After the disastrous day-trip to Gulmarg, we decided to stay in Srinagar yesterday and explore the rest of it. The plan was to visit the Sir Pratap Singh (SPS) museum, Hazratbal mosque, Shankaracharya temple and Hari Parbat hill. But when we woke up in the morning and stepped out of our houseboat room, Fayaz (houseboat owner) informed us that there had been an ‘incident’ in the old city the previous night; during a conflict between the CRPF and locals after the Friday prayers, a teen-aged boy had been killed! This had caused the residents of Srinagar’s old city to flare up, shut shop and call a strike. So Fayaz advised us to stay away from the old city and to stick close to Dal lake, which is the touristy section of the city. With a heavy heart, we struck out Hazratbal mosque and Hari Parbat hill from our list for the day !
It’s amazing how Srinagar operates. There is one section, where the tensions and issues of the past still linger unresolved, waiting for permanent, acceptable solutions. Here the slightest hint of trouble causes the area to shut down, forces visitors away and demands ferocious attention from law-enforcers. On the other hand is tourism-focused Srinagar, where visitors like us walk around, shop, stand over-awed in the Mughal gardens, laze in a shikara and are generally made to believe that ‘all is well’. A day after the young lad’s death, in spite of the strike in the old city, most of the stores and restaurants around Dal Lake were open and ready for business. Hundreds of visitors like us walked around as though the trouble was miles away in a different city and had nothing to do with us; it was really weird! The only thing that continuously reminded us of the issue around the corner was the fact that we couldn’t visit certain sections of the city that we had hoped to cover that day.
We took an auto to SPS museum, which was at the south-western part of the city, across the Jhelum River. Established in 1898, the museum has centuries-old stone sculptures, paintings, textiles and a collection of stuffed birds and animals belonging to the valley. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. So when we got there at 11am on a Saturday, we expected it to be open. Unfortunately, even though the main entrance gate was open, the museum door was closed. Spotting a couple of men standing outside, Madhu walked over to enquire. They turned out to be museum staff. They informed Madhu that the museum was going to remain closed for the day because of the on-going strike in the old city; some of the museum staff had not been able to make it to work. Madhu said okay and was about to walk away when strangely they seemed to have a change of heart. They asked him where we were from and then said that they were willing to open the museum door for a few minutes for us; after all, we were guests of Kashmir and were to be treated well; talk about Kashmiri hospitality !
SPS museum is housed in a British-era, one-storey building with dusty-looking interiors. The collection inside, though small, is surprisingly interesting and totally worth a look. The main hall that we entered has stone sculptures found in the valley from as far back as the 5th century AD. Of them all, the 3-headed sculptures of Lord Vishnu were unique and absolutely gorgeous; the main head has a human face, the left head was that of Narasimham (Vishnu’s Lion avatar) and the right head of Varaha (Vishnu’s Boar avatar). But the most exquisite sculpture was a large (about 5 feet tall), leaf-shaped sculpture with 23 different avatars of Lord Vishnu, including his well-known Dashavatarams (10 avatars) carved on it. A couple of the avatars, including a large central one, were missing but the piece looked priceless; it was the highlight of our visit to the SPS museum! We had read that their painting and textiles collection from the Mughal times are quite stunning as well but unfortunately, these sections were closed; not sure if it was because of the strike or for maintenance. In fact, apart from the main central hall, only their Natural History section was open; all the other halls were closed. The Natural History section, though old and rotting, was interesting; we had a quick look and left, thanking the museum staff profusely on our way out!
Our auto guy then took us to Shankaracharya hill, which overlooks the Dal lake and provides fantastic views of the city. However to get to the top, one has to climb about 280 steps to the Shiva temple atop. We were dropped off at the base where heavy security personnel frisked us and then asked us to leave behind our cameras and mobile before ascending the steps. Since we had nowhere to keep our stuff, Madhu and I took turns to the top. The steps, though not too steep, were a little tiring. But the views from the top were totally worth the effort! Dal Lake and the rows of houseboats in it looked fantastic but so did the rest of the city and its gardens; too bad cameras weren’t allowed! The temple, which sits atop a high platform, is simple and said to be from the time of the Pandavas. It was completed and given its current form in the 3rd century BC by king Gopaditya. Inside, it houses a large Lingam, which is almost a little too large for the tiny interiors; visitors barely have enough space to walk around it. Although officially known as Takht-e-Sulaiman, the hill is locally known as the Shankaracharya hill because of the learned saint Shankaracharya’s stay here during his visit to Kashmir.
Later, we ate lunch at the Boulevard (street on the southern bank of Dal Lake), checked our emails at a local cyber cafe (next to Lhasa restaurant between Boulevard and Old Gagribal road) and then got back to our houseboat for a late afternoon siesta; there wasn’t much else we could do that day.
The next day we decided to head to another one of Kashmir’s pretty country-side locations called Yousmarg. Fayaz informed us that things had worsened in the old city and that today could be worse than it had been yesterday. So he felt that we were doing the right thing by leaving town for the day. At around 9:3am we started out from Srinagar in a hired SUV with a young chap named Sonu as our chauffeur. The streets of Srinagar wore a sad, deserted look. Most of the stores that are usually open by 9am weren’t open yet; we could almost feel the tension in the air. But soon we were in the outskirts of Srinagar, passing through small, picturesque villages. Madhu and I began to relax and enjoy the landscape. Suddenly, the SUV stopped abruptly and started reversing in a hurry. At first I thought that Sonu was pulling back to make way for a larger vehicle coming from the opposite direction, a common occurrence on narrow, rural roads. However, when he didn’t really stop reversing, I looked through the windshield and to my horror, saw 2 or 3 young kids, probably in their teens, masked, throwing stones in our direction. It was then that I realized that trouble had broken out and that we and our car were in serious danger of being stoned and injured. It was a terrifying moment! I’ve seen images on television of burning streets and men throwing stones at everything that came their way but they always belonged to some far off land that I had nothing to do with. To be in a real, live situation like that now was strange and almost unreal. Thanks to Sonu’s quick reflexes and calm composure (possibly due to tons of prior experience), we, including the car, escaped without being harmed. After driving in reverse for almost a kilometer, he backed into a driveway and then swung the car around to the opposite direction. Thankfully, none of the stone-throwers bothered following us.
Sonu mentioned that when the old city goes up in arms, smaller villages in the outskirts of Srinagar, where there is no army presence, tend to flare up as well. He asked us what we would like to do, for which Madhu and I had no answer. We were in a bit of a shock, not wanting to believe what we had just experienced. Sonu suggested that we could park the car somewhere, wait for a couple of hours by when the trouble-makers would possibly go away and then try heading to Yousmarg again. We were appalled at this suggestion! No way would we risk our lives to go see a place! Moreover, even if we made it past the trouble areas unharmed, we would arrive at Yousmarg late, giving us hardly enough time to explore it. And then what if we are not able to get back into Srinagar?! So we simply asked Sonu to head back and drop us off at the Boulevard, which he diligently did. On the way he regaled us with stories of other similar situations where he had managed to escape, along with the other passengers, without injury and/or too much damage to the vehicle. It was all quite fascinating and horrifying to hear! We felt very sad for the residents of Srinagar who experience such turmoil on a regular basis and have had to live with it as a part of life. How can a region so beautiful be under so much strife!?!
In the evening we went on another Shikhara ride and had a wonderful time. The gentle breeze, the buzz of life on the lake around us, the evening call to prayers by the muezzin and the smooth, slow motion of the Shikhara removed all the tensions of the morning from our heart and lulled us back into a feeling of calm and peace. Later, I decided that some retail therapy was also needed . A couple of the floating shops stopped by our houseboat and I happily shopped for silk shawls and woolen ponchos with Kashmiri embroidery. We also bought some of Kashmir’s famous Zafran (saffron) as gifts for family.
In spite of the terrible start to the day, it has ended quite peacefully … well, at least for us; can’t say the same for the locals. This experience has heightened our awareness of the problems plaguing Kashmir valley. Our minds are now constantly seeking answers to questions that are hard to answer: who is to blame for this? why hasn’t a solution been found? when will peace return?…