It was a two day drive from Manali to Srinigar, and most of the second day we were driving in Kashmir on the heavily guarded N1, with tanks, police machine gun posts and truck loads of Indian soldiers on permanent convoys along the road. This route just had to be kept open for political reasons.
The Foreign & Colonial Office advice at the time was only travel to Srinigar by plane , however, friend and tour operator Abid assured me that driving up highway 1 or N1 was perfectly safe. These days the FCO advises against all travel in and to Kashmir.
Any insurgents who made it from the border to the highway would have attacked the Indian soldiers first and not a passenger car anyway. That’s what we told ourselves. As the world one can safely visit becomes smaller each year, and as there are more conflicts starting than are solved, there might never be another chance to visit Kashmir.
The best place to see the Valley is from the Shankaracharya Temple on top of the Zabarwan Mountain. From this ancient Hindu temple in Srinigar one can see a great part of Kashmir valley. Mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas, on three sides and the lake in front with it’s multi coloured boats. I am not sure if I had mini Stendhal moment because of the beauty of the view or I was feeling a little light headed after the 250 steps to the top; but the prospect in front of me sparked a desire to explore.
The Kashmir valley has been settled since Neolithic times and one can only wonder what man and woman, over 5,000 years ago thought of this paradise, an amazingly fertile and lush valley with lakes, a river and surrounded by mountains. I can understand why early man needed a plethora of gods to attribute the creation of all this beauty, one would not be enough.
I can comprehend why the Mughal’s called Kashmir ‘Paradise on Earth’, coming from their usual hot dry homelands. Here they laid out a series of formal gardens, amongst them the famous Shalimar Garden, fed by Himalayan streams and nurtured by perfect weather. These gardens are full of beautiful flowers, trees and shrubs. The valley is famous for tulips. There were a few Indian tourists, a perfect place for a honeymoon perhaps, and keeping a watchful eye were the armed soldiers.
Although I try not to read about places I visit beforehand, other peoples views often cloud how one actually sees a place, but visiting Kashmir one arrives with with a number preconceptions. The bloody conflict between Hindus and Muslims and the days of hippies on houseboats in the seventies the most notable.
I have friends who had stayed in Kashmir back in the seventies and listened to stories of houseboats, hippies and cheap weed. I’m surprised it wasn’t free as by the side of the road on the drive up to Kashmir enormous clusters of marijuana plants grew wild. A weed indeed.
The houseboats are still there and at around £10-20 a night for a double room they are still cheap and the tranquil life on Dal Lake watching the boat traffic glide by is one of the best ways to pass ones day.
These days though there are no hippies to be seen, in fact I saw no western tourists at all.
6The big elephant in the valley so to speak, is the presence of the Indian army and the often fatal riots. It is something that once known dictates the way one sees everything in Kashmir.
But more of that later.
The absence of tourists means the old town of Srinigar has reverted to its pre tourism state with locals a little surprised to see westerners.
Shops are for the inhabitants not the tourists who don’t come anymore and small businesses thrive with a shoe shop next to blacksmiths, an embroidery shop next a tea merchant, instead of tourist shops. Watching carpet weavers in a local factory, working on old wooden frames in time long tradition is mesmerising.
Here it is the men who embroider and weave, age old skills passed down from father to son.
The old town of Srinigar has some spectacular Mosques.
My favourite is the Khanqah Shah Hamdan Mosque, a beautiful building quintessentially kashmiri,
important for the beautiful and intricate traditional wood carvings and painted green exterior.
There was a relaxing atmosphere as I joined the locals enjoying the late afternoon sun while drinking sweet tea that was being given to everyone in the Mosque’s courtyard. Lots of smiles all round.
Dal Lake is a remnant of a post-glacial lake and is classified as sub tropical covering 20 sq kilometres to a depth of between 2.5 to 8 metres.
It is important to the region for fishing, water plant production and tourism with one end lined with carved wooden houseboats.
The essential tour on a shikara lake boat takes one to the many backwaters where kashmiris live on houseboats as well as brick constructions on banks of land. The fresh fruit and vegetable seller calls on all these little backwaters where also there are floating general stores and even a floating tourist emporium.
Life is lived on the river banks with groups of men in the early evening smoking shishas and whewing the fat. Gliding through these little rivers, where all traffic is by boat where it is so quiet that a fish breaking the surface is a loud disturbance. Dal Lake is sometimes called the Venice of the East.
The last 30 years has seen an explosion of both insurgent and domestic attacks on the Indian Army, mostly as a retaliation for a hardline and bloody approach from Delhi.
“The trouble with the English, is that they don’t know their history, because so much of it happened overseas”( Rushdie). Here’s a shortened modern history of Kashmir.
The British desire for a quick handover of India after the second World War lies at the root of Kashmir’s current situation.
It isn’t easy to get to the bottom of why the British forced through partition in 1947, rather than the planned June 1948, and in Kashmir’s situation has led to another 75,000 deaths since.
Throw the stupidity of Mountbatten, right wing Hindu ideology, Nehru’s desire to keep Kashmir with an 80+% Muslim population within India’s borders and Kashmiri muslim’s desire for an Independent state, into a big pot with not a sane man to be seen and you have today’s mess.
Each continues with the same propaganda. The British ignore it, Pakistan wants it, Kashmiris want independence and the BJP will kill to keep hold of it.
Kashmir is another of the end of colonialism fiascos. Mountbatten was chosen as he was perceived as sympathetic towards the new labour government, but he was a weak man and frankly the worst possible choice.
His wife Edwina, the ‘notoriously promiscuous vicereine’, shortly after their arrival started an affair with Nehru, who having been born in Kashmir was determined to keep Jammu and Kashmir in the then planned partitioned India. Edwina put pressure on her husband to acquiesce to Nehru’s plans for India. Both disliked the Muslim leader Jinnah, who was the only player who supported Britain during the Second World War.
The path that Mountbatten went down against the advice of Ghandi, and bringing forward partition by nearly a year without new borders between India and Pakistan being discussed led not only today’s continuing violence in Kashmir but to the mutual genocide that resulted from a hasty British withdrawal from India.
For Nehru fate stepped in when when the Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh fearful of a Muslim takeover ordered his forces to fire upon demonstrations in favour of Kashmir joining Pakistan, burned whole villages and massacred innocent people.
Under Hindu rule the muslim majority suffered oppression in the form of high taxes, unpaid forced labor and discriminatory laws. Consequently a revolt began in the Poonch region against oppressive taxation by the Maharajah who promptly appealed to Nehru and Mountbatten for help.
This seems to be the key moment in Kashmir history..Mountbatten with Nehru would help as long as Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India. Once the Instrument of Accession was signed the Indian army moved in, and has been there ever since. The United Nations was involved in arbitrating the dispute and after cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of Pakistan troops,India would then have to appoint a plebiscite administrator nominated by the United Nations who would conduct a free and impartial plebiscite.
India has never allowed a referendum on the Independence of Kashmir. Indian intransigence
Karen Sinh , Hari Singh’s son, born Cannes now resident and corrupt Board member of the Aurobindi ashram is a Senator trying to push controversial article 35a on Jammu & Kashmir , disenfranchising women and giving Hindis more residency property rights. Read my blog on Pondicherry and the scandal at the ashram. https://mickjennings.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/pondicherry-a-beautiful-city-and-scandals-at-aurobindo-ashram/
The Kashmir valley is achingly beautiful, the peace of Dal Lake and the colours of the sky and mountains ..could have stayed longer much longer.
The History of India by Burton Stein
Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin
By Akbar S. Ahmed
Thanks to Andie.