“Jai Mata Dee!” is the chant that reverberates in my ears every time I close my eyes and command my mind to relive the experience that is “Mata Vaishno Devi”. When couple of years back, the thought of wanting to someday make my way up to Her shrine, crossed my mind, little did I imagine that Mata’s “Bulawa” would indeed arrive one day; and braving all odds I would eventually find myself in her “Durbar”. And then, what I felt on meeting Her for this very first time and in the company of Her thoughts when making my way up and back from the hill which is Her abode, is too personal to be shared. I’m sure everyone who has had the good fortune of Mata’s “Darshan” would have experienced this sense of tranquility and more importantly, belonging, that cannot be put into words. And that is just how my trip to Kashmir and Mata’s shrine culminated.
In fact, Kashmir itself had been an aspirational travel destination, for me all through these years. I somehow could imagine taking myself on journeys throughout the length and breadth of my country, to the enchanting far north east and to the islands down south even. But for some reason, not linked to money, Kashmir just didn’t seem attainable and always felt to be out of my reach. When planning for the family vacation this year, after having considered and weighed my options of trips to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and the Andaman, I don’t remember exactly how I mustered up the courage to slowly peak into what a week in Kashmir would entail. Being lured by the teaser, I was usurped into the travel research in no time, increasingly realizing how none of the other destinations in my mind impressed me as much as Kashmir did.
As the flight entered the airspace of Jammu & Kashmir, the visual treat offered by the fluffy clouds adorned by bright sunshine soon gave way to the huge expanse of sprawling green meadows, and mountains dotted with tall coniferous trees. And that in a way, was the moment that finally confirmed to my mind – “Yes, Kashmir has finally happened!”
We arrived in Srinagar during the holy month of Ramadan, and just 3 days before Eid al-Fitr, owing to which the main city roads were chock-a-block with hordes of cars and people rushing to complete their festival shopping. What the driver took was a very roundabout route to avoid this traffic, and what this long winding route through the narrow lanes of Srinagar offered was a first glimpse of day to day life here. The wooden houses with metallic slanting roofs that gleamed in the strong afternoon sun, and the distinctly handsome Kashmiri men in their spic white Pathanis are the two most prominent memories that stand out in my mind from that day.
‘Jewel of Kashmir’ was the name of the houseboat company. The first thought to cross my mind as I stepped into this houseboat on the Nagin lake, was how different it was from the one on Alleppey (Kerala) which I lived in for 2 days in July 2012. While the cane work attributed to the beautiful simplicity of the Alleppey houseboats, it was the artistic walnut wood work that lent the Kashmiri houseboats their grandiose. But the best part of this houseboat was the little sit out that let me gaze dreamily at the large expanse of the Nagin lake, watching random ducks pop up their heads for brief seconds before plunging into the water again. Given the holy month, the soothing sound of the Azaan that was heard almost throughout the day from the various mosques around the Nagin lake settlements, added to the romanticism. The serene calm was interrupted only by a few random shikaras that drew up to sell you anything from Kesar (saffron) to Kashmiri jewellery to tiny hand-crafted wooden keepsakes. The evening ride on the slowly drifting shikara, which was aimless, in the sense that no destination was planned to be reached, but with the only objective of cruising on the lake drinking in its beauty and then that of the sun setting over its waters, along with the imposing Zabarwan mountains in the background, is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
At Gulmarg, the uphill drive up to the starting point for the Gondola ride to Khilanmarg was a long winding one, but needless to say, very picturesque nevertheless. The path was adorned with Pine trees all around, and little carpets of tiny white flowers growing wild here and there. I found the Gondola ride to be a fairly organized affair, the only annoyance being the countless touts that follow you undeterred, offering pony rides and guides. As the gondola climbed up to Khilanmarg, which is supposed to be one of the world’s highest cable car rides, the eyes were met with unparalleled beauty of the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance, and the tops of the tall pine trees below my feet. The place was fairly crowded with tourists and touts, and it was an effort to try seeing beyond all of them to let myself immerse in the sheer beauty of the place.
As the car pulled through the long journey from Srinagar to Pahalgam, the scene suddenly lit up with the gushing waters of the Lider that greeted us at Pahalgam, and then stayed with all us all throughout our stay here. Pahalgam is completely picture postcard material. Mountain ranges adorned by Deodars and Pines for as far as you can see, and the Lider flowing through the valley made for sights to be treasured forever. Aru valley, which was some 12-15 kms from the hotel we were put up at, is easily one of the most scenic places I have seen till date. I thought it quite enviable to be living in one of the little villages at a place like Aru, but only once I saw the military camp further down the road that reality striked. While doing some solo wandering and soul searching on the hills of Aru, I met two school teachers from Ladakh. We exchanged notes on our Kashmir travels, and talked about our professions and everyday lives back in the real world. They were of the view that while Ladakh was beautiful in its own right, nothing beats the alpine beauty of this part of the state.
It is said that Kashmir offers one with contrasting different beauties during different seasons of the year. I, for one, am most certainly smitten with what I saw during the warmer months in the valley. So till the time I undertake the final journey to the one up above, I know there is this other piece of “Jannat” (Heaven) right here on earth, that I will always want to go back to and experience over and over again.