Saturday, December 20, 2014

Delhi This Winter: A Picture Book!

I spent the past week in Delhi. I walked, went in auto rickshaws, took buses and boarded the Metro at times. The days were cold, the sun was feeble and the sky generally overcast. The haze would not go away until almost noon. But I used my camera to my heart's content. Here are some glimpses from my outings.

It is a riot of colours with chrysanthemums--called guldaudi locally--blooming across the city!

Winter is the time to flaunt one's silks. Some lovely options in a store window.

Cycle rickshaw is still a popular mode of transport in Old Delhi. This street is chock-a-block with vehicles on a cold and dreary winter afternoon.

Kejriwal smiles at you from posters all over the city. At a bus stop in South Delhi.

Isa Khan's tomb inside the Humayun's Tomb complex. It is so neat that it reminds one of a tiered cake!

This ceiling with this intricate painting is in the tomb complex. Perfect symmetry and bright colours! And they built it about five centuries ago. Amazing!!

Winter is the time for school picnics. The complex was teeming with children from several schools. Supervised by their teachers, these girls wait outside Humayun's Tomb.

Coffee Home, Baba Kharak Singh Marg. This spacious eatery in the busy Connaught Place area is a favourite haunt of shoppers as well as office-goers. The outdoor area under the shade of this huge tree is an added attraction.

The dome of this lovely structure in the Hauz Khas Complex catches the rays of a hesitant sun on a somewhat hazy morning.

A doorway to the mysteries of history. At the Hauz Khas Complex.

The Hauz Khas Complex is frequented mostly by college students. The ancient ruins act as a backdrop for the cellphone-toting modern generation. An interesting contrast!

Hauz Khas...the royal tank! It is hard to believe that this tranquil expanse is right in the middle of a bustling metropolis.

Hauz Khas Village. Small boutiques, art galleries and fancy little restaurants in an old setting. These spaces have been created without changing much of the original structures. Expensive, but unique and charming at the same time.

These winter vegetables on a cart by the roadside are so inviting...they are bursting with freshness. Attractive colours too!

Flowers...another of nature's bounties. Neatly decked up in bouquets at a roadside stall.

Christmas is a winter phenomenon. It is time for shopping, fun and food at a mall; the decorations adding to the festive atmosphere. Another riot of colours here!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Watching "Durr-e-Shahwar", A Social Drama From Pakistan!

This post contains some spoilers!


A kitchen lined with dark cupboards in a lower middle class house in Jhelum, Pakistan. The demure daughter-in-law spending long hours there kneading dough, washing dishes, cooking or making tea. Her head properly covered, her eyes always lowered, her voice soft, and her demeanour pleasing.

Four decades later, a modern apartment in Lahore. An ambitious career woman, her husband and their daughter at the breakfast table. They are irritable, grumpy and stressed out, snapping at each other for nothing.

Wait, this is not a case of a homemaker versus a working woman. These are scenes from a Pakistani teleplay "Durr-e-Shahwar" (I googled to learn the meaning of this and found that it is: Pearls worthy of kings) that was aired recently in India as "Dhoop Chhaon". Just 15 episodes of excellent storytelling, superb acting, touching dialogue and impeccable direction. Each episode stays with you long after you have finished watching it. Writer Umera Ahmad, director Haissam Hussain and rest of the cast have all done their job very well.

To be fair, there is nothing new in this story. It is the story (at least in parts!) of almost every home, every family and every couple in our part of the world. Its magic lies in the way it has been presented to the viewers. Beautifully shot, the frames are aesthetically pleasing, while the content candidly depicts what all it takes to hold a family together. The events unfold as if they were mirroring our lives, our relationships, and our surroundings. Maybe that is why they appeal to us.

Shandana and Haider. Durr-e-Shahwar and Mansoor. Two couples, a generation apart from each other. Shandana leads a fast-paced, hectic life with her husband Haider and young daughter Sophie. Their marriage is marred by their egos, impatience and immaturity. When she comes to the scenic Murree to spend a holiday with her ageing parents, she is struck by the gentle lifestyle of the older couple, filled with love and care for each other. But what she does not know is how much water has flown under the bridge before things came to such an idyllic setting. While Shandana adores her dad, she always thought that life has been a bed of roses for her mother, being married to such a thoughtful and considerate man as Mansoor. It is only after Durr-e-Shahwar decides to reveal her story to her daughter in order to help the latter deal with the crises in her life,  that we get a peek at the turbulent time she spent in the early years of her marriage.

And it is this part of the story that has been dealt with in a masterly manner. The flashbacks showing the claustrophobic environs of the young bride in her marital home leave you gasping for a breath of fresh air. Unable to find her feet there, she seeks relief in her father's letters. They come to her regularly, each and every word dripping with wisdom, love and encouragement.  Umera Ahmad excels in writing the dialogue for this play. Sample this letter to get an idea of her craft:

उम्मीद को ढूँढा नहीं जाता, उम्मीद को रखा जाता है अपने अंदर, अपने दिल में, अपने ज़ेहन में. ये नन्हे बीज की तरह होती है. चंद दिनों में बीज ज़मीन की मिटटी से बाहर तो आ जाता है मगर उसे दरख़्त बनने में बहुत देर लगती है. लेकिन वो दरख़्त बनता ज़रूर है, अगर उसको पानी दिया जाता रहे, अगर मिट्टी को नरम रखा जाये.

सिफ़र की ज़रुरत हर अदद को होती है कुछ बनने के लिए. सिफ़र जिस अदद के साथ लगे, उसकी कद्र-ओ-क़ीमत कई गुना बढ़ा देता है. तो अगर तुम अपने आपको सिफ़र समझती हो, तब भी क़ीमती हो, तब भी तुम बेकार नहीं हो, तब भी तुम हर गिनती से पहले आओगी. हर गिनती का आग़ाज़ तुम्हींसे होगा. और हर नौ अदद के बाद एक दफ़ा तुम्हारी ज़रुरत पड़ेगी. अगले मोड़ पर जाने के लिए तब्दीली जब भी आएगी, तुम से आएगी, सिफ़र से आएगी.

The language is as gentle as Durr-e-Shahwar's father is. It oozes with affection for his daughter. In fact, there are three father-daughter pairs in this play. Durr-e-Shahwar, Shandana and Sophie, all three have the highest regard and love for their fathers that shines wonderfully well through the narration.

The play is not dark and depressing. It is warm, honest and captivating. All the actors fit like a glove in their roles. Did I hear someone say that the story was old-fashioned, regressive? Well, it might be true for some situations or dialogue if one came across them in some other context. But here, they do not seem to be out of place. And even if they do, the play should still be watched to see what a neat package it is. Perfectly suited for the television medium, it can connect with people across generations. Wish we got to watch such short, tight and time-bound presentations on our channels instead of the long, loud and inane fare being dished out there in the name of entertainment!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Navaratri In Mylapore: Maamis, Manjal And More!

I was in Mylapore yesterday. The neighbourhood is synonymous with tradition in Chennai. The area surrounding the ancient Kapaleeshwarar Temple is the hub of activity during the ongoing festival season. One can get a flavour of culture and tradition here amidst colours, crowd, chaos and a cacophony of street sounds.

Yesterday was the first day of Navaratri, a festival lasting nine nights and nine days culminating on Dusshera, the tenth day. These nine days are especially marked for worshipping Shakti, the divine in the female form. In Tamil Nadu and some other parts of South India, families put up a display of dolls in their homes to celebrate this festival. These dolls are arranged on odd-numbered tiers, like three, five, seven or nine. Called Golu or Kolu, these decorations are the centre of attraction in any household. Friends, family and neighbours visit to admire them. They are treated with food and small gifts.

I walked in the market for some time and was overwhelmed by the number and variety of dolls and other pooja items on sale. The street was lined with makeshift stalls selling figurines in bright colours. Packets containing chunks of dried turmeric, accompanied with the cries of manjal, manjal were selling like hot cakes. I guess it is one of the important ingredients of the festivities. Maamis--as elderly ladies are addressed in this part of the country--were busy taking their pick from the huge stock available. I took many pictures and I will let some of them do the talking here.

See how stylishly she stands with one foot forward like models do at a pageant.

Krishna stands out amongst a multitude of other deities.

The stalls are so tightly packed that it is impossible to take a picture of just one figurine. This makes for some interesting visuals. See how Shiva is peeping from behind Krishna's shoulder!

Even Gods face the space crunch in this time and age. Here, Shiva-Parvati and Ganesha are balanced on top of another Ganesha and Saibaba!

Divine Grace!

Couldn't resist taking a picture of this fragrant basket!

Reclining Ganesha!

Poised to take on the demons.

Another form of Shakti.

These miniature figures are interesting, often depicting rural life in village scenes.

Some ritual or celebration. Perhaps for an expectant mother.

Another village scene.

These fruits look quite real! Not sure what they are made of. The sellers were claiming they are not breakable.

Lord Venkateswara in all his glory.

Lord Vishnu stretched on his Ananta Shesha...right by a Honda Activa!

Beautifully decked up! Aren't their features well-defined and sharp? They look lovely indeed!

Ma Saraswati with her Veena!

Some exquisite garlands. Isn't it amazing how tightly the flowers are packed in them?

And now, a couple of parting shots with more flowers. Fascinating!


Friday, August 15, 2014

An Independence Day Treat!

This morning as we went for our usual walk, we found ourselves in the midst of Independence Day celebrations by the beach. The Beach Walkers' Association had organized a small function to mark the day. The flag had already been hoisted and a sizeable crowd had gathered around a person who was making a speech in Tamil. It felt great to be greeted by this sight early in the morning. The fluttering tricolour against the backdrop of the blue waters of the sea. The sun usually starts blazing the moment it rises in this part of the world. But today, it had relented and was quite mild. Energized by this pleasant encounter, we continued walking.

When we retraced our path, we found people standing in orderly queues, waiting to be served some food. As we walked past, an elderly gentleman invited us to join the queue. We wondered whether we should join as we are not members of the association. Sensing our hesitation, he repeated his request asking us to spare just a few minutes. Perhaps the association was treating all the morning walkers to breakfast. There was no reason to say no, and we happily stood in one of the queues. Quickly, we were handed a paper plate and a plastic spoon. As the queue moved forward, we came to the point where volunteers were serving Rava Kesari, Pongal, Chutney and Vada to everyone. We stepped aside and started enjoying the breakfast. It was hot, fresh and delicious. Of course, there was steaming filter coffee and we washed the food down with it. We then exchanged some pleasantries with the elderly gentleman and walked back home.

I regretted not bringing my camera or phone with me. So, we came home and went back to the beach again with the camera. Most people had left. I managed to take some pictures of the tricolour. The only sore point in an otherwise delightful morning? I wish people had folded their plates before throwing them in the bin thoughtfully provided by the organizers. The bin started overflowing and as a result, some plates lay on the side of the road. I hope our love for our country is accompanied by our desire and efforts to keep it clean. It is heartening to note that the government is going to take this issue up seriously. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address, made a strong appeal to each and every Indian to take a pledge to keep India clean.

 On the way back, found this nice rangoli at the entrance of a house.  Very appropriate for the day!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

एक टिप्पणी "ज़िन्दगी गुलज़ार है" पर

हाल ही में ज़िंदगी चैनल पर पाकिस्तानी धारावाहिक "ज़िंदगी गुलज़ार है" देखने का मौका मिला. बेहतरीन अदाकारी, दिल को छू लेने वाले संवाद, उम्दा कहानी और कसे हुए निर्देशन से सजा यह धारावाहिक केवल २६ भागों में अपनी बात कहता है. हमारे हिंदी और मराठी धारावाहिकों की तरह नहीं, जिनकी कहानी शैतान की आँत की तरह खिंचती ही चली जाती है और कभी ख़त्म होती-सी नहीं लगती. यह एक ऐसी औरत, राफ़िया की कहानी है जिसके पति ने उससे मुँह मोड़ कर सिर्फ़ इसलिए दूसरी शादी कर ली कि उसने तीन बेटियों को जन्म दिया, एक भी बेटे को नहीं. धारावाहिक के शुरूआती भागों में से किसी एक में यह दृश्य है--तेज़-तेज़ चलती हुई राफ़िया अपनी बड़ी बेटी कशफ़ के साथ जा रही है कि अचानक उसके पैर की चप्पल टूट जाती है. कशफ़ का युनिवर्सिटी जाने का पहला दिन है और उसे पहले ही देर हो चुकी है. वह चाहकर भी अपनी माँ के लिए रुक नहीं सकती. टूटी हुई चप्पल हाथ में लिए राफ़िया उसी रफ़्तार से अपनी बेटी के साथ चलती है, ताकि उसे बस तक छोड़ सके. और कशफ़ बेबस होकर बस में चढ़ जाती है. यह सोचती हुई कि इतनी सुबह इस हाल में उसकी माँ अपने स्कूल तक कैसे पहुँचेगी. यह दृश्य राफ़िया के अपनी बेटियों को ज़िंदगी में आगे बढ़ाने के जज़्बे, पति के सहारे के बिना मध्यवर्गीय परिवेश के संकुचित माहौल में तीन बेटियों को पालने-पोसने की जद्दोज़हद, और इस मुश्किल राह पर चलते हुए आनेवाली अनगिनत कठिनाइयों का बेहद खूबसूरत प्रतीक है.

कराची के मध्यवर्गीय और उच्चवर्गीय माहौल को पर्त-दर-पर्त खोलती हुई यह कहानी पति-पत्नी सम्बन्धों, समाज में आदमी और औरत के भिन्न स्थान, और उनके बीच होनेवाले भेदभाव को बहुत ही सुलझे हुए तरीके से दिखाती है, किसी पाठ्यपुस्तक की तरह उपदेश देते हुए नहीं. कहानी के बारे में और कुछ नहीं कहूँगी ताकि जो इसे देखना चाहें (यह यू ट्यूब पर उपलब्ध है), उनकी दिलचस्पी बनी रहे.

पाकिस्तानी युवा लेखिका उमैरा अहमद के "ज़िंदगी गुलज़ार है" नामक पुस्तक पर आधारित इस धारावाहिक का निर्देशन सुलताना सिद्दिकी ने किया है. कई धारावाही प्रस्तुतियों का निर्माण और निर्देशन तो उन्होंने किया ही है, साथ ही वह एक सफल व्यवसायी भी हैं. २०१२ में जिस टेलीविजन चैनल पर यह धारावाहिक दिखाया गया था, उस हम नेटवर्क लिमिटेड की वह संस्थापक और अध्यक्ष हैं. उनके निर्देशन की एक ख़ासियत मुझे यह लगी कि उन्होंने नाटकीयता को बहुत दूर रखा है. उनके सारे पात्र एकदम खरे और जीवंत लगते हैं. छोटे-छोटे दृश्यों के माध्यम से उन्होंने कहानी बुनी है. इसलिए उसे देखना कहीं भी बोझिल और ऊबाऊ नहीं लगता. कहीं-कहीं तो जटिल मानवीय संवेदनाओं को बहुत नाज़ुक तरीके से पेश किया गया है. अतिरंजित हावभावों से भरपूर धारावाहिक देखने के आदी दर्शकों के लिए इतनी सुगढ़ प्रस्तुति देखना निश्चित ही एक सुखद अनुभव है. इसके संवाद भी सारे माहौल के साथ मेल खाते हुए और बहुत सहज हैं. कई उर्दू शब्द तो हमारे परिचित हैं, जो नहीं भी हैं, वे सुनने में मीठे लगते हैं और संदर्भ पर ग़ौर करें तो आसानी से समझ में आ जाते हैं. राफ़िया की महत्वपूर्ण भूमिका को समीना पीरज़ादा ने बड़ी शिद्दत के साथ निभाया है. और कशफ़ को साकार किया है  ब्रिटिश-पाकिस्तानी अदाकारा सनम सईद ने. ज़ारून बने हैं जाने-माने मॉडेल, गायक और अभिनेता फवाद अफज़ल ख़ान जो जल्द ही अनिल कपूर की "खूबसूरत" में सोनम कपूर के साथ बड़े परदे पर दिखाई देंगे. अन्य सभी कलाकार अपनी-अपनी भूमिका में एकदम सटीक हैं.

एक और बात. इसमें कहीं भी किसी सेट का इस्तेमाल होता हुआ नहीं दिखा. कराची के आलिशान बंगलों से लेकर छोटे मध्यवर्गीय घरों तक कैमरा हमें सीधे-सीधे ले जाता है. सभी कलाकारों की वेशभूषा पर भी खासी मेहनत की गई है. अपने क़िरदार के माकूल लिबास पहने कलाकार बहुत विश्वसनीय लगते हैं. सरहद पार का यह धारावाहिक न सिर्फ़ अच्छा लगा, बहुत अपना भी लगा.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Kashmir Log 3

Click here for Kashmir Log 1 and here for Kahmir Log 2.

We start early as usual. Sonamarg is in Ganderbal district, about 96 kilometres from Srinagar. The weather is pleasant today. It is not hot, and there is an occasional drizzle. While exiting Srinagar, we drive along the periphery of the Dal Lake for a long time. It looks misty in the early morning. At places, I notice children waiting for their school buses, the vast expanse of the lake right in front of them. Unlike children in most parts of India who enjoy holidays in the summer, Kashmiri children have their vacation for three months in the winter. A little later, our leader points out the tall golden tower of the Hazratbal Mosque in the distance.

It is a lovely drive, wonderful vistas of the valley unfolding before me from the large windows of my bus. We cross a vibrant river and are told it is Sind, a major tributary of the Jhelum. We also pass by a town called Kangan. Then we stop at Mammar for a tea break. This location is not crowded at all. In fact, we seem to be the only ones there. The place is simply out of this world! The river Sind is gushing energetically right by the restaurant. All of us forget about the tea and rush to the river. There is a mild drizzle. All the cameras come out and people start posing, trying to capture the magic of the moment. The force, energy and speed with which rivers in Kashmir flow is amazing. If I had to compare this river to a person, I would call it vivacious. Our leaders summon us for tea. Some of us request them to stop at this place again on our way back.

On reaching Sonamarg, we get into smaller vehicles for touring the neighbouring areas. We are going towards Baltal, the base camp for the Amarnath Yatra* that is to begin in a few days. This route is shorter and harder than the Chandanwari route. As we drive on an elevated road, our driver points to a small hamlet in the valley below and says, "That is Sarbal, the last village in Kashmir". Further ahead, neatly laid out army tents appear in the valley. The army personnel are here to prepare for and conduct the annual Yatra that thousands of people undertake every year. This is Baltal. Many more tents are to come up here later this month when devotees will begin their arduous trek towards the holy cave from this camp. "It is only about 16 kilometres from this point, behind those mountains", our driver informs us. But how difficult every step in those 16 kilometres must be, we think, feeling elated on having come so close to the revered place.

Later, we retrace our path to stop at Bajri Nala, a snow point where tourists are busy getting their pictures taken against the snowy background. Little ahead, a snow crushing vehicle is at work, crushing and clearing snow from the roadsides.

The next stop is at Fish Tank. This place looks like a popular picnic spot. It is filled with tourists, local families and groups of school children.  A tranquil lake surrounded by mountains. A perfect place for an outing or a picnic.

We return to Sonamarg for lunch at a restaurant. There is a wash basin outside where we stop to wash our hands. The water is almost freezing at this time in the afternoon! The rivers, the mountains, the fresh air and even the cold water reminds you of how far-removed from nature our lives are in the overcrowded cities we live in. After a delicious lunch, we are on the way back to Srinagar with a tea break in Mammar.

This is the last day of the tour and a get-together is scheduled in the hotel before dinner. We, who were strangers to one another six days ago, bond well now having spent some wonderful time together. Tomorrow, everybody goes home with happy memories of this trip. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses are exchanged followed by promises of staying in touch. There's just one place in the itinerary that we haven't visited yet. It is the Shankaracharya Temple. It is slated for tomorrow, first thing in the morning.


The temple is situated on a hill, a short drive away from our hotel. The car takes you up the winding road to a point from where one has to climb steps for the remaining distance. I am told there are 265 steps. Taking cameras and phones up the steps is prohibited. So are leather bags and belts. We are one of the first to arrive at the temple. The steps are manageable if you go up taking short breaks. The last few steps are very steep. And then you reach the sanctum sanctorum. The ringing of the bell, the fresh morning air and the black Shivalinga adorned with flowers, all of them create very positive vibes. Going so early in the morning means there are no crowds, but we miss out on panoramic views of Srinagar and Dal Lake from the hill because it is still very hazy. But this is a fitting finale to our trip to this paradise on earth, Kashmir.

We get back to the hotel, have breakfast and get ready to check out and head to the airport for our flights back home. There are hugs and goodbyes at the portico as groups get into taxis and set off. The taxi driver gets talking to me. Usual questions about my family, where I am from and how I liked Kashmir. Upon learning that I am not accompanied by anyone from my family and I met people from my group only on this tour, he assures me that even if I had come all by myself without this group, I would have been safe here. "Behan, main aapko apne ghar khaane par le jaata (sister, I would have taken you to my place for a meal)", he says proudly, displaying the warmth and hospitality Kashmir is known for. I got to sample this hospitality throughout my interactions-however limited-with the Kashmiri people.

One has to go through several tiers of security at the Srinagar airport. I pass through all of them. My flight is announced. It is time to say goodbye to this beautiful land and its beautiful people!

*The Yatra has begun as per schedule on the 28th of June.

Our tour was managed and conducted by Kesari Tours, a Mumbai-based company.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kashmir Log 2

For Kashmir Log 1, click here.

We are on our way to Srinagar from Pahalgam. It is going to be a long day. Big buses such as ours are not allowed to enter the city during daytime. So, at a convenient point, we split into groups and get into the smaller vehicles that are waiting for us. It is a Monday morning and the traffic in the city is heavy. Reaching the hotel takes much longer than expected. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we head towards Dal Lake for a shikara ride to the Char Chinar island. Traffic crawls at a snail's pace. It is almost midday and very warm. Never thought it could get so hot here!

It is only after I settle in my shikara that I get a respite from the heat. The cool breeze and the gentle blue waters of the lake soothe me. But before I could begin to appreciate this, our shikara is approached by intruders. It is the hawkers again! They attach their shikaras to yours and start negotiating. They go some distance with you, but leave you alone after a while. The lake is unbelievably huge. At places, there are lotus patches with hundreds of lotuses blooming. Some light yellow, some pink/red. It is wonderful floating gently in these shikaras. There's an old world charm to it.

After about 30 minutes, the island of Char Chinar appears at a distance. It is a small isle, with four Chinar trees, one in each corner. But sadly, only two of them are in good shape. Two have dried up, with almost no leaves. The Chinar is a majestic tree, tall and elegant. It is an integral part of Kashmiri culture. One can only imagine how magnificent it must be looking in autumn when its leaves change their colour. The leaves are pretty with a distinct angular shape.

We spend some time at Char Chinar and get back into our shikaras. On our way back, we pass by some floating gardens where vegetables are being grown on layers of weeds that have been collected from the lake. There is a floating market too, housed in boats. We give it a miss as it is getting late. It is interesting to see locals using simple shikaras for their errands. School kids are being taken home in one, while an old couple is going some place in the other. There is a floating post office in a bigger houseboat.

Some time after a latish lunch at our hotel, we visit the Shalimar Bagh. And then the Nishat Bagh. These are exquisitely landscaped Mughal gardens that were laid out in the 17th century. Everything about them is superlatively splendid. The fountains, the lawns, the trees and the flowers. Ah, the flowers! There must be something special about the soil and air in Kashmir. The flowers look very healthy and full of life. And they are huge and abundant. It is a treat to see so many roses in so many different colours, all at one place.

It has been a long and leisurely evening. At dinnertime, we are briefed about the visit to Gulmarg that is coming up tomorrow. It is going to be the "highlight" of this whole trip. Full of anticipation and excitement, I hit the bed. We have to gather in the breakfast area at six in the morning!


All of us are ready for breakfast at six. Those who don't want to eat that early get some stuff packed to eat later. We get going at 6:30. It is a nice day. For the first 43 kilometres, the drive takes us on a road that is pretty much flat. We take a break in Tangmarg. Local men here sport long beards and flowing phirans. They look hardy and robust, a quality they acquire because of living in difficult geographical terrain. The next 13 kilometres will take us uphill on a winding road. After a tea break, our leaders advise us to rent gumboots and warm coats from a neighbouring shop. "One never knows what the weather will be like up there", they say. It has started drizzling, lending a dreamy look to the scenery.  Armed with boots and coats, we get into the bus that starts winding its way towards Gulmarg. The drive is scenic, with very tall pine and fir trees growing densely in the forest. They are numerous, standing so close to one another as if they were jostling for place, their needles encroaching into each other's space.

Gulmarg is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kashmir and large crowds are expected here. Our buses drop us in the parking lot. From here, one has to walk or ride a pony for about two kilometres to reach the cable car station. Most of us decide to walk. Fortunately, the drizzle has stopped. The crowds seem to be swelling. Our leaders have done online booking for the group. That saves us some time. We get into the queue for the first phase of the cable car ride that will take us to Kongdori, at a height of 10,500 feet. It is a short ride that takes eight to nine minutes. Small huts, sheep, people, grassy slopes...all look magical down there when you are seated inside the small cabin of a cable car, called gondola here. We get out and enjoy  the fascinating views that this location offers.

The second phase takes you to Afarwat, 13,500 feet high. I hear that the Line of Control is only a few kilometres away from there. But sadly, the cable cars in that phase are not operating because of bad weather at the top, an announcement informs us. Hoping that the service will resume, we decide to wait for some time. They run some test cars and start operations after 90 minutes or so. What follows after that is mayhem. Impatient crowds, people pushing one another, angry arguments and fights lead to almost stampede-like conditions. What could have been a rendezvous with Nature at its magnificent best, is marred by crass human behaviour and incompetent handling of the situation by the management. Those of us who do wish to go for the second phase, have to stand in the queue for two hours or more with a hostile crowd. Anyway, I am happy that nothing untoward happened and all are well.

By the time we are back in Tangmarg for "lunch", it is six in the evening! We have one more engagement scheduled for the evening. A visit to the Art and Craft Bazaar on the outskirts of Srinagar. It is a government-run outlet selling authentic Kashmiri stuff at fixed prices. Moreover, a carpet-making demonstration is on the cards. Our group is ushered into the huge hall on the first floor where the walls are lined with plush sofas. As we take our seats, we are welcomed by the genial Mr. Rafiq. He explains the intricacies of carpet-making in very sweet Hindi, tinged with Urdu. He is very polite, suave and knowledgeable. We listen to him spellbound as he holds forth on this art mastered by his illustrious forefathers. "Yeh hunar aapko virasat mein milta hai" (you inherit this skill from your ancestors), he says. As he shows how a carpet is woven knot by knot, we are full of admiration for the tremendous amount of work that goes into its making. The price and quality of a carpet depends on the number of knots per square inch. He unfurls several gorgeous carpets in different sizes to cries of "oohs" and "aahs" from us.

The art of carpet-making came to Kashmir from Persia. Carpets are not made in factories. Skilled craftspersons make them in their own homes. It may take months to make a single piece. A carpet maker has to follow a distinct pattern of knots and colours laid down by an expert, just like a musician follows notations while playing a piece. The final outcome is not known to him until he has completed making it. The designs are mostly floral and include cultural motifs like paisley and Chinar leaf.

"A carpet is for a lifetime", Mr. Rafiq tells us. The silkworm feeds on the leaves of apple trees. The silk yarn is obtained from the saliva it deposits on the surface of the leaves. The speciality of this silk is that the worm does not get killed in the process. Since only natural dyes (extracted from rose petals in this case) are used, the carpets do not get stained even if something spills on them. Once a thread is dyed in a natural dye, it cannot take on any other colour. Any spillage can be washed off at home easily. They do not absorb dust and are fire-resistant. Mr. Rafiq sets fire to a piece of paper and throws it on a carpet. The piece burns completely but does not leave any mark on the carpet. Our host simply dusts off the ash. Even heavy furniture does not make a dent in these carpets. And lastly, he demonstrates the amazing change in the colours of a carpet when it is flipped. This session has been very interesting and enriching. It ends with cups of delicious kahwa served to us on the house.

We return to the hotel, have dinner and retire. Of course, not before listening to the itinerary for tomorrow. We are going to Sonamarg tomorrow!

To be continued.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Kashmir Log 1

Our first connect with Kashmir has been through Hindi films. The land has provided a stunning backdrop to numerous film songs. We grew up looking at those wonderful landscapes, which seemed tucked away in some faraway fantasy land. That was then. It doesn't seem to be faraway now. Looking at the snow-capped mountains from the window of my aircraft, I sense a wave of exhilaration sweeping through me. Within minutes, we touch down at Srinagar.

It is a small, very basic airport. Outside, the sun is shining brightly and it is quite warm. We are greeted by our escorts and are soon on our way to the houseboat in Nagin Lake, where we are to spend the first night. But for some mountains in the distance, Srinagar looks like any other town, with shops lining the road on both sides. It did feel special a couple of times when we passed by some water bodies with boats bobbing up and down in them. After a longish ride, it is time to get down. A little walk and we arrive at a lake where dozens of shikaras are waiting to take us to our houseboats. Our luggage efficiently loaded onto the shikaras, we set off happily, taking in the picturesque landscape. We are in Kashmir, at last!

The shikara glides gently on the calm waters of the blue lake. At the other end are moored several houseboats, their wooden bodies looking bright in the afternoon sun. Each houseboat is a spacious three-bedroom house, complete with a lovely dining room, a plush living room, a deck or balcony and a terrace. I am sharing my houseboat with a friendly family from Mumbai. After depositing our bags in our rooms, all of us come out to the deck to enjoy the fantastic view. The waters of the lake look pristine, although at places, there are carpets of weeds on the surface. And there are some lotus patches too. Photographers, masseurs, people selling shawls and embroidered dress materials float by in shikaras looking for prospective customers. Otherwise it is a tranquil afternoon, and the ambience picture perfect with mountains lining the serene lake at the far end. We just sit there and soak in the atmosphere. 

We get up only when it is time to go to the common area, close to the point where we alighted from our shikaras, for an introductory session with other members of our group over tea. It is a nice assembly, with people belonging to different age groups. Introductions done, we walk over to a nearby place selling colourful papier mache products. There are bells, boxes, little shikaras, vases, bangles, key rings and several other things that tourists like to pick up as souvenirs. People in my group start buying things for friends and family back home. I like everything, but am happy to just take pictures. This is only the first day, I tell myself. We get back to the houseboat just in time for dinner. Our leaders brief us about the next day's itinerary. We return to our rooms soon because we have to check out early and leave for Pahalgam at 6:45 in the morning.

The room is comfortable. The bedspreads and curtains are adorned with typical Kashmiri embroidery. The intricately designed wooden ceiling--khatambandh--adds authenticity to the ethnic Kashmiri setting. It is a quiet night outside. The houseboat attendant Irshad, a youth from a nearby village, promises hot water in the bathroom at five in the morning. I fall asleep in no time,as I had woken up at an unearthly hour to catch my flight that morning.


Irshad keeps his word. Feeling fresh and rejuvenated after a nice hot bath, I walk to the breakfast area. Our luggage is being assembled in one corner. After a quick breakfast, we get into a largish boat to go across the lake and board the two buses that will take us to Pahalgam, 95 kilometres away. All of us are excited to be in Kashmir and are looking forward to enjoying the scenic beauty of its countryside.

We stop by at a shop selling dry fruits and spices in Lethpora, Pampore in Pulwama district. This region is well-known for its saffron fields. In fact, the back door of the shop opens into a huge saffron field. Unfortunately, this is not the season, and the field is bare. "Come in September if you want to see the flowers!", says the friendly chap who is showing us around. He tells us that in season, the field is covered with violet flowers. They grow on plants that stand no taller than eight to 12 inches. Each flower has three red stigmas that are plucked and dried carefully. This is the prized saffron that is used as an exotic spice in various dishes. Since this is very expensive, some enterprising people come up with fake saffron. Our man gives us tips on how to tell the fake stuff from the real one. "One end of the strand must be broader than the other end. If you put a strand in your mouth, it should taste bitter. And if you put some strands in water, the water should turn yellow, but the strands should retain their original colour, no matter how long they stay in water." Armed with this knowledge, we are now ready to take on the spurious saffron dealers!

My companions throng the counters to get their fill of spices and dry fruits. I am mostly happy to walk around, take pictures and relish the hot kahwa available just outside the shop.

Our next stop is the ancient Avantiswamin Temple, a Vaishnava temple built somewhere between 855 and 883 AD. It is also in Pulwama district, located about 30 kilometres from Srinagar on the banks of the lovely river Jhelum.Our knowledgeable guide draws our attention towards the various carvings in stone and explains their significance to us. The appeal of the temple is enhanced by its surroundings-- colourful rose shrubs, stately Chinar trees and mountains in the distance. This location featured in the songs from the well-known 1975 film "Aandhi". Fortified after a snack and tea break, we move on.
After a while, we see workshops/shops making and selling cricket bats lining both sides of the road. Hundreds of bats are piled in a criss-cross fashion and left on the roofs of the shops to dry. We stop by at a prominent shop. The affable Mr. Mushtaq greets us with a smile. He is dressed smartly in a black pathan suit and a white skull cap. He tells us about the abundance of willow trees in Kashmir and why their wood is best suited to make cricket bats. "It is very tough, shock-resistant and it doesn't get splintered on being hit with a ball at high speed. This wood is found only in England and Kashmir", he says. He is very witty, articulate and ends his sermon with a puzzle that sets all of us thinking. When we fail to come up with an answer, he reveals it with a naughty smile. It WAS quite silly and we disperse, thanking him amidst loud guffaws. Some go to the workshop, and some to the shop to buy an authentic Kashmiri willow bat.

We resume our journey towards Pahalgam. The road is slightly uphill and the vegetation changes. All of us are thrilled to find a gurgling river running parallel to the road. Everybody rushes to the windows of the bus with their cameras. It is the river Lidder. It runs alongside the road all the way up to Pahalgam. In fact, our hotel offers a breathtaking view of the river against the dark mountains in the background.

We check into the hotel and have lunch. After some rest, we are out to explore the lovely hill town. There is a nice park by the river. Some of us venture to touch the gushing is ice cold! It is nice to see many local families enjoying a picnic in the park. God has blessed this land not only with natural beauty, but also with beautiful people. Men look handsome with their sharp noses and trimmed beards, while women look pretty with their kohl-rimmed eyes and stunning faces. And their complexion? Flawless rosy pink! How can so much beauty be concentrated in one place, I wonder.

We are accosted by the ever-present salesmen several times, trying to sell us their wares--shawls, stoles and dress material. The competition is severe and each one tries to outdo the others when it comes to bringing down the prices. "We earn only in six months and sit at home for the other six months", they plead. It requires a lot of determination to shake them off!

Back to the hotel for dinner after a very enjoyable outing in the park. Dinnertime is the briefing time for next day's programme. It is Aru Valley and Chandanwari tomorrow.


Big buses are not allowed in this region so we split into groups of six and board the vans that have been arranged for the day. It is a bright, sunny morning. Pahalgam is traditionally a shepherd's village. We come across large flocks of sheep being taken out for grazing in the fields.

Aru Valley is a scenic spot with mountains and grassy patches, about 15 kilometres from Pahalgam. Some people go for pony rides while some others and I take a walk. We gather for tea at a local tea shop and get into our vehicles to go to Chandanwari. We retrace our path to Pahalgam and then get onto the road going towards Chandanwari, another 17 kilometres from Pahalgam. It happens to be a Sunday and we are caught in a huge traffic jam. We are close to a popular picnic destination called Betaab Valley (parts of the Hindi film "Betaab" were shot here), and the unusually heavy local traffic coupled with the tourist vehicles has resulted in this pile up. I am told that the reason for the presence of locals in huge numbers is that the month of Ramzan is to start soon. Once that happens, they fast and usually stay at home. No wonder they are out to enjoy the long summer days, snowbound as they are for several months in the winter.

We wait patiently as nothing seems to move. More than an hour later, things improve and slowly we wind our way towards Chandanwari. This little town is the starting point for the traditional route to go to the holy Amarnath cave. It offers magnificent views of the Lidder Valley. We walk up to a hill which is heavily covered with snow that has now turned into ice. Gumboots and sticks are available on rent. So are horses and sledges. You choose how you want to go up the hill and how far. It looks very slushy and slippery at the base. I decide to enjoy the atmosphere at the base itself. We are very close to the snow, and it is pleasant out here, not cold.

Back to the hotel for a very late lunch. After lunch and some rest, we go out shopping in the market that is just outside our hotel. More of embroidered sarees, dress material, shawls, stoles and bags. And dry fruits. Tomorrow, we have an early start to go back to Srinagar.

To be continued.