It wasn’t a fortuitous accident that I stood glaring the sublimity of afterglow standing atop the gable of the Nishat Bagh, it was a long cherished dream. The lush greenery of the garden cutting across the panorama of the sky and sound of water budding through numerous fountains…Ah! Picture perfect. Perhaps one of the rare occasions where human endeavor has complemented nature, otherwise we are too good in our job of destroying it.
I carry a different lens
Quintessentially, a travelogue showcases the reminiscence of the journey and the destination to lure the readers with its splendor without dwelling on the follies of men, this one may take regular detours into the unwelcomed territories.
My recent trip to Kashmir, a true legendary beauty that nature is capable of, was marred by my irresistible instincts to see, feel and analyze the paradox. So, in this writing, while you will witness the unmatched magnetism of the so-called ‘Jannat’, there will be instances where the grief of belonging to a race that has no respect for environmental charisma, no sense of obligation to preserve it, will surface out.
I been to the Ladakh twice, lured by magic of beauty, and adventure and written the travelogue that was much appreciated. But, Kashmir seemed to have avoided my itinerary though being on the top of my wish list. The political scenario and the fear of militancy had kept my plans at bay. More so, because I wanted to admire Kashmir in its raw uncorrupted form and not merely the run-after trio of Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pahalgam. Though I eventually covered two of these three, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, the focal-point of my travel orchestra and the purpose of the tour remained visiting LOC.
Since it was a long tour with so much to talk about, I will be dealing with it in parts. This part one will cover Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg in part two, and the show-stoppers of my trip the two LOC at Tangdhar and Gurez, I’ll cover in the last part.
“Stay away from police and army, and you shall be safe. They don’t touch tourists,” advised a concerned friend upon hearing about my travel plans.
But it was too late, ship had already sailed, there was no going back. I didn’t know whether this cautioned me or made me doubt my decision because my host in Kashmir was an army officer. I was reluctant, clearly apprehensive, and the shreds of pang were visible on my face as I boarded the plane. The attire and the aura of more than half of the co-passenger augmented this paranoia.
At the airport, my taxi driver Parvez (paranoia again…), was waiting with a placard carrying my name. He was a very good driver, I must admit, looking back now. He negotiated the curvy mountainous terrain and even their summits while crossing the Sadhna Top and Rajdhan Top(I’ll come to them later), without a hand break in his vehicle.
His only problem was that he suffered from a severe form of ‘THOOKITIS’, and spat with a frequency of almost three spits per five minutes. We had to keep our window shields drawn up all the time to avoid receiving his divine blessings.
I had a feeling that chewing tobacco and Gutkha were the main reasons for Thookitis, and therefore the disease was perhaps limited to the northern and eastern plains of the country. But, during the days that were to follow I was to realize that this was not the actual scenario. He wasn’t the only one around exhibiting the symptoms of this terrible disease. There were many more as I looked around who were willingly and mercifully demonstrating the contradiction of my utterly ignorant belief.
Srinagar matched Delhi in climatic temperature at that moment with difference of only a few degrees. The tourists have flooded the valley after a gap pf ten years, the last respectable surge was in 2012, I was told. The city matched Delhi in one more domain, the vehicular pollution. It was surely, a close competitor. Smell of combusting fuel and noise emanating from it almost inundated the entire region.
The famous Lal Chowk was akin to the Ghanta-Ghar market of many other Indian cities in the magnitude of chaos and crowd. Yet there was a striking difference, the heavy deployment of army and police forces as if a garrison has been turned into a rialto.
With A ghastly feeling of being watched all the time hovering over us we stepped in the ‘Adhoos’, a restaurant at the helm of the market serving delicacies since 1918, for a hurried lunch. Houseboat at Dal was our next destination.
There are numbered Ghats every hundred meters or so along the street outlining the lake. We landed at the Dal and took a Shikara taxi to reach our pre-booked Houseboat. In hindsight, I think pre-booking was both a boon and a bane. While it avoided being trapped in a tumult of touts at the Ghats, it could also mean that you may end up being cocooned in a boat away from the actual glamor of Dal.
Not only the land but the human greed has turned even the waters of a serene lake into a sellable plotted property. It appeared as if every inch of the lakelet has been sold. There were a sea of names, Blue Moon, Chicago, Australia, and Lalitha flooding the entire basin. One of them was destined to be our nest for the night.
Perhaps one of the best houseboat experiences I have had was the boat ride in the Kerala backwaters. Because it combined the two enterprises, the luxury of a house and the day-long adventure of moving in the water.
In Srinagar, the houseboats stood like fixed walnut mangroves in marshy Dal and offered the cogitative paradox. In the morning, when you come out of the darkened cove and look at the glistening shine of the blissful sun against the backdrop of boats and the lake, it’s a sight to behold. And, when your gaze shifts to the horde of floating houses and the muck thrown by them into the serene water polluting it, you begin to contemplate human cruelty to mother nature in the same sight.
The Evening Shikara
The twilight found us indulging in the much talked about Shikara ride in the lanes and by lanes of the gigantic lake. We cruised alongside the floating lotus garden, the floating land and the floating Meena Bazar. Though the lotus garden was miniature compared to the image I had formed in my imagination, or even compared to the reminiscent of the memory my wife was savoring through her childhood tour.
There was an inevitable comparison with similar boat trips we have had in serenity Kerala backwaters, awe of floating Bangkok market, and the glamor of Venice. All were completely different experiences.
The difference was not only in the ambience but also of the mood. In the beginning, as we sat in the Shikara, a vague sense of fear and alienation gnawed my vision. And, my incessant instinct not to overlook human cruelty on nature kept me wandering.
Yet, the nature has its own way blessing. The moment a crepuscular ray arising out of the sublime horizon and reflected from the undulating waters entered into my visual frame, there was paradigm shift in the aura.
I lay there cuddled inside the Mughal cove undulating gently over tranquil waters. A soft breeze from the lake caressed my soul as I soaked in the tranquility of nature. My gaze shifts outside, and I see the boats filled with chirpy tourists jibe laudingly as if the Dal were a performing arena and the Shikaras were moving in and out in different floral formations.
Every dish has its own ingredients. My personal preferences of imbibing the divinity listening to the tintinnabulating echoes from Naina Devi while sailing leisurely in the coldness of Naini lake were quite different from the recipe I was being served here. A Shikara shop caress my boat selling kebabs freshly cooked on a churrasco. And yet, every cuisine has its own taste and charm.
The night before we were to leave back, June the 30th, we were back to Srinagar after a much adventurous voyage to peep into the enemy’s den (I’ll be writing shortly about that).
We took a tender stroll along side the imposing lake before heading for the finale dinner at the hotel to celebrate our 21 anniversary.
I am standing at the deck of Vivanta-Dal view, the elegance of the great lake spread in front of me, engarlanding my visual perimeter. The constant broadcasting of the Islamic prayers from speakers atop the constructions was alien to my devout Hindu taste, yet I could imbibe the divinity of the chanting, as if magnanimity of mother nature had temporarily lifted me up from the mundanity of politics and religion.