Destinations: Kashmir (1957) - 1

Banihal - The Gateway

In the summer of 1957 my father suddenly decided to take a trip to Kashmir. My (late) second brother was posted there and, more importantly, he had s spacious house. My mother was very excited and naturally so. She had not stirred out of Gwalior since father relocated there in 1935. For all of 22 years, she stayed cooped up in that small town.
My mother was duly warned by her Kashmiri friends about the road to Kashmir that was considered to be very treacherous. Landslides were common that sometimes took the buses down the precipitous slopes resulting in casualties. If it happened to rain, it would become even worse in the slushy and slippery roads. We took note of all the well meaning information and advice. We were, however, quite confident that we would be safe as the brother in Kashmir and my sister had had a trip earlier in a group of five in a new Studebaker in 1949 - only two years after the road became the sole link of the country with Jammu & Kashmir.
It was the first week of June when we caught a train for Delhi. Kashmir Mail, the only train then for Kashmir, used to leave from Delhi Junction for Pathankot, then the railhead for Kashmir. The tracks had not till then been extended to either Jammu Tawi or Udhampur. It was therefore a long bus ride of about 300 miles from Pathankot to Srinagar.
After an overnight journey to Pathankot we took a bus around mid morning for Srinagar. At Jammu, however, we were told that the road was blocked owing to a landslide near a place that was known as Khooni Nala (deadly stream). There was no alternative but to camp at Jammu in an accommodation provided by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism. Numerous buses seemed to have got stuck and hundreds of tourists and locals stranded - some for two or three days. Means of communications being what they were, not an inkling was given to us about the road-block at Pathankot. Mercifully after a day's halt we were able to recommence our journey as the block had been cleared. The bus could start only around midday necessitating, as it appeared, another halt on the way.
That halt happened to be at Banihal village, earlier known as “Vishalta”, – the gateway to the Valley of Kashmir which was on the other side of Peer Panjals. Thankfully we had crossed all the dangerous and risky patches of Khooni Nala, Ramban, Ramsu, etc during the daylight hours driving through innumerable awe-inspiring hairpin bends, going across small fragile-looking bridges and culverts from one mountain to another. Banihal was then a village and as we reached late in the evening we could manage only a room offered by a villager with that typical rustic aroma about it. It was capacious enough to accommodate all of us and good enough to spend a night in. But, even at that dark and forbidding hour we could hear heavy vehicles - those that were much ahead of us - labouring up the mountain-side on their way to Srinagar.
The morning was bright and sunny revealing an incredibly beautiful sight. Banihal and its surroundings were green and sitting at the foot of the Peer Panjals, the mountain seemed to loom over it. But, at the same time, its situation offered an incredibly beautiful sight with bright colours of green of the land, the whites of the mountain tops and the gorgeous lapis lazuli of the early morning skies clashing with each other. Today Banihal is a town of a few thousand and last year a railway train pulled into its spanking new station from Qazigund in Kashmir through one of the longest mountain tunnels bored through the Peer Panjals.
The bus was ready to leave and we all climbed into it. Soon the grinding climb commenced up the Pir Panjaal. We could occasionally see the Banihal Tunnel high up, close to the top of the range more than 9000 ft. above the sea level. As we kept climbing up we came across East Germans (East Germany was a separate country then, under the sphere of influence of now-defunct Soviet Union)working on a two-way tunnel later to be named as Jawahar Tunnel that is even now in use and is at a height of around 7000 ft.
We laboured up the mountain with the bus straining and groaning in going up the steep slope over the rough, generally unmetalled road. Obviously, a heavy road-roller couldn’t have been taken up the slopes with numerous hairpin bends. Every bend brought us closer to the Banihal Tunnel that also seemed to gain in dimensions. And, then we were inside the tunnel of around the length of a couple of hundred metres - a remarkable feat of engineering at that elevation in those early years. Not used much before the partition, travellers used a more convenient road traversing what is now Pak-occupied Kashmir entering the Valley through Uri and then running along the banks of Jhelum. This road was then known as Banihal Cart Road and after independence became the only link of Kashmir with the country. After commissioning of the Jawahar Tunnel the Banihal Tunnel was reportedly closed for motor vehicles
As we came out of the dark tunnel, a beautiful day greeted us with bright sun falling over the green Kashmir Valley sprawling in front of us with splashes of white snow on the mountain-sides and what looked incredible, at levels below ours. As the bus started rolling down the slope its windows grazed against the mountain-sides and some of the accumulated snow fell into our laps. The progress downhill was pretty fast and soon we were down by around 4000 ft and were at more or less the same elevation as that of the Valley.
When we came to Qazigund, the first town in the Valley, an overwhelming aroma of frying eggs floated up to us. The place was known for its delicious parathas and omlettes and virtually every bus going up or down would stop by for them. We too did so. After a most satisfying breakfast we again got into the bus and were driven through some fascinating country to be in Srinagar in another couple of hours.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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