Kashmir is popularly known as the Crown of India, a valley so beautiful and so abundant with the gifts of nature that it is compared even to heaven. Mughals made it their summer capital and so did the British who followed. From the gardens of Chashme Shahi to the shikaras of the Dal Lake, the city grows on you. The tradition of the hot tea called the Kehwa and the Mughal cuisine makes the city laidback and a friendly one. It has been a bone of contention between Pakistan and India for decades and one can see why. The markets are full of Kashmiri shawls and rugs as one drifts through Lal Chowk, the main bazaar of Srinagar, the capital of the city. I enjoyed the dinners at Ahdoo’s, my favourite food joint for authentic Kashmiri cuisine. I tasted the rista, gushtaba and tabbak there and smoked perfumed hookah at the houseboat where we stayed on the Dal Lake.
The whiff of Kashmiri charas filled the evening with its misty odour. I sat on a shikara the whole day contemplating and soaking in the beauty of the valley, it’s colourful people and hills. On the lake, I floated into markets selling perfume, tea, herbs, cloaks and shawls. I chose to buy some shilajit which is a black paste and a great aphrodisiac. They say that Jesus came to the valley during his last days and died here. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the valley that he just stayed back. Srinagar is full of water fountains that keep the city cool in summers.
The Temple of Shankaracharya and the Shrine of Hazratbal are the main religious attractions of the place. One has to climb up a steep flight of stairs to reach the Shankaracharya Temple. Once there, we pray to the linga of Shiva. A panoramic view of the city can be seen from the temple-top which is made of grey stones and rocks.
On the other side is the Hazratbal, a shrine which carries the hair of Prophet Muhammad. It is like all other Islamic religious sites with huge domes and minarets. One can go into the prayer area wearing a green cap. On the glass and windows are inscribed words in parsi that praise the Quran. There is huge silver pot which is used to drink water. There is also a library and places to rest in the shrine.
Kheer Bhawani is another mystic spot. It is a temple where Vivekananda meditated once. The pond in the temple is said to turn red in colour to symbolise that a clarity might strike the valley. The pipal tree which has a great hole in it still stands tall and was the place where Vivekananda would go into his samadhi. Milk and kheer are poured as offering to the mother goddess of the temple as pujaris perform evening prayers with bells and chants.
The snow peaked Gulmarg and Sonamarg are also great attractions. One can take sky trollies to explore their natural beauty or just wander around on a horse. Their magical presence and fresh air nourish the mind. Indeed, Kashmir Valley is exactly the kind of place Jesus would have chosen to die.