“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast
Haminastu hamin astu hamin ast”
If there is heaven on earth it is here, it is here it is here. These are the words spoken a few hundred years ago by a besotted mughal emperor for Kashmir and they ring true even today.
If you watch the episode on Srinagar to Jammu on ‘Highway on my plate’ closely you will see a sequence of us trying to hitch a ride on a beautiful stretch of the highway. The day is bright and sunny, there is a cool breeze, snow is clearly visible on the far hills behind us and floating cotton seeds fill the air and resemble heavily falling snow. In areas where there is water, the cotton seeds build up in large piles as they do on the bases of trees and all over the grass. It looks just like snow but it is actually the cotton and it is everywhere. The camera too seems to know it is in a special place and picks up colors and textures better than it does in the hot plains….. or does it? That is the magic of Kashmir, everything looks a lot better and dare I say tastes a lot better than it does elsewhere.
There was a slight sense of hesitancy when I heard we would be shooting in Kashmir. Late night schedules, hectic traveling along the highways and venturing often off the beaten path are subjects that did raise a few red flags in many minds. “Is it safe” was the standard question asked by all I knew. My answer was always the same. It is our country and our country men there as well. Safe or not, they have astonishing food and where there is food there will be …….Rocky and Mayur. Need I say more.
Kashmir did not disappoint. In every way it exceeded our expectations. The food was brilliant. There is a whole culture around the food and how it is eaten. People have more time and the pace of life is a little easier. It could be the lilting scent of Vazwan on the evening air the gushtabas, ristas, the botis and seekhs to mention just a few or the heavenly glass of sweetened Kahwa (pronounced kehwa in pehalgam) with its dry fruits and heavenly touch of saffron. We seemed o be starved all the time. It was that happy hunger that you tend to get high up in the mountains where food does taste a lot better and we could not have asked for more. The real vazwan though is still only enjoyed in completeness at a local wedding. Sadly for us it was not yet the wedding season and we had to do with what we could get and where we could get it. The offer to invite us to your kashmiri wedding is a standing one as we would be there happily to be a part of the wedding and more importantly (for us) to tuck into the vazwan.
The people we encountered across Kashmir spoke a different language and looked a little bit different from the majority of this country but were just as affectionate, understanding and above all emotional as the rest of the country. A positive comment on the food or the place was met with a smile. The warmth was not in the Kahwa alone but in the very core of the people. We did run into a couple of fellows here and there who definitely felt no warmth towards us but that is par for the course wherever we go in India. The sights, smells and sounds of Kashmir deserve a lot more in terms of tourism than they are getting currently.
A double edged sword is the massive military, paramilitary and police presence. I am sure they are there for a good reason but there presence is a little overwhelming even for us tourists. I can only begin to imagine how it must be for the locals. We played a little game throughout Kashmir. We tried to count how many seconds we could go without seeing a security personnel, the longest we could get to was 8 seconds. To realize the full portent of what I am saying please keep in mind that we traveled a few hundred kilometers and the presence was continuous. I hope the situation returns and stays normal at the soonest.
A mention must be made here about the many splendid breads you get in Kashmir. From the humble lawas which is best eaten with butter and noon cha (salty red tea) early in the morning to the freshly baked variety available at the Khayyam Chowk early in the evening as well. The number of breads exceeds 25 at one bakery alone. There are also traditional breads like the one made by an old man sitting in a narrow shop with his fire blackened walls behind him. His equally aged companion lay in the back after having cooked the evening’s quota of the bread. Not only was the bread delicious and unlike any other bread I have eaten here but closely resembled the famous bagel, a Jewish bread made famous as a popular breakfast in New York City with crème cheese. Yummy
The shikara on the Dal lake is a must do even though the experience is a little jaded. The view though may just be worth the slow ride and the best part are the vendors who paddle up to your boat to try and sell you every thing from ice cream to jewelry as you float lazily in the cool and clean waters of the Dal. The number of house boats is astonishing. The size of the fish the local fishermen pull out of the lake is surprising as well. In season I believe there are thousands of water fowl who come here and the lakes fish stocks support theses many hungry mouths. To wind up thank you Kashmir for being so beautiful and for supporting our two very, very hungry mouths.