July Issue 2007

By | Travel | Published 14 years ago

The tulips are blooming in Siraj Bagh. The sun is shining brighter each passing day and the evenings are getting longer. Even though snow still lingers on the crests of the surrounding peaks, spring has definitely kissed the Kashmir Valley. And it has brought with it — as it is meant to — new hopes, evident in the crowds that throng not just Siraj Bagh but other parts of the valley too. No sudden erratic western weather disturbances, even those dropping snow on the mountains and rain in the valley, with the accompanying drops in temperature, can keep away the hundreds of tourists flocking to this place. Neither can the ever-looming threat of sudden bomb blasts and grenade attacks prevent the overflowing airliners from different corners of the country from landing at Srinagar airport. And Indians are not the only ones descending on the valley. Tourists this year include a sizeable portion of non-Indians too.

There was a time when the Kashmir valley played host to Bollywood film shoots and was the most favoured destination for honeymooners and other holidaymakers. But once the guns and grenades took over, tourists were replaced by armed men and holiday laughter turned into wails of mourning. The valley became a ghost of its former self.

Meanwhile, holidaymakers discovered other hill stations, and soon Kashmir was being replaced by other destinations on the tourist map. “Those were years when we did not have enough shikaras (a Kashmiri paddle boat with a shingled roof) to ply all the visitors who came here,” sighed Mehraj, a shikara-plier on Kashmir’s famous Dal Lake, recalling the good old days. “But after that we would wait and wait, hoping for at least a tourist a week. What good is azadi when our trade is stopped and our stomachs go empty? Someone cast an evil eye on our paradise.” Mehraj has reason to be pensive and retrospective. The tourism trade in the valley directly employs 30% of the local population, while indirectly sustaining as much as 70% of Kashmir’s population.

Luckily though for Mehraj and his fellow Kashmiris, the tide now seems to be turning.

The realisation dawning on the valley that the gun is not the answer, together with soaring temperatures in the plains below, has once again caused tourism here to boom. A simple testimony is the number of airlines flying to Srinagar, the capital city. While the great dames of Indian aviation, such as Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Sahara, continue to fly there, a number of low-budget airlines, like Spice Jet, Air Deccan, Go Air, as well as the svelte and successful Kingfisher Airlines, have added Srinagar to their list of destinations. Prices keep soaring on the low-budget ones and tickets have been sold out till August.

Tourism is one of Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstays, especially in the Kashmir Valley. Kashmir becomes a natural getaway during the summer months as the altitude at which the valley nestles among snow-clad peaks naturally lends it a cool climate, a haven from the heat and dust of the fuming and simmering plains below. On visiting the valley of Kashmir during the summer some five centuries ago, the Mughal Emperor Jehangir exclaimed, “If there is paradise anywhere on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

Since then, Kashmir has been a favourite summer getaway. True, there are other hill stations scattered across India with cool temperatures and breathtaking scenery, such as Darjeeling, Sikkim, Shimla or Kodaikanal. And this has caused some people to feel that the beauty of Kashmir is much over-hyped. What sets Kashmir apart, however, is that unlike other hill stations, it is a broad valley nestled among the mighty peaks of the Himalayas. So it offers vast expanses of lush greens, criss-crossed with gurgling streams, all amidst soaring peaks. This sublime beauty, together with the spiritual and historic traditions embedded in its ethos, is what makes Kashmir unique.

For centuries, the pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave Shrine has been one of the major revenue earners for the place. Last year, Amarnath yatra pilgrims accounted for 33% of the 600,000-odd tourists that visited the valley. This year the tourism ministry is already gearing up for greater numbers. The pilgrimage has managed to survive the most turbulent and blood-soaked years of the conflict.

Another crowd-puller is the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage in Jammu, the ‘temple city’ of the state. Pilgrims on this route invariably trek to the valley above to enjoy a few days of serenity, cool weather and lush scenery. The Jhas from Bihar are one such group. Having completed their pilgrimage to the Devi, they were now enjoying the scenery at the Boulevard. They confess that initially they were hesitant to make it to Srinagar. However, their adventurous spirit together with the stories they had heard about Kashmir’s fabled beauty soon got the better of them. And here they were, already having tasted life in a houseboat and ridden in a shikara, now enjoying the cool breezes blowing across Dal Lake.

The Boulevard is one of the most popular destinations in Srinagar, where everyone usually arrives. Here one can admire the soothing waters of a placid Dal against a backdrop of lofty snow-clad peaks and the silhouette of the old city across them, and then sail on the lake in shikaras. The Mughals, who made Kashmir their summer capital, built magnificent and symmetrical gardens in Srinagar, and this is the other favourite haunt in town. People flock here to stroll around, play with the ice cold waters of the Chashme Shahi — yes, even at the height of summer the waters are ice-cold — or simply to loll around on the grass and watch life go by.

There are other sights in Srinagar. Hindus make it a point to visit the 1,800-year-old Shankaracharya Temple. Perched atop the Takht-e-Suleiman peak at a height of 1,000 feet above sea level, the sacred site provides a breathtaking view of the surroundings. Muslims flock to the many shrines of revered Sufi saints that dot the landscape. The Hazratbal Mosque is also a crowd-puller — the white marble architecture against the shimmering Dal Lake and the ceiling inside the sanctum sanctorum is an artistic marvel. Unfortunately, the latter is closed to women. The Sultan Hamdan Mosque in the old city is another indigenous Kashmiri architectural landmark — a fusion of Hindu and Islamic architecture, different from mosques anywhere else in the world.

kashmir-2-july07Flora Rassmusen from Germany, however, heads to another shrine with her boyfriend: the little known tomb of Prophet Yuz Asaph. This modest shrine, set in an even more modest Rosabal area of the old city of Srinagar is believed by many — theologians and academics alike — to be the tomb of none other than Jesus Christ, who, as narrated in many local legends and folk tales, had spent his last years in India. Interestingly, there is something more concrete that lends credence to this theory. The tomb, even though revered by many Muslims here, is not a Muslim tomb as it is not aligned in the direction of the Ka’aba and dates back to pre-Islamic times, when the Kashmir Valley was predominantly Shaivite Hindu and Buddhist — neither of whom buried the dead!

For many others though, Srinagar is simply a gateway to other destinations: the scenic ‘shephard village’ of Pahalgam, the peaks and vistas in Gulmarg or the golden meadows of Sonamarg. Nevertheless, hotels here are packed and rooms booked up till July.

No doubt, much of this has been the result of a more than a year-long initiative launched by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department. For years now, Kashmir has been plagued by a negative image in terms of security. This was underscored by the grenade attacks on tourists from Gujarat and West Bengal last year, when almost a dozen tourists were killed and many others wounded. And there is no denying that long years of conflict and militancy has taken its toll — not just on the tourism industry, but also on the general development of Kashmir. Hence, even though hotels are packed, there are few public facilities. Roads are in bad shape, electricity supply is sporadic, facilities like public toilets, internet service, road-side cafeterias and amusement complexes are almost non-existent. Dal Lake is in poor condition with an inefficient waste disposal system and rampant encroachment. And people are still wary about the security conditions, many preferring to stay in the safer confines of hotels than in exotic houseboats. Some in the tourism business lament the fact that tourist turnout is lower this year than expected. Mr Azim Tuman, chairman of the Kashmir House Boat Owners’ Association, rues the fact that houseboat occupancy this year is at a mere 35-40%, whereas before the attacks on tourists last year, it was at an all-time high of 70%.

Understanding how detrimental the attitudes were for the state’s main industry, the Kashmir tourism department quickly launched a year-long tourism festival last year, showcasing the splendours and arts of Kashmir, not only in the major cities of India but even in places as afar as Dubai, Bahrain, Berlin and London. And despite the low houseboat occupancy, the effort does seem to be paying dividends. According to a CNBC poll, Kashmir is the most preferred holiday destination, and as per a Thomas Cooke 2007 survey, Kashmir is still the dream destination of a majority of Indian tourists. This is proved by the fast-mushrooming hotel chains, where the private sector is active. The three-star Heevan chain, which had begun with a hotel in Pahalgam in 1982, has now added a five-star Senator Pine and Peaks there, as well as the Heevan Resorts in Srinagar in 2005 and the Heevan Retreat in Gulmarg last year. Its records tell of a 25% increase in its bookings in Pahalgam this year.

The other three-star hotel chain, Grand Mumtaz, which began its Srinagar branch in 2003, quickly opened a hotel in Pahalgam in 2005 and one in Gulmarg last year. The manager, Kamran Khan, feels that despite all the problems of security and militancy, tourism is picking up. “While tourists were overflowing this place last year, and it has been tardy till May 22 of this year, the heat wave in North India has helped us, and now there is no looking back,” says Khan confidently. “We are booked out until the first week of July.”

The same is echoed by Imtiaz Ahmed, front office manager of the newly opened The Residency in the heart of modern Srinagar. The hotel is fully booked until August, along with bookings beyond that too. The owners are planning to open another hotel just opposite it on the other side of the road, as well as adding new ones in Pahalgam and Gulmarg.

Understanding that along with accommodation, other facilities are needed just as much, the tourism department has also been obliged to come up with different initiatives. “Tourists should first and foremost get good facilities while visiting a beautiful land,” says Farooq Shah, director of tourism. “We are trying to upgrade roads, have a 24-hour power supply, improve connectivity. I can say with authority that we are topping the tourist map of the country. We have pilgrim tourism, adventure tourism and sports, and we also have three divisions — Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh.”

A cable car or gondola ride has started operating in Gulmarg and has the distinction of being the world’s highest. Skiing is being encouraged and plans are afoot to make Gulmarg the most affordable skiing destination in the world. In Pahalgam, water sports and rafting have been introduced along with the state’s first amusement park, where the swings and twists of various merry-go-rounds and slides break the tranquil scenery and add a headiness to the environment.

Golf, too, is being promoted in a major way. Gulmarg boasts one of the highest golf courses in the world, second in the country after Kolkata’s golf club. Srinagar, on the other hand, boasts the Royal Spring Golf Course, said to be India’s best. Twenty major tournaments have been planned. And the tulip garden in Siraj Bagh is all set to become Asia’s largest.

Huge grants have poured in from the Union Government for the state to develop infrastructure, clean water bodies and assure tourists of more sanitary conditions. Villages around resorts like Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg are being developed to provide support infrastructure, instead of undertaking any new infrastructural initiative so as not to disturb the local ecology. Kashmir also hosts India’s only ‘Tourism Police’ — police deployed with the specific purpose of helping out tourists facing any kind of adversity — big or small. Pre-paid taxis have begun plying since last year in the valley, and a special tourist bus has begun running, covering major sight-seeing destinations — Gulmarg, Pahalgam and the temple ruins at Avantipura and Martand. A Dal Lake cruise has also been launched since April, offering passengers a three to four-hour-long cruise on the lake to the accompaniment of Kashmiri folk dances, songs and wazwan or cuisine. And of course, there are the eternal crowd-pleasers: Kashmir’s varied handicrafts. Whether it is the exquisitely woven carpet or the famed Kashmiri shawl, the bright papier-mâché souvenir or the heavy copper ware, Kashmir has something for each pocket and every taste.

And so among the plans, initiatives and schemes galore, the evenings get longer and the nights get starrier, the tulips keep blooming, and the tourists keep coming. The valley beckons. Let no evil eye be cast this time!