Chicken, rice and the traditional saag were packed in our picnic baskets. It was a day-long trip – food wouldn’t be available on the way. We left our guesthouse in Reshwari and walked to the assembly point, 10 minutes away. Ours was the last pick-up.
We had registered for this trip the previous day by submitting our identity cards and photographs. A tourism officer and his wife were also visiting Reshwari. They had asked us if we would be interested in visiting the shrine of Peer Baba. We had just returned from the Amarnath yatra and weren’t really kicked about another religious trip so soon.
However, this was a day-long trip. And saying no to a chance of visiting a place we’d never heard of is sacrilege. We agreed to join them on this “outing” to Peer Baba.
A “convoy” to visit Peer Baba’s shrine
Soon, a fleet of seven Tata Sumos arrived. Each jeep had a list of passengers put up on the front. We were supposed to sit in the jeep assigned to us. We were impressed with the management of the tour company in this small village of Reshwari in northern Kashmir.
The assembly point turned out to be gates of the Indian Army post. We were greeted by an officer, dressed impeccably in his Indian Army uniform. It was our first time shaking hands with an officer on duty. He asked us all to be seated in the jeeps. “Trucks aate hi honge”, (Trucks will be here soon), he said.
We assumed the trucks would be carrying supplies for the villages near the Peer Baba shrine. Since it was such a remote place that access to basic necessities would be tough, we figured.
Instead, what arrived were two trucks of the Indian Army. The seven jeeps now also started moving ahead, led and trailed by these trucks! This wasn’t a group tour – this was a convoy!
Slowly, the reality of it all started becoming clear. This “trip” was actually a Sadbhavana yatra conducted by the Indian army for the locals of villages in and around Reshwari. They conduct this for fifteen days every year. Otherwise, this shrine is off-limits for the civilians.
Talk of being at the right place at the right time!
Travelling beyond civilian limits
Ten minutes into the drive, we reached the end of Reshwari – and civilisation. We were now in the restricted zone. Only the army staff was allowed beyond this point. Once in a while, a cow or sheep belonging to the Gujjars (a nomadic tribe in Kashmir) would stray off into the mountains here. All these Gujjars were given identity cards – and their animals wore a registration mark. If someone without these was found in the mountains – well, it was stuff that made it to the national news.
“Look to your left”, said the local manager who was also in our jeep. We were looking at the Tej post of the Indian Army. And on its grounds was the Bofors gun. We had still not warmed up to the reality of our situation. Naively (read stupidly!), we asked if it was “kept there for display”. “No, it’s kept ready for action”, was the answer we got!
The landscape around was one of the best we had seen in over a month in Kashmir. Mountain slopes filled with big yellow flowers – the kinds that only nature can manicure. The winding road was lined with deodars, apple or apricot trees and some medicinal plants.
We were now gaining height or in mountain talk – climbing up a pass. Twisted, winding and narrow – it was correctly called the “Jalebi moad”.
The guy now pointed to tall thin papyrus trees on the mountain slope. Midway through the mountainside, however, was abruptly barren. We remarked that it looked like the trees in between had caught some infection. Again, we were completely wrong. It was true that the trees there had burnt out. Not by disease, though. It was by the shelling that happens frequently from the top of the mountains on both sides!
On a stretch funnily called TMG – Tutmari gully, it felt our jeeps were moving ahead with a lot of resistance. Sure enough, the roads here had some magnets put under them. This restricted the speed of any vehicle – yours or the enemy’s.
Here, the army served us a lavish breakfast spread – bhajias, wadas, sandwiches, tea, coffee et al.
Post breakfast, we started descending the mountain. On this side, they called it the “101 moad”, for the 101 apparent turns in the mountain. The road here was pretty much a gravel path. Our jeeps rattled side to side, depending on the turn we had to negotiate. It was a roller coaster ride, to say the least. The army officer’s wife busied herself with prayers. Chants of “Bismillah” and “khuda” filled the jeep. We wanted to count and verify the name 101, but after 20 we were too dizzy to count straight.
Up-close-personal view of LOC
“Look here, that’s the Indian picket”, the manager in front would point to one mountain top. “Right now that belongs to Pakistan”, he would inform a few turns later. At one point we spotted the characteristic shiny tinned roofs houses in the villages of Kashmir have. We were surprised since civilians weren’t supposed to live here. When we spoke our surprise out loud, we were told that those were indeed houses. Just that – these villages were the ones beyond the LOC.
The descent took over an hour. We were now at the bottom of the valley. Soon, all our jeeps had to be parked. We now had to trek through a forest to reach a place called the Kaiyan bowl. The name indicated the physical appearance of the place – the mountains surrounding us were like the sides of a bowl, and we were now at its base.
We were listening to all these tales of war while walking through a dense forest. After around 15 minutes, the forest cleared. There was now a lake in front of us. The same army officer who was telling us stories of war now started telling us stories of Peer Baba. Peer Baba had apparently thrown a stone here and a lake had sprung up. All our fellow passengers had already queued up outside a room. In the room was the shrine of Peer Baba.
Inside, everyone stood around the shrine offering their prayers. Some chanting, others just sitting quietly. When it was time, they all stood in the prescribed direction and did their namaz in the presence of Peer Baba’s shrine. Everyone was in high spirits – delighted that they had finally had this rare darshan.
Even the army jawans held the Peer Baba in high regard. Irrespective of where they came from, what beliefs they adhered to back home – this was where they fought life and death on a daily basis. The peace, the exuberance, the happiness that we saw at Peer Baba’s shrine defied the fact that the LOC was only 25 meters away. It was where nothing – least of all life – could be taken for granted.
Peer Baba’s shrine then became their tranquil oasis – a place to put their head down to, to draw strength, to celebrate – or mourn.
It was late evening by the time we got back to Reshwari. It hadn’t been one of those days you calmly reminisce about at the end of the day. Going so close to the LOC itself was stuff wild dreams are made of. In a region filled with so much uncertainty, to experience the common bond of heartfelt devotion – it was a paradox we had the privilege to witness.
PS: We do not have many images from this journey because when the Indian Army says “Photography not permitted”, you don’t try to trick them.