Administratively, the Valley is part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir that rises in tiers from the plains to encompass mountainous terrain, high altitude valleys and plateaus. To the south, below the other hills, lies the district of Jammu; to the northeast towers the great Himalaya that contains the stark and eerily beautiful district of Ladakh; but to most people, Kashmir is the Valley itself, enclosed in a magnificent amphitheater of mountain ranges.
What makes Kashmir so special ? Many things: its landscape, a lush green valley and rolling wooded uplands ringed by snowcapped mountains, crisscrossed by rivers and studded with lakes; its rich profusion of trees and flowers and fruits - the Himalayan cedar, the chinar, the ramrod - straight poplar, the pale pink foam of almond blossoms in spring, lotuses budding in the late summer heat, jewel-like cherries glowing in wooden boxes, and, in autumn, saffron-yielding crocuses in Pampore stretching purpose as far as the eye can see. And the lovely liquid sound of the Kashmiri language; the wealth of handicrafts, evoking different and subtle tactile sensations - the soft, butter feel of the famed tush shawls, the waxy smoothness of planed walnut wood, papier mache - slick to the touch and a marvel to the eye, the rough texture of the numdah and the thick, luxurious pile of a close-knotted carpet; its food - curried stalk of lotus, tangy greens and karam sag , crisp-fried chops, mutton cooked in spices and yogurt, meatballs made of finely pounded meat and simmered in a creamy-rich sauce of cardamom, thickened milk and broth, washed down with cups of kahwa, tea flavored with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron; the people - medley of races and religions - Aryan, Scythian and Mongolian; Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, faces and images closer to Central Asia than to the plains of India; a wealth of historical remains - the somber magnificence of the Sun Temple at Martand, the formal elegance of the Mughal Gardens These are all sights that make Kashmir. Other places in India have some of these, but only Kashmir has them all, and from these threads are woven the travel experience that is uniquely Kashmiri.
The creation of Kashmir is a story that has, like so much else in this land, an air of fantasy and other-worldliness. Once upon a time, the Valley was a vast lake, `deep as the sky', and the playground of the gods. But it was haunted by a demon that plundered and ravaged the people living on its shores. In despair, they appealed to the saint Kashyap to save them, which he did by striking a depression to the west and draining the lake of its waters. The demon was slain, and the Valley was named after its savior, Kashyapa-mar , or Kashmir. Strange as this may seem, paleontologists have reported discoveries of coral and other marine fossils at great heights here.
One version of this legend appears in the Nilamat Purana , the earliest known extant text on Kashmir. The earliest history of Kashmir, however, was recorded by the poet-chronicler Kalhana in the 12th century. In his Rajatarangine (`River of Kings'), he traces the rise and fall of dynasties, the changing fortunes of kings and faiths; across his stage stride heroes and villains of almost epic dimensions. Peace and prosperity, strife and bloodshed are cyclical in his chronicles. There is the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, whose conquest of Kashmir in 250 BC brought Buddhism to the area, and who is credited with the founding of the original city of Srinagar ( present day Pandrathan ). There are the Indo-Scything Kushana kings, whose sway extended from Central Asia well into Upper India, and who were part of the way of Scything immigration which, for almost 300 years, came pouring down from Central Asia. Under them, Buddhism was at its zenith in Kashmir, and the benign and pious impulse of the Kushana monarch, Kanishka, led to a Great Council of Divines being held near Srinagar in the first century. Almost five centuries later, the faith suffered at the hands of Mihirigula, the White Hun, a man who was said to seldom smile and whose approach was signalled by `vultures, crows and other birds, which were flying ahead eager to feed on those who were to be slain'. Mihirigula's bloodthirsty depredations were mercifully short-lived. Less than a century later, around AD 600, the Karkota Dynasty was established which produced one of the most remarkable heroes in Kashmir's history, Lalitaditya.
Lalitaditya ruled in the eighth century; he was a contemporary of Charlemagne and, like him, ambitious. Conquest extended his territories, but he was also a wise monarch who practiced religious tolerance and brought prosperity to his people. Towns, temples, roads and canals were built; to him is ascribed the glorious Sun Temple at Martand, now in ruins, whose superb site and monumental proportions are eloquent testimony to the splendor of his reign.
Next only to Martand rank the ruins of the Hindu temples of Avantipura, the creation of Avantivarman, another great Karkota king, whose reign in the tenth century saw a period of peace and consolidation. Avantivarman was the last great karkota king and after him the dynasty plunged into confusion and anarchy.
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, another Hindu dynasty, the Lohara, ruled Kashmir. But theirs were uneasy times, full of petty intrigues within and the incursions of mountain people without.
The first Islamic dynasty established itself in Kashmir in the 14th century, but Islam had come to Kashmir much earlier. The corruption and avarice of the Hindu rulers had turned many towards the simplicity and humane piety of Muslim divines, such as Bulbul Shah and Hamza Makhdumi. Early Islam in Kashmir was mellow and tolerant, preaching universal brotherhood. The shrill call for proselytization, often encountered elsewhere in India, was not heard here. But this was reversed in the late 14th to early 15th century during the reign of Sikander, a fanatic who wrought havoc of Hindus temples and offered his subjects the choice of conversion or death. Many fled, many were killed and many were converted.
What the father had done, the son sought to undo. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin ( 1420 - 70 ) is remembered even today as the Badshah, the Great King, who rebuilt what his father had destroyed and recalled his Hindu subjects, elevating many to high positions. Literature and language flourished at his court. Had built bridges and irrigation canals and, most importantly, introduced from Samarkand and Bukhara some of those handicrafts for which Kashmir is famous today, such as papier-mache and carpet weaving. But the Badshah was an exception. Once again, disarray prevailed and true stability was to come only with the rule of the great Mughals.
Akbar, perhaps the greatest Mughal of them all, conquered Kashmir in 1586; in turn, its beauty captivated him, calling it his private garden. Akbar came to Kashmir thrice. Enduring the heat of the plains, he traveled on roads specially prepared for him by an army of stonecutters and mountain miners. It was he who laid out Nasim Bagh, the first of Kashmir's exquisite Mughal gardens, the enduring memorials to Mughal rule. For Akbar's son Jahangir, Kashmir was an obsessive passion. Leading his long baggage train, he journeyed to Kashmir eight times, creating the gardens of Shalimar, Verinag and Achhbal. On his death-bed, when asked if there was anything he wanted, he is said to have murmured, `Kashmir, only Kashmir'.
With the decay and disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, Kashmir passed to the Afghans for a half century marked by extortion and oppression. Afghan rule was followed by Sikh rule, a jump straight from the frying pan into the fire for the helpless Kashmiris. Then, in 1846, a combination of fortunate circumstance and skilful diplomacy brought Kashmir into the hands of the Dogra rulers of Jammu. The defeat of the Sikhs enabled them to purchase the land from the British for the sum of 75 million-rupee (US$ 75,000) and nominal annual tribute. From then, until India's independence in 1947, Kashmir was administered by the Dogras under the watchful eye of the British Resident at Srinagar.
Instability and strife notwithstanding, Srinagar, the `Happy City of Beauty and Knowledge', was for centuries one of the great centers of culture and philosophy in Asia. The mountain passes through which invading armies came were used as much for trade as for conquest and across these passes came not only silks and spices but also new ideas. Srinagar stood at the crossroads of the great trade routes between India, Central Asia and China, opening Kashmir to influences from Greece, Persia, Tibet and China, as well as the Indian heartland. The resultant melange is what makes Kashmir unique.
Water is the leitmotiv of the Valley; indeed it has an almost cult significance. You hear its sounds everywhere; there is an abundance of springs and rivers and lakes. The Kashmiri word nag , means both `spring' and `snake', and , in ancient times, snake worship revolved around springs. Within their land-locked terrain, the Kashmiris are water people. In a countryside `one third mountains and one third water', as one ruler put it, waterways provided the easiest channels for local commerce and communication. Chief among them is the river Jhelum, the Vitasta of ancient legend whose waters brought either prosperity terrible floods.
One of the sources of the Jhelum is the enchanting spring at Verinag in the southeast of the Valley. The Mughal emperor, Jahangir, built a garden around it; at the upper end, beyond avenues of chinars, lies a deep octagonal pool of water and from this origin, the river cuts a winding course from southeast to northwest. It is navigable for almost 160 kilometres (100 miles), from its eastern terminus at Anantnag, past the saffron fields of Pampore, flowing in an inverted `S' bend through the heart of Srinagar, draining into the Wular Lake and thence to its western terminus, just short of Baramula. The river, its tributaries and its channels are alive with boat people, the Hanjis, who claim descent from Noah and, given their skill in boat building, this claim may well be true. Local watercraft include the bahatch , a high prowed barge capable of transporting heavy freight, and the doonga , smaller than the bahatch, a sort of rush matted home on water. The Shikara , with its slim gondola shape, is well known to visitors who use it as a water taxi across Dal Lake. But best known of all is the houseboat, floating hotel to many of Srinagar's visitors.
The houseboat was the British answer to the edict of a Dogra ruler that no alien could by immovable property in Kashmir. Built of seasoned cedar, the early houseboats were small and highly mobile. They would escape the heat of mid-summer Srinagar by being towed down river to the Wular Lake. Here, under the shade of chinars, fishing for masheer, chooro and chos started in mid-June. The marksman's season came in the brilliant days of autumn and ran through winter, when duck shooting in the jheels by the Wular and Manasbal lakes opened. Houseboats would also be moored at Shadipur and even further downriver at Bandipur, from where one trekked into the upland forests in search of bear and markhor .
Today's houseboats are too large to permit such ease of movement. Moored in a long ragged line along the fringes of the Dal and Nagin lakes, their appearance ranges from palatial to tatty, even though the basic design remains the same. A poop overhangs the large square-ended hull, and leads into the living room, filled with walnut-wood furniture and carpets. Beyond that is the dining room, and still further, a corridor leading to the bedrooms. At a discreet distance is the cook boat, source of all meals. The truly grand houseboats are prone to display formidable amounts of crewelwork upholstery and highly carved walnut wood. Paradoxically, style does not affect the warmth of the hospitality, and there is no experience quite like living in a houseboat.
Part of the magic of the houseboat lies in the sheer fact of being on water and the unobstructed views it offers of the lake and mountains. The cushioned poop is the best place to savour the changing luminous tents of dawn and dusk, watching birds swoop and skim along the water surface. Shopping comes to the houseboat in the shape of shikaras and dugouts laden with flowers or boxes of pale-fuzzed peaches and apricots. The purveyors of handicrafts have an irresistible sales pitch - `Only look ! No need to buy, but I make special price for you' - and from the depths of their boats they pull out shawls, silks, carpets, walnut wood and glowing papier mache boxes.
The best initial exploration of Srinagar is to board a Shikara and follow its course through the heart of the city, past willow-shaded channels and canals and under the seven older bridges of the Jhelum. At first sight, the city's interior has a spectral tastiness; the mud , brick and wood houses are crammed cheek by jowl along the waterfront; some look as if they are crumbling and others are indeed propped up with stout pillars of timber. But the impression of decay and disorder recedes as the pattern of living emerges. The river is a place that people live on, as well as live along. Lines of doongas are moored along its banks, the homes of the boat people. Women sit at the prows, pounding grain or calling to each other. As a major artery, the river is punctuated at regular intervals by landing stages leading up to narrow labyrinth-like lanes which connect to the streets beyond, so that there is a constant flow of activity between water and land. Bahatches load or unload cargo. Homes, shops, schools, places of work and worship cluster along the waterfront, a variety within a cohesive unit. Roof gardens and orchards tumble over the river wall, and carved or latticed windows add a touch of richness. After an hour on the river, you realize that the ugliest buildings are those that are new, slapped together with unattractive concrete and topped with galvanized-iron roofing.
If space seems at a premium along the waterfront, it is quite a different story at the Mughal gardens of Shalimar , Nishat and Chashma Shahi. This is Srinagar at its royal best, where the imperial love for laying out gardens, their beauty enhanced by the backdrop of lake and mountain and carefully sited for the best views of both, a stone vase at Chashma Shahi, the royal spring, perched daintily on a hill overlooking the Dal Lake. Shalimar has an air of seclusion and repose; its rows of fountains and shade trees seem to recede towards the Snowcapped Mountains. Its focus of attention is the airy graceful Black Pavilion, meant for the ladies of the court, set well to the back of the highest of its three terraces. If Shalimar is regal, Nishat, with its flowerbeds, its trees, its fountains and its waters foaming down carved chutes, has an air of the dramatic. Its 12 terraces, representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac, descend gradually and seem almost to merge into the lake.
The bridges of the Jhelum are one kind of Srinagar, the gardens another. If you want a panoramic view of the whole city, the best vantagepoint is Shankaracharya Hill, also called Takhi-I-Solaiman, the Throne of Solaiman. From here, you can look up and down the Jhelum Valley and see its serpentine course. In the distance, the snows of the Pir Panjal Range gleam a clear white against the blue sky, and to the southeast you can see the hill that marks Anantnag, where the water of the large mountain streams - the Liddar, the Bhringi and the Arpat - join the Jhelum at the start of its navigable waterway. Below lies Srinagar and its lakes, the Dal and the Nagin, its tightly clustered houses, its temples and its mosques.
The view from Shankaracharya is a reminder that valleys and lakes and mountains are in abundance in Kashmir. Beyond sight are the waters of the Wular, Manasbal and Gandarbal lakes. Away from the broad expanse of the central valley, with Srinagar at its heart, lies the Liddar Valley with the hill resort of Pahalgam at its upper end, the base for the long and arduous trek to the Hindu shrine of Amarnath , a pilgrimage that attracts thousands of devotees each year. Another road leads to the Kolahoi Peak with its sharp needle form, and its extensive glacier. To the northwest is the Lolab Valley, a crescent-shaped plain with cedar and pine forest, starred with wood sorrel and pale dog-violets. The Sindh Valley is on the road to Ladakh, its wooded greenery has been described as `one of the finest and most magnificent pieces of scenery to be seen anywhere.
Ascending from the Valley are the famous uplands of Kashmir, those stretches of flowery meadows called margs . The best known of these is Gulmarg , the `Meadow of Flowers', a saucer-shaped hollow overhanging the main valley of Kashmir. From Gulmarg, a ski-lift goes up a few thousand feet for easy access to the slopes where delight for this thrilling ride, a seemingly vertical lift-off over pine forests into the uplands. A few kilometres beyond lies a dizzying pony ride crossing meadows, ridges and forests to the snow slopes of Khillanmarg . On a clear day, the views from the Gulmarg ridges are superb: the foothills slope down to the Valley, to fields of rice and clusters of walnut, pear and mulberry, and in the far distance, the roofs of Srinagar glint in the sun. But the most thrilling of all, if you are lucky, is the view of the great mountains directly to the north and the supreme peak of Nanga Parbat, which stands out clear and distinct even though it is right across the Valley, over 100 kilometres
( 62 miles ) away.
Almost diagonally cross the Valley lies Sonamarg , the `Meadow of Gold', where the Sindh River rushes headlong through a gorge. A narrow, grassy flat, jeweled with alpine flowers, great peaks whose flanks gleam with the glaciers that slide down them encircle Sonamarg. Rich forests of silver fir, sycamore and birch clothe the mountainside. This is among the last outposts of splendid and lavish greenery; less than 30 kilometers (19 miles) away lies the pass of Zoji-la, the divide between Kashmir and Ladakh, beyond which lies a completely different world.