Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jammu & Kashmir

Trying to explain Kashmir is like trying to explain love... its beautiful but its complicated! Kashmir is like a beautiful soft heart that was in love for hundreds of years and then, it broke up, quite literally. Ever since, it has been betrayed, exiled, terrorized, attacked by parasites trying to quash even the slightest glimmer of hope and aspirations, almost asphyxiating it to death, and yet it lives on...  

In this post, I want to bring out the soul of Kashmir, the way I have understood it. It will obviously be a gross injustice if I said I was any close to achieving it, but hopefully will be able to bring out some of its nuances to give a perspective on Kashmir and the reason why it is the way it is. Lets begin with the easiest one:


Tourism is the largest job creating industry in J&K. Most of Srinagar valley and higher remains completely shut for almost 6 months every year due to heavy snowfall and hence a lot of families rely on tourism during the summer months to earn enough for the year. J&K can be subdivided into 3 major parts, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. During my vacation we covered Jammu and parts of Kashmir. We arrived in Jammu on the afternoon of 19th June '13. Jammu is the winter capital of J&K. Situated in Jammu is the beautiful Raghunath temple. Weird part in J&K is that a lot of these places you would have heard of because a major terrorist attack had happened there and you just have to live with it.

Near Jammu is of course the temple of Mata Vaishno Devi, which is where we primarily wanted to go. In fact the whole vacation was planned around the date on which we got helicopter tickets to Vaishno Devi. Katra (base camp for Vaishno Devi) is 2 hours drive from Jammu city. It's always overwhelming to see the number of people visiting the shrine and the excitement they have while chanting Jai Mata Di. Vaishno Devi is a 14 km steep trek from Katra. Devotees cover the trek either by walk, horses, palki or the recently introduced helicopter service. The first time I went, I went by walk and it was an unforgettable experience. You see people from all age groups, small children to 80 year old women, beaming with energy chanting Jai Mata Di and climbing away. This time though we went by helicopter, which takes you to Sanji Chatt from Katra. The shrine is a 2km downhill from there. We stayed at one of the guest houses of the shrine board. It was a quaint place and located in a place from where we could see the shrine from our balcony. It was amazing. We did the Aarti Darshan in the evening which was surreal. 

Vaishno Devi Shrine and the terrain around it

The next day, we went back to Jammu and took a flight to Srinagar. That night we spent in the houseboat in Dal lake. All about that you can read here. The next day we went for sight seeing in Srinagar. Srinagar is of course famous for its gardens from the Mughal Era, so much so that there was a whole chapter in my 8th class Hindi text book praising the beauty of Shalimar and Nishat gardens. There are also a few other beautiful seasonal gardens.

Srinagar is also famous for the Hazrat Bal shrine. This shrine has a priceless relic, a hair of Prophet Mohammad. And thus Srinagar is sometimes equated to Madina according to a verse written in the shrine.

The next day, we left for Sonmarg. Sonmarg is known for Amarnath Yatra. It was also exciting to visit Sonamarg because of its proximity to Kargil. There is nothing much as such to see in Sonmarg, but going a little further ahead, you would pass through Baltal, the place where India set up its base camp during the Kargil war. A little ahead comes the northernmost recognized civilian village of India (I forget the name). The road then leads to the Zero Point, apparently the point upto which the Pakistani army could peek into the Indian mainland and view all army movements, when they had Kargil under siege. From here of course, you could see the Kargil peaks as well. 

Next stop, Pahalgam. If you are cricket fan you will definitely know what Pahalgam is famous for... Bats! Pahalgam is home to the finest trees to make bats, the willow tree. Almost all major companies either source the wood from here or have a factory in Pahalgam. I was lucky to get into one of the factories, and experience bat making. The bats are so cheap here, irrespective of whether you need it or not, you ll definitely buy one. Pahalgam is also famous for Kesar, Almond and strawberry. Unfortunately it was not the season for strawberry, but I got to see Kesar and Almond plantation. And since its grown here, its pretty cheap!

Mini Switzerland, Pahalgam

Pahalgam also has some really amazing place to go to. There is a 2.5km trek that takes you to a huge valley surrounded by snow clad mountains. This place is known as the mini Switzerland, its simply beautiful! Pahalgam also has a rafting club, where I did rafting for the first time. The inexperienced me, went in wearing jeans and a full shirt hoping I wouldn't get drenched just like any other boat ride... big mistake! In like a minute into the rafting I was completely drenched with icy cold water. I guess the adrenaline rush of rafting saved me. The raft would literally crash into rocks and then jump up. At those moments, all you can do is hope it doesn't topple. The course was 4km long, the time just passed by, it was amazing!

From Pahalgam, we left for Gulmarg and oh boy! What a gorgeous place it is. No wonder it was one of the hottest destinations for shooting Hindi movies. It has been developed into a great tourist destinations with a huge golf club. It also has a rope way called Gondola which would take you to the peak of a surrounding mountain which has snow throughout the year. The place in itself is so gorgeous that even the wild growth of flowers seemed so beautiful.


Next to the golf club was our hotel and right next to that was a temple. A very small temple that was oddly very familiar to my father. On querying, turned out, it was the same temple where the song Jai Jai Shiv Shankar was shot.

This revelation dawned upon us as our journey to the beautiful land of J&K was about to get over. Going back to the hotel, gave another shock. There had been a terrorist attack back in Srinagar and Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi were on a visit to Srinagar. Srinagar was put under complete curfew to avoid any other attacks. This cut short our stay in Gulmarg even more, as we were to take our flight back to Delhi from Srinagar the next day. We started off 12 hours earlier than expected. Fortunately we arrived at the airport safely. Curfews are no big deal for Kashmir, which brings me to my next section...

Society at large:

This will be a good time to reiterate some historical events that unfurled after the India Pakistan partition. In 1947, the Indian Independence Act was signed by the Britishers, which basically divided the former India into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. The princely states were given the right to choose whether to join India or Pakistan or remain independent. Most of the states chose based on the majority population being Hindu or Muslim. Pakistan expected Kashmir to be annexed to it. Even though the majority population was Muslim, the Hindu ruled (Maharaja Hari Singh) state decided to stay independent instead. India and Pakistan signed a treaty not to try and invade Kashmir. 

But a certain group of Muslim revolutionaries and segments of Pakistani tribesmen invaded Kashmir. Unable to withstand the invasion, Maharaja Hari Singh approached India for help. Even though Jawahar Lal Nehru was willing to send troops, India was legally bound not to take any such steps as per the treaty as they had no proof that Pakistani army was involved. India instead asked Maharaja Hari Singh to use the Instrument of Accession and join India, and only then could India help Kashmir. Rumor spread that Hari Singh had supported the accession of Kashmir to India and the revolutionaries started making rapid advances towards Srinagar. When they reached the outskirts of Srinagar Hari Singh had no other choice but to sign the accession. It was accepted by India within a day and India did one of the largest military airlifts that the world has seen, took over Srinagar airport and started the pushing back the revolutionaries from there, thus starting the war of 1947. 

Seeing the large scale loss of lives, Nehru took the matter to UN. UN worked out a cease fire agreement and started the resolution for the Right of Nations to Self Determination. This resolution requires the state to have no external influence to have a fair voting and hence the UN advised Pakistan to move out all its troops and India to leave the bare minimum required for administrative purposes. Pakistan did not heed to the proposal and hence nor did India. I am guessing its probably not in the interest of India as well to let the voting happen as people will most likely vote to be a part of Pakistan, and thus I guess, India has the veto of Russia always ready in case such a situation occurs. After the cease fire, India controls about 60% of the state (yes just 60%, the beautiful butterfly like crowns on the India map are actually not in control of India) and Pakistan controls about 30% and the rest by China.

From then on of course, Kashmir has seen decades of terrorist attacks, wars, protests etc. disrupting lives, redefining the sense of normalcy in the valley. Curfews were a part and parcel of everyday lives and the geography doesn't help as well. For a long time, Kashmir used to be completely cut off from rest of India due to snowfall. Terrorist invasion would peak during these times. Basically the people of Kashmir are the ones who have lost the most in the tug of war between India and Pakistan. They are very good to tourists, vary helpful and honest. Unlike a lot of other tourist places in India, people here are very honest. But they have somehow developed a deep rooted dislike for the Indian army. According to them, the army has forcefully occupied Kashmir even though the conditions have become much better now but the army tries to show New Delhi that its not. In fact the terrorist attack that happened when I was there was also interpreted as if the army was trying to show Dr. Manmohan Singh who was on a visit to J&K then that conditions aren't normal. And the fact that two terrorists on a motor cycle open fired on an army convoy and yet managed to get away doesn't sink in very well. As a patriotic Indian I would obviously want Kashmir to always be a part of India and hope the people of Kashmir realize that India is trying to do its best to prevail peace in the valley and pushing developments very hard.


In other states, you will mostly find police with a lathi, rarely a pistol but that's all nothing more than that. But here in J&K, you will find police with high end rifles, police vehicles mounted with high power machine guns, the sorts you use in video games. And this is just the J&K police. Then there is the CRPF, the BSF in the border areas. And then there is the Indian army, always on stand by in case anything more adverse happens. In case you are worried about your security as a tourist in J&K, then you shouldn't be. The conditions in Kashmir are way better than they were about a decade back and in fact are very normal except for a few untoward incidences here and there forcing police to impose curfews at times. But otherwise, its too good a place to miss if you are enthusiastic about travelling.


Both the airports, Jammu as well as Srinagar are military airports being used for civil aviation. Hence the security is much tighter here. When you enter the airport, the army does a complete scanning of your vehicle and the luggage. Inside the airport, the airline does another round of thorough check up. You are not allowed to carry anything other than a laptop inside the cabin, not even eatables or clothes. Thus you are allowed an extra 5kg on your luggage quota. Any sort of liquid will just be thrown out. After checking in your luggage, you need to go identify your luggage when the luggage is being transported into the aircraft, to ensure there are no unidentified baggage that gets into the aircraft. If you do not do the baggage identification, your luggage will simply be left behind.

Another issue with military airports is that if there is any sort of military movement, your flight is bound to get delayed, something that happened to us both at Jammu as well as in Srinagar. In Jammu there was a chartered Air India flight carrying over a 100 jawans to an undisclosed location. In Srinagar, it was our PM whose jet was leaving Srinagar for Ladakh. Although it was all very inspiring to see the sequence of events that ensured the security of the PM. An array of black SUVs came in to drop him off to the jet and then two fighters took off back to back closely followed by the jet.


Kashmir is famous for Cashmere wool also known as Pashmina. Pashmina is a fabric that is so light and yet can keep you very warm and its so soft to touch that satin is probably nothing compared to it. Pure Pashmina shawls start at a range of about INR 10K. Kashmir is also famous for its thread work. It has a distinctive style of thread work which is done on simple plain cloths converting them into something very gorgeous. This style is mostly applied to dresses and bed sheets. Pahalgam seemed to be the cheapest for cloths shopping.

Kashmir is also known for dry fruits. Almost all major varieties of dry fruits, almond, pistachio, walnuts, cashew and most importantly kesar. Go to an authorized place especially while buying Kesar. On the way to Pahalgam are many shops which have kesar plantations in their backyards, and while you are at it, make friends so that you can get all dry fruits home delivered anywhere in India for nominal parcel charges after your current batch gets over. And of course when you are at Pahalgam, just stay calm and buy a bat.


When you are at Kashmir, it will either be the season for apples, or the season for strawberries and blue berries or the season for cherries. June end was the season for cherries, indulge in some cherry shopping. Kashmiri tea and kesar milk were amazing. Definitely try the Kashmiri pulav with shahi paneer, the best shahi paneer I have ever had! All curries in Kashmir are generally pretty rich with dry fruits, making them taste much better.

Now for the most important part, the Kashmiri wazwan. Wazwan is a 36 course meal, yes 36! that used to be served in royal banquets. Out of the 36 up to 30 dishes could meat based (chicken and lamb) and the rest are sweet dishes. To be able to prepare the Wazwan is considered art and a matter of pride for Kashmiris. Now of course its prepared only in some select few weddings of super rich families, but a few of its dishes can be tasted in a select few hotels. They have a Wazwan platter which consists of small amounts of about 15 to 20 dishes. The platter is an assortment of some amazing kebabs, murgh and ghost curries and sweets usually consisting of milk and kesar.

Disclaimer: The events described above do not follow any thorough documentary research and may not be completely accurate.

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