Monday, 8 August 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 1: Paradise is Burning

"Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast."
   (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here)

-          Mirza Nur-ud-din Beig Mohammad Khan Salim, aka Mughal Emperor Jahangir

Perhaps a somewhat predictable way to begin an article on Jammu and Kashmir, but I could think of no better way than Emperor Jahangir’s famous Persian couplet, about a place that even we Bengalis call “Bhu-shorgo” – paradise on earth. My trip to Kashmir and Ladakh began with a conversation of an entirely different nature though. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to get married. Before that happens, I want to do this. I want to travel down NH1 to Ladakh”. With that startling revelation from my friend Prasenjit, our planning for the trip began. A group of five, Prasenjit, his friends Ananya and Harsha, my friend Sreyashi and I, would take the trip down India’s National Highway 1, to the northernmost region of our country, which is both one of the most inhospitable and one of the most beautiful. But our trip would begin with Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir.


In more ways than one, as it turned out. Prasenjit, Sreyashi and I took a flight from Calcutta and met Harsha and Ananya at the Delhi airport, from where another flight took us to Srinagar. We had been told that the weather wouldn’t really be cold in Srinagar since we were travelling in July, but we weren’t prepared for the heat and the humidity that greeted us upon landing. Adding to the weather was political heat. As our car drove out of the airport and into the city, we found streets deserted, shops shut. “All of Srinagar is shut today”, our driver informed us. Security forces had shot a leader of the separatist group, Hizbul Mujahideen, and there was a general strike in protest. Being from Calcutta, we were used to strikes, but in Srinagar such strikes are accompanied by “paththar-baazi” – stone pelting, and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that. “As I was on the way to the airport, my car got hit by a couple of rocks. No damage, by the grace of Allah”, said our driver. Our car proceeded down empty roads as I gaped at the architecture of Srinagar. Mountain cities have an architectural style all their own, but this was different. This was mountain combined with a distinct Islamic influence, giving everything a rather unique look. Even the mosques looked very different from anything I had seen in the rest of India. But what was the deal with the strike? A small backgrounder on the Kashmir conflict would be helpful.

Dal Lake, Char Chinar Point visible in the distance


Stone-pelting or “paththarbaazi” is not a new phenomenon in Kashmir. Kashmiris had pelted Mughal soldiers with stones in the 16th century. Mughal rule in Kashmir had begun in 1540 with Humayun’s invasion of the state. By then Kashmir was already an Islamic Sultanate, the first Islamic invasion having happened in the 11th century. That had ended the oppressive rule of the Loharas, who had been preceded by several Hindu dynasties, who had been preceded by Ashoka, who had been preceded by the Karkota Empire, the Hun Empire and the Kushan Empire. Everyone, it would seem, wanted a piece of heaven. The Mughals would be followed by the Afghan Durrani Empire. 400 years of Muslim rule would come to an end with the Sikh invasion under Ranjit Singh in 1819. The Sikhs had earlier overrun the kingdom of Jammu, established by Dhruv Dev of the Jamwal Rajput Dogra dynasty and when the King of Jammu, Ranjit Deo, died, his grand-nephew Gulab Singh sought employment in the Sikh army. He would eventually rise to a position of great importance and together with his commander Zorawar Singh would capture Ladakh, Gilgit and eventually completely encircle Kashmir, which remained under direct Sikh rule.

Rahim speaks to a vendor
Ladakh had been an independent, Buddhist Kingdom since the 9th century, under the Namgyals, who traced their lineage back to the Tibetan royal family, but by 1836, it was firmly under Gulab Singh’s control. In 1839, Ranjit Singh died and the Sikh Empire began to unravel. The East India Company was massing troops on the borders of the empire, and tensions exploded into open war in 1845. Gulab Singh stayed away from the war till the last minute, finally appearing as a mediator, and with his clearly pro-British sympathies, negotiated the handover of “the hill countries between Beas and Indus” via the treaty of Lahore. A week later, the British handed over to Gulab Singh, for a sum of 7.5 million rupees, “all the hilly or mountainous country situated to the east of Indus and west of Ravi”. The princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, incorporating Jammu, Kashmir, Poonch, Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh, was born and it would remain under Dogra rule until the end.

Buildings along Dal Lake's shore
In 1925, the last Dogra King, Hari Singh ascended the throne. By all accounts Dogra rule in Kashmir had been unpopular. The Dogras were Hindus, ruling over a state that was 77% Muslim, and successive Dogra kings had repressed using cruel methods, repeated uprisings by their Muslim subjects. Hari Singh, had concentrated all power in the hands of the Hindus. Hindus dominated the administration as well as the police, but behind it all was British colonial might, that had kept the rulers propped up, no matter how unpopular they appeared to be. That might was set to evaporate overnight on the 15th of August 1947. India was partitioned based on religion. Hindu majority areas became the new Indian republic, while Muslim majority areas became Pakistan. India’s many princely states were given the option to join either of the new states or become independent. This third option was purely theoretical, because none of the princely states had an army worth a damn. That job had been performed by the British Indian army thus far. Going by numbers, Hari Singh should have joined Pakistan. It also made sense economically, since the vast majority of Jammu and Kashmir’s road, rail and trade links were with Western Punjab, which went to Pakistan. But, unsure about the future of a Hindu royal house in a Muslim state, Hari Singh vacillated. The popularly accepted narrative in India states that an impatient Pakistan inserted tribal fighters into the state who started an invasion which was backed by the Pakistan Army. Hari Singh panicked and asked India for help. India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed to help on condition that Hari Singh sign over Jammu and Kashmir to India, which he did, on the 26th of October 1947. The Indian army was airlifted into Kashmir and they were just about getting an upper hand when supply problems forced them to halt. In the meantime, Lord Mountbatten advised Nehru to refer the matter to the United Nations, which led to a stalemate which has lasted for 70 years. The Line of Control, or LOC, in Jammu and Kashmir, represents, for the most part, where the Indian advance had stopped in 1947.

Brilliant sunlight even at 5:15 pm
But there are other commentators and researchers who point out that in 1947, Kashmir was in such a state that the handover of the entire princely state to either India or Pakistan would not have been possible. There were a variety of forces at play, including some Hindus who favoured joining Pakistan, the very popular National Conference party led by Sheikh Abdullah, which was against it, and many voices calling for an independent Kashmir. Anti-Muslim riots in Jammu had led to a Muslim exodus from the area, Dogra forces were massacring Muslims in Gilgit-Baltistan and an armed rebellion was underway in Poonch. Hari Singh had lost his grip on the state he was signing away. Either way, the loss of Kashmir, did not go down well with the Pakistani establishment, and in the 60’s Pakistan made an attempt to sneak soldiers across the line of control, confident that the people in India-administered Kashmir were in a rebellious mood and would help them capture the state. Although this failed, Kashmiri nationalism slowly began to turn into an insurgency movement with the covert support of Pakistan. Adding fuel to the fire were the large scale excesses committed by Indian security forces in Kashmir as well as New Delhi’s draconian attempts at curtailing civil liberties to secure law and order. Kashmir had joined India under special conditions – her own flag, own constitution and autonomy guaranteed by article 370 of the Indian constitution. That autonomy, Kashmiris feared, was being eroded. The insurgents targeted the army, the security forces, Kashmiris who opposed them, even the head of state-run television channel Doordarshan and Kashmir’s small but powerful Hindu Pandit community, leading to their exodus from the valley.

Fishing on the Dal Lake
In 1989 Muhammad Ahsan Dar formed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, an armed separatist group, which is now classified as a terrorist group by India, the EU and the US. Burhan Muzaffar Wani was a 21 year old commander of this group, and he was killed in an encounter with the security forces on the 8th of July, the night before we landed in Srinagar. Protests erupted across the valley, the state government responded with press censorship, and the police made the controversial decision to use pellet guns against protestors, resulting in horrific injuries, including loss of sight. On the other side of the LOC, the part of Kashmir that is administered by Pakistan has been labelled Azad Kashmir, or Free Kashmir, but freedom obviously has its limits, since there are media reports emanating from there of anti-Pakistan demonstrations and clashes, similar to but perhaps of lesser intensity, than those on the Indian side. So what do the people of Kashmir want? It is impossible to say with any degree of accuracy, since neither side has ever asked them. The UN had asked for a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to decide their future, but this has never happened, and is unlikely to happen since neither the Indian nor the Pakistani governments want it. Border skirmished between the Indian and Pakistani armies continue, with the last full-scale war having been fought in 1999 when Pakistan sneaked soldiers across the LOC in Kargil. Do ordinary Kashmiris support the separatists? Again difficult to say, but the fact that some 50,000 people attended Burhan Wani's funeral, should provide some clue. With no resolution in sight, people continue to fight and die, in what is perhaps the most beautiful part of the world.

Tourists on a Shikara


A houseboat. Shankaracharya temple visible in the distance
But of course, we had no idea how bad a turn things had taken until we got to the Dal Lake. Covering 18 square kilometres, Dal Lake is called “Srinagar’s Jewel”. Like most Indians, we had grown up on a diet of Bollywood films, including the classic Kashmir Ki Kali, so it was only natural that we would want to stay in a houseboat. Our car offloaded us at one of the many ghats that line the lake’s shore, and we were told we had to take a shikara, the ubiquitous Kashmiri boat which serves as a water-taxi, to our houseboat. Shikaras are beautiful, elegant, and looked very flimsy to my eye. Would one of them manage to carry 5 of us, our luggage and boatman, without sinking? What was even more disconcerting was that compared to country boats made in Bengal, Shikaras have much less depth, which means with every move you make, the boat tilts. But to my great surprise, there were no problems whatsoever. Our Shikara ferried us across very comfortably and were greeted at our houseboat by Rahim, who would be taking care of us for the night.

The incredible drawing room of our houseboat
A moorhen, a common sight on Dal Lake
Once inside, our jaws hit the floor. Beautiful carved wood everywhere! The walls, the tables, the sofas, all exquisitely carved in a style that Kashmir was known for. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Plush carpeting covered the floor. How could we afford such luxury? I was even more surprised to find my bathroom had a bathtub! A bathtub on a boat? But then, the first bad news arrived. There was nothing to eat for lunch. Rahim had been unsure when we would arrive, and the entire city and all the markets were now shut down. Prasenjit volunteered to go ashore and search for food, while the girls unpacked and washed up and Harsha and I simply sat outside, staring at the Dal Lake and trying to come to terms with the fact that we really were in Kashmir! As Shikaras travelled to and fro, I noticed they were of three kinds. There were the fancy ones which ferried tourists, the non-fancy ones which ferried locals, and then there were those which were used by tradesmen as floating shops. 

Prasenjit indulges in some DP-graphy
Ananya seems happy with the results
Rahim asked us if we wanted to have a fruit salad and both Harsha and I nodded. Lo and Behold! A fruit salad shikara came right over to our houseboat and the man expertly chopped up fruits and cucumber, topping it with some fresh lime juice and chat masala. Delicious and refreshing especially given the weather. I was just thinking that we could do without lunch when Prasenjit returned. The story was a somewhat grim one. He had wandered around for an hour and then finally found one vegetarian restaurant which was open and consequently had a long queue. We had a vegetarian lunch, which was delicious, but wondered what would happen for dinner. Rahim assured us that he had spoken to the cook and he should be able to pick up all the basics needed for a meal. Post lunch, the girls sat down for a bit of shopping - Rahim had summoned a jewellery seller. I was worried if I would manage to get any good photos of the Dal, because it was already 4:30 and it was then that I discovered one of Kashmir’s miracles – sunset wasn’t for another 3 hours! With the sun breaking through the clouds at this exact moment, the decision was unanimous; a shikara cruise of the Dal Lake was in order! Rahim got us a boat and off we went.

Dal Lake's floating market

The girls shop for jewellery
One of the amazing things about the Dal Lake is how it is almost like a completely self-contained little economy. There are floating shops on the lake selling groceries and items of everyday use, there are floating gardens, where flowers and vegetables are grown, there is even an entire floating market where tourists will find many of the things that Kashmir is famous for, including pashmina shawls. As we cruised along, various shikaras drew up alongside. There was someone selling chilled beer, right there on the lake! He even asked if I wanted any ganja, but I wisely declined. Smoke on the Water is one of my favourite songs, but smoking up on the water was not something I wanted to try. We made a stop at the floating market where the girls checked out some shawls and I walked around doing some more photographs. I had been firing off my shutter almost non-stop, but that was the magic of the place. I had never seen anything which looked like it. On our way back, I thought I smelt pakoras being fried. As soon as I mentioned it, our boatman brought us to a halt alongside a very large boat serving a wide variety of snacks. I realized I had been eating non-stop since I got into Srinagar, but then, I was on vacation! As we munched pakoras and cruised back, the setting sun started to turn the mountains orange. It was only when we got back to the houseboat that we realized how much trouble we were in.

The setting sun turns the mountains orange


Of the 3 rooms on the houseboat, we had occupied 2. When we returned after our Shikara ride, we found the family occupying the 3rd room watching the evening news. I managed to catch a few words here and there – security forces, clash, tear gas, strike, and of course, curfew! Uh oh! Prasenjit pointed out a particularly chilling clip. On our way to Dal Lake in the morning, we had passes a particular spot where we had found people lining up. I had wondered then what they were up to. News footage now showed that exact same spot, and it was a battleground! Were we at risk? Rahim assured us that no one would hurt us at Dal. There were two reasons. First, security around the lake was intense, and second, separatists did not bother tourists since tourism was the biggest source of income. But our tour operator had panicked, because a curfew would mean we would be stuck in Srinagar. We were informed on the phone that we were to pack after dinner and prepare to leave. A car would be waiting for us at the ghat at 2am. While we waited for dinner there was more shopping to be done. Rahim had lined up craftsmen selling Kashmiri wooden show pieces and a man who sold saffron. Kashmiri saffron is the best and the most expensive in the world. It is also the most expensive. I picked up 2 small boxes, about 4 grams, enough for a year. For dinner, Rahim had had rotis, chicken and aubergine curry cooked. The food was hot and delicious, but during dinner, the only discussion was our hurried exodus from Srinagar.

Our dining room on the houseboat
I managed to get no sleep that night. I paced around and found the front end of the boat, open to the lake was much cooler than our bedrooms. When I finally did lie down for some shuteye, it was 1:30 and I was awakened within a few minutes by the girls knocking on my door. We hadn’t really unpacked, so getting ready didn’t take long. I won’t forget the next few minutes in a hurry. A single shikara loaded with 5 tourists and their luggage, making its way across a pitch black Dal Lake. Not a sound anywhere and only a little light from the odd houseboat. The thing I was most afraid of though was not terrorists but the dangerous swaying of the boat when people got off. Our boatman got off first and held the boat firmly to prevent it from swaying too much. We were a little late, and our driver had been waiting for a while. Our suitcases got loaded on top of the car and tied with rope. Our smaller bags joined us inside the car, and in the dark, we set off.

Our bedroom. Prasenjit manages to catch up on some sleep  
The Shankarahcarya temple

It took the car a long time to clear the lake. As we drove along the shore, I spotted the one place I wanted to visit more than any other – Hazratbal. The Islamic shrine is said to contain a hair of the Prophet’s (PBUH) beard and together with the Shankaracharya temple, formed a crucial part of the plot of the film Mission Kashmir. In the dark night, Hazratbal’s single dome and minaret were a defiant, blazing white. I wanted so much to stop the car, to set up my tripod and do a long exposure of the pure white Hazratbal reflected in the pitch black waters of the Dal, but there was no way. We had to get past Sonmarg before daybreak. After that, we were told, there was no separatist trouble and no curfew. Once we had cleared the lake, we found signs of the day’s trouble everywhere. The roads were littered with stones and smashed barricades had been moved aside to allow traffic to pass through. But we really had our hearts in our mouths when out of the black night two figures emerged and stopped our car. The men were in shalwar-kameez and had long beards. Terrorists? Our throats had gone dry. They asked our driver to produce his papers, and then, curiously, asked him if he had a particular number saved on his mobile phone. When our driver showed him that he didn’t, he was allowed to pass. Once more we were stopped, but this time by uniformed army men. A powerful flashlight went over our faces, and I heard a voice say, “They’re just tourists. Let them pass”. Our car passed through the barricade.

We had escaped from paradise.

-          By Deepanjan Ghosh

(…to be continued…)

  • Tour planning and bookings by Pathikrit Travels. Contact them at
  • Transport handled by Mountain Trails Adventures & Expeditions. Check out their website


Kaul, H. N. - Rediscovery of Ladakh
Snedden, Christopher – Kashmir: The Unwritten History
Guha, Ramchandra – India After Gandhi
Bazaz, Prem Nath – The History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir
Lamb, Alastair – Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy

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