When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

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Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

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Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

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Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

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The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

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Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

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At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

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We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

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The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal

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A Sunday at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

It is strange when you have resided in a city for more than 15 years and yet, are unaware of many of its gems. Now, we were certainly aware of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (RB) but we did not know we could visit it too. When we heard about it from an acquaintance, it was as if the heavens had opened up and God had showered us with Her divinity. Okay, well, we exaggerate, but we did feel a thrill run down our spine. Are you wondering what is so special about this? There are many reasons including our interest in politics, our fascination with heritage, and our love for the ‘new’.

A couple of years back, we had visited the Buckingham Palace to be wowed by its grandiosity. Now, if the Queen can allow visitors, we are sure Mr. President will not mind either! So then, we got down to business. Booking the ticket was fairly simple on the easy-to-navigate www.presidentofindia.nic.in. Do note, though, that:

  1. You have to upload a photograph of yourself and input an identity card number; so, keep these handy.
  2. You may not get tickets for the immediate dates.
  3. Your visit gets postponed to a later day, like it happened with us. But, we found it to be a blessing as instead of moving ourselves early in the January morning, we could laze around and go a little later, when the Sun was out.
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Our tricolor, the Central Dome, the Tuscan Pillars, & the Forecourt – Sandstone dreams!

Undoubtedly excited, we were up and about on Sunday, even if the lure of the quilt was high. After all, we had to meet the President! We had received a detailed email confirming our visit, and containing guidelines and a map. Follow directions as given in the map as entry is allowed from select gates only. It was good to be able to park our vehicle inside the Presidential Estate 😊 Hereon, leave behind anything and everything except your wallet, identity card and the confirmation emails.

After three rounds of scrutiny of our identity papers, we were finally inside The Bhavan. Temporary passes were made for us at the Reception. A Curio Shop nearby attracted us but we realized that better merchandise was available online on the official RB website. Surprise! Post all security clearances, a guide took us through the select parts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan while regaling us with their history, interesting anecdotes and trivia. A PSO followed our group to ensure we did not wander off. We had booked Circuit One which is a tour of the main building.

Lord Buddha Statue: Called the Sahastrabahu Avlokiteshvara, this 1000-armed Lord Buddha Statue was a gift from Vietnam to India. It was brought to India in three parts, and assembled here. The Statue itself is of Plaster of Paris but is surrounded by a marble staircase. The sun rays filtering in through the windows and lighting up the marble stunned us.

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The Government of India Auto Rickshaw!

Durbar Hall: For us, this was the most familiar room as this is where the civil and defense investiture ceremonies, like the Padma awards, take place. The significance of this Hall goes back to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Nehru to form the first government of independent India.

In front of the Ashok Hall, the Durbar Hall looks simple. Yet, it enthralls in its own way as this is the room that lies right under the Central Dome. So, technically, you are in the heart of the Bhavan.

A fifth century AD Buddha statue is placed against the wall and in front of it is placed the President’s chair during ceremonies. No, our visiting RB was not considered a ceremony and hence, the chair was not there!

Two pieces of trivia made our heads woozy. One, when you are standing in the Durbar Hall, you are at the same height as that of the top of the India Gate! And two, the line that runs in the center of the Hall cutting it into half is also the line that cuts the entire Rashtrapati Bhavan into two equal halves, and runs down along Rajpath till the India Gate!!

North Drawing Room: This is where meetings between the Heads of State occur. Historically important oil paintings adorn the Room like the swearing-in of PM Nehru. The Bhavan uses a lot of acronyms; this Room is called the NDR.

Long Drawing Room: Of course, this is the LDR. It is a meeting room where the annual conferences of governors take place. The LDR seemed to be one of those rare rooms that was not paneled heavily with teak. It had a soft green color. Adding to the aura of the LDR were some stunning paintings and gorgeous chandeliers.

Library: Clearly my favorite spot! Sir Lutyens loved circles. Circular patterns can be found everywhere in RB, from ceilings to floors to chairs! The books are arranged chronologically with the oldest dating 1795. To break the sandstone and marble monotony, the Library floor has golden yellow Jaisalmer stone. On a clear day, you can see the India Gate from the Library. We will have to return on a clear day!

Ashok Hall: Easily the grandest part of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. We have been to a few European palaces and seen their fresco art. The ones in Ashok Hall are equal in their grandeur if not better. It used to be the State Ballroom but is now used for ceremonial functions. Being a Ballroom, its floors are made of wood and have springs underneath to give a little bounce. Of course, now it is fully carpeted with Persian weaves.

The painting on the ceiling and the wall frescoes took our breath away. The rich oil colors make the paintings come alive, so much so, that the one on the ceiling has a 3D effect to it. Bordering the paintings are Persian inscriptions. There are two portraits hung in the Ashok Hall- of Nizami the Poet, and a Persian Lady. Strangely, the painter (s) of both these portraits is (are) unknown.

During the days of ball dance, the orchestra would play out of a loft. Now the trumpeters sit here and use their instruments to signal the arrival of the President.

Grand Stairs: To get from one part of the Bhavan to another, we took the Stairs. I am fairly certain I would be lost in this house! The Stairs are a delight in sandstone. This is the spot where Sir Lutyens’ bust has been placed. He gets to enjoy the Indian Sun! The Mughal ‘jaali’ work can be found around the Stairs. Sir Lutyens may have denied any Indian influence on his work but well, it can be seen aplenty.

Banquet Hall: As the name suggests, this is where the party happens folks! Panelled with Burmese teak on all sides, this hall is a classic. The panels, on top, have intricate zardozi work, which was commissioned by President Patil. Earlier, in place of the zardozi work, were displays of medieval arms. But a banquet hall is hardly the place to display firearms, isn’t it?

What we loved about the Hall was the blue-green-red light system. The head butler uses this to instruct the other butlers. The blue light indicates food to be brought in; green light means start of service; and red is to clear the plates. N is contemplating installing this system in our house too 😊

There is a small anteroom just behind the Hall. This is where the band plays while a banquet is in progress. The band cannot be seen but the music can be heard as it wafts in through the walls!

Forecourt: This is the area that leads from the Main Gate to RB. You would have seen the Forecourt during the swearing-in ceremony of the 2014 central government. The path from the Gate to the Forecourt is lined with trees that are cut in an adorable mushroom shape. N wondered why a broken capital occupied prime position in the Forecourt. We soon came to know about the Rampurva Bull, from the third century BC, excavated from Rampurva in Bihar (hence the name!).

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The Rampurva Bull behind the Tuscan Pillars (& the tiny people carrying out the renovation work)

Central Dome: When we stood in the Forecourt and looked up at the Central Dome where our national tricolour fluttered, our hearts swelled with pride. Did you know- if the flag is flying atop the Dome, it signifies the President is in New Delhi? The Central Dome is inspired from the Sanchi Stupa. It is Massive! It is twice the height of the building itself. Who would have thought?

The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a combination of different styles of architecture. Under the Central Dome are the Tuscan pillars which are Greek in style. On top of the pillars are the carvings of temple bells inspired from Karnataka temples.

When we turned away from the Central Dome and tried spotting the India Gate, we saw the Jaipur Column. Trivia about the Column- it has the map of Delhi on its eastern face.

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The Jaipur Column, & beyond that, the Rajpath leading to the India Gate

 

We missed out on the Guest Wing, though, as it was undergoing renovation. But, on the whole, we came away impressed. The Bhavan is grand and thoughtfully designed. It was interesting to see how a few British traditions are still followed but given an entirely Indian touch. When our cities are being taken over by futuristic glasshouses, these visions in marble and sandstone are a treat to sore eyes. We were also fascinated with the numerous fountains on the roof of RB.

The tour itself was well conducted. The cordial nature of the staff members pleased us – no loud voices, no rudeness, process orientation and efficient use of technology.

Sundays are meant for lazing around but when heritage beckons, we had to obey. And we cannot wait to return to the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the remaining circuits!