The thing to do in Achabal is to retreat to the Mughal Garden, dip your feet in the cool spring around whose waters the garden is laid out, and roll some Persian words on your tongue. Nashiman: the platforms to sit on in the water’s company. Jadwal or juyee: the canals that carry water from the main spring….Persian is called for because the art of gardening — among many other customs and cultures — was brought to Kashmir by the Shah Miri Sultanate, many members of which were immigrants from Persia. The pattern of the garden that you see around you — terraces and fountains and trees set around a central water channel — is that of the Persian pleasure gardens. Later, Mughal royalty refined this art and took it to greater heights. Mughals themselves were of Turko-Mongol origins but Humayun had spent the years of his exile from India in Persia, and he and his successors carried the imprint of that culture throughout their rule.

Sanjay Rawat
Noor Jehan’s garden
Noor Jehan’s garden

Achabal itself is a small town, just a short drive from the clamour of Anantnag. It’s justifiably famous for its garden, one of the most beautiful examples of a Kashmiri Mughal garden, playing out the symphony of water, wood and stone. Another treat in store at Achabal is an excursion to Chattabal, reached by a drive through the gorgeous Kashmiri countryside, where you can sit beside a pristine river flowing through a secluded valley. It is also the best base for a leisurely visit to Martand, home to Kashmir’s most famous ancient temple.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Not many tourists reach Achabal and there is not much to distract you from your reverie. You can stay close to the garden, eat in a restaurant which has its own charming garden right across the road and go for pleasant walks and drives.

Sanjay Rawat
The beautiful Chattabal valley
The beautiful Chattabal valley

Achabal Garden

It would seem that no ruler could resist the temptation of converting Kashmir’s wooded hills, ample water and fecund soil into orchard gardens and vatikas. What existed on this site before today’s garden, even before the Shah Miris and the Mughals arrived, was what else but a garden. Nilmat Purana, an ancient Hindu text, is said to have mentioned a spring by the name of Achapal Nag here. Coincidentally, it was a king named Achshan who settled Achabal and the region around it. According to some historians, this is not a coincidence and Achabal is a corruption of that very king’s name. In the 15th century, Achabal was famous for an orchard.

In any case, now the Achabal Garden is very much a Mughal Garden with a known provenance. It was built in 1620 by Empress Noor Jehan and named Begumabad in her honour. Though Jehangir himself had not laid this garden, it has yet another name, after him — Sahebabad. The garden is laid with a hill in the background, whose rocks and trees are juxtaposed beautifully with the stone and tree of the garden. A spring comes out of a few places from under the hill; the water flows in a canal and branches (jadwal) through the garden. Platforms (nashiman) and pavilions (baradari) sit along the course of the water. Faithful to the Persian concept of chahar bagh, it is quadripartite, with walkways lined with trees and flowers.

The garden laid out at the time of Noor Jehan was much bigger than what we see today. It had four terraces and a number of buildings; there were pools, cascades and water channels. Later a hammam was added to the garden in the 17th century by Jehanara Begum, the oldest daughter of Shah Jehan. Most likely, the area around the present-day garden was all part of the bigger enclave. Afterwards, the garden deteriorated and it was only in the 19th century, during the reign of Ranjit Singh, that it was restored and rebuilt.

Courtesy J&K Tourism
The 8th century Sun Temple, Martand
The 8th century Sun Temple, Martand

Walking around in the garden, the quantity of water from the springs at the far end will surprise you. Around you will be giant chinars, a rich green in summer and a glowing red if it’s autumn; bushes and flowers sitting pretty in the orderly beds underneath; a hill behind packed with pine trees; and a few locals having their daily communion with nature. The cluster of chinar trees over the spring and the pines on the hill behind make it almost dark. There is a walking path up the hill through the forest to the Nagdandi Ashram and there are plans to develop it as a small trek.

Nagdandi Ashram

About 1½ km from the Achabal Garden (after a sign-boarded right turn on the road to Naugam) lies the Vivekanand Nagdandi Ram Krishna Ashram among dense woods, which you can walk through. There’s also a pond with ducks here. Swami Vivekananda had visited Achabal in 1898.

Trout Farm

Close to the main market chowk in Achabal is a Trout Breeding Farm run by the J&K Fisheries Department (Web: jkfisheries.in). You can see the fish in its various stages of growth and buy some if you like.

Martand Sun Temple

Martand is a most rewarding visit for anyone interested in Kashmiri heritage. Possibly the most famous of all Hindu temples in Kashmir, this 8th-century Surya Temple was built by Lalitaditya Muktapid, the most powerful monarch of the Karkota dynasty, and is generally considered a masterpiece, not least for its crossover of indigenous and classical Corinthian styles. The temple is dramatically located on a hilly plateau with a backdrop of the snowy Pir Panjal peaks and looking over the Kashmir valley. Here “stand the ruins of a temple second only to the Egyptians in massiveness and strength, and to the Greeks in elegance and grace…”, said an impressed Sir Francis Younghusband. The choreography of carved stone, elegant pillars, and graceful arches is a pleasure to behold.

To get to Martand, drive back up NH1B to Anantnag and catch the Apple Orchard Road to Martand, 10 km all told.

Chattabal

Chattabal, 16 km east of Achabal, makes for a lovely excursion. The drive to Chattabal is utterly enchanting — you get to see the off-the-highway face of Kashmir. Village after small village with houses surrounded by greenery, fields, orchards and forested hillsides watered by numerous streams. Chattabal is a scenic out-of-the-way spot where the Chattabal River flows through an open valley, while snow-covered peaks loom over the end of the valley. Fern, willow and chestnut paint the hillside close to the riverbed a lightish green, whereas pine in the upper reaches lend a darker hue. Carry a packed lunch and have it next to the gurgling river. You might meet a group of nomadic Bakarwals on their way up from the Jammu region.

J&K Tourism (Mobile: 09906577055; Tariff: ₹500) has two huts here with two rooms each. The caretaker will cook for you, but inform them in advance for them to arrange provisions.

From Achabal, drive to Chattabal via Naugam and Chattargul. A taxi will cost ₹1,100-1,600 for a return trip.

TIP The road to Chattabal is narrow and bumpy. It’s best to take a 4WD

Shopping in Anantnag

Anantnag town is well known for its traditional handicrafts. Apart from producing lathe-turned and lacquered woodwork — ladles, rice measures, bedsteads and other objects — you will find carpets woven in wool and silk. Anantnag is particularly famous for embroidered pashmina shawls and pherans using traditional patterns and techniques such as sozni, crewel and zari embroidery.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

A couple of minutes’ walk from the garden, JKTDC’s Alpine Hotel (Mobile: 09797027927; Tariff: ₹4,000) has one 2-room hut. Next door, J&K Tourism has 6 doubles (Tariff: ₹500) but without attached bath.

JKTDC runs a cafetaria called Zaiqa right across from the Mughal Garden. You can eat here or an attendant can deliver the food to your room. The cafetaria has omelette, toast and parantha for breakfast; pakoras and kebabs as snacks; and rogan josh, rishta, kaddu yakhni and dal for meals. The glass-walled cafetaria is set in its own garden that seems inspired by the royal garden across the road. Its chestnut trees give it a different character. You can eat inside or on the grass outside.

FAST FACTS

When to go April to September is the main season

Tourist Office

J&K Tourism,  Office of the Tourism Officer, Next to Achabal Garden, Achabal, Mobile: 09906815898 (Mr Shafkat), STD code 01932

GETTING THERE

Location At 5,535 ft, the small town of Achabal is located a small distance from the bustling commercial centre of Anantnag in Anantnag District, on the way to Brengi Valley

Distances 67 km SE of Srinagar, 10 km SE of Anantnag JOURNEY TIME By Road 2½ hrs from Srinagar, 40 mins from Anantnag

Route from Srinagar NH1A to Khanabal via Pandrethan, Pampore and Avantipora, NH1B to Achabal via Anantnag 

Air Nearest airport: Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar (77 km/2 hrs/ Tel: 0194-2303000/ 31), connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu by Air India, SpiceJet, Indigo and Go Air. Pre-paid taxis cost ₹1,800 to Achabal, one way

Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu (255 km/7 hrs). Taxi to Achabal is approx ₹4,500

Road From Srinagar, follow the well-maintained Srinagar-Jammu NH1A past Pampore, Avantipora and over the Sangam Bridge till Khanabal. A short way into Khanabal is the Degree College on the left. Here, NH1A turns right to Jammu; you must continue straight on NH1B. A kilometre ahead, just across Khanabal Bridge, is Khanabal Point, where NH1B too turns right. Take the right (the straight road goes to Pahalgam via northern Anantnag City) and follow NH1B through southern Anantnag City and onward to Achabal

TIP Many important roads converge at Khanabal-Anantnag, so double check you are on the road towards Achabal