In early October I had to go to Anantnag. None, except the stenographer, accompanied me. An inspector in-charge of the sub-division, one Ganjoo, came from Pulwama to assist me. After a three day-stay when it was time to get back to Srinagar Ganjoo asked me why not travel along the Peer Panjal and peep into Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian before returning to Srinagar. I thought it was a good suggestion. I would not only be able to look at larger numbers of field offices, I would also be able to see these sizable towns. Shopian, of course, I had visited in 1957 when we had come over to the Valley along with the family. I still have a photograph that my late brother had taken with his then newly bought Agfa camera. He was a mere probationer then – and now he is dead and gone after serving 34 years in the government and another 20 odd years with an NGO run by Dr Karan Singh, the former Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir.
After informing my office about my new destinations Ganjoo and I started off in my car towards Kulgam. The place was around 20 kms from Anantnag (also named Islamabad by Kashmiri Muslims). We had, however, to cross the Jhelum and move closer to the Peer Panjals and then head north. The road was, as was usual in Kashmir those days, very picturesque, sometime plain and at others undulating, generally lush green. Evening fell as we got closer to Kulgam. Ganjoo had already made arrangements for our stay in a rest house which was not far from a stream which I gather is known as Vashaw beyond which were the foothills of Peer Panjal. In the gathering dusk these hills seemed to be intimidating and brooding over Kulgam.
Next morning after completing my official chores as I was having tea back in the rest house and contemplating about the return journey Ganjoo asked me whether I would like to take a shot at Aharbal Falls. I had heard of Aharbal Falls in 1957 but we could not make it convenient to visit it, Ganjoo said it was very close – across the River over which there was no bridge. I was reluctant to go as I did not want the car to wade through the water. But he convinced me saying the river had very little water and he offered to go to the midstream to direct me. Reluctantly I agreed. Ganjoo walked upto the midstream and showed me the water was as high as his uncle. I put the car on low gear and drove into the river. It wasn’t exactly a cake walk. The Heralds used to be low slung three box cars and hence lots of stones and pebbled hit its bottom. But I made it and then we drove on green grass close to where the fall was hitting the ground
It was a fantastic pastoral scene I was witness to as we crept as close as we cold to the fall. The mossy dark hills from top of which the water was gushing out in a cascade were spectacular in the evening sun. Somewhere in the distance there was a white capped snow-covered peak shining in the sunshine below turquoise blue sky and down below my red Herald with its beautiful sharp lines looked stunning on the grassy green ground with the white sheep grazing nonchalantly nearby. We pottered around for some time and rued the absence of a camera to capture the beautiful sights. The next best thing I could do was to internalize the whole scene so that the visuals remained etched In my memory. The Aharbal Fall was of impressive proportions – the water cascades down about 150 ft in torrent making a big splash on the ground the surroundings of which were as beautiful as nature could make them. A fantastic sight!
We returned to the rest house just as dusk was falling. I had no words to thank Ganjoo for initiating this remarkable outing. He had endeared himself to me and so I asked him to accompany me. He used to have his family at Srinagar and he agreed to take the trip back home with me.
Our next halt was Pulwama which was about 50 Kilometres away. The road was as everywhere in Kashmir picturesque. What was more, one drove literally under the shadows of Peer Panjal. Kashmir was yet to develop and hence vehicular traffic was negligible. It was a pleasure to drive on generally good roads. As one didn’t have to bother about the traffic one could take in the natural beauty on two sides.
Pulwama town until then had only a municipal committee and the surroundings offered little by way of attraction for a visitor. As the town was small our outfit too was small. As I was looking through the documents a call came through from my boss Director P&T Jammu & Kashmir. He wanted some Delicious apples which Pulwama was famous for. In fact, Pulwama was known for its apples and was also known as the rice bowl of the state.
Our people told us about the best Delicious grower and we headed towards him. This was my first ever visit to an apple orchard and it was fascinating. The sweet fragrance of apples permeated the orchard and the red apples hanging from branches in bunches looked beautiful. The grower accompanied us and took us to the tree which produces the best apples, and would you believe, he charged us just Rs. 20 for 5 Kgs of apples?
I understand that old apple trees have since been axed as their productivity declined with age. The district now is strongly into growing high-density apple trees as suggested by Italian collaborators who claim that the productivity would improve several times over. The beginnings have been promising. Perhaps, in a few years time the state will flood the entire country with apples grown by the high-density Italian method.
We covered the 20 kilometres to Shopian in less than an hour. It is at a higher elevation and hence colder than Pulwama or Kulgam. It is a historical town in as much as it was the entry point into Kashmir via what was known as the Mogul Road which Emperor Akbar is supposed to have taken to visit Kashmir. This road fell into disuse once the Banihal Cart Road gained in importance as the only access to the Valley. The Mogul Road is now being revived so that another route becomes available relatively free from landslides and other obstructions.
A night’s stop and we hit the road again, this time for Srinagar. I covered Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian, the three places which have currently become very turbulent. Militants – foreign or domestic – frequently attack the Police or the policemen. Kidnappings and snatching of arms from the security establishments are a matter of daily occurrence. Instigated by the so-called Separatists, school-going children come out in large numbers to pelt rocks at the security forces. The atmosphere is vitiated and the area has been converted into killing fields. Killings of terrorists, security establishments or the common people continue unabated. One does not know when and where it will lead Kashmir to. For an outsider the killings look meaningless as nothing is going to be gained by bloodshed - certainly, not the heavenly peace and tranquility that I witnessed in these areas half a century ago.
The landscape from the verandah of the Signals Mess in Leh was beautiful though it was stark and devoid of greenery. It was, after all, the Indus Valley; River Indus flows by its side The jagged peaks of distant mountains formed the background from where one could see some white valleys and occasionally a snow covered peak. It was September and at the rarified elevation of more than 11000 ft it was hot during the day and pretty cool at night. In the foreground was the huge open dust-laden space with a few occasional structures. The wind that was virtually devoid of moisture blew across it persistently making the body dry and my lips were so badly cracked that it became painful to even smile. The Army personnel used a kind of lip salve to prevent them from severe cracking.
Despite this minor inconvenience Leh physically was a pretty site with its rugged landscape that appeared to me somewhat macho and its men and women in their colourful Ladakhi tunics with thier peculiar Ladakhi head gear. One cannot fail to mention the heavy ethnic jewelry that adorns almost every Ladakhi woman. Perhaps in the stark and somewhat dreary surroundings the colourful costumes and heavy ornaments break the monotony for the locals.
Next morning we were to leave for Srinagar but only after visiting Hemis Monastery. Hamis is about 20-odd miles away from Leh. On the way we stopped at a superstitious stop. It is said that an army convoy driver was asked to halt by somebody but he did not stop and later he met with an accident. Since then, it seems whichever army vehicle did not stop for a couple of minutes at that stop it met with an accident. Hence, the superstitious stop.
Hemis is a mountain-side monastery and one has to climb up and down. What were striking were the huge images that were painted in bright colours. The monastery is of 17th Century and one wondered whether the statues that were installed there were painted like they are now. Apart from the monks there were hardly any non-Buddhists around. Now, of course, it is different; Hemis has become a thriving tourist site, as indeed Leh is. Flights from major Indian cities have flights to Leh and there are some international destinations also that are served to and from Leh. Hemis has an eponymously named annual festival too.
From Hemis we drove down for sometime before we hit the road that was euphemistically called a highway for Srinagar. We were late and, it had become obvious we would have had to stop over at Kargil. We were at Fotula when the sun had already sunk behind the mountains and a chance glance gave me an opportunity to shoot a “picture of the year” had I had a camera. It was a captivating sight; the dazzling full moon rising over the mountains with a pyramidal peak just by its side and the silhouettes of mountains in the foreground. It was an amazing sight, like of which those who take the aerial route to Leh tend to miss.
Another drive of more than a couple of hours and we crossed Mulbek. Near Kargil we were at a higher elevation and its cantonment lay sprawled below us like a medieval army laying a siege. The bright moonlight gave away most of the features. We drove around a hill and descended to the cantonment and were lodged in the Signals Mess.
Next morning sitting out on the lawn with a captain for coffee after breakdast I happened to notice the mountain behind him which seemed to dominate the cantonment and the surrounding areas. The captain told me that it was known by its elevation that was 13620 ft and was in Pakistani occupation and hence the enemy was at an advantage. It could take pot shots on people down below, even us as we sipped our coffee. He said it was captured during the war of 1965 and the Pakistanis were dislodged from the peak but under the Tashkent Agreement Indians had to give it back to the Pakistanis.
The captain continued and said that the officer who had won it during the operations shed copious tears for many of his friends and collegues he lost in capturing the peak. Strange are the ways of diplomacy. The India-Pakistan conflict has always been victim of Cold War politics and interference by Big Powers. In this case it was the now-defunct USSR which brokered the peace, insisted on status quo ante. The Indians had to withdraw from the areas they had won in the war that was not of their making and, more importantly, most of them legitimately belonged to India but illegally occupied by Pakistan. Such is the price that we had to pay for being weak and infirm and dependent on the help of others who were basically unscrupulous. Mercifully, Point 13620 was recaptured during the 1971 War with Pakistan and it has remained with India since then.
We left for Srinagar the next morning. I was somehat happy to get away from this arid vastness of Ladakh where people surprisingly have chosen to set up their homes. Though the landscape was spectacular with colours changing as the sun moved from horizon to horizon yet it was too dry for my comfort. Nonetheless, I felt that whatever views and images that I happened to decord in my “hard disk” would remain as parts of me right through my lifetime. I, therefore, feel that those who fly in and out of Leh miss so much of the country which by far is far too deserving of the long haul of a journey by road.
Soon we left the arid Ladakh behind and the green hills after Zojila came in view. As we descended down the mountain road the greens of the Baltal valley seemed to soothe my nerves.