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Monday, July 23, 2012

Sonmarg (Kashmir)

Memories of Sonmarg bring shivers into my spines. I am just recapitulating the enthusiasm we had while proceeding to this place which withered away eventually. That could have been one of the most enjoyable trips but we underwent extreme suffering due to our own faults and lack of proper guidance. Sonmarg which means 'Meadow of Gold' lies some 87 kilometres North East of Srinagar on the highway leading to Leh in Laddakh (topmost area of India). If one continues the journey on that highway for another  9 kilometres, one would reach Joji La (Pass) which is a vital link between Srinagar and Leh. Since we were not heading towards Leh, we stopped at Sonmarg. An important glacier known as Machoi is approachable from here at a distance of 8 kilometres towards the right. The melting ice of the glacier forms a river known as Sindhu which flows for 108 kilometres and becomes a tributary of the river Jhelam. On the way to Sonmarg this river flows parallel to the highway (NH 1D) most of the time and affords a beautiful view against the backdrop of the mountain ranges. The flowing waters, greenery created by the Pine trees and other vegetation makes the drive enjoyable. We were happy for we thought we were seeing the famous river Indus (called Sindhu in India) but we were mistaken. The river Indus has its origin in Tibet and passing through Laddakh it flows through Pakistan.

On 8th June 2012 we had our breakfast in the morning at Srinagar and could reach Sonmarg by Noon. There were several temporary shops on the left providing overcoats, hand gloves, woollen caps, gum boots etc. on a rental basis. The ground in front had wet mud all around and was slushy, a place for all the ponies waiting for customers. The shops there arrange for everything you need, including ponies.  The economic principle of demand and supply becomes operational when it comes to determination of  per head charges. It is obvious that it varies from time to time.

It was drizzling when we reached there but soon the sky was clear and the weather looked inviting. We geared ourselves putting on the overcoats and other things and finally were on the horse back for the 8 kilometre ride. The caravan proceeded towards the glacier scaling the steep ups. While we were mid way, it started raining. We were wearing woollen overcoats which got soaked in rain water and created discomfort. By the time we were at the foot of the glacier, we were completely drenched and shivering because of extreme cold. All of us were riding a horse/pony for the first time in life. Fortunately at the point we got down, there were numerous temporary sheds where hot tea was available. There was a fire place where we could get some warmth. But that was  of no avail because the moment we got out it was a back to square one situation.

The glacier stood before us and some how we prepared ourselves for the climb. You are pulled up on a sledge which is a wooden plank by the people rendering this service. Their charges are also negotiable. There are some imaginary points across the glacier viz, 6, 12, 24 and so on. One could choose any one of them and the farther you wish to be carried, you need to pay more. We settled for a point described as 24. The journey upwards over the sledge was cumbersome as you need to balance yourself. I fell down twice. We were still shivering and the height at 13500 feet had a telling effect. Abruptly, even before we could reach the so called point 6, the man pulling the sledge asked us to get down and cover the steep stretch by foot. We did the short trek but then got exhausted. We were unable to breathe properly. There was no strength left to go any further. We settled ourselves on the snow unable to make any movements. There were cries in the air. A child aged 9 or 10 was weeping profusely. We then decided to return back. Even on our way back we got thrown out of the sledge because of the steep slide.

Ready to go back
We came back to have another round of hot tea and getting some warmth at the fireplace of the tea shops. Looking back at the glacier we realized the beauty of the place but failed to appreciate it to the extent it deserved because of fatigue, physical as also mental. Now we were looking for our horses/ponies and they got located soon. While returning from the glacier, over the horse back, we were going down and at many places it was very steep. It seemed to be a very tiring exercise to remain at 90 degrees and balancing ourselves while the horse was  manoeuvring  through very narrow passages circumventing large boulders, stones and cavities. Finally we reached the place where our vehicles were parked.

Our driver immediately came to our rescue. He pulled out our gum boots and socks and to our horror we found ice pieces coming out along with water. Thereafter we removed the drenched overcoat and other things which were sent back to the shop owner. We also removed our shirts and pants and  got seated inside our vehicles. The heater was turned on and we were feeling better after 10/15 minutes.

We had observed that there was a good road going to the glacier from Sonmarg but only the local vehicles (other than taxies) were permitted. Probably this practice is in vogue so as to enable the local horse/pony keepers to make a living.

The greatest blunder we committed was by not insisting for rain coats. The weather conditions in high altitudes are not predictable. But then we were provided with woollens only which got drenched and created all the problems.

While returning to Srinagar, we stopped at a wayside restaurant and had our late but hot lunch. The Alu Parathas (bread with potatoes) was heavenly.
Nevertheless it was an experience more akin to an adventure.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jamia Masjid (Mosque) - Srinagar

After having visited Hazratbal, we thought of going to the Jamia Masjid (Mosque) at Srinagar. However, our driver had some reservations. He informed that the Mosque is at the centre of the old part of the city and is a disturbed area. Cannot be considered to be very safe. Then he remembered that it was a Thursday and not a Friday. Fridays are special  when the area is fully crowded for the prayers at the Mosque. (Before I could make out a post, there was a news that a 300 year old “Dastagir Sahib”a holy shrine of the Sufi order, went into flames under mysterious circumstances. To contain the violence that followed, curfew has been clamped through out Kashmir. Even people have been restrained from offering their Friday prayers at Jamia Mosque on the 29th June) Therefore the driver obliged us and took us through the streets of the old city. From an otherwise thinly populated areas we were proceeding  towards high density area. 

The houses and buildings on our way  had a an old world charm and we could not resist clicking our cameras. Soon we noticed a tall tower at a distance resembling that of a church but then our driver corrected us saying that it is the Jamia Masjid.

We were now crossing a main road to go down. The mosque was at a lower elevation and now it was in full view. The main entrance is from the Southern side. The mosque seems to have had entrances from North and East as well. There is a broad lane surrounding the mosque with show rooms and shops on one side stocking items ranging from cloth, utensils, handicrafts and other domestic needs. It is said that the market here is cheaper as they primarily cater to the needs of the local population.

The arched doorway is huge but then the pagoda type superstructure  resembles that of a Buddhist shrine. There are no domes and minarets which we generally find associated with mosques. Practically all mosques in Kashmir are devoid of domes. The mosque is supposed to be a unique representation of the Indo-Saracenic architecture.

On entering through the main doorway, we find a magnificent square courtyard with well maintained lawns and ornamental trees. Towards the West is the main prayer hall wherefrom the Imam (Head Priest) directs the congregation. Just in front of the main prayer area there is a large square pool with flowing water used for ritual washing of hands before entering the hall for praying. There is a LED display board inside which shows the exact timings for the 5 times a day  prayers. This main complex is surrounded by a very broad corridor on the other three sides with fully carpeted flooring.

The Jamia Masjid is located in the Nowhata area of Srinagar. This was got constructed by the local ruler Sultan Sikandar in the year 1400. Later extensions were carried out by his son Jain-ul-Abidin. As said earlier the architecture is of Indo-Saracenic type. As a matter of fact it is an amalgam of Gothic, Mughal and Indian styles. Here they have used fully baked bricks for the whole construction. It has a wooden ceiling over which corrugated tin sheets have been placed angularly to facilitate easy clearance of snow during winters. the ceiling is supported by 370 very tall pillars made of pine timber. The mosque has a capacity to accommodate a congregation of 33333 people under its roof. Unfortunately this mosque too had to suffer great amount of loss due to fire which broke out at least thrice so far. The last renovation after a major fire was carried out by a Hindu ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh during the later part of 16th century.

Amongst all the mosques we have seen in India, this one is unique and justly called the pride of Srinagar.

Hazratbal (Srinagar)

Very close to the Nishat Baug at Srinagar there is a very famous place known as Hazratbal. Once it was a village which now is a suburban locality of Srinagar. “Bal” literally means  a place and it is some times misconstrued as “Baal” meaning “hair”. Hazratbal if literally translated could mean a holy place. Interestingly it does have an association with the  “hair” of the Prophet Mohammed, the precursor of Islam. It is believed by the muslim community of Kashmir that a strand of hair from Prophets beard is preserved at a shrine thereat which is also referred to as Hazratbal. A gang of terrorists even occupied the shrine with an intent to take away the holy relic and in the shoot out that followed, the security forces succeeded in eliminating them. Even thereafter there had been few skirmishes. Now it seems that peace has finally dawned. There are hundreds of pigeons here and people say that the white ones, representing peace, are on an increase. Because the entire area is sensitive, security forces have been posted at the shrine.

The structure as it appeared in 1920
The holy relic gets exposed to public view five times a day for the whole week during during Eid-e-milad and Meraj-un-nabi celebrations. Thousands throng to this shrine during those occasions just to have a glimpse of the relic. It is said that during the beginning of the 17th century a high official of Shahjahan’s court got constructed a beautiful building (Isshrat Mahal) with gardens spread out. In those days the surrounding area was known as Sadiqabad. When Shahjahan visited the place in 1634 he ordered the building to be used as a prayer hall. Historians are of the view that the relic was brought to India from Medina by one Syed Abdulla a descendant of the Prophet, who settled down at Bijapur in Karnataka. After his death the relic came into the possession of his son Syed Hamid. But then the area came under the attack of Mughals who annexed it. During the turmoil, Syed Hamid lost all his properties and was not able to take care of the family relic. He, therefore, sold it to a rich Kashmiri merchant named Khwaja Nur-ud-din Eshai. When Aurangazeb (Mughal emperor) came to know about this, he got the holy relic confiscated and sent it to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer. Nur-ud-din Eshai was arrested for possessing the relic and jailed at Lahore (now in Pakistan). It seems that after some time Aurangazeb’s conscience deplored his own actions and then he decided to return the relic to it’s owner Nur-ud-din and set him free. However by that time Nur-ud-din, while in jail,  had already departed to his heavenly abode.

It was in 1699 that the remains of Nur-ud-din Eshai’s body as also the holy relic were brought to Kashmir. Inayat Begam, daughter of Nur-ud-din got the remains of her father’s body cremated and a shrine erected at Hazratbal. She also took the holy relic under her protection. The present structure made of marble was constructed by the Muslim Aukaf Trust administered by Sheikh Abdulla (a renowned politician of yester years). The construction started in 1968 and got completed in 1979. The shrine, apart from religious activities, was also a nerve centre of all political activities at Srinagar. Sheikh Abdulla used to address the public from this venue and became very popular. After his death, his son Dr. Farooq Abdulla desired to have  control over the affairs of the shrine but terrorists had a upper hand from 1990 onwards. The shrine proved to be a safe heaven for them.

We roamed about the residential areas adjoining the Shrine and then proceeded towards the left. The road was going down, not steep though. To our right there was one opening leading towards the left side of the Holy Shrine. Amidst a well laid our lawn, there were some ornamental trees.  The main dome of the shrine had scaffoldings and it appeared that some restoration/repairs were being undertaken. There was a group of Kashmiri women at the extreme end of the lawn singing and rejoicing. We asked a gentleman there, probably belonging to that group, about the happenings. We were told that a family from a nearby village had no issues and they had prayed at the Shrine earlier. As a result a baby was born and that the family has brought the child here and were expressing their gratitude. We sought their permission to take few photographs and they gladly agreed. After enjoying their traditional group song with the accompaniments, we proceeded towards the shrine. There were not many tourists. Most of the people there were local women who were entering a side hall to offer their prayers. We had a peep through a window. When we were proceeding towards the front side, we encountered few security personnel. We once again enquired if it would be proper for us to take photographs. We were advised not to do so inside the hall leading to the main Shrine (tomb). There was a covered porch outside through which we could enter the main hall, The hall was fully decorated and carpeted and looked like the hall of a church without the seating arrangement (benches). Thereafter we came out and we were on the main street after passing through an arched gate.

The visitors from different parts of country generally  pay a visit to the shrine. In the past, even the political delegations, including from the BJP, also made it a point in the past to pay obeisance at the shrine. Former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Presidents Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and APJ Kalam had also visited the shrine. But now a days It seems that tourists are not very comfortable coming here as it is perceived that any thing could happen anytime.

Here is a small video:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nishat Bagh and Harwan Garden (Srinagar)

After having spent about 2 hours at Chashme Shahi we had to return taking the same road via the Governor’s residence (Raj Bhawan). The second largest  Mughal garden known as Nishat Bagh was again located on the main road on the  Eastern bank of Dal Lake with the same Zabarwan mountain ranges as its backdrop. The waters flowing out of the garden has been made to slide down from about 15 feet high into a rectangular pool by the side of the road.

Once upon a time the waters straight away  fell into the lake but now there is the road in between. Nishat Bagh literally means a garden of joy or merriment which was got created by Asif Khan the brother of Noor Jehan (Mughal Empress) in the year 1633. It is rectangular in shape running some 1800 feet towards the mountains with a width of over 1100 feet.  The mountain slope has 12 terraces, representing the Zodiacal signs. There is a mountain spring at the top which has been made to flow down through water channels built with polished stone. There are pools on every segment of the terrace with beautiful fountains. The entire length of the water channel also has fountains at regular intervals.

There was a large crowd at the ticket counter and almost all of them were Indians. We too joined them and after getting our tickets we could gain entry. At the far end there were large Chinar and Cypress trees. Their number seems to have dwindled and instead a new variety of flowering trees have come up whith a lotus like large fragrant white flowers identified as “Magnolia Grandiflora”. They are known as “Him Champa” in Hindi.

The long water channel with pools and fountains and flower beds were really a feast to our eyes. Our group members were not very much inclined to explore all the terraces fully as it seemed that their earlier visit to Chasme Shahi was very much fulfilling. In fact the upper reaches are said to be much more beautiful. However, the group as a whole was not keen to invest more time here and wanted to move to other destinations. It was some thing like a kind of  dictatorship of the proletariat. The majority had the say.

After having visited Nishat Bagh we were to visit Shalimar Gardens as per schedule but before we could take our seats in our vehicles the group members started shouting in unison. The question was what is going to be there except the same flora and fauna. Sensing disinclination to visit Shalimar Gardens, our driver said “well I shall take you to a place which is different and  not visited by any one except the locals”. It was again a garden, couple of decades old and not centuries. The location of Harwan garden was  beneath a dam.

By the time we reached there and came out of the vehicles, it was drizzling. We procured our entry tickets and got in. We realized after our entry that what the driver was suggesting was nevertheless true. There were no outsiders there excepting ourselves and it looked as if this garden is reserved for Kashmiris. Interestingly we could not come across any of the locals in the two gardens we visited earlier as if they have developed a kind of apathy for them. May be they needed seclusion but here we are clearly encroaching upon their territory.

The garden has neat pathways with arched gates. There were climbing roses adoring the arches in full bloom and looked heavenly. The waters from the dam ran through a deep channel on one side passing through several  age old shady Chinar  trees. However the leaves resembled a Maple. The greenery all around captivated us. Several school children were on a visit that day. There were many girls sitting under a Chinar tree and singing together. Some Kashmiri families were also enjoying their picnic  lunch.

It was drizzling but unmindful of our getting wet we climbed up the dam and could enjoy the beautiful view at the far end though it was a little foggy. The earthen slope of the dam also had a nursery of rose plants and some of them were also in bloom. Some school girls ventured to go inside to have a closer look at the flowers. We found that the girls were keen to have them photographed in their traditional attire. This facility was being provided by a photographer at the garden.

Yes it was a different experience and we had the satisfaction of having visited a place which is not frequented by tourists.

We were hungry and it was time for lunch too. We moved on and got down in front of a restaurant on the banks of Dal Lake. Our garden visits thus came to an end.