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Jannat-E- Kashmir

Author: Sheetal Suryavanshi

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Asalam walekum chacha – These three magical words did wonders in Kashmir! Yet another adventures solo trip to Jannat-E- Kashmir. At the drop off the hat I decided to go on a hiking trip to explore/discover the valleys of Kashmir and re- discover myself too. The idea of exploring Kashmir got into my mind when I recently was going through an old album of my paternal grandma. She had visited Kashmir in 1950’s and the black & white pics are stunning. I called my friend Kamy (Kameshwari) as she had been to Kashmir few years ago. She was very encouraging and said just go and also gave me the family contact in Phalgham. Her encouraging words gave me confidence to explore the place all by myself. Thank you, Kamy.

I jotted a plan and decided to hike in Yusmarg, Sonmarg and Phalgham, and figured out home stays as well. The day I arrived in Srinagar I got a warm welcome from Anita aunty, the owner of Mahatta homestay. I wanted to visit the places which my grandma had visited in Srinagar. The first place was the Shankracharya hill which is at a hill top (Gopadari hill) and had to climb a flight of 250 steps. I guess when my grandma visited she had to trek to reach the hill top as back then there were no steps.

I wanted to take a picture but photography is strictly prohibited now. I did show the old picture of the Shankracharya temple to the security guards and they were all stunned. They were like, ‘your grandma had a camera in 1950’s’. I said, ‘yes, yes, she was rich and from a royal family .’ One of them said “Appaki Daddi kush hugi ke aap yahan aaye.” I smiled and said, “yes,yes,wherever she is now, she will be glad that her granddaughter has visited a temple :-p.” I bid adieu to them and left to visit other historical places such as Pari Mahal, Hazratbal Darga & Jama Masjid.

Every place had a story to tell! I was wandering in Old Sringar and witnessed pathar bazzi (stone-pelting).From nowhere few kids landed all in masks and started pelting stones on the compounds of the military office and disappeared in few minutes. Well this was indeed an experience. When I checked with the locals why did this happen? Their response was the kids are taking out their anger on the army and old Srinagar is volatile. After this I headed towards Shalimar bhag. I was keen on visiting this place as there were few pictures of this place in my grandma’s album. I headed back to the homestay where I befriended the cook/caretaker who were from Nepal and listened to their stories . It is rightly said that every person you meet has a story you can learn from.

The hiking in the mountains was indeed an awe experience to cherish. The first trek was at Yusmarg,a 14 km trek in the valley. I reached Yusmarg and wanted to hike alone but then I greeted an uncle saying “Asalam walekum chacha” at the starting point. He immediately responded saying, “salaam walekum beeti and said please don’t hike alone. I will accompany you.” Intially I was hesitant as I was not sure but then I agreed. I don’t regret this decision as he was the best company. We hiked talking about the history of Kashmir, his family,about Yusmarg and his view on the braid cutting incident. As we were hiking, there was bright sunlight and started raining too.Chacha said -beti ethu pyar ka musum hai bhaut dineo ke baad aaya hai! I smiled and said hann ethu meri magic hai :-). And as I was hiking, I fell in love with the alluring beauty of the valley and my adrenaline rush too.

After the hiking I enjoyed a cup of khawa chai with the locals/shepherds. I realised that how humble mankind is. Despite living in extreme conditions people greet you with a smile and treat you like a family member.

The second day trek was in Sonmarg! I befriended a chacha who insisted I take a pony ride as it was a long trek. I refused and told him, “no,no,I don’t like to torture animals. I would rather exercise my legs.” He was surprised and asked me, “are you scared of horses! LOL!” I told him, “yes,yes, there is a history. When I was in 7 th grade I had been to Ooty with my parents on a holiday and took a horse ride, which was a horrible experience.” Listening to this he laughed and said, “kya beti  .” I told him I dread to take rides on any animal. I didn’t even go on an elephant/camel ride when I travelled with my friends. We burst out laughing together! And I continued to explore the place on my feet. Viewing the snow-capped mountains was an instant magic. The hike was soul stirring and powerful.

The last leg was at Phalgam. Phew, I have no words to describe! Magical, serene valley, gushing water of Lidder River and freshness overloaded. Enroute (Srinagar to Phalgham) I stopped at Awantipora ruins. As I listened to the history of this beauty it took me to another world and there was a sudden rush of emotions and I had goosebumps. I have always felt that history in institutions have to be taught by visiting the places as it’s an amazing learning experience when one sees and feels the place.

My second pit stop was at Aishmuqam Shrine, which lays on a hill top. The steps were quite steep. I had to climb around 250 plus steps. The shrine is nested in a deep narrow cave. As I entered the cave, I saw a girl crying in pain, as she was finding it difficult to walk. I don’t know what happened to me but seeing her in such excoriating pain I was all teary eyed. As I walked passed her, I could feel her pain and the only one thought that was going on in my mind was “Oh God, please heal this child soon!”. I entered the sanctum and there a baba who was seated made me recite some sacred words in Arabic. In the end, he asked me to make a wish and the only wish I had in my mind that minute was – “Please let the girl get well soon and walk with no difficultly”. Until today I still carry this memory with me and hope that she has recovered and is all smiling.

I left there to continue my journey to Phalgham. Here I was with a joint family, they were eight adults and 12 children. This family reminded me of my childhood days as until 5 th grade I was part of a joint family. I really miss the joint family culture. I was welcomed with the utmost warmth. Here again the family din’t want me to go on a hike alone. So, I was accompanied by Kashmiri bhaiya and four children. I did some hiking in Aru and hanging around in Betab valley.

The highlight was Chandanwari, a stunning place to unwind in the lap of nature and breath-taking views. I felt like there isn’t anything that can truly take your breath away. I wanted to take a stroll in the morning before leaving to Srinagar. While I was walking near the Lidder river stream a chacha who was on his morning walk greeted me by saying walkeum salam beti. my response of aslam walkeum chacha triggered off another interesting conversation. After the walk I was all set to depart to Srinagar. The family gave me a rousing send-off . I was touched by their hospitality.

I left to Srinagar to catch the flight next day to Bangalore. I stayed that night with Anita anuty ji again. We had a lovely conversation, and when she got to know that I run a sports NGO for children from vulnerable background she immediately responded that the children of Kashmir need such training. They lack such life skills. She enquired if I would come back and do some training programs. She said she will have a word with the government. My eyes gleamed with joy and had a big smile on my face and I instantly said yes.

These six days (Oct 6 th to 11 th ) travelling all by myself was an enriching experience like none other. It allowed me to experience the place on my terms and gave me some “ME” time and introspection of my thoughts. Exploring the valleys on feet, staying with the locals, befriending strangers and listening to their stories. Sounds exciting right! Believe me Kashmir is a perfect place for solo travel. It’s a land of hidden jewels and beautiful hearts!

To sum it up, this trip was all about interacting with humans. I felt a deep connect with mankind, and it is an experience I will cherish forever.

I must quote this poem by Amir Khusrow – Kashmir Paradise on Earth!

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast!

English Translation:

If there is a paradise on earth,
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