Reports of trouble in Kashmir Valley made front page news even a couple of days before we were scheduled to leave for Srinagar. But Kashmir had been my mother’s first choice for our short getaway when we were discussing vacation options a few weeks ago and we had no intention of allowing 'a spot of trouble and some stone throwing' interfere with our plans. Even as we arrived in Srinagar, it’s special status was evident from the rules are regulations that were in effect before exiting the airport. All non-Indian passport holders need to fill out a special form with details of places one intends to visit, hotel address, dates, contact numbers etc. (A similar form had to be filled at the time of leaving as well).
As we gathered our bags and made our way out, we were confronted with a problem. We had 2 working phones but neither would connect successfully to a local service provider. One of the phones had a pre-paid SIM purchased in Maharashtra and the other was a foreign SIM with international roaming, but due to strict security regulations in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, neither is permitted for use within its borders. We were in a quandary since we were counting on making a phone call to connect with the driver we had engaged for the duration of the trip. Scanning handheld name-boards at the exit did not yield any results and we stood around perplexed until a man walked purposefully towards us and introduced himself. We had exchanged some text messages over the past couple of days with our driver and he had recognized my father's face from his profile picture!
That settled, we made our way to the hotel and were given an update on the law and order situation. The city was mostly shutdown due to the strike, so we would have to stay low that afternoon. We pulled up at the highly recommended "Krishna dhaba" to get some lunch only to find that it was closed too. We had to settle for a small hole-in-the-wall dhaba for lunch, but they did serve some hot missi-roti and vegetables that were satisfying. Since the driver was worried about possible stone throwing, the only diversion he suggested for that evening was to go on a Shikara ride on the nearby Dal Lake.
Dal Lake, Srinagar
Boulevard Road skirts the perimeter of Dal Lake on its south east side, and the promenade is dotted with boat jetties that are the launching point for shikara rides. We got dropped at one that was closer to the open part of the lake that is well beyond the cluster of houseboats that inhabit the lakes narrow southern end. We engaged a shikara for an hour (it was close to sunset) and sat back to observe other tourists and knick-knack vendors that ply their trade from their floating 'shops'.
Next morning, before we had seen anything much of Srinagar, we headed out of town to Pahalgam. Just 10 miles south of the city we passed through Pampore. Here the road is flanked with fields that seasonally grow the ‘crocus sattivus’ plant, the source of saffron. Kashmir has produced high-grade safforn for millennia but historically the entire saffron production from this region has been consumed by the domestic market. The soil and climatic conditions are considered perfect to grow this “most expensive spice in the world” and the Kashmir saffron is well regarded for its flavor and aroma. It was still early in the season for the crocus flowers, so we were denied the pleasure of viewing carpets of crocus in bloom. Instead one of the farmers had planted orange poppies in his patch and a blanket of pretty poppies was a consolation prize that awaited us at the end of a short walk into the fields. Continuing down the road, every other shop along the highway at Lethpora sells either saffron (kesar) or dry fruits or both. We stopped briefly at 'Zamindar Kesar and Dry Fruits’, one of the bigger stores to review what was on offer.
Poppies at Pampore
Our next stop along this route was at Sangam, some 40km from Srinagar. On both sides of the highway one starts noticing wooden planks piled several meters high, in front of and over the roof of buildings. These are drying planks of stacked Kashmir willow and the buildings are cricket bat factories and sports shops. All the billboards around here bear the insignia of some big names in cricket equipment.
We stopped in front of one of the small workshops and a young man showed us the various steps in the process as a plank of wood is transformed into a cricket bat. The tour concluded with a visit to the second floor storage where hundreds of cricket bats were arrayed along the wall waiting to be packaged and transported. He demonstrated the strength of the wood by literally standing atop a bat straddling over a couple of planks. My father got into stance and ‘tested’ a few bats, but his interest did not covert into an actual sale. The bats were all left standing, resting against the walls.
Cricket bat factory, Sangam
Apple blossom’s were in full bloom providing a visual treat as we ventured (very) briefly among the trees at one of the many apple orchards that lined the road. A nearby Kashmiri Handicrafts and Textiles store gave us an opportunity to see fabrics and designs that are specific to this state.
As we arrived in Pahalgam, we checked into our hotel that was located right in the center of town rather than at some remote resort. This was a deliberate decision so we would have a choice of restaurants that would suit our dietary restrictions. We need not have worried at all, everywhere we had been so far, a 100% Pure Vegetarian restaurant was never far away!
After a welcome drink of Kahwah (a Kashmiri specialty made with Kahwah tea leaves, green cardamoms, cinnamon, almonds, sugar and saffron), and lunch at Nathu’s Rasoi (which immediately became a unanimous favorite), we engaged a local taxi for Pahalgam sightseeing. Vehicles from out of town, even private vehicles, are not allowed to go to some of these destinations, so local taxis are the only option. On the positive side, the prices for various destinations and combinations thereof are fixed and posted at the taxi-stand obviating the need to haggle and making one feel cheated.
Pahalgam, ‘ The Valley of Shepherds’, is situated at the confluence of the Lidder river and streams flowing from the Sheshnag lake. It is surrounded by thickly wooded forests of pine and beautiful undulating meadows. Just north of Pahalgam town, the road forks forming a Y. The right fork meanders along the Lidder river and takes you to Chandanwari about 16 km away. At 2900m, Chandanwadi is the starting point of the annual Amarnath Yatra. The chief attraction here was snow cascading down the mountain and a brisk roadside business in rental plastic boots and gloves attest to the magnetic draw of visitors to snow.
Betaab Valley, so called because the Hindi film Betaab was shot there, is a more picturesque and serene place. A pullout on the road provides a panoramic overlook from above before the vehicle makes its way down to the bottom of the valley. When informed that there were senior citizens in the car, the sentry at the ticket gate was kind enough to let the car proceed further in. The Lidder river flows along one edge of the huge open space that has been developed as a Nature Park with tall trees. It is surrounded by tall mountains on all sides and we spent some quality time enjoying the surroundings.
Betaab Valley, Pahalgam
Back at the Y and up the left fork this time, the road to Aru Valley is 15 kms of breathtaking views of river, pine jungle, waterfalls and snow capped mountains. The area is part of the Overa-Aru Biosphere Reserve and has the status of a wildlife reserve. It is said to be home to several rare and endangered species but we saw absolutely no wildlife as our vehicle careened along the narrow curvy road sitting high up over a gorge with the river rushing at the bottom. At the very end of the road is a scenic meadow and village which is the base camp for trekkers to the Kolahoi Glacier. Horses were available to take take visitors further into the valley. With no desire to burden the poor beasts, we enjoyed the mountain scenery for a while from the meadow before returning to Pahalgam town.
The following morning we headed back toward Srinagar. On the way, at Avantipora that lies some 30 kms from Srinagar, we stopped at the ruins of the Awantiswamin Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The foundation of the town and the temple are ascribed to King Awantivarman (855-883 AD). Based on the ruins, the temple was built on a two-tiered base in the center of a spacious paved courtyard. The outer boundary wall has four shrines in the four corners and every wall and pillar is decorated with exuberant sculpture and carvings, though being made of grey limestone, much of it has eroded over the centuries.
Awantiswamin Temple, Avantipora
Back in Srinagar, we were eager to visit the celebrated Mughal Gardens. So what is unique about the Mughal Gardens you ask? Well, here is the skinny. Islam came to Kashmir in the 14th C. with the establishment of the Shahmiri Sultanate in the region. Some of the leading members of the new dynasty were immigrants from Persia or areas with heavy Persian influence. Thus along with language, dress, customs many types of arts and crafts linked to Persia, they also brought with them the art of garden landscaping.Gardens established during this period followed a pattern akin to the Persian Paradise gardens, with terraces arranged around a central water channel, lined with fountains and planted with a variety of flowers and trees that grew in abundance within the Valley. By the time Kashmir passed into the hands of the Mughals in the 16th C., these gardens were already well established and the Mughals essentially just refined this set pattern.
The Mughal gardens of Kashmir owe their grandeur primarily to Emperor Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan. Jahangir was responsible for the careful selection of the site and planning it to suit the requirements of the traditional paradise gardens. The sites selected were invariably at the foot of a mountain, wherever there was a source of water either in the form of streams or springs. This feature eventually resulted in terraced garden layouts.
Almost all popular Mughal gardens in Kashmir follow a similar pattern with a central water channel sourced at natural springs. This channel forms the central visual axis of the garden further enhanced by avenues of poplars or chinar trees. There are one or more pavilions with a central open space placed over these water channels. These water channels cascade down from one terrace to another in the form of chadars or falls, where they fill in the larger water tanks having an array of fountains. Finally, the water from the central channel joins a water body, either a flowing stream nearby or a lake.
Following this exact pattern are the three most popular Mughal Gardens in Srinagar - Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh and Chashme Shahi.
Shalimar Bagh is most ostentatious in architectural quality. The lower garden of Shalimar Bagh was created by Emperor Jahangir around 1620. The construction was overseen by Prince Khurram, the later Shah Jahan. Like the Nishat Bagh, this garden was also developed along the lines of traditional chahar bagh concept. The whole of the royal garden was divided into two major parts as per the requirement of the royalty. The lower portion, comprising the first three terraces was the Diwan-i-Aam where the emperor used to hold public audience. The upper two terraces were exclusively for the Emperor and his courtiers and hence rightly called the Diwan-i-Khas. These two parts were screened by means of a thick masonry wall having two similar gateways at each side of the water channel.The Shalimar Bagh is testimony to the lavish Mughal lifestyle - the royal court escaped every summer from the scorching heat of the Indian plains and traveled hundreds of miles to find respite in the greens of the garden.
Shalimar Bagh, Pahalgam
Nishat Bagh was laid out in the 17th C. and is located directly along the eastern bank of the Dal Lake on the foot of Zabarwan mountain range. The garden consists of twelve terraces, supposedly symbolizing the twelve signs of the zodiac. The terraces in the garden rise from the Dal Lake up the mountain side, along the length of the garden. They also rise also along its width from the side wings to the central channel axis. The sophisticated geometrical manner by which the chahar bagh concept and terraces have been adapted to the contours of the mountainside contribute towards making Nishat Bagh one of the finest representations of traditional chahar bagh garden layouts spread across the Islamic world. The views towards the vast Dal Lake from each of its ascending terraces are wide and uninterrupted, presenting the full expanse of the wide Dal Lake and its western shores. The central axis consists of ornamental water features like a water channel, cascades and pools, fountains and terrace walls and pavilions. The uppermost terrace was the zenana or the private section of the garden.
Nishat Bagh, Pahalgam
Chashme Shahi Garden completed the triad of major Mughal gardens in Srinagar. The garden was developed on the orders of Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 and is arranged on three ascending terraces. The water from a spring, located at the uppermost edge of the garden, is led through narrow water channels that drop sharply in the form of cascades to successive lower terrace levels.
We also visited the nearby Tulip Garden that afternoon. Srinagar hosts an annual Tulip festival in April each year and we were excited at the prospect of seeing 5 hectares of land covered with tulip bulbs. Unfortunately it was the last day of the festival and while they still charged admission, the vast fields of tulips were well past their prime and we could only get a sense for how beautiful it would have looked earlier in the month.
After a long day of sightseeing, we were a little apprehensive about the Houseboat stay we had planned for that night. Getting to the houseboat involved a shikara ride from one of the jetties and getting on and off the shikara posed a non-trivial challenge for my mother. As it turned out, the caretaker was very solicitous as he welcomed us in and the houseboat rooms were cosy, neat and tidy. After checking on our preferences, he cooked for us a simple but delicious homestyle dinner that we all ate with relish. On the flip side, without a working phone and no means of ‘walking out' of the houseboat without requesting the services of a shikara, we felt marooned.
Next morning we were back on dry land and our destination for the day was Sonamarg or “meadow of gold”. It is situated at a distance of 84km from Srinagar on the Srinagar-Ladakh Road. National Highway 1D to Sonamarg runs through the Sindh Valley and the latter half of the route affords spectacular views of high snow-capped peaks and deep gorges along the way. For this very reason we picked this as our preferred destination rather than Gulmarg which is more popular with visitors who are interested in activities like skiing and sledding.
North of the town of Wayul we stopped briefly at the banks of the Nallah Sindh where a bridge crosses over it. From that point the river is a constant companion to the road all the way to Sonamarg. A section of the highway was blocked at Mamer forcing traffing across the river again into the minor Sumbal Surfraw Road that runs parallel to the river. We drove past the towns of Ganderbal, Kangan and Gund all the while enjoying spectacular views of the Harmukh range.
Sonamarg is at an altitude of 2730m and is inaccessible during winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. NH 1D is closed in December every year, the local traffic is permitted only up to Gagangear. After Kargil war these high altitude alpine meadows have seen heavy deployment of Indian army.
As we entered Sonamarg, the snowy mountain backdrop and cerulean sky made for a pretty panorama. One of the main attractions here (besides playing in the snow) is to visit the Thajiwas Glacier. One needs to engage a local taxi or rent ponies to make the 3 km trip and there is intense competition for your business. We ignored the constant sales pitch around us as best we could so we could walk around and take in the scenery. After lunch at a local eatery (100% Pure Vegetarian, no less), we headed back to Srinagar.
Our plea to the driver to detour to the Kheer Bhavani temple, an important place of worship for Kashmiri Pandits located just 14 kms east of Srinagar, fell on deaf ears. Given the continuing strike and unstable security situation, he deemed it was too risky to drive through some of the backroads for the fear of stone-throwing.
So driving straight back into Srinagar, he instead took us to the revered Hazratbal Shrine where Moi-e-Muqqadas, a sacred hair from the beard of Prophet Muhammad, is preserved. The approach to the mosque is through labyrinthine streets but the terrace at the rear offers a spectacular view of Dal lake and the mountains afar.
Hazratbal Shrine, Srinagar
We wrapped up the day with a drive up the thickly forested Shankaracharya Hill that is topped with a temple named for Shankaracharya who reached enlightenment here in AD 750. Entrance to the hill is guarded by army personnel and people are required to walk through security scanners at the checkpoint. We drove all the way almost to the top where a couple of overlooks afford views of Srinagar and Dal Lake. Since there are 243 steps leading up to the temple area and another 8-10 steps from there to the temple hall, we decided to give the actual temple a miss.
Having decided that the logistics of getting to and from the houseboat for a second night would be too stressful, we had brought our bags with us in the morning and decided to check back in at the same hotel we stayed on the first night in Srinagar. That turned out to be a good decision in retrospect. We woke up to steady rain next morning and this put a wrinkle in our plans to visit the Botanical Gardens before heading to the airport. The rain never let up so after a relaxed breakfast there was not much else we could do but watch TV and wait it out until it was time to leave for the airport.
Based on prior research, we knew that flying out of Srinagar involved several extra rounds of security checks, so gave ourselves plenty of time. As we can now confirm, both your bags and your person will get checked multiple times before you see the inside of a plane!
On the airport approach road, all vehicles are stopped at least a kilometer away and all bags put through the baggage scanner and people patted down. The process is repeated at the actual entrance to the airport and at baggage checkin counter. Having passed security, one is required to identify one’s checked in bags before it is finally loaded into the aircraft, a practice that has been done away with in most airports. Also your cabin-bags go through the most intense security check seen anywhere in the world. All contents of your bag are first completely emptied into a plastic tub and each item closely examined before being returned. Needless to say this is a very time consuming process and wait times are long. Thankfully we were aware of this and had checked in everything we could other than the minimal items we were carrying on our persons. Even after entering the secure area there is a final check by the airline just before entering the aircraft!
It was still raining when the flight took off but we were thankful that since our arrival we had four pleasant, sunny days in which we were able to cover quite a bit of ground and enjoy our brief visit to Kashmir.
Srinagar to Pahalgam
Pahalgam - Chandanwadi
Pahalgam - Betaab Valley
Pahalgam - Aru Valley
Srinagar Airport Rain
Videos: The Complete Playlist
Below is the link to the YouTube playlist. These are HD videos and can be
viewed at 720p if you have a high speed internet connection. Click on the icon on the top left to see a list of individual videos in the playlist. You can also watch it full screen by clicking on the last icon bottom right