Little Venice of Asia Kashmir
Welcome to three incredibly different worlds in one state. For most foreigners, J&K’s greatest attractions are the Himalayan lands of Ladakh and Zanskar, with their disarmingly friendly Tibetan Buddhist people, timeless monasteries, arid canyons and soaring snow-topped mountains. But neither area is easily accessible, especially outside midsummer. Hordes of domestic visitors make pilgrimages to temples around Hindu Jammu and love Muslim Kashmir for its cool summer air and alpine scenery. Srinagar’s romantic houseboat accommodation is another draw card. However, political volatility remains a concern. Disputes over Kashmir caused three 20th-century wars and inter communal strife still breaks out sporadically. Always check the security situation before traveling to Jammu or Srinagar but, even if things look dodgy there, you can expect Ladakh to be as meditatively calm as ever.
The mountain retreat of Mughals and Buddhist lamas; the Alps of India; Jehangir’s Valley of Paradise. All these terms have been used to describe Kashmir, one of India’s wildest and most controversial tourist destinations. After 20 years of isolation, travelers are slowly drifting back to this legendary backwater, returning to Srinagar’s famous houseboats and walking the trekking routes north of Pahalgam. Kashmir boasts some of the highest and most rugged landscapes on earth in mountainous Ladakh, and one of the most sublime in serene Dal Lake. Many people panic at the idea of traveling to Kashmir, so it’s important to dispel some myths. The state of Jammu and Kashmir is actually three separate regions: Hindu Jammu, Buddhist Ladakh and the Muslim Kashmir Valley. Ladakh to the northeast is almost untouched by the Kashmiri conflict, while Jammu and the Kashmir Valley are safer than they have been for decades. However, the Kashmiri insurgency is ongoing and it is essential to check the security situation before traveling to either Jammu or the area around Srinagar.
Remember that the dispute over Kashmir has been the cause of three wars between India and Pakistan. If Jammu and Srinagar seem like too much of a gamble, don’t overlook Ladakh and Zanskar. These rugged Buddhist regions are a little slice of Tibet, transplanted to India and wedged in by roaring rivers and snow-capped mountains. A series of mountain passes, the highest in the world, connect Ladakh, Zanskar, Kashmir, Lahaul, Spiti and Manali, opening up a fabulous circuit from Srinagar all the way to Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
Jammu & Kashmir Valley
Hemmed in by the Pir Panjal mountains and the western Himalaya, the Kashmir Valley straddles India and Central Asia. In both culture and appearance, this Muslim heart-land is closer to Afghanistan or Iran than the neighboring states of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. The countryside inside the valley is flat and heavily cultivated, with low, terraced fields delineated by fruit and nut orchards and rows of pin-straight poplar trees, backing onto a wall of snow-capped mountains. Kashmir is even look different to their southern and eastern neighbors, with their green eyes and grey flowing pheran (woolen tunics). Unless you fly, there are only two routes into the Kashmir Valley – the summer-only highway from Srinagar to Kargil and the southern highway to Jammu.
Once a vision of tranquility, the valley has been scarred by violence ever since Indian Independence, when the majority-Muslim kingdom joined with India instead of ceding to Pakistan. However, recent peace overtures have gone some way towards quelling the violence, and both Jammu and the Kashmir Valley are safer than they have been since 1989, when the tourist industry collapsed after a series of deadly attacks on foreign tourists. As this book went to print, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley were the safest they have been for many years. The winter capital, Jammu, is a fascinating metropolis jammed with temples and museums, while the summer capital at Srinagar is mesmerizing sprawl of ancient wooden mosques and bobbing houseboats. In the north, the hill stations of Gulmarg and Pahalgam are once again attracting trekkers and skiers, and growing numbers of travelers are using Srinagar as the western gateway to Ladakh. However, certain caveats apply. Violence can flare up suddenly and it would be foolish to visit Kashmir without checking the political.
When to go:
Kashmir – April to October / December to March for skiing.
Ladakh – May to October
The Hindu kingdom of Kashmir was mentioned in the Mahabharata and the valley became a major centre for Buddhist learning under the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Kashmiri mural artists travelled across the Himalaya, creating fabulous monastery murals in Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti. Sufi mystics brought Islam to Kashmir in the 13th century and Hindu and Buddhist culture went into rapid decline. The Mughals consolidated their hold on the valley during the reign of Sultan Sikander (1389–1413), who ordered the destruction of most of the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries in the valley. Followers of Buddhism fled east towards Ladakh, but the Hindu pandits were granted protection under Akbar(1556–1605) and the Kashmiri style of painting found a new expression in the lavish interiors of Srinagar’s mosques.
By the time the British arrived in India, Jammu and Kashmir was a loose affiliation of independent kingdoms, nominally under the control of the Sikh rulers of Jammu. After the British defeated the Sikhs they handed Kashmir to the Hindu Dogra dynasty, who ruled from 1846 until Independence. Most of the current problems in Kashmir began with Partition. Although the princely state of Kashmir had a majority Muslim population, its maharaja initially refused to sign up with either India or Pakistan. After months of equivocation, an invasion by Pashtun tribesmen, backed by the new government in Pakistan, persuaded the maharaja to throw in his lot with India. Pandit Nehru, himself a Kashmiri Hindu, sent troops to secure the border, sparking the first India–Pakistan war. By the end of the conflict, two-thirds of the state was under Indian control, including the majority-Muslim Kashmir Valley, while the remaining third was held by Pakistan. This sparsely inhabited area has been the main cause of tension between India and Pakistan ever since.
In 1949, the UN established a tenuous border – known as the Line of Control – but Pakistan invaded again in 1965, triggering another protracted conflict. Hindus and Buddhists were generally content with Indian rule, but the Muslim population grew increasingly restive. When promises of increased autonomy failed to materialize, a militant fringe turned to armed rebellion. The Indian army responded with brutal force, increasing resentment in the valley. By 1990, the state was awash with freedom fighters, some from Kashmir but rather more from Afghanistan and Pakistan, ensuring a pro-Pakistan agenda. In fact, most Indian Kashmir is would rather be independent of both India and Pakistan. Most of the mainstream political parties, including the ruling Congress Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party coalition, are working towards autonomy or full independence for Kashmir. However, the conflict has also become a cause celebrate for Islamic radicals. The two most active insurgent groups – Lashkar-e Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad – were founded by Afghan mujahedin with the aim of restoring Muslim rule over India. The claim that militants are fighting for the rights of Kashmir is undermined by the treatment of women in militant-controlled areas. Every year, dozens of Kashmiri women are executed for perceived transgressions against Islam or mutilated as a warning to families who fail to support the insurgency.
In 1990, Kashmir was placed under direct rule from Delhi, triggering 16 years of bloody unrest. Massacres and bomb attacks by militants were matched by human rights abuses by the Indian army, including the unexplained disappearance of 4000 people. Elections in 1996 led to calls for the division of Kashmir along religious lines, but this was rejected by Delhi. Following a series of nuclear tests by the Indian government in 1998, tensions in the region rose almost to breaking point. Pakistan responded with its own tests, then mounted an incursion across the Line of Control near Kargil, before the UN talked the two countries back from the brink. Subsequent elections have led to increasing autonomy for Kashmir, matched by a significant reduction in levels of violence across the Line of Control. India and Pakistan were forced together by the devastating Kashmiri earthquake in October 2005 As this book went to press, the leaders of Pakistan and India had agreed in principle to abandon their claim to the other portion of Kashmir. However, militant attacks on soldiers, civilians and domestic tourists continued throughout 2006. Travelers should be aware of the ongoing security risks in Kashmir and plan accordingly.