Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives

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Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Bollywood movies introduced Kashmir to me for the first time and needless to mention that Kashmiri people have always been the main characters in all movies and stories. In my mind, the local Kashmiris have always weaved the strongest essence of Kashmir. Whereas, the stunning landscapes surrounded with mountains, political dispute, Dal Lake, tulip blossom, pashmina, herbs and spices come afterwards to represent this heavenly slice of earth.

For this reason, on my Kashmir trip, I was determined to interact with local people as much as possible. This blog is not about any itinerary or guide to explore places, foods and shops. Instead, I want to share some heart warming stories that I picked from Kashmir and will cherish forever in my memory.

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

A Land where Shepherds Rule the Hearts

Shepherds have always fascinated me since childhood. Their spontaneous attitude towards life, close connection with animals and mother nature and constant mobility with their cattle somehow connect the dots of my inner adventurous self. I always feel, despite the materialistic lack, the greatest wealth the shepherd community possesses is, abundance of freedom. They have access to every part of river bank, unseen vast meadows, steepest slopes of mountains and deepest corners of forests. They have no limitation to stay in one place. They have no restriction of timing. They have no bondage of home loan, car loan and other temporary, shallow comforts. They are free like there’s no tomorrow. That’s the reason this community always holds a special corner in my heart. For me, the shepherd community is the first travel enthusiasts this human civilisation had witnessed.

A Shepherd is blessed with a free soul

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

On the first day in Pahalgam, while returning from Baisaran valley, I met a shepherd with his herd of cattle. The sun was setting gracefully on the end of gushing Lidder river. His name is Rasheed and probably he is in his sixtees. He owns twenty sheeps and 2 ponies. We sat on the river bank and exchanged our names and places. He is in this work since all his life. His son works in a famous restaurant ‘ Dana Pani’ in Pahalgam. He was kind enough to invite me to his place to share dinner with his family. As I was exhausted after 7 hours journey from Baisaran valley, I politely declined his invitation.

Rasheed on bank of Lidder river

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Before leaving, with a wise smile on his face he told, ‘Fir wapis aao Pahalgam. Dana Pani me jake mera naam bolna. Main aap logo ko Pahalgam ghumayega.( Come back to Pahalgam again. Go to Daana Pani and tell my name and next time I will show you the town)'. Then I left for my hotel and he directed his cattle towards opposite end of the river bank.’

When I was exploring the beautiful meadows of Doodhpathri, two little guys approached me for horse riding. I personally don't like animal riding unnecessarily so I refused them at first. But their innocent smile and curious eyes invited me to know more about them. They are Farhaan and Aamir. Farhaan calls his horse as Aashiq and Aamir's horse's name is Awara. We all laughed when we heard such funny filmy names of horses.

Farhaan & Aamir with Aashiq and Awara

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Farhaan and Aamir are cousin brothers and they stay in Doodhpathri. When I asked about their schooling and education they told, they never went to school. During peak tourist season they earn money from horse riding and occasionally they assist their parents in farming.

Farhaan & Aashiq

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

They kept on insisting me for horse riding as they didn't earn anything since morning. I offered them few hundred bucks but they strongly denied, saying, 'Bina kaam kiye Paise nai lunga didi (will not take money without doing any work sister). I was amazed by their honesty and integrity at such young age. To make them happy, at the end, I shared some snacks with them and in return I requested them to pose with their horses for photographs.

As the day rolled ahead, I continued to explore different meadows of Doodthparti. In one of the valleys I saw few shephard's mud huts at far away. I heard that the shepherd's huts are built with smart technique. I couldn't resist myself to have a close look on them. As I neared, I saw the huts are still under construction. Surprisingly, the women of the community were involved in the construction work. I decided to initiate conversation with them to understand the process. But I guess they were too busy and didn't show any interest to interact.

Hut under Construction

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

As I was roaming around the huts, I saw a lady (in her forties or fifties) sitting in the middle of meadow with a small boy in her lap. The moment our eyes met, we both nodded with smile at each other. I sat next to her and ask about her life. Her name is Meherunnisa and the small kid in her lap is her grandson Areef.

She told with season they change their home. During winter they move higher in the mountains and make their huts inside forest. As in winter most of the lands get covered with thick snow, it becomes impossible to walk up to the forest to collect woods. That's why they prefer to live in the middle of forest. This way the wood collection becomes easy which is a prime necessity for cooking and keeping warm. But during spring when snow melts and tourists start flocking in, they abandon their winter house and come down to valley. The make pashmina wool, take their cattles out for grazing. Some set up temporary food stalls and shops for Kashmiri cloths, spices, jewelleries and other authentic Kashmiri stuffs. Few of them become active in tourism sector and offer horse and pony rides to tourists and some just work as tourist guides. So the months of March to September play a big role in their survival journey. They always try to make the most out of it.

Meherunnisa with Areef

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

As we continued to talk she gave a small tour around her summer hut. That hut too was incomplete. The huts are built with different materials layer by layer. The first layer is usually made of mud. Then they protect the mud structure with wood panels. Over the wood layer again they apply mud. Once the wood and the mud layers get strong cohesion, they set stones and rocks over the entire structure. The stone structure is covered with cylindrical wooden pieces and finally they seal the entire structure with a thick layer of mud at the top. They entire hut is supported by four huge wood pillars from four corners outside. The whole construction is so robust that once you are inside the hut you cannot feel any climate condition from outside. You will get protected from rain, storm, strong wind and heavy snowfall. Due to unique combination of different materials the huts remain cold during summer and warm in winter.

A summer hut in the process

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Finally the moment came to say goodbye to Meherunnisa. I asked for a handshake from little Areef but he was too shy to do that.

Savouring Local Food by the Road

On our way back to Srinagar from Doodhpatri, our driver said we should try the famous 'Makki ki roti & Sarso ka saag.' In the outskirt of Doodhpatri, there are several food stalls selling this dish on road side. Also you can get aloo paratha, maggie, kashmiri kahwa, tea, coffee and other snacks. You can sit on Kashmiri carpet spread by the road and can enjoy freshly cooked food. If you are travelling to Doodhpatri, don't miss this experience. You can blend yourself in most authentic way with local Kashmiri life. We stopped at a stall owned by Mustafa Ahmed. It was a small wooden shop.

Mustafa & his family selling Makki ki Roti

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

He strongly suggested to taste the roti and saag with different types of chutney (sauce) like coriander chutney, tomato chutney, chilli chutney. We also ordered vegetable soup. Mr Ahmed's wife makes food right in front of the shop, and he serves to his clients with full of warmth, love and respect. Their little daughter Fatema was scuttling around all over the place.

Cherishing freshly cooked local food

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Mustafa lives in a nearby village with his family. In morning he opens his stall with his wife and Fatema. His other two daughters stay back at home and take care of cooking and other household chores. What made us the most happy is, Mustafa and his family are very much optimistic with booming tourism in last few years. He expressed his satisfaction with the earning he makes during tourist season. The scenario was quite different even few years back when due to political disturbance the Kashmir tourism was struggling. Again during Covid things got worse and the local villagers suffered badly. But from 2022, as tourist footfall increased in Kashmir, situation improved significantly.

Mustafa sharing his life stories

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

Initially only we two were sitting at his stall. But as other tourists saw us on their way, gradually one by one many tourist parties came and sat with us. It was such lovely ambience. The tourist were interacting with each other. Mustafa and his wife became busy to make the orders ready. Little Fatema was almost the star of the place. Being a curious and extrovert kid, she was approaching everyone at the shop. Being overwhelmed with her cuteness, the tourists gifted her chips, biscuits and chocolates.

Little Fatema in chit chat mode

Photo of Whispers of the Valley: Melodies and Melancholies of Kashmiri Lives by Saheli Bera

She couldn't contain her happiness and smile. As the afternoon inched towards evening, we thanked Mustafa and his wife for their extraordinary hospitality and continued our journey further.

And this is how on our voyage of life, we encounter with certain strangers and they occupy a big chunk of space in our memory for lifetime. I still wonder, how Rasheed is doing? Have Farhaan and Aamir have started their school? How big Fatema has grown by now! Is she still that bubbly and chirpy? Has Mustafa added any new local cuisine to his menu? Do they still remember me or I have faded away being one of the many unknown faces? Maybe I will never have the answers. Maybe I will never see them again. But whenever there will be any mention of Kashmir, it will always remind me of the unperturbed moments I spent with them. Such moments will always overshadow the number of places we have seen, the varieties of foods we have tried, the amount of money we spent on fancy and luxurious experience. At the end it'd always be about the moments of love, compassion, hope and humanity.

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