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Dal Lake

Pashmina Goat


Kashmir is rather like the Taj Mahal – a seemingly impossible tourist cliché, drenched in the purpose prose of the scores of books, pamphlets and brochures written about it. And yet, exactly as with the Taj Mahal, the reality far transcends expectations and none of the phrases quite prepare one for the enchantment of the place. The jets that fly today’s traveler from Delhi to Srinagar fly across the north Indian plains, over vast brown tracts scorched by the summer sun. Then comes the first sight of the mountains as the aircraft flies over the Banihal Pass. And there it is, a dazzling change of scenery – the Vale of Kashmir – unfolding itself like some great green and gold tapestry of fields and meadows, a pattern of lozenges sectioned by glinting threads of waterways and canals.

Administratively, the Valley is part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir that rises in tiers from the plains to encompass mountainous terrain, high altitude valleys and plateaus. To the south, below the other hills, lies the district of Jammu; to the northeast towers the great Himalaya that contains the stark and eerily beautiful district of Ladakh; but to most people, Kashmir is the Valley itself, enclosed in a magnificent amphitheater of mountain ranges.

The creation of Kashmir is a story that has, like so much else in this land, an air of fantasy and other-worldliness. Once upon a time, the Valley was a vast lake, `deep as the sky’, and the playground of the gods. But it was haunted by a demon that plundered and ravaged the people living on its shores. In despair, they appealed to the saint Kashyap to save them, which he did by striking a depression to the west and draining the lake of its waters. The demon was slain, and the Valley was named after its savior, Kashyapa-mar , or Kashmir. Strange as this may seem, paleontologists have reported discoveries of coral and other marine fossils at great heights here.

The best initial exploration of Srinagar is to board a Shikara and follow its course through the heart of the city, past willow-shaded channels and canals and under the seven older bridges of the Jhelum. At first sight, the city’s interior has a spectral tastiness; the mud , brick and wood houses are crammed cheek by jowl along the waterfront; some look as if they are crumbling and others are indeed propped up with stout pillars of timber. But the impression of decay and disorder recedes as the pattern of living emerges. The river is a place that people live on, as well as live along. Lines of doongas are moored along its banks, the homes of the boat people. Women sit at the prows, pounding grain or calling to each other. As a major artery, the river is punctuated at regular intervals by landing stages leading up to narrow labyrinth-like lanes which connect to the streets beyond, so that there is a constant flow of activity between water and land. Bahatches load or unload cargo. Homes, shops, schools, places of work and worship cluster along the waterfront, a variety within a cohesive unit. Roof gardens and orchards tumble over the river wall, and carved or latticed windows add a touch of richness. After an hour on the river, you realize that the ugliest buildings are those that are new, slapped together with unattractive concrete and topped with galvanized-iron roofing.

If space seems at a premium along the waterfront, it is quite a different story at the Mughal gardens of Shalimar , Nishat and Chashma Shahi. This is Srinagar at its royal best, where the imperial love for laying out gardens, their beauty enhanced by the backdrop of lake and mountain and carefully sited for the best views of both, a stone vase at Chashma Shahi, the royal spring, perched daintily on a hill overlooking the Dal Lake. Shalimar has an air of seclusion and repose; its rows of fountains and shade trees seem to recede towards the Snowcapped Mountains. Its focus of attention is the airy graceful Black Pavilion, meant for the ladies of the court, set well to the back of the highest of its three terraces. If Shalimar is regal, Nishat, with its flowerbeds, its trees, its fountains and its waters foaming down carved chutes, has an air of the dramatic. Its 12 terraces, representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac, descend gradually and seem almost to merge into the lake.

The view from Shankaracharya is a reminder that valleys and lakes and mountains are in abundance in Kashmir. Beyond sight are the waters of the Wular, Manasbal and Gandarbal lakes. Away from the broad expanse of the central valley, with Srinagar at its heart, lies the Liddar Valley with the hill resort of Pahalgam at its upper end, the base for the long and arduous trek to the Hindu shrine of Amarnath , a pilgrimage that attracts thousands of devotees each year. Another road leads to the Kolahoi Peak with its sharp needle form, and its extensive glacier. To the northwest is the Lolab Valley, a crescent-shaped plain with cedar and pine forest, starred with wood sorrel and pale dog-violets. The Sindh Valley is on the road to Ladakh, its wooded greenery has been described as `one of the finest and most magnificent pieces of scenery to be seen anywhere.

Ascending from the Valley are the famous uplands of Kashmir, those stretches of flowery meadows called margs . The best known of these is Gulmarg , the `Meadow of Flowers’, a saucer-shaped hollow overhanging the main valley of Kashmir. From Gulmarg, a ski-lift goes up a few thousand feet for easy access to the slopes where delight for this thrilling ride, a seemingly vertical lift-off over pine forests into the uplands. A few kilometres beyond lies a dizzying pony ride crossing meadows, ridges and forests to the snow slopes of Khillanmarg . On a clear day, the views from the Gulmarg ridges are superb: the foothills slope down to the Valley, to fields of rice and clusters of walnut, pear and mulberry, and in the far distance, the roofs of Srinagar glint in the sun. But the most thrilling of all, if you are lucky, is the view of the great mountains directly to the north and the supreme peak of Nanga Parbat, which stands out clear and distinct even though it is right across the Valley, over 100 kilometres ( 62 miles ) away.

Almost diagonally cross the Valley lies Sonamarg , the `Meadow of Gold’, where the Sindh River rushes headlong through a gorge. A narrow, grassy flat, jeweled with alpine flowers, great peaks whose flanks gleam with the glaciers that slide down them encircle Sonamarg. Rich forests of silver fir, sycamore and birch clothe the mountainside. This is among the last outposts of splendid and lavish greenery; less than 30 kilometers (19 miles) away lies the pass of Zoji-la, the divide between Kashmir and Ladakh, beyond which lies a completely different world.