The road from Jammu to Kashmir that’s used by most motorists is brand new. Yes, it was built in 1960, but considering that Emperor Ashoka is said to have established Srinagar and that traffic has been moving from the Indian plains to the Kashmir valley from before the time of Christ, NH1A is a spanking new tarmac.
Ironically, an even fresher tarmac lies on the old Imperial Road, which has been recently renovated, widened and refurbished for motor vehicles. It was a dirt track before.
This is the route that the Mughal Emperors and the Imperial Mughal Army took to get from Delhi to Srinagar via Lahore. It is a road that zigzags up the sides of the Pir Panjal range, cresting it at 11,450 feet at an astoundingly beautiful pass called the Pir Ki Gali, before descending into the Vale of Kashmir at the idyllic town of Shopian. Sparingly used and as yet untouched by commerce, this road can truly, with a little imagination, take you on a mental walkabout back to the 16th century. Highlights of the timeline would be 1586, when Akbar with his army, which included a regiment of 1,500 towering scimitar-tusked armoured elephants, and technologically advanced Turkish cannons, stomped up this road for the conquest of Kashmir.
With Kashmir within the empire, Jehangir reaped the fruit of daddy’s blood, sweat and toil, as his entourage strolled up this road in leisurely fashion, the elephants now ambling along in mufti, for his annual summer vacation to the valley.
The Mughal Road up the Pir Panjal actually started in Gujrat (now in Pakistan) and travelled to Bhimber (just across the border in India), from where it went to Rajouri. Then it crossed a place called Chingus. This is a nondescript villge, but off the main road, in the forest, lies its connection with history. The Chingus serai (resthouse) is one of the many medieval Mughal serais built on this road. On Monday, November 8, 1627, Jehangir died here en route to Delhi. The wily Noor Jehan embargoed the news of the emperor’s death and had his innards (chingus in Persian) removed and buried at the serai. He was then embalmed and placed upon his elephant to ride into Delhi creating the illusion that he was still alive.
A little ahead on this route is the Noori Chamb, a waterfall. Noor Jehan used to frolic under the cool glacial water to wash away the grimy dust of the plains and, according to local legend, Jehangir would often use a strategically placed mirror to keep a lusty eye on her under the waterfall while he merrily bubbled away on his aromatic hookah.
From Rajouri the road twists and turns down to Bafliaz on the banks of the Poonch river and then starts the truly majestic ascent to the Pir Ki Gali. Legend has it that in June 326 BCE, Alexander’s beloved horse, Bucephalus, died here from injuries sustained in the battle against Porus, which put an end to Alexander’s dreams of world conquest.
The route from Bafliaz to Shopian has been recently reconstructed into a wide and smooth motorable road and traversing it is simply uplifting. The snow views will make any plain-dweller sigh in appreciation. Pir Ki Gali is almost always peppered with snow and ice. A couple of well-preserved serais come up after the pass, the most impressive of which is the Aliabad serai. It’s an easy walk down to it but a wheezing slog back up, but despite the exertion, it is worth it.
This road covers about 340km from Jammu to Srinagar via Akhnoor, Chingus and Shopian, and takes a good 8 hours if you’re going to stop often. Start early from Jammu to get to Sringar by evening or vice versa. There’s a lot of security presence on this road. You will need to register car and passenger details often, so carry all vehicle documents and personal ID. Be prepared for the altitude, and do stop as often as you can to enjoy the beauty of this road.