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Tread Softly, O Traveller
For Kashmiris, the way from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad is more than just a road. It's nostalgia, romance, the mystery of the unknown and above all, the way back to wholeness. Its history goes back all the way to 1881, when the Dogra ruler Maharajah Pratap Singh embarked on a royal road connecting his kingdom to the rest of the world, up to Rawalpindi. He began building the ambitious road from the outermost tip of his kingdom in Kohala to his capital Srinagar.
It took the maharaja nine years to build one of the most picturesque highways of history, winding through 186 km of snow-capped Himalayas. It was for the exclusive use of royal entourage. But the needs of commerce and trade were too great to resist. By 1892, the road was carrying everything from families to silk and fruit.
By the early 1930s, the first cars began to appear on the refurbished road, but tongas and bullock carts were still the most popular mode of travelling. A whole generation of Kashmiris have grown up on grandfatherly tales of travelling on this road. Raja Hussain Khan, 95, still regales his children and grandchildren with the trip he took from his hometown in Muzaffarabad to Srinagar when he was only 10. He travelled with half-a-dozen other students wanting to join middle school in Srinagar. "It used to take us three or four days to get from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar. The bullocks trudged on while even the drivers dropped off to sleep."
Over a century, roadside towns came up and blossomed—Pattan, Baramulla, Uri, Chakoti, Muzaffarabad, until the LoC converted the road into two halves, leading nowhere, leaving a once bustling town like Uri as a dead end.