By Israel Shamir
Kashmir , a chain of pleasant green mountain valleys was the most cherished patrimony of the Great Mughals, who embellished it with palaces and gardens. Here the Muslims and Hindus lived together in peace and harmony. However, the Empire did not will it. At first, there was a Hindu-Muslim conflagration which resulted in the Partition. Still, the Hindu refugees quickly came back to the Valley after the battles were over. Peace had returned, but not for long. The American meddling in Afghanistan in 1970s-80s had undermined stability. The Americans created Islamist insurgency to embroil the Russians in the fire of guerrilla war in neighbouring Afghanistan . Sparks of the insurgency ignited fire in North India , and soon the villages and towns were engulfed by fratricidal struggle. The Hindus were forced to leave Kashmir and move to Jammu and other places; many Muslims had left too, rather than being forced to serve the firebrand insurgents. Their empty, ruined or burned down houses still stick out in Srinagar and elsewhere, though many of the properties were sold for a song during the insurgency.
This was a tragic development. Kashmiris – Muslims and Pandits (as local Hindus are called) are ethnically and linguistically the same people, they have the same family names. My host in the Valley, Ustad Bashir Butt, told me of their affinities and of good neighbourhood relations. He is a devout Muslim, but there are Pandit Butts as well, sharing the same ancestry. Butts saved lives of their Pandit neighbours during the militants’ raids, though mainly they were preoccupied with staying alive. Disappearance of the Pandits is a tragedy for them, and for all Kashmiris.
Now Kashmir is calm and pleasant to visit. Militancy died out, but not many potential Western tourists know of it, and you may now enjoy summer in Srinagar for knock-down prices. There are newly prosperous Indian tourists from Bombay and Delhi , but Western tourists are rare. This is the best time to go to Srinagar , the valley’s summer capital.
A delightful place, to be sure, this town on the Dal Lake , in the shade of mighty Himalayas . It is often compared with Venice , but our Italian friend, who is a permanent resident there, corrected the image: Srinagar may become Venice , but meanwhile it is a Venice of AD 500. The canals and lagoons of the city are not yet fixed and built up and polished to perfection. Imagine the Grande Canale with fishermen’s huts instead of majestic palaces, the Piazza di San Marco covered with cucumber gardens and Rialto full of water lilies instead of pizza stands, and you’ll get the image of Srinagar .
The lake is covered with grass, and this grass is collected by local peasants who roam the lake on their small boats. The grass is used as fertiliser in their tiny gardens which produce amazing harvests. They build floating gardens, and cultivate every bit of land; the plentiful canals dissect the islands, so it is difficult to decide whether you view an island crossed by canals or a part of lake with floating gardens. These grass-collecting boats compete with local gondolas “shikaras” carrying tourists and sightseers and doing taxi job. The scene of this pre-Venice lagoon is very lively and quite unique.
Around the lake, there are magnificent formal gardens laid by the Mughals, and the mountains are nearby for trekking or fishing. The town is also a charming place, especially the house of British representative now turned into emporium of local arts and crafts. There is a strange place often described as “Jesus Tomb”. A local legend says that Jesus after resurrection moved to Srinagar and lived here, happily married, until his death. Perhaps it is the burial place of an early Christian preacher or an apostle. I have brought there the candles lit at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem , and left them at this sanctuary.
In the days of the Raj, the English colonial administrators loved to spend summer in Srinagar and other hill stations, but the Raja did not allow them to buy land for the houses they wanted. As a solution, the Brits turned to build luxurious houseboats, small floating palaces and villas. After Independence , they were gone, and the houseboats were extremely popular place for hippies and other travellers in 1970s and 80s. By the end of 80s, civil war was raging, and the hippies moved to Goa , but the houseboats remained.
[See illustrated version on the website www.israelshamir. net ]