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Friday, July 12, 2013

Revisiting Kashmir and Ladakh, twenty seven years on

After having first visited Kashmir as an army brat in 1965, I had come to start a professional career in the summer of 1979 as aide to the Late Colonel John Wakefield as trek and fishing camp manager, straight from college.

I stayed on for almost ten years including the years when I operated my own company there.

The troubles were just "brewing" during the 1997-1989 period and seeing the writing on the wall,  decided to exit the state.

In 2009 my company began sending European and Americans back to Kashmir as there was relative calm thanks to the sustained operations of the Indian Army against Paksitani militancy. Indian tourists thronged in their thousands.

I conducted 24 Germans and 8 Americans respectively in march 2011 and 2013. And I noticed certain changes.

The hostility of the man of the street had substantially reduced. He had as one shikara boatman told me, realised " that in the old days or even now because of the nature of the visitor, the foreign tourist's revenue was confined to the houseboat owners, and  the transporters, guides and the shops linked to them. On with the domestic tourist, money was spread. A little here, a little there and thereby a greater respect was accorded to the latter.The man on the street had also suffered. He was forced to look for work in the plains. The Kashmiri trader was now entrenched in Jaipur, Goa, Jodhpur's desert Kingdom and so on. The young Kaashmiri was now an executive in a New Delhi firm. Heck there is for the first time a Kashmiri lad playing in the Indian cricket team. I am waiting to see when, when this lad is playing in the Indian team, against Pakistan, who the man on the street in Kashmir, will root for! It wa always but always for Pakistan.

I learnt many things that I had not thought about earlier, with regards to Kashmir. It was the land of Sufiana -land of peers or saints- a concent that was anathema to the Wahaabi Islam of the Arabs. This, along with the fact that it was the cradle for ancient Hindu and Buddhism, itself would according to many, ensure that it would not come under the sway of the Taliban.

I was listening to the ring tone of an elderly Kashmiri's mobile phone. I realised the deep similiarity it had with the  hymns from my faith, Sikhism.

Majid Peer also told me that the Amarnath Cave to which thousands had begun thronging to in recent years, was actually not the correct site according to Hindu mythology as this was the cave where Shiva and Parvati had merely stopped to take a rest. The actual site was farther up!

Even while I felt the pain and anguish of the Pandit hindu community who had been forced to leave Kashmir (ethnic cleansing according to a friend of mine who had to flee), the cultural assault of hordes from the plains trekking to Amarnath, the heavy police contingents and resulting debris made me sympathise with the Kashmiris who had these rather unwanted guests even while they profited from the yatra, each year.

It is same in my native state of Uttrakhand, which was similiarly assaulted each year by plains people especially the Kavarias who walk to take way Ganges water. They take not just the water, but the soil and leave behind dirt and debris much of it non biodegradable.

The beautiful meadows of Gulmarg were marred by poor handling of the Gondola arrangements. Thousands queing, touts and others abusing the system, pushing, shoving and standing in line for hours on end. Gulmarg is only worth visiting in winter!

Pahalgam is similiarly ruined by the tourist both from the plains and from Kashmir as they all come in cars honking down the main single street.

In the midst of all this however, past knowledge and good grounds people helped me and the family as well as my English clients, find solace. Also, having a good local guide, allowed me to get into some beautful valleys for trout fishing and experiencing once again, the Kashmir of old.

I learnt something else. My Kashmiri houseboat owner, told me of how he gave up trout fishing, something he was a keen expert on, accompanying many a famous western visitor for four decades. He narrated how late one evening he caught and felt almost sucked into by a monster fish and the fright he got, put him off fishing for the rest of his years! But what  learnt was, that to preserve a trout for long periods, one needed to sprinkle charcoal inside the cleaned ot trout and it would freeze for long periods!

Later, I crossed the Zo Ji La, the himalayan watershed, into Ladakh. Here Leh, Hemis and Pangong Lake twenty seven years later. The road after the Zo Ji La is better than world class barring some causeways.Leh and its surroundings have inevitably grown. The traffic and fumes fro diesel gensets its worst aspect. But smart cafes, producing excellent fare are now to be found.

The pictures complete the story.

I hope you enjoy it!

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