Friday, April 5, 2013

Re-imagining Kashmir

 Every morning, hundreds of shikaras spread themselves out on the endless Dal Lake, scooping out the weeds choking it

A place proclaimed as paradise and condemned as hell, Kashmir is too often lost in picture perfect postcards and stark headlines. Abhijit Dutta and Sebastian Ku travel to the heart of the Valley ro re-imagine it.

My first memory of Kashmir is a rustle, the static of distance – or maybe disbelief – crackling up the phone connection. I was calling to book a houseboat: I pressed my ears hard into the phone, trying desperately to hear all the images I had curated over the years, from film and fiction, from poetry, and, of course, newspaper headlines. But the houseboat owner was in a hurry – he had to go for his evening prayers – and soon Kashmir became a dead ring tone.

When I arrived in Srinagar, the capital, autumn has already begun to rouge its cheeks. All the chinars have grown up, the innocent green they wear in summer replaced by a deep auburn red. Through the summer months, all of Kashmir bursts with lush verdant youth, radiant with wild bloom and glowing in the warmth of the attention it receives. Summers are when the world descends on Kashmir, lured by promises of its paradisiacal beauty: icy peaks, babbling brooks, blue-blue skies, rolling meadows. Every Mughal Garden in the city, each some four hundred years old, is dusted an decked up to meet the wide eyed tourists. They coo over the bulbous tulips, they pose next to the pansies, they kiss behind the poplars. Kashmir in summer is a brazen beauty, desperately hawking its coquetry, eager to make a living for as long as it can.

Not all summers are crated equal though. Last year, over 150 Kashmiris were killed in encounters with the Indian Army and the tourist season was replaced by a state of siege. It’s a confrontation that has a long history, an a complex one. At the heart of the master is the demand for a plebiscite that allows the people of Jammu and Kashmir – India’s only Muslim majority state – to determined their political identity, including, possibly, becoming an independent nation.

It’s demand that turned Kashmir into a site of active armed conflict for nearly two decades. Then, instead of tourists, Srinagar’s houseboats, lakesides and monuments swarmed headlines – lapis lazuli skies and alpine meadows pushed aside to accommodate images of curfews, crackdowns and attacks. But there is change. It’s slow, hesitant change, much like an itchy scab beginning to form, but it’s a change that many locals welcome; for many it is their only source of livelihood. The issue, as intractable as ever, remains unsolved but the resistance is now more political than violent. Be ti the number of terror linked incidents or civilian causalities, both are significantly down from the peak years. And news is getting out.

Earlier this year, in an encouraging move, Germany revised its travel advisory for Kashmir, clarifying that ‘foreigners are generally not direct targets of clashes “; Inida’s largest hotel chain, Taj, inaugurated a new property, Vivanta, to meet the demand for luxury travel; Lalit Grand Palace, the former royal palace turned five star hotel reports a healthy occupancy; and the ski resorts of Gumarg and Sonamarg are back in favour with European travelers bored with the Alps. “In the madness of India, this really is an island of peace” says Carin Fischer, a Bavarian woman who now lives in Srinagar and runs an eco-tourism concept called ‘Trekking for Trees’ in picturesque Budgam.

In the distance, the marble dome and minaret of Kashmir’s most revered shrine, Hazratbal, rises up from a clustered fishing village, reverberating still with the morning prayers.

Sitting on the lawns of Butts Clermont Houseboats, drenched in the warming autumn sun, I couldn’t agree more. Clermont sits on a part of the Dal Lake that’s far away from the madding crowds of boulevard and Dalgate,o where a thousand houseboats jostle with each other. Herer your morning tea comes with the most alluring views of the Zabarvan hills, veiled in cashmere-fine mist. Sunshine runs down the slopes and jumps into the porcelain waters of the Dal for a dip, where Shikaras huddle together in twos and threes, scooping out weeds with their heart shaped oars. In the distance, the marble dome and minaret of kashmir’s most revered shrine, Hazratbal, rises up from a clustered fishing village, reverberating still with the morning prayers that have just ended. It’s a blessed air one breathes here. No wonder the Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar chose just this spot to tutor the young George Harrison, of the Beatles, on the intricacies of ragas.
Afternoons are perfect for sitting out, on foot, or in a tightly packed matador van that ply Srinagar’s streets, and explore the heart of this city. Historic Lal Chowk is ‘downtown’, and sprawled around it are the streets that belie every imagination of what Kashmir is : on M.A. Road, at the chic Coffee Arabica, cappuccinos and shawarma platters provide the perfect accompaniment to protracted political debates; across Polo view, Residency road bustles with the industrious energy of shawl sellers, dry fruit vendors, cedar wood carvers and souvenir shop owners, all willing to submit to a good bargain; around the corner, in the back lanes, the irresistible tabak mazz (skewered meat) seethes and sizzles on rows of smoky barbeque pits.

 The azaan (call for prayer), and not the sun, begins a new day in Kashmir

 The harratbal Mosque, holiest of holy shrines in Kashmir, rises up from a fishing village that kisses the banks of the Dal Lake.

Through it all flows the labyrinthine Jhelum river, tis demure waters ducking historic bridges, passing heart-achingly beautiful brick-and-timber homes, kissing the hem of grand mosques like the 14th Century Shah-i-Hamdan dan Dastgir Sahib. Ancient shikarawallahs row away their days on these waters, ferrying passengers through th riverine twists and turns.

Yet, for all the charm and antiquity of Srinagar, Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s famous words – if there is a heaven on earth, it is this it is that it is this – ring truest when you leave the city behind. While the well heeled outposts of Phalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg remain the biggest tourist draws, it’s the careless beauty of Khag, the poetry of Gurex, an the danger tinged beauty  of Rafiabad that gives you first hints of just why Kashmir is such a special place.

I spend my last day driving out to Manasbal, a place that takes its name from the eponymous lake that  to turn colour, all day long. Locals tell me of days when its waters pirouette through a vivid palette, glowing orange, grey, green, blue, and other mysterious shades.

That afternoon, the lake was a translucent green, the pine and fir trees lining its bank eagerly drinking in their reflection. Not too far from me, an old man was building a shikara. A couple of girls, maybe her daughters, stood amidst the disembodied parts of the boat, its wooden frames strewn around like jigsaw pieces. In Kashmir, the shikara, like the lakes and the rivers, is a lifeline; it will earn them bread, it will help them fish, and it will carry them across. Seeing it like this – broken but with the promise of becoming whole – I allow myself to hope a little.

Perhaps, Kashmir too will build itself a new life; perhaps it too will become whole.

 Evening in Lal Chowk. Site of declarations of indepencence, of bombings and of the best grilled mutton in all of Kashmir.

Women making their way home

 Locals tell me of days when its waters pirouette through a vivid palette, glowing orange, grey, green, blue, and other mysterious shades.

The sun steams through an otherwise cloudy day over the alpathar range, above Gulmarg.

 In several of kashmir’s destinations, like Gulmarg. You will have to ditch the 4 wheel for a ride on one of these.

It’s  the careless beauty of Khag, the poetry of Gurez, and the danger tinged beauty of Rafiabad that gives you first hints of just why Kashmir is such a special place.

Wreaths of white powdery clouds crown the hills around Dal Lake in Naseem Bagh.

sonmarg gateway of ladakh

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