In the lap of such bountiful natural beauty, we wondered what life is really like. Turns out, the answer wasn’t so straightforward.
The valley has been stuck in an internal strife for ever now. Life here reminds us of a bygone era. Stories of struggle and loss in the midst of what feels like heaven is a paradox too difficult to digest. For this reason, our visit to the valley was an intense experience.
And yet, the people’s hospitality far surpassed anything we had ever imagined. From a fruit seller who offered us tea to our co-passengers insisting we stay with them, not in hotels. A tourism officer and his wife we chanced upon meeting, not only showed us around but also took us home and had us stay in their children’s room. Another one asked us if we were sure we weren’t falling short of funds!
This story is an attempt to showcase the beautiful people from a beautiful place.
First up, the kids from Kashmir
You would have met some earlier in our story “Kids of the Hills…“.
Their rosy cheeks, bright red lips, and kohl-lined eyes made us wonder why parents would apply makeup to such little kids. Soon we realised our foolishness. The “make up” was in fact put by nature!
Cheeks as red as the luscious apples that grow here and eyes that talked volumes, we were smitten by the kids at first sight!
Envy their playgrounds?
These were Rauf’s older brothers, Shabbir and Younis. From our tourist bungalow in Chatpal (a village so remote, our accommodation had yet to receive electricity) we saw them running down the slope. They were chasing down a metal ring. One whose ring didn’t fall off was the winner of this game. Realising they had an appreciative audience, they upped their game and made it faster.
Shabbir, the eldest was very protective of his younger brothers. He was the one who made the introductions and gave us permission to take their photos. He made sure his brothers were seen properly in all the photos.
We had such a great time with these kids! They wanted to show off their skills and asked us if we would shoot that as well. Skills included high jumps from the rocks and some somersaults.
After a while, their dad arrived and they all had to leave to accompany their flock of sheep in the hills.
As we said our goodbyes, Shabbir asked us when we would be visiting again. I gave a vague answer of sometime next year. His response was, “Get these photos then. Okay, bye bye, see you!”
On a cold and rainy day in Chatpal, this was a warm endearing encounter!
So different, and still the same!
On the face of it, everything about life here was different than life as we know it. But a little conversation and the simple similarities were evident.
Like, the rules this girl had to follow in the school she went to.
They had never seen people with a camera pass through their village. Understandably, they got curious and were bold enough to initiate a conversation.
We were as eager and excited about this chance of an interaction with the locals from such a remote village in Kashmir.
There was a wedding in the village the previous day, for which Mahajibin had put mehendi (henna) on her hands. Her daughter, however, couldn’t, since it wasn’t permitted in her school. It was reminiscent of the times the exact same thing had happened to us during our school years in the metropolis of Mumbai!
Looks like rules are rules, no matter where your school is!
Post school hours, open meadows, fields, banks of streams, any piece of open land was good enough to be a cricket ground.
Of course, theirs were the most picturesque makeshift cricket grounds!
We met one such rather large Gujjar family while walking up a hilly trail. While we stopped at their hut for a cup of namkeen chai (salted tea), the father peered curiously into our camera.
After a family portrait, he made a request for one special picture – a photo with his youngest daughter. No prizes for guessing who his favourite family member was.
Fathers and daughters everywhere really do share a special bond!
Hookah, an integral part of life in Kashmir
Verinag, a small town in South Kashmir offers such a place. Old men, attired traditionally, in firan (loose woolen coat), with kangdi (basket with red-hot charcoal pieces) keeping them warm, sharing a hookah/sheesha is as idyllic as it gets.
On the far left is the butcher. He had just finished cleaning a cow. If you observe closely, you will notice the blood under his nails.
Rashid Dar, was our guide on a forest trek near Yusmarg.
On the way, a Gujjar woman asked us if we wanted to taste some roti that she was selling. Having never tasted a milk roti before, we went to their hut and spent some time with this family.
Rashid bhai grabbed this opportunity to ask for some hookah. The family also gladly obliged.
He had lived quite an adventurous life so far. The forests surrounding Yusmarg were like his backyard and he was an expert at finding trails in the forest. The army had used his expertise during the turbulent times.
He was one of the many people in Kashmir we heard lament about the reducing snowfall each year and how this would eventually cause the streams to dry out. According to him, Allah was watching it all and this was his way of punishing people for their greed and bad behaviour.
The previous day we had asked him if it was likely to rain up in the hills when we went there. His reply? “Agar humein pata hota, to hum khuda hotey” – if I knew this, I would be God!
Animals are a very important part of life in Kashmir
For many families, the animals – mainly sheep and horses are a major source of livelihood. For them, life revolves around their flocks.
Kungwatar is a place off the maps, let alone the tourist circuit. A couple of our local co-passengers had suggested it to us.
As we started walking towards Kungwatar, we realised we had several Pahadi families for company. They were all shifting up to Kungwatar to stay with their flock.
Pahadi translates to “mountain people”. Like the Gujjars, they are a nomadic group from Kashmir. With only as many belongings as would fit on a horse, for them, shifting bases was really no big deal. It was their way of life.
When we said we couldn’t walk all the way to Kungwatar as we hadn’t come prepared for an overnight stay, they said we were welcome to stay with them – if we could adjust to their makeshift homes. These would essentially be a sheet of tarpaulin pitched like a tent. They would light up a bonfire, so it wouldn’t be cold. And since they traveled with all their kitchen gear, food wouldn’t be a problem either.
It was such a kind offer, too tempting to reject. But we really did have to get back to our room. We turned back from the Sangam point, a confluence of two tributaries of the Jhelum river.
Not all devotees are physically fit to trek up the 45 km distance for three days, some of it at altitudes over 3500 meters. Horses are a much-preferred mode of transport.
Come June end, when the route opens up for the yatra, horsemen from around Kashmir head to Pahalgam or Baltal, the two base camps for the yatra. In the 6 weeks or so that the yatra continues, they do several trips up and down the arduous path.
In these few weeks, they earn a major chunk of their annual income.
The horsemen need to register themselves and their horses much in advance for the Amarnath yatra. This insures the horses, should something go wrong in the high mountains. The tiny badge on the horse’s ear indicates he has been registered for the yatra.
They way he spoke of his flock, it felt like they were people, not sheep!
Medical camps are set up once a month (in the summer months) in places like Yusmarg, which are accessible by road. People – and their animals from the surrounding remote villages and the hills walk down all the way to attend these camps.
Needless to say, this health care arrangement felt too sparse. But our guide told us that people hardly fell ill – one doesn’t really have health issues in such pure air, water, and land! Besides, they knew their trees well and were well versed in how to put them to medical use!
Some other common professions in Kashmir
Construction though does not pertain to infrastructure projects. Nor is it about huge concrete structures. It is predominantly wooden houses and tourist guest houses. In places expecting a tourist boom, it could be a bigger hotel.
Shaukat Ahmed was from Thimran. He worked as a daily wage labourer with a contractor in south Kashmir.
His favourite work though was being a tourist guide. He enjoyed taking visitors into the hills and the forest trails.
Treks and hikes are abundant everywhere in Kashmir. In the past, it was with great pride that the locals would take tourists on treks here. Hopefully, the quieter and peaceful times will see a resurgence of trekking tourism in Kashmir.
More youngsters like Shaukat could then start doing the work that they love.
All the labour intensive work is done pretty much manually.
Tea is a revered drink and Samovar, the copper teapot- a specialty of Kashmir – is their place of pride.
We could only imagine the grandeur of the kitchens that house this copper extravaganza and the rich succulent meats one could cook and eat from it!
Shops like this indicate a “big city”, the urban side of Kashmir. Where people get their vegetables from the market and not from their farms. (This was an example a local young guy gave to describe city life in Kashmir.)
Srinagar, the summer capital, has a vibe very different from the rest of Kashmir. Especially around the Dal lake, it is completely tourist-centric.
Here, they have a simple modus operandi. These young photographers approached us with a sample photo album and asked us to choose the picture of our choice. A variety of props to perfectly match the chosen Kashmiri dress, these photo studio shikaras stock it all.
They promised a perfect Kashmir ki kali “Damsel from Kashmir” picture. By evening, the photo would be delivered to our hotel room!
Multiple trips to the nearby forest for gathering firewood takes up a chunk of their time. These women have mastered the art of carrying a huge load of wood and balancing it on their heads.
We heard some girls on their way to the woods merrily singing some folk songs. The music probably makes their tough tasks easier.
We heard many elderly people talk fondly of the “good old days”, when tourism was at its peak and they met people from all over the world. They now missed those flourishing times!
Young and old, men and women do not ever miss their namaz times. We once saw a bank almost empty because the staff had gone to the mosque nearby for namaz.
Offices, Mughal gardens or the Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary in the picture above – any place will do for them to pray!
This, we realised was the single most important aspect of the life in Kashmir. The adherence to their religion. Their reverence to khuda.