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Kashmir - The authors’ take
Livestock such as these bulls in the Zanskar Valley are an essential part of the J&K economy and a feature of the rural landscape © Maximum Exposure Productions 2013
The war is over, and the people and their culture have survived. Now is the time for them to again celebrate what they have, to share it with others, and to do so with justified pride.
Whether you were fortunate enough in times gone by to be a Mughal emperor, a civil servant of the Raj, a hippie on the hippie trail, or are a modern visitor discovering Kashmir now for the very first time, you cannot fail to be impressed: the incredible beauty of the natural landscapes, the richness of the history and the warmth and diversity of the people get deep under your skin and linger on your mind long after you have had to leave. Standing on the veranda of the Vivanta by Taj, looking down across Dal and Nagin lakes with Hari Parbat peaking up through the mist, the sunlight glinting on the water as a solitary shikara paddles by, brings a lump to your throat. If there is heaven on earth, can it be anywhere else but here?
The geographical scope of this guide is the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), a vast stretch of northern India encompassing lands from the plains of Jammu, up through the Kashmir Valley to Srinagar, and east through the mountainous landscapes of Ladakh. Although a successor to the princely state of the same name, this earlier, far larger territory has been divided as a result of 20th century conflicts, and has only recently emerged from a period of extreme trauma: the damage to the land, the economy and, most importantly, the people, has been severe. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, there is justifiable optimism for a far brighter future.
Ladakh and Zanskar, virtually unknown to visitors in the 1980s, benefited from the troubles in the Kashmir Valley as tourists looked for new areas to explore. The much-improved road infrastructure would not have materialised if it weren’t for military demand, and now that the army presence is decreasing, this physical legacy is proving a great boon for tourists eager to explore the likes of the Nubra Valley, the Dardic villages around Dha-Hanu, and the breathtaking turquoise southern lakes.
Any guests fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of hospitality here will realise, like generations before them, that Kashmir is indeed a slice of heaven on earth.
The fall-off of foreign visitor numbers also encouraged J&K’s travel agents and hoteliers to work hard to appeal to India’s domestic tourist market. Family-friendly resort hotels have already popped up in the hill stations along the Kashmir Valley; the railway network is being extended and will ultimately reach as far as Srinagar; and better transport links and hotel accommodation have already been built around key Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites.
The state’s director of tourism, Talat Parvez, is taking a proactive approach to both development and promotion, ensuring there is a new generation of activities and attractions, from urban cable cars to boat clubs, visitor centres to eco-reserves, to widen the state’s appeal and reinforce the message that J&K is once again fully open for business.
Ajaz Khar, our friend at Chicago Houseboats in Srinagar, has a clear vision for what he would like to see happening in his homeland. ‘We want peace to continue in Kashmir, so that travellers will come again to appreciate the wonders of our gorgeous mountains and valleys, and so that our indigenous craft s can continue, and our business can thrive,’ he says. ‘We look forward to sharing with others our easy-going spirituality, our joy in musical and poetic evenings, our love of good food and good company. Mostly, like others in the world, we want our families to remain stable, our children to be educated, happy and properly fed, and our land to be respected again for its tremendous beauty.’
Though Ajaz expresses this unusually eloquently, it is a view shared by ordinary people across J&K, and most fervently in the valley itself. The war is over, and the people and their culture have survived. Now is the time for them to again celebrate what they have, to share it with others, and to do so with justified pride. Any guests fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such hospitality will realise, like generations before them, that Kashmir is indeed a slice of heaven on earth.
The crowds were biblical in proportion, and the scene could well have been described in the Gospels. Unable to reach the assembly grounds by vehicle, we left the road and followed on foot the thousands of families picking their way first across the dusty plain and then through the higgledy-piggledy, lowrise alleyways of Choglamsar. Fathers carried children upon their shoulders; mothers guided elderly relatives by the hand, while balancing their picnics, umbrellas and rugs on their backs or under an arm. Huge numbers of people were moving across the landscapes, striding out with a feeling of purpose, of expectation and excitement.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, there is justifiable optimism for a far brighter future.
When we arrived, the grounds were already full, the grass invisible beneath a sea of picnic blankets, people and their parasols. The sun beat down, and we found the corner of a blanket to share, the good-natured hubbub of voices all around.
And then he began to speak. You could have heard a pin drop. Tens of thousands of faces all turned to the lectern where the Dalai Lama stood, hanging on his every word. Loudspeakers relayed his message in Ladakhi, in Tibetan and in English, and for the next two hours, he preached. We were utterly transfixed.
Before coming to J&K we’d had little exposure to Buddhism, at least not in its living sense. The statuary and the gompas are undoubtedly striking, but it was the gentle spirituality of the people that made the greatest impression. Religion here is a central component of life: Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam each has had a profound impact on the way of life in different parts of the state. Faith permeates everyday actions here, and it prompted us to look at ourselves and reflect on our own values in a way that was quite unexpected.