There are three kinds of prevalent roadblocks that encapsulate old and new life in Kashmir. The first are troop movements in winding convoys that routinely hold up civilian life in the cities and the outskirts, so that getting out of Srinagar, for example, is a bit like timing the Delhi-Gurgaon commute. The traffic snarls can be humongous at peak periods. The second is the rush of tourist traffic—so huge that the relatively new airport can barely cope. Prominent among the holidaying hordes are platoons of those two intrepid tribes—Gujaratis and Bengalis—posing among the peonies in Kashmiri costume at the Shalimar or Pari Mahal gardens, or shrieking as their ponies break into a canter leaving a trail of faecal stink. They present a caricature of inter-generational families: the young women shout orders at ghodawallahs while sari-clad grannies bring up the rear, riding side-saddle like Victorian duennas.
The third migration is a more enduring sight, as ageless as the Alpine meadows and swift steams of the Zabarwan and Pir Panjal mountains. This is the slow, graceful train of the Guj-jar and Bakarwal nomads, pastoralists who begin their annual summer trek from the Poonch-Rajouri region of Jammu up into the highlands of the Valley and start their descent as the chinars turn to autumnal gold. This eternal life cycle of mountain shepherds and cattle breeders, a pageant familiar since childhood summers, never fails to move me.
Pahalgam has always seemed to me the archetype of a one-horse town—a Hollywood studio of fake shop fronts transported to Himalayan heights. But now there is Trout Beat, unquestionably the best fresh trout restaurant in the country, Dana Pani, a good north Indian vegetarian, and the spanking new Sagar has just opened with idli-dosa-sambar and filter coffee on offer from 9 am.
But the premier establishment is the immaculately-kept Pahalgam Hotel, with its exquisite garden overlooking the Lidder river, a menu of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine and Shepherds Craft, a fine shop that bears the name of an NGO run by the hotel-owner’s daughter. For many years, Ramneek Kaur has been promoting the crafts of the Gujjar and Bakarwal women; she runs a community centre for the adivasis and explains the difference between the two—their distinct livestock, encampments and grazing lands. The women forage among wild grasses, herbs and roots to cook fresh meals. “Hamein Allah khaana deta hai, hum kyun bazaar ki sabzi khareeden?” they tell her. (“When Allah gives us food, why should we buy market vegetables?”)
Visitors I ran into from Mumbai and Chennai grumbled about being ripped off for pony rides to the soiled snowline in Sonmarg, or queue-jumping the cable car in Gulmarg, incongruously called a ‘gondola’. If only they left those for off-the-beaten-track forays they would be better rewarded—there are haunts like the magnificent 7th century ruins of King Lalitaditya’s pre-Islamic capital at Paraspore on an acropolis above the Jhelum 22 km north of Srinagar.
Of course, some of the treasures in Kashmir are hard to find. Like the spectacular remains of the Martand temple: the dance sequence in Haider downplays the stark beauty of this site to unfortunate effect. Also in Anantnag at Achabal—a couple of hours outside Srinagar—is the splendid spring-fed Mughal garden laid out by empress Nurjahan in 1620. It was later tended by Shah Jahan’s two favourite children—Dara Shikoh and Jahanara. There was not a tourist in sight on a recent weekend: only Kashmiri families picknicking under the dense shade of chinars, in the midst of the perfume of flowering roses along the cascades and sprinkling fountains. All of it together made a memorable sight.
A visitor’s common but heartfelt quandary is the search for a clean public loo. The worst-kept is at Srinagar airport. “Not for Staff” reads the sign but it is packed with J&K police and CRPF jawans. Its stink adds to the nightmare of leaving Srinagar—a cacophony of hollering porters, mile-long security checks and helpless airline staff buffeted about, like passengers, by stengun-toting soldiers. It sums up the confusion of ‘Kashmir management’: there are simply too many agencies trying to run the place.
But here’s the good news: the best loo in downtown Srinagar is at the smartly-refurbished Ahdoos restaurant. Ahdoos has always offered clean rooms, fine cooking and a reliable bakery. But now its first-floor toilet is the best-kept secret on Residency Road.
I found that army convoys and tourist buses aren’t the only roadblocks to be wrestled with in Kashmir—there is another, more ancient movement that allows one to be witness to a timeless migration.
Delhi-based editor and columnist Sunil Sethi hosted a weekly literary show on NDTV for eight years
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