Jammu and Kashmir is India’s northernmost state, bordering Pakistan and China’s Tibetan Plateau. In 1947, India’s independence gave rise to a territorial dispute between India, Pakistan and China. This extended wrangling over land rights escalated into three wars between India and Pakistan and many armed clashes with militant separatists and insurgents. Suffice to say, no traveller will be faulted for imagining a war-ravaged countryside at the mention of Kashmir. Yet the reverse is true. Kashmir remains a scenic and culturally-rich tourism destination, whose peace is interrupted by sporadic fighting.
War-Torn Kashmir: How It Started
It all began with the complicated task of drawing the India-Pakistan borders in 1947. Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state with a Hindu Maharaja, dallied in her affiliation. A tribal army from Pakistan, intent on establishing their rights to the territory marched into the state. Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, would have fallen into their hands had it not been for Maharaja Hari Singh’s request for assistance from the Indian army.
The Instrument of Accession was signed; signalling the beginning of Kashmir’s repeated debate as an Indian state. These conflicts have taken a war-torn toll on the population; at the expense of the lives of tens of thousands.
The Current Political Situation In Kashmir
In August 2019 the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued the unprecedented order of cancelling the right to a Hindu pilgrimage at the Amarnath Cave Shrine in Kashmir and ordered all tourists to leave the territory. Preceded by the mobilisation of more Indian troops into the valley, Kashmir then began an indefinite lockdown period.
Kashmir enjoyed relative autonomy accorded by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. These were matters relating to permanent residency, ownership of property and fundamental rights. Article 370 sought to prohibit Indians from outside the state from purchasing property or settling in the region.
In October 2019, Article 370 was abrogated. The parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. Hence, dividing the territories of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir into two – the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Union Territory of Ladakh.
The Dream Of Kashmir
Over a year ago, The Star, a popular Malaysian daily, published the chronicles of my Kashmir adventure in the Star Online. It was titled, “Malaysian Women Journeyed Through War-Torn Kashmir”. I smiled broadly at how heroic it all sounded.
Mona and I zeroed in on Kashmir without even entertaining such thoughts. We were just harbouring on the longing of a dream fulfilled. At that time it did not occur to me that I was planning to visit one of the most militarised regions in the world.
It was the lure of the diverse landscape; the expanse of the fields and forests, the sights of mountain peaks at every-which-way-you turn and the often glimmering waters of the rivers and lakes. And yes, we had sought the experience of lodging in a houseboat on the lake.
Kashmir’s Typical Old-World Charm
Our eight-day sojourn in the valley included the experience of the old-world charm of her summer capital, Srinagar. There, we had the run of a houseboat, The Ambassador, moored on Dal Lake. Ours was elaborate, replete in the grandeur of chandeliers, walnut wood carvings, embroidery and chintz furnishing; seemingly frozen in the British Raj era of the 1930s. At that time, the Maharaja prohibited the British from owning land; houseboats by the lakes in Kashmir made its presence and became a cultural feature of the city.
The Dream Of Dal Lake
The all encompassing images of Srinagar are often ones of the houseboats on Lakes Dal and Nigeen and the colourful shikaras that line the shores. These brightly painted boats are with awnings, perfect for one to recline in the shade as you cruise the lake. I loved the gentle glide away from the banks, slowly distancing from the hustle of Boulevard Road. There really was eventual peace as the constant honks of the vehicles became increasingly inaudible. A sense of calmness pervaded with the swishing sounds of paddle to water. Everything seemed a world-away. There was not even a notion of war-torn Kashmir in mind.
The glistening waters of the lake repeatedly tantalised me. This fascination escalated at the sight of the peaks that ring the lakes and sometimes mirroring its reflection in the waters. A surreal experience for one who has kept these images in her well-archived bucket list.
That vision of a war-torn Kashmir seemed a world away.
The Enchantingly Manicured Mughal Gardens
There are several Mughal Gardens surrounding the lakes. These are landscape masterpieces, vestiges of Kashmir’s Mughal rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Terraced hillside gardens with pools and fountains and bountiful beds of colourful blooms overlook the mountains and lakes. Inhale the crisp fresh air of the elevated manicured grounds, look out to the far reaches of the earth and quietly offer a prayer of thanks. This is the recreational solace from the bustling activity of the city for the dweller and tourist alike.
The Mosques In Srinagar
Srinagar sprawls on both sides of the Jhelum River. As we only had one full day of wanderings, we chose to roam the streets of the old town. Kashmiris are predominantly Muslims, with Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity making up the rest. We took to visiting the mosques in the city, taking note of the differing architecture and the history that lay behind them.
The Ornate Khanqah Shah-I-Hamdan
Of these, the distinctive Khanqah Shah-I-Hamdan is the highlight; an ornate wooden mosque constructed without nails. Papier-mâché relief decorate the facade and interior of the mosque. While elaborately coloured khatamband, the art of facetted wood-panelled ceilings, is evident as we peered through one of the windows. A pagoda-like steeple sits on the summit of this deliberately artistic architecture, completing its majesty.
The building stands on the site of one of Kashmir’s first mosques, founded by the Persian saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdan. It has been said that he was one of the 700 refugees fleeing Timur’s anticipated conquest of Iran in 1372.
Kashmir Is The Heaven On Earth
The Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Kashmir in the 17th century. He would study and document the history and culture of Kashmir. Among his records one would come across is a Farsi couplet he quoted from Amir Khusrau, a revered scholar in the 13th-14th century India.
“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.”
“If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”Amir Khusrau, Sufi SiNGER, POET AND scholar from India
It would appear to the scholars of old that Kashmir is indeed, the undisputed heaven on earth.
Kashmir boasts of extensive mountain ranges, alpine forests, shimmering lakes, crystal-clear gushing rivers and verdant meadows and valleys. Each season bringing on a charm of its own. This Himalayan region is beauty in and of itself.
The idea of war-torn Kashmir seems remote at best.
Is It Safe To Visit Kashmir?
Throughout our planning, we remained mindful of the region’s sensitivity. We regularly updated ourselves on the region’s political climate. The relative calm in the months leading to September 2018 confirmed our resolve in choosing Kashmir as our destination. We seemed to have found our window of peace. The dream of the lake and mountain hikes fulfilled.
Consider These Tips As You Plan A Kashmir Getaway
- Consult a wide-range of resources as you plan your trip; avoid areas identified as trouble-prone areas.
- Monitor the news on Kashmir and India for any likelihood of disturbances.
- Purchase a return ticket; should you be caught in any unrest you would be able to get a safe (and inexpensive) passage out.
- Carry with you a photograph identification card; there are numerous security checkpoints and one of these may require you to produce a valid identification.
- Do not travel alone. Kashmiris are polite, respectful and friendly people. Beware of a few unscrupulous ones seeking to take advantage of tourists. Our guides were with us at all times, which kept us feeling safe.
- If you are planning on a trek in the mountains, ensure that you are going to a safe and authorised area, with a local guide.
Our Guide In Kashmir
We engaged Kashmir Mountain Adventures for a tour that starts from INR 33,000 (approximately MYR 1,850) to include two nights deluxe houseboat stay at Dal Lake, Srinagar and five nights mountain trekking. They customise tours to meet individual requirements.
Please note that the current global COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted tourism in Kashmir. This company will re-open for business when the government lifts travel restrictions.
Stay with us for part two of the Kashmir adventure. I shall be reflecting upon the mystic charm of Kashmir and the hike into The Great Himalayas. It was an adventure in many ways as well as my first ever camping trip.