Kashmiri warmth and hospitality

Warmth of the valley

There is no denying Kashmir is conflict-ridden and turbulent. Naturally, many of us have reservations about visiting the place.
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It’s the 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 at the 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, but instead, it escalated our fears. 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 kahwa (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. As a traveller, I had always experienced first-class hospitality in hotels and resorts. I confess that I was wary of staying at a stranger’s home and 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 delicious home-cooked vegetarian food to arranging a 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 thick forests, the picturesque hill station 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 view. After a two-hour ride on the rugged terrain, we found ourselves near 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 were not too many there. However, the sincerity in his voice made us reconsider and 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 among the 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–who we later learned was his wife–welcomed us into their 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 the next day 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 shrine. 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.

Before saying goodbye to 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. 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 our bias and preconception can influence our judgement! But the Kashmiri people 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.

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