads, even garbage dumps and all earth alike, leaving no discrimination in sight! The COVID test to be taken upon landing too, well traveling in 2021 has some cons, cons that will upset the nasal passage and cause a sneeze or two, does not discriminate and once all set only can one set foot in this state. As a flurry of taxi-drivers begin haggling we found our trusted hotel driver and happily checked into our hotel set on a hill in the middle of the city. The best views awaited us and it was extremely wonderful to be in this magical city that has more army that residents, residents who look as peaceful and seem as friendly as ever. After getting over the sheer sights on the everyday including a quaint wooden bridge called the Zero Point bridge and a meal at the House of Habibi, the young-blooded people all over the world are not very different I surmised(!), we embarked upon our first touristy appointment in the city to the very popular and synonymous to the city, the Dal Lake. This expansive lake, host to many Bollywood songs and stories is incredible with houseboats and a frozen upper layer. The season one visits the Kashmir Valley is crucial as the colors of the season could be vividly different, our Gondola rower, told us a hindi catchphrase, “Mumbai ka fashion aur Kashmir ka Mausam, badalte rehta hain”, at the risk of losing its gist in translation, here goes, “The fashion of Mumbai and the weather of Kashmir can never be trusted as they keep changing!”. Visiting in the 40-day period of Chillai Kalan, we were in for a white winter-wonderland, a totally white Kashmir and it seemed very chilling, but very beautiful. Holding on to the Kangdi we sat in the gondola, pestered heavily by hawkers rowing next to us in their own boats and asking us buy their wares, that ranged from woodwork, to kahwa, to walnut cookies, to pherans and more. We did indulge them, taking the very popular pictures wearing the pheran and happily posing with the Kashmiri jewelry, flowers, lapping up warm Kahmiri Kahwa, and buying out a pheran. It felt like we were boosting the tourism economy of the country. So much so when the grumpy husband was asked what he wanted by the hawkers, he replied, “Shanti chahiye”, meaning peace! But then when they stopped bothering us to buy, we actually enjoyed the sounds of the lake, the breaking of the five centimetre frozen top, the sounds of water falling onto the lake and all the beauty that it entails. Though the lake is fraught by extensively commercials, the surrounds of the Himalayas, the quietness of the lake, the mirror that it is of the city that it is a part of is amazing. An experience of a lifetime, is a boat-ride in the Dal lake in Srinagar, its so surreal that nothing else compares, or so I thought till we went to our next destination, the Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar. The ride up to the temple itself was a prelude of what lay ahead, by more stellar than ever is the view from the top, from the main sanctum of the temple. The view exceeds all expectations, it is so breathtakingly beautiful that after my darshan when I stepped out I was taken aback and sucked in my breath cause the view literally took away my breath, the mighty Jhelum, the snow-capped mountains and the snow-capped buildings set about a visual orchestra that is very stunning to say the least. A pity, for that moment could only be captured in the canvas of our memories, as cameras or phones are not allowed in the temple precincts, but it is true when someone once told me that the best memories can never be captured in a photo, most often while we are living the best moments, it never occurs to us to document them! But then, that view is remarkable and one that will be cherished as one of the moments of my life, that took my breath away, in this month, on that day, with that weather, it could not have been more magical or mystical at all. For after that tryst with a divine location on this planet, I was so touched by the beauty of creation, that I had to spend several moments in introspection. Our next stop in Srinagar was the Chashma Shahi garden, a Mughal garden, that boasts of beautiful gardens inundated by ingenious water channels. With the flowers absent, we were treated instead to warm water in the middle of winter hosted by the warmth of the earth. From Chashma Shahi we headed to the Taj Vivanta for its warm hospitality and it’s spectacular views, joined by our new Kashmiri friend, the views were indeed brilliant but not a patch on what we saw atop the Shankaracharya hill, but beautiful enough to magnanimously allow for the carrying of a camera and a deluge of pictures. Again stopping by at a wannabe New Yorker cafe, 14th Avenue, we buried our day in desserts ranging from Oreo Cheesecake to Chocolate Eclair and a Walnut pie, globalisation is literally flattening the earth, culture of the new youngsters including us, is limited to what we like best, in that cafe, we could have been in any city in the world, Paris, New York or London even. And every single person there was upset with the lack of 4G services in the valley but were more than happy to latch on to the free WiFi. A stark contrast we felt when we then later headed to the local market of Laal Chowk in the city. The architectural fabric of Laal Chowk though made in wood strongly resembled the alleys of Jaisalmer, Purani Delhi or even the old city of Hyderabad, with shops on the ground floor and upper floors used for residential purposes. Perhaps though we extol the differences in culture across the world, the essence was always daintily similar.

Not in continum, but in Srinagar we also went to the Hazratbal shrine, the Jama Masjid, the Laal Chowk again for Ahdoos and the Gulshan Book stores, saw a traditional Kashmiri house and walked across half the city, or perhaps a fraction cause Srinagar against our old belief in actual is a rather large city, spanning about 300 square kilometres and homing a population of about 1 million people. The metropolitan area of Srinagar spans an area of about 800 square kilometres. The Hazratbal Shrine, offered no entry to the main quarters for women, so while I walked around enjoying views but not the cold, on the shore of the Dal Lake, the temperature in the locales of the Hazratbal shrine was rather extremely frigid and for the only time on the whole trip I was close to tears because of the cold. The Husband however was given a tour of the shrine and the mortal remains of the Prophet in terms of a strand of hair. Sufficiently warm and impressed by the shrine, he had the energy to take beautiful pictures, while I just wanted out, I mean in to a warm location where the cold could be firmly escaped! The story of the Hazratbal shrine entwines the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a Kashmiri Businessman and a noble man from Hyderabad. The shrine however is very grand and beautiful with the white stone dome rising over the shore of the pristine lake. The beauty is real and I witnessed fervent devotees praying to their Lord with extremely happy and devoted faces. Prayers seem to be closely answered in this particular shrine! Our next stop Jamia Masjid was no less delightful, not exactly following the Islamic architectural styles, this Masjid is built with the Kashmiri style of architecture that comprises of steeper trusses and a sloped roof rather than the circular domes. The square layout of the mosque, with alleyways for prayer is full of sharp corners and exquisite wood work that offers a prayer space for about 33,333 people. Incidentally this is the first mosque that I had ever entered in real time, having watched the architecture of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi virtually. The mosque is fringed by shops on all its four sides, that sell daily household items, clothes, sweaters, the community feel during daily or weekly prayers offer social interactions and may well be the fabric of the community. After imbibing the cultural aspects of Srinagar, we moved on to immerse ourselves in more intellectual pursuits as we stopped by Gulshan Bookstores, a very old and respected book store in the country, who twin with stores like Bahri & Sons in Delhi, Blossoms in Bangalore or Higginbothams in Chennai, the only other feather in the cap of the Gulshan bookstores is their entrepreneurial visions in publishing. When I stepped in to look for some Kashmir-based reads, the store had a gallon or so of books in choice. Unable to choose, we spent over two hours reading parts of books, and finally choosing one for the road, the rest had to be on the Kindle, such is the power of lightness! More about the book recommendations in my following posts, for now the incredible variety at Gulshan bookstores was amazing. The owner of the bookstore asked if his store should be shared on my Instagram page and then I began to only understand the powerful influence of social media, it is very powerful, and can mean a lot to everyone in the world, when used rightly. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then well, Instagram has quite nailed it. It is certainly making less readers out of us, but is keeping us forever glued to the screen and filling our heads with all that we ought to or not ought to know. I picked the Saga of Sativar to read, a book written by Chandrakant and translated from Hindi. Mostly I chose that to understand how Srinagar once functioned, extremely secularly and how the paths of the Hindus, the muslims and all other communities enmeshed with each other, becoming incongruous as ever. The other books I have gotten on the Kindle include a racy read called Kashmir-nama, Return to Jammu, Paradise at War and The Tree with a Thousand Apples. More on them, in a bit! Hungry with all that mental stimulation we strode across the road to the best place for Wazwan food, Ahdoos, much like Hyderabad’s very own Paradise, on the ground floor of the family-owned, award-winning, old restaurant is the Ahdoos Patiserrie, who’s walnut cake was to die for, walnuts are a staple in Kashmir like all the other dry-fruits and for the first-time ever it took away the prima-donna space that chocolate had in our lives, just as the Kashmiri Kahwa dethroned hot-chocolate in our heads. The meal at Ahdoos was very satisfying, and for a vegetarian in Kashmir, wanting to live on Wazwan food, one would have to live on Kashmiri Pulau fraught with raisins, paneer in a tomato gravy, Butt haqq made of collard greens cooked with a hint of garlic and Nadru Yakhni, a lotus stem gravy cooked to perfection, apart from the breads of Girda and the like. Needless to say though we were spoilt for choice with Vaisho-dhabas, serving excellent north indian food, I tended to gravitate to the Wazwan cuisine and ate all the paneer that I must have eaten in my life so far in just one week of being in Kashmir! Srinagar also shows us the real numbers in our Indian army, though Cantonment was a neighbour for me all my life, in Kashmir, the army is everywhere, and thankfully so, for if they weren’t we may have needed passports to go to Kashmir! While walking about the market place of laal Chowk we saw several graffitti markers that said loudly and clearly, “India go back”! The people of Kashmir still seem to be divided upon the political situation in the state. The Badami Bagh cantonment that we tried to pass seemed never ending, while the army headquarters on a hill, whose name I could not learn, served as the north pole star ever where we went in Srinagar, the hill with its line of lights guided us back to our hotel that stood on a slightly smaller hill opposite the United Nations headquarters. All the building in the UN with their sloped roofs were marked to establish their identity, perhaps during an air-raid to warn of their neutrality. That felt scary, for sure. As did the multitude of army men with their guns parading the streets or setting up points at every junction. The locals though seemed unfazed as they went about their business, merrily and happily.

Our next destinations were out of the city and need I mention out of the world!

Our journey to Pahalgam was as beautiful as the destination as we covered fields of snow and snow-sprinkled chinar trees but mostly we stopped on the highway to let a large number of army trucks pass, a trend we later observed in Gulmarg too. Army-watchdogs checked the area before the contingent passed but army soldiers religiously manned the highway continuously. Pahalgam, usually referred to as the ‘Valley of Shepherds’ offers sceneries that are stunning and out of the world. And to see this scenery in winter is a lot of hard work, possible only accessed by horseback. While there are many spots that one can see, the whole ride comprising of about seven scenic spots include the Damo valley, the Kashmir valley, the Lidder River, Baisaran or mini Switzerland, the Pahalgam Valley, the Shepherd’s village, stopping by for the warm Kahwa or the even warmer maggi noodles, a very popular food that is melting all cultural norms and uniting the various ranges of the Himalayas or very much the entire country! The over four-hour horse ride, is strenuous but the views are so captivating that the minutes morph into one another and one completely loses track of time. In Kashmir, in these remote valleys, we stopped by to eat and drink the said Kahwa and Maggi, while the locals helped us take fabulous pictures, they all seemed to know the right angles and the right lighting, and mistook me for being a German or an Italian, while I felt flattered, I was amazed at their geographical and cultural knowledge, courtesy the tourists who come to visit them over time. Witnessing so much plush white snow my heart set aflutter, singing happy melodious tunes while all the cares and worries of the world sublimed into non-existence. The cold air forces one to breathe slowly and that itself is a great relaxant, relaxing is the best condition to live one’s life in, nothing much may be accomplished but then what if it all aint. Seeing so much white snow, feels indelibly peaceful and while being at peace one is definitely happy, the snow accomplishes much in that sense bestowing happiness aplenty. Our horses, Raja and Sheru, trudged on the precarious path, slipping, falling with us on them at times but they never did disappoint and we were not hurt. My Grandfather who had gone to Kashmir about 50 years ago, reminiscenced with me all the paths he took then and nothing seemed to have changed in the last 50 years! Pahalgam is also the starting point of the Amarnath yatra, so the whole town serves as the starting point for the yatris with accommodation and paths marked clearly as to where the yatris can set up base before embarking on the Amarnath Yatra. The Heevan retreat hotel on the bank of the Lidder though is certainly the highlight of the town, the flowing water frozen on the sides, provides a stunning view, while the sounds of water provides a symphony of alacrity. The hotel itself is old, charismatic, made of wood with heating and kahwa, a sure comfort for sore limbs and reddened faces! On popular recommendations though we stopped for lunch at Dana Paani, having waited for a cool forty-five minutes outside, to get a table, this Dhaba, again a Vaishno Dhaba, served us fantastic food that was piping hot and desirously fresh making the day at the wait totally worth it. The day out in Pahalgam left us yearning for more and though we had planned only a day trip we could have done better to stay over in this beautiful hill-town, seeing both sunrise and sunset. The drive back to Srinagar, again picturesque is home to several walnut farms and the farms we did visit. Dry-fruits, a pride of Kashmir are found a plenty and stopping by at Noor Mohammad’s dry fruits one can pick the choicest walnuts, mamra almonds, cranberries, blueberries, figs, dried apples and a host of other palatable dry fruits. Saffron, of course, is the highlight in these shops and are sold, fresh and pure with no adulteration. With the oncoming of commercial viability, people often sell their wares across the country, delivered by the umpteen delivery platforms that have only gained in strength over lockdowns and other factors of convenience. The trip to Pahalgam in the middle of winter offered an opportunity to witness the Himalayas covered in snow and a vista of white that is inspiring and salubrious. As the sun burnt our noses and turned them black we were enthralled with the beauty of the drive.

Gulmarg, on the other hand and on the other side directionally from Srinagar, is quite different from Pahalgam due to its geographical location. The valley of flowers, that it’s name literally translates to is not so much pastoral like the latter, but is bountiful in its produce of flowers and fruits. Tulips that are grown aplenty by the state horticultural department dot the city of Srinagar, but in Gulmarg the flowers are in full bloom in spring and summer. In winter though Gulmarg is extremely popular for the array of winter sports, in being the skiing capital of the country, Gulmarg offers splendid slopes across different ranges of the Pir Panjal mountain. The baby slopes, the intermediate slopes are ideal for learning how to ski. The baby slopes and intermediate slopes are in the summer a part of Gulmarg’s extensive golf course. There is nothing in the world like Gulmarg, expecially in winter, while we were welcomed by the sun on Day 1, Day 2 and 3 were magical with snow falling lightly and magically over two days of our stay there. Gulmarg has brilliant properties, the Khyber being the most popular and large, with a spa by L’Occitainne, a heated swimming pool and surrounded by pine trees all around its precincts, the Highlands Hotel right next to the intermediate slopes though is beautiful in it’s old-world charm, is quite scattered in its form across the slope, the Needos Hotel located a little far away is extremely quaint and to reach the doors of this hotel we had to literally wade through about six feet of snow. The Shaw Inn though a perfect ski-lodge is boutique with excellent food and even more courteous footmen manning the estate. A town primarily for tourists, Gulmarg offers a plethora of options for the adventurous spirited. With warm conversations and infections ski-suggestions by our fellow tourists we were inspired to make acquaintance with a fellow freelancing architect who has been in the industry for about twenty odd years, freelancing across continents and steering clear of any desk chained job. Having finished a house in Udaipur he headed to Gulmarg to cool off his heels with some time on the mountain. There is I gathered so much science to ski-ing, there is firstly the weather, then there are the anthropometric projections, then the fitness aspect and finally a mix of bravery before being allowed to harness the power of gravity required to sped down the slope. Food like ammunition comes in the form of omlettes with one’s choice of maida poison – bread or maggi and Kahwa in water or in milk. The country needless to say guzzles on maggi in the snowy environs, but chocolate too is not far behind. This is the humble lunch that is offered in the middle of the learners ski slopes. But with an agenda on learning to ski, food is the last thing on our minds. Several ski schools are also around to teach people how to ski and one can spend two, three or four weeks learning this brilliant sport, which I cannot believe I have never had the chance to learn. Is it like skating? Is it like swimming I am often asked about skiiing, it is like both of them but a lot more thrilling I say, cause then one adds gravity to the mix and then it becomes a very adrenalin-boosting exercise. While having been terrifically inclined to learn the act of ski-ing I did bide my time and waited for an opportunity for over ten years of my life, ten years since I first saw skiers skiing down the slopes of the Alps in 2011. During that vacation, I did partake in many other snow sports including snow-boarding and tubing, ski-ing happened to me ten years later in 2011 and am sure glad that it did. Spending the first day on the baby slope, the second on the intermediate slopes and the third on the Phase 1 mountain of Gulmarg, I for one felt extremely accomplished by the end of the mountain in Gulmarg, but encountered a knee strain as I skid, oops ski-ed down the Phase 1 slope on Day 3. The day began with a ride up the gondola where the morning was very cold and foggy and we could hardly see to a distance of eleven metres from the top of Phase 1. As the day progressed the sun moved out of the clouds and by the time I commenced my descent down the ski slope a lot was visible in the distance. Ski-ing down the ski slope was the best feeling ever and as I did my turns masterfully, I did have a couple of falls, but nothing that was too painful. Upon reaching the end of the phase 1 slope, and literally doing a little victory dance in my head, I managed to somehow slip on a more flat section of the hill and in a twist of fate or of luck, managed to hurtfully strain my knee. The sharp pain lasted for about a few minutes, but then the hesitation crept up and after my knee buckled a time I had to bid adieu to Phase 1 for a bit. Completing a few other momentous ski-time in the flatter ski-section it was time to say good-bye to Gulmarg after an extravagant Wazwan lunch at Needous. Now exactly two weeks since the day of my fall in Gulmarg, I feel completely recovered from the knee strain, in between also straining my back lifting my three year old son, will I do all of it again? And my head answers with a resounding yes!!! Just like the scuba-diving accident in Maldives, this ski-accident was also completely unnecessary. I would attribute it to a bad case of buri nazar, or the evil eye, and am convinced that for my next vacation and probably for life, I’d like to get into what they call the ski-shape. My mother-in-law said its not about being thin, its about being agile, my grandfather said one muscle injured and all the others suffer, for while one rests the others feel the brunt of inactivity. To live life well, one must have an optimally healthy body, now that piece of wisdom comes from a very wise book that I have been reading over the last couple of weeks – the Autobiography of a Yogi. The importance of breath is extolled in this book as is the need for having a healthy body, mind and spirit in order to navigate the sometimes cool and the sometimes agitated waters of life. My fitness goals after this specific ski trip have begun to take form and the belief that everything broken can be fixed, will be fixed, its all a matter of time. This came to me from the mind of a Kashmiri local in Gulmarg, a amateurish-pro of the ski-ing slopes, who has seen a lot happen on these mountains. What you pay attention to in your life, grows, now that comes in the very first few lines of the current book I am reading called Dhando. While I go figure on what to do with my body, mind and spirit, life will always take a turn for me, one that lasted BK and now thats happening AK. You guessed it right, Before Kashmir and After Kashmir, and while I am certainly hesitant to share my travels on the interlude of social media, read Instagram, it was fun to share, but not a lot of good things happened out of it, and have been asked to stop tempting the effects of Buri Nazar, I can imagine my Husband rolling his eyes as I type this. But that apart, getting off social media, sugar and oily food is the next challenge, dodging the bullets of the evil eyes and possibly getting into ski-shape. As dry-fuits have begun trumping my love for chocolate and the kashmiri Kahwa has firmly dethroned hot chocolate, there is hope in this challenge. While superstitions are all as reliable as hay, it could not hurt to hope that with the removal of this nazar, worse things will not come to pass. Getting hurt, falling, picking oneself up and marching stridently ahead is well the best way to live, in life or on the ski slope. The wise man’s words ring in my ear, ‘kya nahi jud jata?’, “sab kuch jud jata hain”, he said. Eventually everything comes together. Perhaps that’s what the Gita says too!

Kangdi, Apples, exquisite Embroidery, Beautiful people, militancy, protests were what Kashmir meant to me. Militancy because well, I was a 90’s child when news ranged between military, militants and finally a well-won Kargil war. Today, Kashmir to me is a feeling of liberation, a feeling of novelty for when we try new things we are refreshed, its a feeling of learning what it is to live through all odds and to come out victorious, its a feeling of learning how to live with yourself, a feeling of how to live with others, to be tolerant of everything, its a feeling of peace-ing out, it is no wonder that white is the colour of peace, it feels very peaceful to see an expanse of white, its a feeling of being content when all at once of wanting more. Just like how scuba-diving is off my list, but after a mishap at the end of the dive, it left me wanting for more and not being convinced on crossing it off my list just yet, being on Phase 1 made me think that ski-ing would be off my bucket list, but with a knee strain just after my first exploit of Phase 1 leaving take two and take three undone, my heart (and spirit) do not allow me to cross off ski-ing from my bucket-list just yet, the mishaps do have their way of making one feel more determined to scale that mountain and to dive into that deep blue sea, until the heart feels like it has conquered it all. Now living in my AK life, the best seems like it’s yet to come.

“If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!”, said Firdaus, and he could not have been more right. What can I say, “Bas Jannat Dekh Liya”, well I have seen heaven. The feels of the place could be felt extremely well on myself, the body glowed as the mind was filled with peace. Great skin, great hair and a fabulous fuselage, this location made a whole world of a difference to me. Beautiful places make us look and feel good, beautiful architecture too notwithstanding. Kashmir could well have been the most beautiful place I have witnessed, though I strongly suspect the huge blanket of snow had a lot to do with it, the blanket of snow covered up the innumerable plastic packets of ghutkas, maggi and all else that tourists love to consume in colder climes, those loves that leave behind the magical feels and introduces a garbage-ical sight that had long ago repelled my visual senses in Manali, the ban of plastic bags, and a long more social consciousness if not for the snow, makes Gulmarg, and in effect the Kashmir Valley, a mini-Switzerland, albeit the Rosti and the Chocolate though!

I would definitely put Kashmir, particularly Kashmir in winter a firm fitting on your bucket list. White Kashmir is not just a time or a place or a feeling, it is a phenomena.

P.S Do write in to me to hear more tales, or if you are planning a trip a complete high and low down on what it takes to take on Kashmir. Would be happy to help!