Kashmir – The paradise on Earth

Published in: “Asian Photography June 2007   http://www.asianphotographyindia .com  as well as in Planet Powai magazine.

 At the sea behind NCPAAs a school girl I learnt about the “Paradise on earth” which is our very own Kashmir. Of Kashmir, it was said,  “Gar bar-ru-e-zamin ast; hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin asto!” (“If there be a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!”). Now let me share the exhilaration we experienced holidaying in Kashmir. I’ve heard that a visit to Kashmir can partition one’s life into two halves- before and after Kashmir. True indeed, after a trip to this unforgettable land, one is never quite the same again.

Srinagar can be reached by air from Delhi or by road or by train. The nearest rail head Jammu is 300 kms away. By road from Jammu, the hills of Kud, Patnitop and Batote fall en route. This 293 km long journey passes through very picturesque landscape.                                                                                                                                          

The enchantment began when our plane glided through the majestic Himalayan peaks. What an elevating experience!  When the plane began to descend we got a spectacular view of the bright green fields and magnificent chinar trees but the first thing we saw as the plane touched down the airfield was an army tank. When the stepladder was being attached to the plane, we pulled out our cameras but were courteously told by the airline crew that photography at Srinagar airport is strictly prohibited. There was a strong army presence from the airport all the way into the city. Bridges, road junctions and other strategic locations were heavily manned by troops and regular ‘sweeps’ were carried out along the main roads. If one can ignore the soldiers, at once Srinagar is a compilation of images: a son-et-lumiere that tells the tale of the love of the Mughal emperors for this paradise valley, full of green rice fields, gardens in bloom, snow clad mountains, beautiful people and lakes rimmed by houseboats.                                                                    

 The Kashmir state, at the extreme north west of India, is bounded on the west and north by Pakistan, on the northeast by China and on the southeast and south by the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. More than 90 percent of the state is mountainous. From southwest to northeast the region contains the fertile Jammu and Punch plains, the coniferous Himalayan foothills from 2,000 to 7,000 feet, the heavily glaciated Pir Panjal range at 12,500 feet, the valley of Kashmir at 5,300 feet, the Himalayan ranges above 20,000 feet, the upper Indus River valley at 11,000 feet, the barren plateau of Ladakh and the remote Karakorum range. The Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and Tawi are the principal rivers while the Dal and Wular are the major lakes. The climate varies from alpine in the northeast to subtropical in the southwest. The topography of Kashmir offers a wide variety of climate and vegetation making the state a wildlife enthusiast’s delight as well. No animal better exemplifies the character and concerns of mountain environment than the snow leopard. Another rare animal that is present here is the Hangul or Kashmir stag, one of the most endangered species of red deer in the world. The eco-system here is well balanced with animals and people coexisting peacefully and one third of the world’s true mountain animals belonging to these mountains.

From the airport we drove straight to the Dal lake situated approximately 25 Kms away. It is the world famous water body that has been described as Lake Par-Excellence by Sir Walter Lawrence. It is the Jewel in the crown of the Kashmir and is eulogized by poets and praised copiously by the tourists. We got down on the Boulevard road lining the Dal Lake. It is host to the world famous Shikaras (boats with canopies) which carry people around the lake and to the houseboats. The charm of Kashmir is staying in floating houseboats. These vie with each other with a variety of eye catching colors, embellishments, fancy names and are maintained in great condition with electricity and an efficient plumbing system. They range from economical to extremely pricey ones, catagorised into Deluxe, A, B, and Economy .

The shikara which transported us to our houseboat was very exquisite, adorned with silk and lacey curtains, multihued floral designed, velvet cushions and our boat man played Kashmiri music adding up to the grandiose. Our houseboat was too very beautiful with 3 bed rooms, a living room and a small balcony. The host family living just behind the boat was very friendly and pampered us by giving us lot of care and service.                                          

  Dal Lake changes its moods and scenery right through the day and after every few kilometers. At the crack of dawn the lake was scintillating like an expanse of gold, during the day it was shimmering with the dazzling light of the Sun and at dusk the entire water was set ablaze by the red light caused by the setting Sun. But nothing is comparable to the magic the night brought along as we were privileged to be on the Dal lake on a full moon night.

The first morning we went to the temple of Shankarcharya atop a hill located at 1,100 ft. above surface level, also known as Takht-e-Suleiman. The Shiva temple here was constructed by Raja Gopadatya in 371 B.C. and is the oldest shrine in Kashmir. Dogra ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh, constructed stairs up to the temple. From the top we got a magnificent panoramic view of the Srinagar city’s busy thoroughfares and shimmering blue lakes.

Then we drove to the Mogul gardens which include Nishad Bhaag, Shalimar Garden, Chashmashahi Garden. All these gardens have exceptional assortment of flowers.

They have their own magical charm in the sparkling ripples of cascading streams and fountains, limpid pools and airy pavilions laid out for the pleasure of the Mughal Emperors. Nishat borders the Dal Lake and was laid out by Asaf Khan, Empress Nur Jahan’s brother. Chasma Shahi, the Royal Spring, with an illuminated garden, is the smallest. The spring from which it derives its name is credited with medicinal properties. Shalimar, the Abode of Love, was laid by Emperor Jahangir for his beloved Queen Nur Jahan and is the most famous of the three gardens.

 

The Dal Lake can be viewed in its full grandeur by walking or cycling down the boulevard road. The lake itself offers a world of recreational activities. One can spend days in and around it without ever getting bored. There are provisions for Kayaking, canoeing, water surfing, skiing and angling or one can just laze atop the decks of the houseboats. Near our boat there were lush wild gardens of lotus and water lilies with tiny birds perched on them. The noise of all the crows cawing and frogs gurgling was nicer to wake up to than the honking of Mumbai traffic. The Dal is connected to three other lakes by a series of canals bordered by lilies and little houses and shops on stilts. We took a shikara to shop around these stilt shops selling silks, woolen shawls and handicrafts.

 Shopping at Srinagar is a handicraft lover’s delight. There is great beauty in Kashmiri artifacts: paper Mache, lacquered and painted in floral designs; wood carvings and screens; fine carpets in typical oriental designs; silks and woolen shawls embroidered in traditional paisley and crewel work. The Kashmir Valley is also known for its fruit orchards where dry fruits such as almonds and walnuts are grown and processed locally. In the city there are lots of tiny shops along winding streets selling everything from dry fruit baskets to fine handicrafts to silk shawls. We could find everything from street food stalls to cybercafés in the market place.

 It is said Srinagar is as much imagination as it is fact, for every season offers new vistas to this city of great antiquity. Spring breathes life again into a frozen world and the air is heady with the fragrance of a million flowers that blossom on trees, shrubs and creepers. Summer heightens the effect and autumn is poignant in its colors of warm introspection. Winter brings with it snow and as sometimes the Dal Lake freezes and beneath a leaden sky, roasted chestnuts turn the atmosphere aromatic with the promise of warmth and comfort.

 Next we drove to Gulmarg. Gulmarg, or meadow of flowers, is an apt term indeed for this idyllic flower-laden meadow located at an altitude of 2,730 meters. The climb begins through fir-covered hillsides and at a viewing point we got a spectacular view of snow-covered mountains almost within touching distance. A few more miles and we could see the towering peaks above the meadow, that were covered with dense forests of tall conifers and gigantic fir and pine trees, all vying with each other to touch the azure skies. On a clear day one gets breathtaking views from Gulmarg: fields of rice; clusters of walnut, pear and mulberry; meadows, ridges and forests that lead to the snow slopes of Khilanmarg; the majestic Nanga Parbat peak over a 100 km  away. We took a Cable Car (Gandola) ride, which takes tourists up to Kongdori. Gulmarg boasts of the world’s highest and Asia’s longest cable car. The ropeway has 36 cabins, ferries about 600 tourists to and fro the Afarwat peak.

 

Gulmarg gets snowfall periodically from November to April, sometimes above 15 feet. Hence, Gulmarg, is an equally popular destination in winter as well. It gets coated with a blanket of thick, soft snow, turning its gentle slopes into some of the finest ski slopes. The resort has one T-Bar Lift, three modern ski lifts and a chair lift. The beginner’s slope makes learning easy, with perfect snow conditions and a gentle gradient. Trained instructors are available and equipment can be hired. Skating, curling, and ski bobbing are some of the activities offered. White Christmas celebration and winter festival including ski competitions are held every year in Gulmarg with much fan fare. During summers, Gulmarg is a golfer’s paradise. Its international lush green golf course is the highest in the world. Equipments are available on hire for the visitor allured by the golf greens here. Gulmarg was also, once an important trekking base and the Gulmarg-Khilanmarg-Apharwat-Alpather is still a great trek. We were told that the trek to Alpather Lake which is lake 13 Kms away from Gulmarg can be interesting as this lake remains frozen even in June.

Finally after treasuring all cherished memories of this glorious location we reluctantly headed for our way back home. Flying out also involved heavy security and a mile from the airport the security checks began. At one point we and our bags had to get into a bomb-proof building, a mirror-check was done under our car and our bags were put through an x-ray machine, this was the first of three other x-ray checks. It was all very efficiently and politely done.

While we were waiting for flight at the lounge of the Srinagar Airport, we were already making plans for our next visit to this wonderland, nestling in the lap of the dazzling, snow-capped Himalayas. The Kashmir valley is undoubtedly a jewel in India’s crown. Over the years, Kashmir tourism has come a long way, it has evolved to love and look after its tourists, fulfilling their every demand. So now tourists were everywhere, soaking up all that Kashmir has to offer – the walks, the pony treks, the shikara rides at sunset on the Dal Lake. The lofty snow clad mountain ranges, sylvan landscape and remarkably good-looking people make this state a virtual paradise. An inspiration for so much art, music and poetry, Kashmir is also honeymooners’ paradise, a nature lover’s wonderland and a shopper’s dream come true. We are very passionate about Kashmir and believe it as possibly the most beautiful place on earth. We highly recommend people to visit this mesmerizing state. And once you have visited Kashmir, you will agree that what began as a dream lives on as an unforgettable experience I am wondering how to pen the exhilaration we experienced on our visit to this heaven on earth.

As none can express the splendor of Kashmir in few words or few images, here we present a glimpse of the Kashmir that is really as exquisite and as intoxicating as heaven. Now to reach this heaven one has to first get to Srinagar, the capital of J&K State. One can either take a direct flight from Delhi or take a train to Jammu and from there a bus to Srinagar. The hill resorts of Kud, Patnitop and Batote fall en route this 293 km long picturesque route. The 2.5 km long Jawahar tunnel allows road access to Srinagar even in the winter. We flew from Delhi. While on board we both were lost in the reminiscences of our past visits. Suddenly we were shaken out of our reverie by a crew member serving snacks. Now the plane started descending and we were thrilled to see it approach the valley covered with lush green carpeted earth and the magnificent chinar trees. But the first thing that caught our attention on landing was the presence of military personnel with guns in the tarmac. As soon as we pulled out our cameras to take a picture but a crew politely informed us that photography at Srinagar airport is strictly prohibited. Once out of the airport a friendly taxi driver drove us to the picturesque Dal Lake.

The Dal has been portrayed as Lake Par-Excellence by Sir Walter Lawrence. Eulogized by poets as well as tourists it is the most beautiful lake in Srinagar. We stood mesmerized on the Boulevard road lining the Dal Lake watching the Shikaras (boats with canopies) carrying tourists around the lake and to the houseboats. I must say that the most charming part of holidaying in Kashmir is staying in these houseboats vying with each other with an assortment of bright colors, embellishments, fancy names and yet maintained perfectly with electricity and an efficient plumbing system as well. A very exquisite shikara adorned with silk and lacey curtains, multihued velvet cushions transported us to our houseboat and our boat man played Kashmiri music complementing the grandiose. Our boat had 3 rooms, a hall and a small balcony. The host family living just behind the boat was very warm and pampered us by giving us good care and service.Next morning as soon as we woke up we were served nice English breakfast and Kahva (Kashmiri tea). As it was lovely morning we decided to visit the temple of Shankaracharya atop a hill, Takht-e-Suleiman. The Shiva temple here was constructed by Raja Gopadatya in 371 B.C. and is the oldest shrine in Kashmir. Dogra ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh, constructed stairs up to the temple. From the top we got a great panoramic view of the Srinagar city’s busy thoroughfares and shimmering blue lakes. Evening we drove to the Mughal gardens – Nishad Bhaag, Shalimar, Chashmashahi Gardens. These gardens full of exceptional assortment of flowers, have their own magical charm in the sparkling ripples of cascading streams and fountains, limpid pools and airy pavilions laid out for the pleasure of the Mughal Emperors. Nishat which borders the Dal Lake was laid out by AsafKhan, Empress Nur Jahan’s brother. Chasma Shahi, the Royal Spring, with an illuminated garden, is the smallest. The spring from which it derives its name is credited with medicinal properties. Shalimar, the Abode of Love, was laid by Emperor Jahangir for his beloved Queen Nur Jahan and is the most famous of the three gardens. As the Mughals celebrated beauty, they created symmetrical gardens adding a further dimension to the valleys of Kashmir.

We noticed that the Dal Lake can be viewed in its full grandeur by walking down the boulevard road. The lake changes its moods and scenery all through the day and after every few kilometers. At the crack of dawn the lake was scintillating like an expanse of gold, during the day it was shimmering with the dazzling light of the Sun and at dusk the entire water was set ablaze by the red light caused by the setting Sun. But nothing is comparable to the magic the night brought along as we were privileged to be on the Dal Lake on a full moon night

The best time to visit Kashmir is during the months of March to October, which covers three seasons i.e., spring (March-early May), summers (early May- August) and autumn (September-November). The blossoms of spring, the cool weather of summer and the gold and red hues of autumn all provide the peak season for Kashmir travel. From December to early March is the winter season, when the entire valley wears a white blanket of snow. For those who enjoy cold weather and are interested in skiing, winter is the time to be in Kashmir .Gulmarg, or meadow of flowers, is an apt term indeed for this idyllic flower-laden meadow located at an altitude of 2,730 meters. The climb begins through fir-covered hillsides and at a viewing point we got a spectacular view of snow-covered mountains almost within touching distance. A few more miles and we could see the towering peaks above the meadow that were covered with dense forests of tall conifers, gigantic fir and pine trees. On a clear day one gets breathtaking views from Gulmarg: fields of rice; clusters of walnut, pear and mulberry; meadows, ridges and forests that lead to the snow slopes of Khilanmarg; the majestic Nanga Parbat peak over a 100 km away. We took a Cable Car (Gandola) ride, which takes tourists up to Kongdori. Gulmarg boasts of the world’s highest and Asia’s longest cable car. This ropeway has 36 cabins and ferries about 600 tourists to and fro the Afarwat peak. Gulmarg, is an equally popular destination in winter as well. It gets coated with a blanket of thick, soft snow, turning its gentle slopes into some of the finest ski slopes. Skiing, tobogganing, ski- bobbing are some of the activities offered here, with instruction and equipment facilities. The resort has one T-bar lift, a chair lift and three modern ski-lifts. The beginner’s slope facilitates learning, thanks to its perfect snow conditions and a gentle gradient. White Christmas celebration and winter festivals including ski competitions are held every year with much fan fare. During summers Gulmarg is a golfer’s paradise as it has the distinction of offering the highest natural golf course in the world at 2890 meters. Gulmarg-Khilanmarg-Apharwat-Alpather is a great trek. We were told that the trek to Alpather Lake which is lake 13 Kms away from Gulmarg can be interesting as this lake remains frozen even in June.

After the terrific trip to Gulmarg we returned back to our boat to enjoy a few days more in the Dal Lake. Near our boat there were lush wild gardens of lotus and water lilies with tiny birds perched on them. The noise of all the crows cawing and frogs gurgling was nicer to wake up to than to the honking of Mumbai traffic. The lake itself offers a world of recreational activities. We spent days in and around it without ever getting bored. There are provisions for Kayaking, canoeing, water surfing, skiing and angling or one can just laze atop the decks of the houseboats. The Dal is connected to three other lakes by a series of canals bordered by lilies, little houses and shops on stilts. We took a shikara to shop around these stilt shops selling silks, woolen shawls and handicrafts.

Shopping at Srinagar is a handicraft lover’s delight. The Mughal also left behind a heritage of exquisite artisanship among the people, making the handicrafts of the land prized gifts the world over: paper Mache, lacquered and painted in floral designs; wood carvings and screens; fine carpets in typical oriental designs; silks and woolen shawls embroidered in traditional paisley and crewel work. The Kashmir Valley is also known for its fruit orchards where dry fruits such as almonds and walnuts are grown and processed locally. In the city there are lots of tiny shops along winding streets selling everything from dry fruit baskets to fine handicrafts to silk shawls. We found everything from street food stalls to cybercafés in the market place. It is said Srinagar is as much imagination as it is fact, for every season offers new vistas to this city of great antiquity. Spring breathes life again into a frozen world and the air is heady with the fragrance of a million flowers that blossom on trees, shrubs and creepers. Summer heightens the effect and autumn is poignant in its colors of warm introspection. Winter brings with it snow and as sometimes the Dal Lake freezes and beneath a leaden sky, roasted chestnuts turn the atmosphere aromatic with the promise of warmth and comfort.

The Kashmir valley is undeniably a jewel in India’s crown because it has captured within its territories the quintessence of all the elements that poetry demands of nature, awesome grandeur, serenity, a wild profusion of colour. The lofty snow clad mountain ranges, sylvan landscape and gorgeous people make this state a virtu alheaven. An inspiration for so much art, music and poetry, Kashmir is also honeymooners’ delight, a nature lover’s wonderland and a shopper’s dream come true. We are very passionate about Kashmir and believe it as the most beautiful place in India that’s why we have decided to go again to visit Pahelgam , Amarnath and Ladhak And once you have visited Kashmir, you will agree that what began as a dream lives on as an unforgettable experience…

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One thought on “Kashmir – The paradise on Earth

  1. Hi Arundati,
    Great write up on Kashmir.
    I stumbled upon your blog while googling for Chashmashahi Gardens.

    We were there last year and had a great time.
    We missed the tulips since they were not in season at that time.

    Loved the pics, esp the ones of the lake.
    Here are my pictures of Cheshmashahi incase you want to give it a look.
    http://10yearitch.com/states/jk-states/photo-post-cheshmashahi-garden-srinagar-jk/

    Take care and safe travels!

    Madhu

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