Winter holiday With the Chinar blazing in all the shades of sunset, this is the perfect time to visit Kashmir

The Chinar is the queen of Kashmir. In “russet mantle clad” like Shakespeare’s morn, she stands in regal splendour. The other trees like the poplar, willow and walnut cling together in groups along with the common trees of the jungle. Their shades of green provide the setting for the flaming Chinar. We visit Kashmir when winter is within calling distance and autumn is taking a last bow.

Wherever we go, people wax eloquent about the Chinar and her five-pronged leaf; the design of the leaf is etched repetitively on wooden handicrafts or worked in the multihued embroidery for which the region is famous. And tales are told tirelessly about the Chinar and its wonderful qualities.

“It is said,” goes our loquacious boatman as we recline on the cushions of his sedate shikara and glide over the waters of the Dal, “that the Chinar soothes restless minds. Suppose a man is in the habit of throwing vessels around his home in fits of rage,” the boatman continues, as we try to imagine the scene, “he is led gently to a Chinar and made to sit for long hours under its shade.” And his anger dissolves miraculously and he transforms into the mildest and meekest of men!

The gorgeous Chinar accompanies us through our trip to Srinagar and the adjoining areas. It is just one of the visual treats of a valley blessed by Nature with mind-blowing abundance. Kashmir is far cleaner than many places we have visited in the country and tourism is managed skilfully here.

The trip leaves us filled with images of gently-gliding streams, vast, placid lakes and snow-capped mountains with their quicksilver changes of moods. Amid such beauty and colour, violence seems light years away. “Matters are now under control,” we are told. But the police presence is pervasive and we can make out that the force is ever vigilant. Confidence levels have evidently shot up, as there are busloads of tourists thronging the sightseeing spots.

Heading to Gulmarg

The trip to Gulmarg is like driving up to Ooty. Deciduous trees thickly line the route. We turn into the valley and are startled as crowds of tourists suddenly materialise, many riding ponies that seem hardly able to bear their weight. It is festival time and the ticket counter at the cable car station has just closed. We miss the ride but console ourselves by walking around the golf course, reportedly the highest in the world. When we return, we are amused to see the same tourists gorging on luscious apples in the orchards.   

Back in Srinagar the next day, we visit the Mughal Gardens where dahlias, chrysanthemums and salvias are in their last burst of bloom. Nishat Garden, designed by Empress Noorjehan’s brother Asaf Khan, is a series of lovely terraces but the Shalimar is even grander. After all, it was built by Jehangir for his demanding queen Noorjehan. Shah Jahan, however, seems to have played it uncharacteristically low-key at the Chasma Shahi.

 We gaze open-mouthed from the top of Pari Mahal built by Shahjehan’s son Dara Shikoh for his Sufi teacher. Once a teaching observatory, it outshines everything else. From the topmost terrace, we get breathtaking views of the Dal Lake surrounded by mountains, green firs and the blue sky. We watch as photographers cajole tourists to pose in bespangled Kashmiri garments.

We find places made famous by films — the houseboat where Mission Kashmir was filmed, the valley in Pahalgam called Betaab Valley because the film was shot here. The road to Pahalgam is flanked by saffron fields awash with bright purple flowers. Shops sell dry fruits and saffron, and we find workshops making the famous willow cricket bats. On the way, at Avantipur, we find the ruins of a 9{+t}{+h}century Vishnu temple, built by King Avantivarman — a symphony in grey.  

At Pahalgam, the boulder-strewn Lidder River beckons, with snow-sprinkled peaks visible in the distance. We pass villages getting ready for the hard winter ahead, with hay stacked high and women and children carrying kangris (earthen pots filled with coal) in beautifully woven wicker baskets. “There’s no way you are going to buy one, especially with your tendency to add it to  my  luggage at the last minute,” says the husband, seeing me eye one speculatively.

“We were living in harmony until unsavoury elements disrupted the peace,” says a venerable former university professor when we return to Srinagar. He quotes in Persian the well-known lines of Jehangir “If there is a paradise on earth…”

His resonant voice communicates a wealth of feeling. I think of the emperor ponderously making his way with all his paraphernalia to this valley. So smitten was he that he made the arduous journey, it is said, not once but a dozen times.

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

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