Paradise regained: Kashmir blooms again
Last year J&K hosted 200,000 tourists â€” almost a ten-fold jump over the 27,000 in 2002. And in the current year the stateâ€™s tourism minister Ghulam Hasan Mir expects the inflow to top 400,000
Tourism, the mainstay of the northernmost state of Jammu & Kashmir (pop. 10 million) crippled by long years of militancy and civil unrest, is reviving. An aggressive promotional campaign of the state government coupled with tempting packages has prompted a resurgence of tourist inflow into the Kashmir Valley, even in the off-season winter months.
Last year the state hosted 200,000 tourists â€” almost a ten-fold jump over the 27,000 in 2002. And in the current year the stateâ€™s tourism minister Ghulam Hasan Mir expects the inflow to top an "unprece-dented level" of 400,000. The state government is giving top priority to tourism and helping the industry flourish like it did in its heyday, before the spurt in militancy in the early 1980s.
The year round flow of tourists and return of Bollywood film crews is regarded as an indicator of cooling temperatures of terrorist violence. The state has also introduced new products like golf and adventure tourism. After a gap of 20 years, the National Institute of Mountaineering started skiing courses this year. The valley also boasts an 18-hole golf course built at a cost of Rs.37 crore and designed by American expert Robert Trent Jr.
Geographically, J&K comprises the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and the districts of Ladakh and Zanskar spread over a total area of 318,937 sq.km. The great majority of tourists head for the Kashmir Valley, of which the stateâ€™s summer capital Srinagar with its picturesque Dal lake and fully- furnished houseboats are popular attractions. The Jammu, Ladakh and Zanskar districts are also high-potential tourist destinations, once Indo-Pakistan rivalry over the disputed status of Kashmir is resolved and peace is established in the region.
Foreigners including Sultans, Mughals, Afghans and Sikhs intermittently administered Kashmir, a Hindu kingdom until the 14th century. The Amritsar Treaty signed between the British and Maharaja Ranjit Singh on March 16, 1846 gave birth to the present state of Jammu & Kashmir. As per the treaty, Kashmir and all the hilly and mountainous regions situated eastward of river Ravi were ceded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the British government in lieu of indemnity to Maharaja Gulab Singh, a Dogra warlord of Jammu, who remained neutral in the battle between the British and Sikhs for a sum of Rs.75 lakh. Dogra rule over J&K ended in 1947 after the princely state acceded to India.
The verdant Kashmir Valley is bound by the main Himalayan range (northeast) and the Pir Panjal range (southwest) in northwestern India. The valley is an ancient lake basin 140 km long, and 32 km wide situated 5,300 ft above mean sea level. Drained by the upper Jhelum river, it is sheltered against the wet southwest monsoon by 12,000-16,000 ft high mountains which make the period June-September ideal holiday months.
Raj Taringini, a chronology of Kashmirâ€™s kings written by Kalhana, eulogises the beauty of Kashmir as being "as beautiful as Goddess Parvati manifest; and its owner is Lord Shiva Himself". Likewise Mughal Emperor Jehangir (17th century) was moved by the temperate climate and flora and fauna of the Kashmir Valley to exclaim "if there is paradise on this earth: it is this, it is this". The only site of saffron cultivation in South Asia, the state offers tourists awesome mountain vistas, lakes, meadows, treks and wildlife safaris.
Temperatures are influenced by altitude and in Srinagar average temperatures range between -2Â° C in January and 31Â° C in July. The stateâ€™s spectacular flora includes cedar, blue pine, walnut, willow, elm, and poplars upto altitudes of 7,000 ft; coniferous forests of fir, pine, and spruce upto 10,500 ft and above 12,000 ft are meadows blooming with rhododendrons and honeysuckle as well as dwarf willows. Golfing at 10,000 ft above sea level, water-skiing in the lakes and angling for prized rainbow trout, or simply drifting down the willow fringed lakes in shikaras and luxuriating in gorgeous houseboats are some of the most favoured pursuits.
Well connected by road and air with the rest of the country and Delhi in particular, Srinagar (pop. 725,000) is the usual starting point of a visitor to the Kashmir Valley. Sited on the confluence of the Dal lake and river Jhelum, Srinagar comprises the old city near Hari Parbat and the modern half further up the Jhelum. Set amid clear lakes and lofty mountains at an elevation of 5,200 ft, Srinagar is dominated by the river Jhelum, Dal and Nagin lakes. The Dal lake with its â€˜floating gardensâ€™ is a popular draw, as are the nearby Shalimar and Nishat gardens.
|Hazratbal Shrine, Srinagar|
The summer capital of the state, Srinagar is also the hub of a thriving carpet industry, in addition to silk, silverware, copperware, leather and woodcarving industries. While in the city visit the Hazratbal Shrine sited on the left bank of the Dal lake; it houses moi-e-muqqadas â€” the hair â€” of Prophet Mohammed revered by Muslims across the country. The Shankaracharya Temple, sited at 1,100 ft was constructed by Raja Gopadatya in 371 BC and is the oldest temple in Kashmir. Jamia Masjid in the heart of the city is an architectural wonder which can accommodate up to 30,000 people at a time. Hari Parbat Fort, built by the Afghan Governor Atta Mohammad Khan (1808-10) atop the Hari Parbat or Koh-e-Maraan hill, contains a beautiful temple.
East of the city is the Dal lake which actually is a conglomeration of lakes where the best houseboats with all the modcons are anchored. The lake is a visitorâ€™s delight and offers water skiing besides shikara and motorboat rides. Houseboats can be easily rented for overnight stay. While in the Dal lake area, take in the exquisite gardens built by the Mughals â€” Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh and Chashma Shahi. With terraced lawns, cascading fountains, paintbox-bright flowerbeds and the contiguous panorama of the Dal lake, these Mughal gardens are popular picnic spots.
|Dal Lake: visitorâ€™s delight|
Shalimar Bagh. Built by Emperor Jehangir for his wife Nur Jehan, this garden has four terraces, rising one above the other. A canal lined with polished stones and supplied with water from Harwan runs through the middle of the garden. Nishat Bagh. Situated on the banks of the Dal lake with the Zabarwan mountains as a backdrop, this â€˜garden of blissâ€™ commands a magnificent view of the lake and the snow capped Pir Panjal mountain range in the distant west of the valley. Chashma Shahi has commanding vistas of the Dal lake and surrounding mountain ranges.
Accommodation. Top-end: Broadway Hotel (Rs.2,800-3,500 per night), Centaur Lake View Hotel (Rs.3,700-4,400), Grand Palace Hotel (Rs.5,000-15,000). Mid-range: Akbar Hotel (Rs.850-1,200), Lake Isle Hotel (Rs. 850-1,500), Ahdooâ€™s Hotel (Rs. 800-1,200). Budget: Apsara Hotel (Rs.200-500), Coronation Hotel (Rs.150-400).
Excursions. Almost all districts of the Kashmir Valley are well connected with Srinagar. Some popular day excursions include: Pari Mahal, once a royal observatory, it is now a charmingly laid-out garden, illuminated at night. Situated on the spur of a mountain overlooking the Dal lake, this ancient monument was established as a school of astrology by Dara Shikoh, Mughal Emperor Shah Jehanâ€™s eldest son. Tomb of Sheikh Noor-ud-din-Noorani (28 km) is the shrine of sufi saint Nund Rishi. It was gutted in a devastating fire in 1995 when Pakistani terrorist Mast Gul ambushed the region. The shrine, an all-wooden structure, has been built afresh.
Gulmargâ€™s unsurpassed scenic beauty and proximity to Srinagar (52 km) makes it one of the premier hill resorts in the country. Originally known as â€˜Gaurimargâ€™ by shepherds, it was christened Gulmarg in the 16th century by Sultan Yusuf Shah, who was inspired by the sight of its grassy slopes emblazoned with wild flowers. The towering peaks above the flower-bedecked meadows are covered with dense forests of tall conifers and gigantic fir and pine trees, vying with each other to touch azure skies.
Known as the â€˜Queen of Meadowsâ€™, Gulmarg is a much sought after skiing destination and hosts the highest golf course in the world. The first ski club of India was set up here way back in 1927 by two British army officers, Maj. Metcarp and Maj. Hadow. Skiing is a popular adventure activity and the hill resort hosts two skiing events, during Christmas and Easter. The skiing season usually commences before Christmas (around mid December) and continues until mid April. In January-February, 1998 the first National Winter Games of India were held here, for which facilities were improved and upgraded. The ski resort boasts Kasse Bohrer snow beating machines and five snowmobiles. Good quality equipment, including skis, boots, sticks, gloves and goggles are available on hire from the government-run ski shop. Trained instructors are also available for guidance and coaching.
|Ski slopes of Gulmarg|
Accommodation. Top-end: Highlands Park (Rs.1,500-2,500 per night), Pine Palace (Rs.1,170-1,521), Hill Top (Rs.1,400-2,400). Mid-range: Green Heights (Rs.900-1,200), Gulmarg Inn (Rs.500-900), Shanu Lodge (Rs.800). Budget: Zam Zam (Rs.350), Poshwan (Rs.300), City View (Rs.200).
Excursions. A 40-minute trek from Gulmarg is Khilanmarg with its sweeping vistas of mountain peaks and the shimmering waters of Wular and other lakes. Alpather lake (13 km), a picturesque alpine triangular lake that remains frozen until late June, lies beyond the Apharwat peak. Ninglinallah (8 km), a mountain stream which flows from the snow bed and springs near Apharwat and Alpather through deep pine forests is an enchanting picnic spot. Baba Reshi, the shrine of Muslim saint Shukruddin, it is enclosed within beauti-ful lattice work shutters and surrounded by a verandah of carved deodar. Also highly recommended is a walk through the pine forests providing a sweeping view across the valley of the massifs of Nanga Parbat, Harmukh, Sunset Peak and Apharwat Ridge.
Situated at the confluence of the streams flowing from Sheshnag lake and the Lidder river, Pahalgam (7,029 ft) was once a village inhabited by shepherds. Now it is Kashmirâ€™s premier resort offering upscale accommodation and adventure activities. It is also closely associated with the annual Amarnath Yatra. Chandanwari (9,624 ft), 16 km from Pahalgam, is the starting point of the yatra performed every year in the month of July.
Pahalgam is a favourite destination of Bollywood directors for picturisaton of song and dance sequences. It offers several recreational pursuits that include horse riding, golf, fishing in the Lidder river and trekking.
|Pahalgam: Bollywood favourite|
Accommodation. Top End: Pine & Pick (Rs.2,500-5,000 per night), Heevan Hotel (Rs.1,500-3,000), Mansion Hotel (Rs.1,200-1,300). Mid-range: Hill Park Hotel (Rs.700-1,000), Shepherdâ€™s Hotel (Rs. 800), Grand View (Rs.600). Budget: White House (Rs.500), Brown Palace (Rs.500), Volga (Rs.400).
The quaint city of Jammu (pop. 260,000) is the stateâ€™s winter capital which experiences hot sweltering summers and cool pleasant winters, making it a popular draw among tourists during the cold months. Though Jammu comprises two towns â€” the old city nestling atop a hill overlooking the river Tawi and the new town across the river â€” its area is only 20.36 sq km.
Little is known of Jammuâ€™s ancient history. The earliest recorded history dates to 1730 AD when the region came under the rule of the Dogra king, Raja Dhruv Deva. The Dogra rulers moved their capital to the present site and Jammu became an important centre of art and culture, especially the Pahari school of painting. Today Jammu has earned the sobriquet â€˜City of templesâ€™ thanks to its myriad temples and shrines with their glittering shikharas soaring into the sky.
The Raghunath Mandir comprising a cluster of shrines is the largest temple complex in northern India and a popular attraction. Its inner sanctums contain gigantic statues of deities and numerous lingas. Another famous temple in the city is Bawey Wali Mata inside the Bahu Fort, and definitely worth seeing is the Mahamaya temple opposite the Bahu Fort, built in honour of a Dogra princess who lost her life fourteen centuries ago, fighting foreign invaders. The Peer Kho cave shrine, Panchbakhtar and Ranbireshwar are other well-known Shaivite temples.
Peer Mitha is the most venerated Muslim shrine in Jammu. Peer Mitha was a contemporary of Ajaib Dev and Ghareeb Nath â€” revered for their power of prophecy and performing miracles.
Other interesting monuments in Jammu are the majestic Bahu Fort â€” the oldest edifice in the region, surrounded by terraced gardens, waterfalls and flower beds. Take in the Amar Mahal Palace sited on a plateau overlooking the river Tawi. This grand palace with its sloping roofs and tall towers has been converted into a museum which houses the cityâ€™s finest library of antique books and paintings. An entire series of miniatures on the epic Nal-Damayanti can be viewed in the museum.
|Amar Mahal Palace, Jammu|
Shopping. The narrow crowded lanes of Raghunath Bazaar comprise the busiest shopping area in Jammu. On offer are attractive Kashmiri handicrafts, traditional Dogra jewellery and dry fruits such as walnuts, almonds, raisins etc. Jammu is also known for the superlative quality of its basmati rice, rajma (red beans), ampapar (dried and candied mango peel), anardana (dried pomegranate seed) and barfi (milk sweets).
Accommodation. Top End: Hotel Asia (Rs.1,500-4,500 per night), Hotel Jammu Ashok (Rs.1,200-4,500), Hotel Hari Niwas Palace (Rs.1,000-4,500). Mid-range: Samrat Hotel (Rs.350-1,200), Hotel Mansar (Rs.250-1,000), Hotel Premier (Rs.200-1,000); Budget. Indra Lodge (Rs.150-550), Green View Lodge (Rs.100-400), Khorana Lodge (Rs.100-350).
Excursions. Ex Jammu there are several accessible day and weekend getaway options. Katra (50 km) is the base camp for a pilgrimage to the revered shrine of Mata Vaishnodevi in the Trikuta hills. The shrine, approachable only on foot via a steep uphill 12 km path, is thronged by nearly 4 million faithfuls annually. Kud (106 km) is a scenic picnic resort on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Patnitop (112 km) is perhaps the most attractive and well-developed hill resort in the state. Perched on a plateau at an altitude of 6,679 ft and enveloped by thick pine forests, Patnitop is the vantage point for panoramic valley views of the Chenab basin and has enchanting camping locales. Kishtwar High Altitude National Park (216 km) is interesting for its marked variations in topography and vegetation. Spread over an area of 400 sq. km, the park has over 15 species of exotic mammals including the musk deer and Himalayan black and brown bear and over 50 species of birds.
Adventure sports in J&K
Trekking. A wide range of trekking options are available in the valley. The Sundarani-Jangal Gali-JasarKote-Sanasar route is one of the more popular ones. The state tourism department hires out trekking equipment such as rucksacks, tents, feather jackets etc against security deposits. Several travel agencies also offer trekking packages in the valley. For more details about the various trek routes in the state refer to the elaborate trekking brochure prepared by JKTDC.
. Gulmarg, Patnitop, Pahalgam are among the favoured skiing locales for beginners as well as experts. Introductory skiing courses are conducted on the gentle slopes of Patnitop during January-February. Accommodation for skiers is also available in huts owned by JKTDC at Patnitop, Kud and Sanasar.
|Lidder river: anglerâ€™s paradise|
Aero sports. Paragliding and parasailing have been introduced at Sanasar and Jammu. The tourist office at Jammu hires out equipment and also provides trained guides to help enthusiasts. May-June and September-October are best suited for paragliding.
Fishing. The Lidder river is an anglerâ€™s delight. The fishing season stretches from April to September. Permits are issued for a maximum of three days on a first-come-first-serve basis. Fishing equipment can be hired in Srinagar. For permits contact the Directorate of Fisheries, Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar.