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Adventures in Kashmir

Published
July 1, 2021
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Map detail of northern India and environs, featuring Kashmir and the location of Dharamshala, the subject of the next chapter

Srinagar (larger circle) and Gulmarg (smaller circle). Gulmarg is a popular ski resort, as well as a wildlife sanctuary. Background map data ©2018 Google, country names, circles and ‘The Dal’ overlaid

I HAD been invited to Kashmir by a local guide, who called himself Raj when he was working in the Indian capital of New Delhi but who reverted to his real name of Yaqoob whenever he was back home in Srinagar: the historic capital of the land of Kashmir.

Kashmir was another of these fabled Shangri-Las in the foothills of the Himalayas, which sounded so exotic from afar but turned out to have a lot of problems up close.

From time to time a separate country, spelled Cashmere in the English of earlier times, Kashmir was taken over by the British as a ‘princely state’, or protectorate under a local ruler, in the 1840s. Since the independence of India and Pakistan, Kashmir has been carved up between them. During the war of 1962, China also bit off a few chunks as well.

Srinagar is in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. But the locals mostly don’t seem to feel as though they are Indians, but rather as Kashmiris temporarily under foreign rule. A form of foreign rule that is in one particular sense worse than that of the British, who at least kept Kashmir, formally speaking Jammu and Kashmir, whole.

The Indian authorities regard Kashmir as a rebellious province, and the part they control is flooded with their troops, who are also there to confront the Pakistanis. As for the part controlled by the rulers of Pakistan, they call it Azad Jammu and Kashmir or Azad Kashmir for short, meaning ‘free Kashmir’; though I don’t know if Azad Kashmir is that much freer than the Indian or the Chinese parts of this heavily militarised and divided nation in actual fact.

In the last few decades, local discontent, moderate to begin with, has also been taken advantage of by the same Taliban elements that were sowing chaos in nearby Chitral and elsewhere in Pakistan.

And so, Yaqoob’s rebadging of himself as Raj for marketing purposes in the less contested parts of India was on the one hand mildly comical but, on the other, understandable. Raj is of course just about the most Indian name imaginable; while, to Indian ears, Yaqoob made him sound like somebody from the troubled (and unfriendly) nation of Pakistan. Even if, for the moment, Srinagar is in India too.

When Raj-for-the-time-being got me a ticket from New Delhi to Srinagar, he assured me that I would love the place. He insisted that Kashmir was the most beautiful country in the world and arranged for me to stay with his cousin and brother who owned a houseboat. I flew over some indeed beautiful mountain ranges into Srinagar. There, I was met by Yaqoob’s cousin and adopted brother Ibrahim and taken to a houseboat on the Dal, the city’s lake.

A few facts

Kashmir is internally volatile; and there have also been three wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, in 1947, 1965 and 1999. Kashmir was also the western theatre of the 1962 war between India and China. Territorial disputes that began in the 19th century continue.

Pakistan controls the northwest portion (Azad Kashmir), India controls the central parts (the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) and southern parts (Ladakh), and China controls the north-eastern portions (Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract).

As befits a region located in the ‘crossroads of the world’, the demography of Kashmir is largely mixed, though it is more segregated than it used to be. Kashmir, narrowly defined to exclude Jammu, is strongly Muslim. Jammu, on the other hand, has a predominantly Hindu population: more so since the massacres and clearances that attended the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, atrocities which hit Jammu very hard. Before that date, Jammu, like many other regions on the future frontier between the two states, was more mixed.

As for the Ladakh area, it has a high concentration of Buddhists.

Much of Kashmir’s economy is sustained by tourism, but the development of an anti-foreign insurgency and the abduction and killing of tourists, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, greatly damaged the industry. Foreign governments issued travel alerts and warnings advising people to stay away from Kashmir. In 2010, the region also witnessed protests by the youth against alleged atrocities by the Indian armed forces. Curfews are common and part of the life in the region.

(I provide references for all this historical background, and for other points, at the end of the present chapter.).

Indeed, I wasn’t aware that there was a curfew in Srinagar from 9.00 p.m. onwards till I got there. I was also told not to venture around the city area and the mosques, the so-called ‘security areas’ on a Friday.

Plus, getting a SIM card for my phone was impossible. I had to borrow one from Ibrahim.

Arriving and staying on a houseboat

The houseboat itself was really quaint, though, and I was provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Rough Guide to India advises tourists not to get stuck on a houseboat at the mercy of a dodgy operator. They ask you to stay onshore and explore the area for the ideal houseboat. But quite frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay in the small town. It wasn’t attractive, there were people and dogs everywhere, and it was quite dirty.

There were intricate wood carvings and silk carpets on my houseboat. But in contrast to the houseboats that ply the backwaters of Kerala — a state of southern India that I also visited around this time, where houseboats move around in the sheltered waters behind the shore — I found that on Srinagar’s Dal, the boat was stationary. What with the curfew and the boat’s stationary nature, I was confined to narrow and unchanging quarters at night. That was the only problem I had with the houseboat I stayed on while in Srinagar.

Ibrahim was a very nice host. We talked about the recent storm that had had such terrible effects in Nepal, and also destroyed many villages and caused people to be marooned for days together in Kashmir. In Srinagar too, houses were waterlogged; and the government took time to get its act together. I also sensed a bit of the Kashmiri anger against the Indian armed forces. One afternoon, I was at an internet café in town busy doing my work. Suddenly, one of the guys working on a computer turned around, and said, ‘We are under occupation.’ I didn’t have the time to get into a conversation. I looked at him sympathetically, and said, ‘I’m sorry about that.’

Indian armed forces (top); Narang Temple (below)

Srinagar: the Dal (City Lake). Woman gathering herbs in middle photo; Ibrahim at bottom.

Pir Panjal (top) and Hari Parbat fort, Srinagar (bottom)

Narang

Narang

Kokasina

In Tahawaz

The Western Himalayan subalpine conifer forests are quite special

A house in the wilderness, subalpine conifer forest, and the Thajiwas Glacier

Later that day, I took a shikara tour around the Dal. Shikaras are small boats, much like gondolas with canopies. Most houseboats have their own shikaras which guests can use. The placid, eighteen-square-kilometre Dal or City Lake, with its reflection of the Pir Panjal mountain range, is a big draw for tourists. The Dal has numerous sites of interest — an early morning floating vegetable market, the floating gardens where lotuses bloom in July and August, and Char Chinar, the famous landmark island on the lake. A number of other gardens around the lake are also accessible by shikara.

I had read about the famous fort and mosques and was keen to look around. I found an auto-rickshaw driver, a young local Muslim man who took me around. The driver lived as an artist in New Delhi during the winter, and, in the summer, he said he earned about $300 a week driving his auto-rickshaw in Srinagar. His English was great, and the armed forces let him into most places.

The ancient fort of Hari Parbat was our first stop. This fort was used by the armed forces because of its strategic location and had been closed to the public for the last twelve years. The local tourism department had, lately, succeeded in having it partially re-opened.

The fort was begun by the Mughal emperor Akbar and was later completed by a Pashtun ruler, Shuja Shah Durrani in 1808. Inside, there is a temple, mosque and a gurudwara (Sikh house of worship). Hence it is place of worship for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, when they can get in.

The fort is built on a mountain and can be viewed from any part of the city. The Hindu section was well maintained, but the Muslim section was not in use as yet. Electronic speakers to relate the history of various parts had just been installed, as they had done in some forts that I had lately visited in Delhi. I really enjoyed exploring the parts of the Hari Parbat fort that we were allowed into.

We stopped next at the Khanqah Shah-e-Hamdan Mosque, also known as the Khanqah-e-Moula. This was a most beautiful mosque — although strictly speaking if a mosque is the Muslim equivalent of a church, a khanqah is more like a chapel or traveller’s prayer room. The website SrinagarOnline says that khanqahs are “often found adjoined to dargahs [Sufi shrines] and mosques,” and that the stand-alone khanqah in Srinagar is only “popularly known” as a mosque.

Originally built just prior to the 1400s (CE) in honour of the Persian Sufi pir (roughly, saint) Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani, the Khanqah-e-Moula has been burnt and rebuilt several times and today remains an architectural landmark in the city.

The Khanqah-e-Moula is a square wooden building, adorned with carvings on doors and windows, wooden mouldings, and magnificent chandeliers. As a non-Muslim I was not sure if I would be allowed in. The SrinagarOnline website says, in mid-2021, that the Khanqah is restricted to Muslims only. But fortunately, I was allowed in when I visited.

Like many other Muslim houses of worship, the Khanqah had special women’s prayer areas.

Khanqah-e-Moula, Srinagar. The interior decoration is in painted papier-maché, a characteristic Kashmiri art. This khanqah was founded in the 1300s CE, and is currently built in what seems to be a mixture of East Asian and middle Eastern styles.

Khanqah-e-Moula

Khanqah-e-Moula

Khanqah-e-Moula

My next stop was the Jamia-e-Masjid, the main mosque of the Srinagar area, where thousands of people gather for Friday prayers. This mosque forms a quadrangle around a fountain garden with gatehouses on four sides. It is known for the three hundred and seventy wooden pillars of its courtyard, each made from a single deodar tree. Though it is in the bustling old town of Srinagar, the Jamia-e-Masjid is silent and peaceful all the same.

Jamia-e-Masjid

Jamia-e-Masjid (top and left; note the wooden pillars, 370 in total);
at Hari Parbat fort (right)

The third mosque I went to was called Ziyarat Naqshband Sahab. This is actually a mausoleum and also houses a graveyard. It is open to people of all faiths. While I was there, there was a body and people were praying. I apologised to the woman praying for taking a photograph before I realised that it was a funeral, and she said, ‘Oh no, we are happy. She is with God in heaven now, she is alive.’ And I thought, what a wonderful feeling. And it really felt like some of the Catholic churches in the south of Spain. I don’t believe in any particular religion, but I did feel a spiritual energy in some of those mosques.

Jammu and Kashmir form a popular tourist destination for Indians. Many come to Jammu on pilgrimage and others come to the Kashmir Valley to experience the scenic beauty. The alpine peaks, snow-capped mountains and green meadows are a regular backdrop for Bollywood films. You find many Indians taking that mandatory touristy photograph, all decked up in Kashmiri garb against the beautiful scenery. In fact, the Indian tourists were spending more than the backpackers. I was told that the backpacker market in Kashmir is not very encouraging. The reason is probably because backpackers can’t easily get travel insurance for travel in this area.

I had heard that Kashmir was a popular skiing destination and decided to make my way from Srinagar to Gulmarg. The big attraction here is the lift that takes you to a height of 4,000 metres where you can get a great view of the mountains. The ski season is from December to March, and temperatures are well below zero. There was some skiing happening while I was there even though it wasn’t the skiing season. There was a light snowfall and most of the people were Indian tourists. What shocked me was that not horses, but Kashmiris were dragging Indian tourists on sleds. This was surely not a good look in a disturbed and secessionist region!

Ibrahim was very eager to get me to go out on a multi-day tramp. He had a lot of guides who didn’t have work. Generally, the trekker took a mule and I thought that would be interesting, but I just wasn’t keen to go by myself. Probably because it was the end of the season. It looked really good, and I would have loved to go out in a group, but there was no way I was going to pay $200 a day, and that’s what put me off. When I was in Pakistan, it was $500 for a week, not $200 for one day. The cost aside, I thought the glacier was absolutely beautiful. The snow-capped Thajiwas Glacier looms over Sonamarg and makes it really picturesque. We drove all the way to the base of the glacier. On the way, I saw the huge camps of the Indian armed forces. They had a rock-climbing wall, presumably to train the soldiers for warfare in the region.

I did do a trek from Narang up to the Gangabal Lake, which was a good 3,350 metres. Narang is a tourist village known for its scenic beauty. It is also a base camp for trekkers to Gangabal Lake and Mt Harmukh. The scenery was amazing with alpine slopes and snow-capped mountains. I also saw the ruins of the Wangath Temple Complex, which was built in the eighth century CE.

After this, I went back to Srinagar and took a jeep down to Jammu. It was a beautiful drive, but you could see the camps of the Indian armed forces. I got some beautiful Kashmiri scarves. At Jammu, I was meant to get the bus to Dharamshala (also spelt Dharamsala in English), a city famed as the abode of the Dalai Lama in exile; but the bus I was on went all the way down to Manali, so that was annoying, and I had to get a taxi to Dharamshala.

Later on, in 2016, Yaqoob came to New Zealand, and we went trekking together on Mounts Tongariro and Ruapehu in the central North Island of New Zealand. There’s a photo of Yaqoob in another of my books, A Maverick New Zealand Way.

Notes

On Kashmir’s political volatility and wars see, for instance, ‘A brief history of the Kashmir conflict’, The Daily Telegraph, Monday, 24 September 2001, retrieved from telegraph.co.uk/news/1399992/A-brief-history-of-the-Kashmir-conflict.html

On the three-way partition of Kashmir, see ‘Kashmir: History’. (2012). In The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (6th ed.). Retrieved from infoplease.com/encyclopedia/world/kashmir-history.html

On the balance of religions, see ‘Jammu & Kashmir: Distribution of Religions’ (n.d.). Retrieved from kashmirstudygroup.com/awayforward/mapsexplan/religions.html

On dodgy houseboat operators, see The Rough Guide to India, 9th ed. (2013), roughguides.com, pp. 468, 471.

Regarding the Dal or city lake in Srinagar, see travel.india.com/srinagar/places-to-visit/lakes-dal-lake/ and also ‘Dal Lake’ in Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dal_Lake.

On Hari Parbat Fort, see the entry on the website ‘India Mapped’, retrieved from indiamapped.com/monuments-in-india/hari-parbat-fort/

On the Khanqah of Shah Hamdan in Srinagar, also known as the Khanqah-e-Moula, see the entry on SrinagarOnline, srinagaronline.in/city-guide/khanqah-of-shah-hamdan-in-srinagar

On the Jamia-e-Masjid. see the feature in Tour my India. Retrieved from tourmyindia.com/states/jammu-kashmir/jama-masjid.html

On the Ziyarat Naqshband Sahab, there is a useful Wikipedia entry: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziyarat_Naqshband_Sahab

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