Shall I compare Kashmir to a summer’s day? After all, I did visit it just this July to photograph Sukoon Houseboat , when the apricots were plump and ready for picking and the meadows lush green. But as I step out of Srinagar’s airport on an autumn October morning, the same chinar I recall waltzing in a viridescent coat in the summertime breeze is now haloed in gold and embellished with crispy yellowing leaves. Such is how seasons change in Kashmir—viridian becomes sepia, verdant hills become icy mountains, and the artist who has painted Kashmir on a canvas befriends an entirely different palette.
This time too I pick up a fallen chinar leaf (today it is a pale yellow, then it was an olive green) with the intent to frame it beside its ancestor on my apartment wall, for both comparison and poetry.
J&K Tourism has invited me to showcase its autumnal garb. With my camera in tow and a three-day timeframe, I intend to make every still breathtaking. The mustard canopy showers me with leaves even as I drive to the home of fairies, Pari Mahal—a Mughal terrace-garden built by Shah Jahan’s son, Dara Shikoh, privileged by its Zabarwan range backdrop and its promises of the best vistas of Srinagar. I was here in July too, when the vantages recalled Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses. Today it is more of the sombre Autumn Landscape (also a Van Gogh), but livelier.
While Pari Mahal is a bit fantastic, Nishat Bagh is a garden of joy. Built by the Dal in 1633 CE by Nur Jahan’sbrother Asaf Khan, the place is an ode to postcard-perfect Kashmir, the kind flaunted by films such as Jab Tak Hai Jaan. I see children cavort about fountains, families picnicking beneath poplars, and the absence of both the cacophony and the humdrum of city life. And when I visit the Dal at sunset, I no longer find the familiar mist and the many shades of blue—but the substitute yellow is, quite literally, photography gold. It is under the reddening sky left behind by a dimming sun that I take in the view of a distant hill, then a lake and then a far-off bridge. Just at that moment, a shikara floats into my frame and all these elements together give me a perfect shot.
The next day, it is a three-hour drive to Pahalgam. Ask any photographer about the joy of watching a splendid landscape fly by your window as you scan every frame and assess whether it is worthy of your lens—rather, if you are worthy of it. The same drive was warmer in the summer, but I still stick my head out the window and kiss the sweet air that now smells of apples, something that wasn’t there then. (With each season, you lose some and you win some.)
From Pahalgam, it is on to Aru valley. My driver navigates carefully through hairpin bends and I imagine being seated in a comfortable camper with a cosy couch, sipping kahwa and savouring the view. Minutes later, my dream comes true in the form of a suitably warm, nutty cup enjoyed by the valley-side. I sit watching how at one end the sunlight seems to turn every leaf it sees a shade of yellow, as if burning them, and at another the chilly expanse of a snow peak makes for the background—‘fire in the valley and ice on the peaks’.
A little later, I befriend a handsome pony. I am sad to realise that come winter, when tourists are scarce, he will become merely a plaything for children, enslaved by the cold. But winter in Kashmir, surely, isn’t only harsh and gloomy. Come snowfall, every Kashmiri village becomes a winter sports venue.
The next day as I take the cable car from Gulmarg up to Kongdori mountain (approx. 3,000m), the higher Apharwat peak seems to be just a stone’s-throw away. This is the closest I get to the snow, and dreams of scampering about powder. I sit on a boulder and try to touch the peaks. I’m not able to—not this time. But then again, if autumn comes, can winter be far behind?