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How twelve schoolteachers got charmed by Kashmir’s beauty

Every other beauty vanishes from the mind when you visit Kashmir, says Padmini Chandrasekaran – “This is Jannat, certainly.” Padmini and her friends recently visited the ‘paradise on earth’.  Here is Padmini’s story about “a place we’ll never forget” and what makes Kashmir different and the jewel in India’s crown

Kashmiri Belles at Shalimar Gardens. Photos: PC

The invasion

Early May, Kashmir was invaded by an unending stream of visitors from all over India. Among them were a dozen-plus ladies from Chennai, including myself. It was a boisterous crowd of both retired and serving teachers from Vidya Mandir, a reputed school in Mylapore, Chennai. We were all in the age group of 35-70. We invaders ended up being conquered by the fabled beauty of Kashmir’s mountains, and rivers, valleys and plains — and by its people. We had made a few trips together earlier (Assam, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Bhutan, and others), but Kashmir was incomparable.

Heaven on earth?

Amir Khusro’s description of Kashmir (“If there’s a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here!”)  is now a cliche, but very valid still. Jehangir, the Mughal emperor, called it heaven on earth and so did Firdausi. Jehangir was so enamoured by Jannat-e-Kashmir, he visited it eight times during his reign.

Fascination for Kashmir has continued down the ages among kings, poets and the common man. Why? What makes Kashmir different from the rest of the country? It is the heady combination of mountains and hills, rivers and streams, valleys and plains that inspires awe and admiration. Who can resist the lure of the Himalayas and the Indus Valley, immortalised by writers and poets for ages?

Kashmir had opened its doors to all Indians this year. Fear of the dreaded Covid had receded. We, the inveterate travellers from Vidya Mandir, were determined to get away from the madding crowd and drive into the vales and dales of Kashmir. Plans were made, prayers said, money paid and 12 excited lady teachers successfully set foot in Srinagar during the first week of May, 2022.

At a holy place

Our first visit was to the Shankaracharya Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple was said to be built by Jaluka, Ashoka’s son, around 200 BC. Adi Shankara visited the temple and wrote his Sanskrit work, Soundarya Lahiri, here. As we went up the steps, we could breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the panoramic view of the city. At every landing, we paused. We saw the spruced-up rain-drenched city, with the sun playing hide and seek with the low clouds. A gentle, cool breeze wafted past us. It was heavenly and a wonderful welcome to us tired ladies from hot and humid Chennai.

Pony ride at  Sonmarg

We spent a warm night in Srinagar. The woollen clothes we had packed seemed redundant. Sonmarg was our next destination. We were a little anxious about the much-anticipated pony ride. I opted for the car ride. Many of my friends decided to trust the pony. While the pony trudged along bearing the rider’s weight and finding an easy path for itself, the rider was free to enjoy the highs and lows of Sonmarg perched rather precariously on top of a pony.

We heard hilarious accounts of the behavior of the willful ponies, of their tumbling down the slushy slopes and then being hauled up by helpers. We heard how they were pushed physically up the slope squatting on a sledge and helped in the downward descent by the ever-helpful helpers. All this was done for a fee, duly appreciating the efforts of the pony and its owner on this difficult terrain. The pony ride ended with the inevitable aches and pains. Soon, we heard peals of laughter and shouts of sheer relief and happiness of having ridden a pony and having enjoyed the sights which nature had sketched out.

Magical Sonmarg

A few of the less adventurous ones opted for a more sedate jeep ride where we got to see the most beautiful and picturesque scenes in two valleys. Fully grown pine trees appeared like a magical green carpet covering the mountains as if helping them battle the cold. The rich tapestry of pine trees gave an embossed effect which looked stunning. The peak completely covered in snow peeped shyly from the green chaddhar (canopy). As we lucky ones watched the wonderful panorama, another scene unfolded in front of our eyes. Snow had started to melt and made its way down like a white streak across the green. The snow hit the ground, the frozen snow transformed itself into a stream, icy to the touch, sedately moving forward before it broadened out into the Indus River.

A foray into history

When I heard the name Indus, I stood transfixed. It seemed as if a time capsule had pushed me aeons back. The Indus Valley Civilization vied with Alexander. We were standing on the banks of one of the oldest civilizations of the world. We had seen the Jhelum the day before. Somewhere here was where Alexander had defeated Porus. Here was where the world renowned Takshashila Library existed. This was where irreplaceable Sanskrit and other literary works had been preserved. This was where Shakuni came from. Taxila, as it is known today, was just a few hundred miles away. While these historical details chased each other in my mind, a cold splash of snow hit my face. That broke my reverie. I was now ready for the customary group photo.

Gulmarg and the gondola ride

The following day, we visited gorgeous Gulmarg. After standing in a line for almost three hours,  we went up the gondola or what is commonly known as a winch. It was an exhilarating ride to go up almost parallel to the hills around us. What an amazing sight it was to see the pointed pine trees, the undulating hills and valleys with streaks of shining snow-filled streams coming down to join the river. We could not ride up to the second phase because of uncertain weather conditions. But phase one overwhelmed us. One could not get enough of the snow-clad mountains, silver streaks of streams, big and small pebbles strewn riverside. Unmindful of age or the chilliness of the pristine pure water, the ladies danced and sang in abandon. One felt free, liberated and in sync with nature.

Pahalgam is paradise

Soon we left Gulmarg for Pahalgam. This was paradise. We travelled up and down hills and valleys and never grew tired of watching the ever-changing scenes. It had rained. The streams were full, water gushing forward with gurgling sounds unlike the day before when the water was moving forward lazily with the sunbeams falling on it. Tennyson vied with Wordsworth for attention when we did spare them a thought. At the charming riverside, we stood spellbound staring at the picture postcard like beauty in awe and admiration. Oh no! This incredible view is impossible to paint or describe. The scene was incredible. Pahalgam is Alluring Kashmir at its best.

Jehangir’s Shalimar

On the penultimate day, we arrived in Srinagar. We had heard different romantic versions as to why Emperor Jehangir had created the Shalimar and Nishadh Gardens in Srinagar. One version was that he sought to escape the Delhi heat. Roses must have been his favourite. Roses were everywhere in different hues and sizes. So were tiny flowers planted throughout the garden. Beauty and colour complemented each other in perfect harmony. A heavy drizzle prevented us from going to the terraced Nishadh Garden. We waited and then hurried for a tryst with the Dal Lake, and spent an evening and night at the famed house boats.

Lure of the Dal Lake

The open shikara or canoe deposited us and our baggage at the houseboat. Getting in and out of the shikara needed some acrobatic skill and finesse. I had neither. I scrambled into the houseboat, my pride and dignity hurt. The décor inside was aesthetic, beds comfortable with a slight tilt to remind us that we were on a lake and not on land. The gracious owner of the houseboat helped us with our luggage and later helped us into a colourful covered shikara for a ride on the Dal Lake. The image of the beautiful Sharmila Tagore as Kashmir ki Kalidanced in front of our eyes as we enjoyed the breeze on our brow and heard the gentle sound of the oars striking the water.

Then came the local hawkers selling their wares. The cacophony jolted us into bargaining with them and exchange of money for goods took place between two shikaras. This was a novel experience. We visited the floating shopping market where houseboats were converted into shops. Here we bought saris, shawls and salwars and wholeheartedly admired the intricate workmanship and embroidery. Bargaining was done, prices fixed, money changed hands with no bills and no GST. It was a matter of pride and trust.

Amazing and admirable people

The last day of the Kashmir trip dawned. We had felt totally comfortable and at ease in all the tourist spots we had visited. Our driver was a postgraduate in Kashmiri arts and crafts. The guide was pursuing his PhD course in Mathematics. Both were articulate and took a lot of effort to make our stay comfortable. They were very impressed with the fact that 12 ladies, all teachers, had come to Kashmir on their own. We found the local Kashmiris very hard-working, fiercely loyal and proud and extremely courteous in their behavior. Almost all of them spoke Hindi and some understood English.

The surging crowds pouring into Kashmir signify the revival of its economy after a two-year hiatus. Kashmir is the jewel in the crown of India. Our visit there opened our eyes to the beauty of the place, its culture and rich traditions. Being here was a learning experience.

The cricket connection

World-famous cricket bats are manufactured here and that willow wood has to be seasoned for a year, open to the elements before they can be made into bats. It takes at least five days to make a good bat. I learnt about the weight of the bat, its grip and alignment, customised bats and practice bats. I admired the makers of these beauties who sweated it out in the dust and earned a pittance, yet worked with a smile.

We went to an apple garden, saw the process of apple picking and each of us drank a cup of fresh apple juice, that was like drinking ambrosia. We saw pure saffron and learnt to differentiate between real and fake saffron. We bought plenty of dry fruits and hoped we carried no extra baggage. We saw nature at its best and man, a mere being in the midst of loftiness and grandeur We rode a pony, experienced a hailstorm, rode an ATV (all-terrain vehicle), wore gumboots and tottered around, slept in a house boat, sailed in a shikari and climbed a hill. And all this was done in the course of one incredible week.

Note: Anu, Hema, Jyothsna, Prithi, Radha, Seetha, Shobana, Uma Ramganesh, Uma Varadarajan, Vasudha and Viji accompanied Padmini.

(The writer is a retired teacher. With a postgraduate degree in History and a degree in Education, she joined Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School, Mylapore, in 1988 and taught English and History in the primary classes. She loves telling stories and tries to inculcate a love for History in the minds of young children by teaching the subject in the form of stories. She believes that to know about the present, studying the past is essential.)

July – September 2022