The hyphenated existence of Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh can be puzzling if you stop to consider the diverse geography, history and culture of the three regions. If Jammu occupies fertile rain-fed north Indian alluvial plains and scenic Himalayan foothills, the lush Vale of Kashmir has cascading mountain rivers, lush valleys and alpine meadows, and Ladakh is a Trans-Himalayan high altitude desert plateau. Jammu and Kashmir are geographically divided by the colossal Pir Panjal Range; an all-weather road connecting the two came up only in the 1950s. And the Great Himalayan Range lies between Ladakh and Kashmir, the two connected by road only in the summer months when the snow on the high Himalayan passes melts, and by air links alone in winter. The Jammu region is predominantly Hindu, the Vale of Kashmir, Muslim and Ladakh, Buddhist. All three became intertwined, thanks to the acquisitive exploits of Jammu’s hardy Dogra rulers, relatively recently, in the 19th century.

Vaibhav Sharma
Naranag Temples
Naranag Temples

The Dogra-united kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir formed the modern Indian state; but even now, in old regal style, its ‘summer capital’ is Srinagar while the ‘winter capital’ is Jammu. And twice a year, between these two cities, 300 km apart, travel the caravans carrying officers and files in a ritual still called the ‘shifting of the Durbar’, as has happened since the 1880s.

For years, Srinagar and its environs provided the most iconic images of a summer holiday in the hills for Indian tourists: houseboats on the Dal Lake — with Shammi, Sharmila and their shikaras making a delicious alliteration — flowers in the Mughal Gardens, the autumnal red glow of the chinar trees and the snowy slopes in the nearby ‘margs’, or meadows. Centuries ago, Kalidas had said of Kashmir: “The place is more beautiful than the heaven and is the benefactor of supreme bliss and happiness. It seems to me that I am taking a bath in the lake of nectar here.”

Nuruddin Fakhruddin Thekedar
The Srinagar-Leh highway approaches the Great Himalayan Range near Sonamarg
The Srinagar-Leh highway approaches the Great Himalayan Range near Sonamarg

But, starting 1989, ‘the Valley’ (the popular name for the Vale of Kashmir), of which Srinagar is the cultural and political nerve centre, has seemed frozen in turbulence, only defined by its recent separatist history. Even as the last couple of years have seen tourists thronging the Valley, and locals seem keen to ‘move on’, the tragedy of Kashmir isn’t a thing of the past. You have to strain to remember that traditionally Kashmir had a remarkable and complex cultural-political history of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and their mutual interaction. In fact, the splendour of this land and its complex history can not be separated — invaders, conquerors and commoners alike have loved and vied for this most beautiful of all Himalayan valleys.

Early History

Kashmir has had a rich past populated by many of the greatest personalities of the Indian sub-continent’s history — Ashoka, Kanishka, Harsha, the Mughals, Ranjit Singh and more. Knowledge of its early history is patchy, and the earliest we can go back is to Burzahom — a site excavated in the 1960s, not far from Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh, that revealed a Neolithic settlement dating back to around 3,000 BCE. Later, more such sites were discovered in the valley. Jump to the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) who is said to have founded the city of Pandrethan, now a suburb of modern Srinagar. According to some scholars, Emperor Kanishka held the third great council of Buddhism in the 2nd century CE at a spot near Burzahom. Around that time, the great Nagarjuna too was here. In the first millennium CE Kashmir was a great centre of Sanskrit and Buddhist scholarship, and became a leading transmitter of Buddhist thought to Ladakh, Tibet, China and Central Asia.

Courtesy J&K Tourism
Tomb of Sultan Zainul-Abidin’s mother, Srinagar
Tomb of Sultan Zainul-Abidin’s mother, Srinagar

With the advent of the Karkota dynasty in the 7th century CE, Kashmir’s story attains better historical authenticity. Lalitaditya (8th century), a great conqueror and a prolific builder, is the star of this line of kings. The Sun Temple of Martand, a new capital at Parihaspora and the temple complex at Naranag, besides numerous warring expeditions are attributed to him. Avantivarman, the first ruler of the Utpala dynasty and the builder of the Avantipora temples (9th century), followed the Karkota dynasty. History next comes up with King Harsha, who ruled Kashmir from 1089 to 1101, though not very successfully. Civil war and political unrest followed. Then came Jaisimha, who was the last of the notable Hindu rulers for a long time, and during whose reign Kalhan, the great historian, composed the Rajtarangani, his celebrated history of Kashmir from the geological period till his time.

Advent of Islam, with a twist

Kashmir then saw a period of incessant feuds, and Mongol and Turkish raids. Islamic rule began in 1320 with, deliciously, a Tibetan Buddhist prince, Rinchin, converting and becoming the first Muslim king of Kashmir! In the early 14th century, a weak ruler called Sahdeva could not stand up to Mongol invaders. At this time, three adventurers, Shah Mir from Swat, Rinchin from Ladakh, and Lankar Chak from near Gilgit came to Kashmir. All were granted jagirs by Sahdeva. Rinchin then succeeded in becoming king for three years. He tried to woo the Hindu authorities and was ready to convert to Hinduism but they did not cooperate. Rinchin then converted to Islam, influenced by Bilal Shah, the first of the notable missionaries to visit Kashmir.

Madhu Kapparath
The Mughal emperors are to date associated with the gardens they built in Srinagar
The Mughal emperors are to date associated with the gardens they built in Srinagar

Sultan Shams-ud-din Shah Mir established the Afghan Shah Miri dynasty in 1339, which ruled Kashmir till 1561. Of the two score kings of this dynasty, three stand out. The reign of the fourth Sultan, Shahab-ud-din, is important for the arrival in Kashmir of the Persian Sufi Syed Ali Hamadani, or Shah Hamadan. Hamadani left his native Iran to avoid Timur’s oppressive reign and visited Kashmir thrice. He was such an energetic proselytiser that many credit him with the spread of Islam in Kashmir — it is said that he converted 37,000 locals in a few days. The notorious Sikandar Butshikan (‘butshikan’ meaning idol breaker), known for persecuting non-Muslims, was the seventh king of the Shah Miri dynasty. He banned celebrations and music, imposed the hated jizia tax on Hindus and destroyed many temples, including the famous Martand Temple. His son, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470) was just the opposite. A scholar famed for his tolerance, Zain-ul-Abidin promoted arts, learning, music and painting. The flourishing of now world famous Kashmiri papier mache, silk work and shawls is also attributed to his time.

A descendant of the 14th century adventurer Lankar Chak established Chak rule in Kashmir in the 16th century, even as the Mughals were making inroads. Chak rule lasted less than two decades, and ended when Akbar imprisoned Yusuf Shah Chak. Yusuf’s lover was the peasant girl Zoon, who became the legendary poetess Habba Khatoon and is said to have roamed the Valley yearning for him. The mountain seperating Kashmir’s Gurez and Talial valleys is named for her.

Sanjay Rawat
Meadows of Daksum
Meadows of Daksum

Later came the Mughal overlords, who were in power in Kashmir from 1587 to 1752, with Jehangir and Shah Jehan to date associated with the gardens they built in Srinagar. Jehangir came to the valley 13 times, and Shah Jehan visited often. Aurangzeb visited only once, but that one visit was enough for the beauty of the Vale to leave a lasting impression on the Emperor.

Towards the end of Aurangzeb’s rule, and even more so after his death, Kashmir, as the rest of northern India, was in turmoil ensuing from the decline of Mughal rule. In 1752, Ahmed Shah Abdali won Kashmir and the Afghans held sway for more than 60 years till Ranjit Singh’s forces established Sikh sovereignty here in 1819.

The Dogra Unifiers

It was then, in the early 19th century, that the coming together of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh began. Jammu’s past had been more low-key till then. During the 12th century, Jammu, Kishtwar, Bhaderwah and Reasi were ruled by sovereign Dogra chieftains. Agnivarna, probably, was the first king of the Dogra dynasty. One of his successors, Raja Jambu Lochana is said to have founded Jammu town. The Dogras became a part of the Sikh kingdom and held respectable positions in Ranjit Singh’s court. However, by now the British had become the pre-eminent power in India. Ranjit Singh’s death in 1830, and the two Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1840s, caused the disintegration of the Sikh power. Gulab Singh, the Dogra ruler who had helped the British in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, was given the hilly lands west of the Ravi and east of the Indus. And the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir was born. Gulab Singh and his rather adventurous general Zorawar Singh then brought many regions, including Ladakh, under the Jammu umbrella.

Krishna Angira
Meadows of Aru 
Meadows of Aru

At the time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the then ruler of Jammu & Kashmir Hari Singh acceded to India after much vacillation, but the contested claims and aspirations of India, Pakistan and the people of the Kashmir Valley were at loggerheads for decades, causing turbulence which erupted towards the end of 1980s. The next two decades were marked by a baffling muddle of separatist militancy, hardline violence, army occupation, dead and missing Kashmiris and the tragic exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. Kashmiri Pandits, a community which draws its roots from the ancient Brahmanical traditions of India, had come to occupy high positions in the Mughal and Dogra courts. Interestingly, the great poet Muhammad Iqbal, one of the leading inspirations of the Pakistan movement, and Jawaharlal Nehru, both had Kashmiri Pandit roots. Iqbal’s family had converted to Islam and emigrated from Kashmir, but he remembered the beauty of Kashmir fondly: Tanam gilay zi khayaban-e-jannat-e-Kashmir — the clay of my body is from the gardens of a paradise called Kashmir.

Courtesy J&K Tourism
The snow covered meadows of Gulmarg — perfect for skiing
The snow covered meadows of Gulmarg — perfect for skiing

Kashmir continues to bear much of this history and many of these scars. The words of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali echo: “Empty? Because so many fled, ran away, and became refugees there, in the plain…” However, Kashmir’s syncretic tradition of Sufi Islam, mystic Shaivism and a common culture of ‘Kashmiriyat’ shared by Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits, with locals often praying at the same shrines, survives and survives well. It is constantly invoked in the discourse on the Valley. The 14th-century saint-poetess Lal Ded (Lalleshwari), from the Srinagar area, was a Shaivite and a Sufi. Sheikh Nooruddin, popularly called Nund Rishi, was a ‘Sufi rishi’ venerated by both Muslims and Hindus. In 1665, Aurangzeb came here to unburden his guilt on the shoulder of a flamboyant Brahmin ascetic, Rishi Pir, for having executed the nudist Armenian-Jewish Sufi, Sarmad. Kashmir is full of these stories, and the monuments that make them manifest. The comforts of history. Aurangzeb was comforted too. Never mind, Rishi Pir told him, Sarmad was too great a man to care about life or death!

For the Visitor

Jammu & Kashmir is not only a land of exuberant mountain streams, thick pine, chir and deodar forests, or the delicious wooden architecture of Srinagar, it is also a land of exquisite old stone temple ruins and the annual migratory patterns of nomadic Bakarwals from the Jammu region. As you explore the hills, sail across the waters of the Dal, or look down from Gulmarg at the Jhelum making her way through the valley she defines, as you are hospitably invited to take a meal with the family of your houseboat owner or learn the history of wood carving from a master, as you embark on a pilgrimage or relax under the pine trees, you sense a complex continuum. The state is too large for the dismal tale of militancy and military occupation alone. It’s brimming with faith, with history and with stunning natural beauty.

Courtesy Kashmir Mart
Revered shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi
Revered shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi

Jammu, the winter capital of the state, falls in the Shivalik Range and straddles the picturesque Tawi River. It has a number of temples, the most famous of them being the Raghunath Temple. Bahu Fort, believed to have been built in Vedic times, is the oldest edifice in the city. Jammu is too low-lying to be a hill station, too much of a city to be a getaway, but is an important stop on the way to Kashmir and for the hugely visited Mata Vaishno Devi cave shrine, which can see a throng of more than 20,000 devotees a day doing the 12-km-long uphill yatra from the base town of Katra.

Jammu is also the gateway to explore the beautiful, less-visited south-western areas of the state, bordering Himachal. Bhaderwah, at 5,500 ft in Doda District, is located among mountains covered with deodar forest. Kishtwar, mostly above 5,300 ft and surrounded by the Pir Panjal and Great Himalayan ranges, is a land of lovely valleys, saffron farms and Bakarwal shepherds. The Chenab flows by the town.

En route from Jammu to Srinagar is the first hill town, Kud, offering great views and sweets, especially the patisa. Patnitop, the highest point along the Jammu-Srinagar highway, is a 20thcentury hill station. It is one of the few places in the Jammu region that receives snowfall in winter and is cool and bracing even in the height of summer.

Your first visual impression of Kashmir, whether you fly over the Pir Panjal range or drive through it via the Jawahar Tunnel, is that of many hues of green — paddy, poplar, pine — glowing in its valleys and hills. And all of it surrounded by white-topped mountains. At the centre is Srinagar, the Beautiful City, at 5,000 ft, entwined around the Jhelum River and a group of lakes, the Dal being the most famous. That unique sight of a township of houseboats on the Dal is the most fascinating aspect of a visit to Srinagar, itself a hypnotic world of labyrinthine alleys and waterways, exquisite wooden architecture and a rather Central Asian air.

Courtesy Kashmir Mart
The Dogra rajas’ Mubarak Mandi Palace and Dogra Art Museum, Jammu
The Dogra rajas’ Mubarak Mandi Palace and Dogra Art Museum, Jammu

A few excursions are required to view the majestic remains of Kashmir’s stone temples. The 8th century Sun Temple at Martand, near Anantnag, was built by the Karkota dynasty king Lalitaditya Muktapid, a towering figure in conquests and building. On the highway to Avantipora from Srinagar, you will find the ruins of two famous temples built by Avantivarman, the first ruler of the 9th century Utpala dynasty of Kashmir.

Most of the gorgeous sights of Kashmir are 2-4 hours from Srinagar. Gulmarg, the meadow of flowers, is ringed by fir trees and snowy peaks with nature walks, pony rides, the gondola cable car and skiing in winter. Pahalgam, once a humble shepherds’ village at the confluence of two streams in the Lidder Valley, is now a popular resort catering to thousands. It is also the base for the annual pilgrimage to the holy Amarnath Cave and its Shivling, at 12,700 ft. Also up from Pahalgam is Aru, serving as a base for treks including to the Kolahoi Glacier. The Brengi River makes another beautiful valley, which has the very rustic and beautiful Daksum; the Kokernag spring and botanical garden; and another spring at Achabal with a Mughal Garden. The valley of Verinag is nearby, from where the Jhelum River originates, right below the Pir Panjal range. In Budgam District are the grassy pastures and dense forests of Yusmarg. Come July, Ganderbal District’s Manasbal Lake charms with lotus in abundance. The beautiful Gurez Valley at 8,000 ft, is on the route that connects the Kashmir Valley to Gilgit. Explore here the culture of Shina-speaking Dards amidst forest-clad slopes set against snowy peaks. On the road from Kashmir to Ladakh, just below the Zoji La pass is Sonamarg, a high-altitude meadow next to the frothy white Sind River (a small tributary of the Jhelum, not to be confused with the Indus).

The Zoji La itself is the gateway to that third legendary region of Ladakh which together with Jammu and Kashmir makes up one of India’s most beautiful states. Welcome to J&K, where the Indian sub-continent meets Central Asia, where the tea is both sweet and salty, where the soft Ladakhi apricot is matched by the crunch of Kashmiri walnuts and the heat of Jammu’s chillies, where the air is sweetened by the call for azaan mixing with chants from monasteries and the tinkling of temple bells. Here, even today, the first-time visitor may recall the words of Sufi poet Amir Khusro that emerged from the lips of Jehangir when he first laid eyes on the Vale of Kashmir — Gar firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast. If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.

Inputs from Kai Friese and Juhi Saklani