Dream destination

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

I was on the shikara at the floating market early one morning and was frustrated by the heavy fog. Suddenly, there was a slight break in the sky and the sun was trying to burn the fog. The flower vendor was returning from the floating market, and I caught him on camera as he crossed my boat. This is my favourite image.-

I was on the shikara at the floating market early one morning and was frustrated by the heavy fog. Suddenly, there was a slight break in the sky and the sun was trying to burn the fog. The flower vendor was returning from the floating market, and I caught him on camera as he crossed my boat. This is my favourite image.-

WHEN I was growing up in a small village in Tamil Nadu, I often wondered what snow was like in faraway Kashmir. And I dreamed of having a glass of a popular brand of apple juice made with apples from Kashmir, but it was too expensive. It was not until many, many years later after I left India and returned as a photographer that I made my first visit to the region. My work as a photographer for the United Nations in New York had taken me all over the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, but I had never been sent to Kashmir.

In October 2003 I stopped in Delhi to see some friends after a trip to Japan. I was searching for a good story to do in India when someone suggested I go to Kashmir, and I decided to make a quick visit.

Lassa took to calling me in New York to inform me of what was happening in Kashmir at a particular time. Just a few weeks after the first trip, when I had barely finished editing my first round of photos, Lassa called to tell me that the harvesting of saffron was about to begin. I did not know that saffron was a crop of Kashmir and hastened to get there in time to record the event. I travelled to Pampore village, 16 kilometres north of Srinagar, where I saw hundreds of people gathered in the fields painstakingly gathering the crocus flowers. As I was taking photographs, I noticed a strange sight: men were hanging around the fringes of the fields selling cheap, Chinese-made flashlights, batteries and toys. The hawkers were bartering. They wanted some crocus flowers for themselves, to process and sell or use for their own needs. But there was none to be given, as every single one of the crocus flowers was needed. It takes over 4,500 of them to make just one ounce of saffron, making it a very high-priced ingredient for cooking.

When I landed in Srinagar on that cool and crisp October day, the airport was ringed with troops. But as I travelled out of the city and headed for my houseboat on the Dal lake, I began to relax and enjoy my surroundings. I was soon resting comfortably in one of the famous Clermont houseboats, owned by Gulam Butt. The glory days when royalty and rock stars like George Harrison stayed on the houseboats are gone, but a wonderful man named Abdul would later tell me stories of Harrisons visit and show me a letter Harrison had written to him personally.

I began to unwind as Abdul served me Kava tea (made with almonds, cardamom seeds and cinnamon bark). Kashmir is surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, including the Great Himalayan range and the Pir Panjal range. As I rested in my houseboat, I was swept away by the ethereal beauty of my surroundings, and I knew I would have to return many times to try and capture the beauty of Kashmir.

The next day I took a ride in a shikara, something like a Venetian gondola. I did not know then that the shikara driver, named Lassa, would become my guide and friend over my next nine trips to Kashmir. As we wandered on the Dal lake, I saw a thriving community busy selling vegetables on the famous floating gardens. Later, I would learn that the lake was terribly polluted, that plant debris and other garbage were making the lake shallow, threatening its very survival.

* * *

Kashmir is perhaps not as well known to the outside world for its saffron as it is for its superb handicrafts: carpets, shawls, silks, walnut-tree woodwork, papier-mache boxes and trinkets. Throughout its history, trade routes and their off-shoots between China and the West wove their way through the mountain passes of Kashmir, bringing in desired items such as silver, salt, tea and spices, while major exports included saffron, shawls and silks.

Srinagar is where the finest Pashmina shawls are woven. My Kashmiri friend, Bashir Butt, who has a showroom of Kashmiri products in Delhi, sent me to see a family of weavers in their home. Everyone was involved in the process: the women, and sometimes even the children, were spinning the wool; the men were in charge of the embroidery. The man I photographed claimed the paisley design came from Kashmir, but the teardrop shape most likely originated in Persia (Iran) in the 16th century. He told me it could take up to six months to a year to complete a finely detailed shawl, depending on the intricacy of the design, which naturally determines its price as well.

* * *

On another trip in the summer of 2004, I travelled by car to Pahalgam in the east, an arduous journey of about four hours. My destination was Sheshnag, only about 27 km away, but at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,600 metres), reachable only on foot. After spending the night in Pahalgam, Lassa and I rose early and started trekking up the steep trail with a horse carrying my photography equipment and computer.

Sheshnag is famous for its legendary lake named after the Lord of the Serpents who was supposed to dwell there. The water of this spectacular lake is covered with ice until June; after that it becomes part of a destination route for pilgrims on their way to the Amarnath caves above Sheshnag. They come by the thousands to worship a stalagmite ice formation representing a phallic form of Siva (Sivalinga). By the time we arrived at the tents set up in Sheshnag, it was late in the evening and was freezing cold. I was not properly prepared and had no sleeping bag or jacket. Lassa and I, along with a couple of others, huddled around inside the tent trying to sleep. I was hoping that we could bring in some of the mules and horses to help keep us warm but no one seemed to like my idea.

After a fitful nights sleep, I woke up before dawn and watched the sun rise over the spectacular snow-capped mountains. That view made it worth the hard trek up the mountain and the cold and uncomfortable night. The Sheshnag lake was aquamarine and very still and looked pristine. Thousands of people were stirring in their tents, getting ready to continue their trek to Amarnath. But we drank some tea and started heading back down the mountain, the trip taking twice as long as it usually does since I wanted to stop so many times to take photographs.

* * *

One of my favourite villages in Kashmir is Rezan, which we passed through as we drove up to Sonamarg in the north-east. Sonamarg is in the beautiful Sindh valley and, at an altitude of 3,000 m, has breathtaking scenes of snow-capped glaciers. I passed through Rezan many times, where I always stopped to photograph simple village scenes. I learned that Rezan, whose buildings have mostly pastel-coloured walls, is inhabited mainly by Gujjars, a nomadic group originally thought to have come from Gujarat via Rajasthan.

Many Gujjars, who are tall and hardy and basically look different from other Kashmiris, had settled down there and become shepherds and farmers. I found the Gujjars, who are spread throughout Kashmir, to be kind and hospitable people. They always asked me to have dinner or tea with them. Indeed, I found Kashmiris on the whole very kind and hospitable. All they want to do is go about their daily lives in peace and care for their children. When they found out that I was working on a book, they told me not to cover the insurgency and the problems between India and Pakistan but to concentrate, instead, on the beauty of the region.

* * *

A couple of times on different trips, I drove to the famous tourist destination of Gulmarg, about 56 km west of Srinagar. Both times it was winter and skiers were out in full force, enjoying the slopes and the fresh air of this beautiful hill resort. (For those who prefer summer sports, Gulmarg also offers a golf course which, at 2,650 m, is one of the highest in the world.)

I was told that Gulmarg had been the setting for a few Bollywood productions, and it was easy to understand why. But as I gazed at the skiers on the slopes, I could not help thinking of my new Kashmiri friends who told me they wanted more tourists to return, that they were suffering and were not able to earn a good living because only a few tourists, mostly foreigners, came.

My dream for Kashmir is that tourists from all over the world will return and enjoy the beauty of the region once again.

John Isaac is an award-winning photojournalist. He worked for the United Nations in the Department of Public Information and retired as the chief of the photo unit in 1998.

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