It’s a land of snow-capped mountains, picturesque valleys, colourful gardens, and gushing streams. Tourists should be ideally flocking this paradise all year round. But alas, instead of tourists, it is the military personnel that you see everywhere in Kashmir.
There is no denying Kashmir is conflict-ridden and turbulent. Naturally, many of us have reservations about visiting the place. In fact, when my husband and I decided on Kashmir for our vacation, the idea was met with apprehension by our own circle of friends and family members. Despite their dissuasion, we travelled as planned.
We landed in Srinagar Airport on a warm Saturday afternoon only to learn of a curfew that had been enforced on account of Muharram. Further news of road blocks and restricted vehicular movement made us rather uneasy. Noticing our worried looks, a fellow Kashmiri passenger insisted that he drop us off at our houseboat in his personal car. His offer should have relieved us of our worry, but instead, it only made it worse. We became downright suspicious and tried declining his offer politely. But the man simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. And so, we prayed for the best and got into his car.
An hour later, we breathed a sigh of relief, when he finally dropped us off near the houseboat as promised. He then urged us to try Kashmiri Khawah (traditional saffron tea) from a nearby stall, shared his number and expressed his gratitude for allowing him to play a small part in our tour. Guilt wrenched our hearts. Here was a Kashmiri, proud of his hometown and selflessly kind; we had unnecessarily suspected his motives!
After a night’s stay in the houseboat overlooking the peaceful Nigeen Lake, the next morning we checked into a homestay to live with a Kashmiri family. As a traveller, I had always experienced first-class hospitality in hotels and resorts. I confess. I was vary of staying at a stranger’s home; I wanted to book a hotel room. But little did I know that our brief stay with the Kashmiri family would redefine my idea of hospitality. From preparing home-cooked vegetarian food to arranging chauffeured car for local sight-seeing, the family made sure our every need was met. We felt more like a part of the family, rather than guests at their home. Genuinely taking interest in our welfare, they even bargained with local tour guides on our behalf, lest we get scammed.
The next day, we visited a bowl-shaped valley called Doodhpathri. Nestled amidst forests, the picturesque place is known for its lush green meadows and the milky-white river Shali Ganga. We hired a local guide and his pony, and rode uphill for a better viewpoint. After a two-hour ride on a rugged terrain, we found ourselves amidst a pine forest. The beautiful river could be seen running its course peacefully. When it was time to return, the guide proposed we climb further up. He promised to show us a part of his heaven. At first, we were hesitant. We suspected that we were about to get conned. After all, there was a dearth of tourists in this place. However, a tinge of sincerity in his voice made us reconsider. We agreed.
An expression of cultural harmony and solidarity, Kashmiriyat inspires people to be proud of their land, even in times of turbulence. It motivates them to be kind, giving and generous to one another, irrespective of faith.
The place was indeed heavenly. Not a single person was in sight. The wind blew hard, the meadows and the mountains shone gold under the sun’s rays. We spotted a few huts at a distance, comfortably nestled amongst pine trees. The guide halted our ponies and ushered us towards one of the huts with a hint of pride. Once we were close enough, a woman–whom we later learned was his wife–welcomed us into her rustic home and offered us some Kashmiri bread and chai.
We were simply lost for words. Never before, had we experienced pure generosity and selfless love from complete strangers. So, we decided to take a short heritage walk to understand Kashmiris and their culture better. The walk began with a history enthusiast at Lal Chowk. We cut across the Kashmiri Pandit areas and later found ourselves in front of the mesmerising Hazratbal mosque. While we gazed upon the white-marbled beauty, the guide talked about Kashmiriyat. An expression of cultural harmony and solidarity, Kashmiriyat inspires people to be proud of their land, even in times of turbulence. It motivates them to be kind, giving and generous to one another, irrespective of faith.
When we were about to leave Kashmir, we were in for one last surprise. The history buff simply refused to accept payment, despite being our guide and dropping us off at the airport. “You are like my own children. The next time you visit Kashmir, do come home,” he said, waving us goodbye. Kashmir might be caught amidst war and strife. But during our stay there, all we experienced was Kashmiri warmth and hospitality.
When we had landed in Kashmir, we had feared a young Kashmiri who had offered to drop us off at our houseboat. How bias and preconception influence judgement! But the Kashmiri people had restored our faith in humanity. We returned from the trip, knowing that the pristine valley had taught its people a humane and generous way of life.