|Betaab Valley unveiled in all its splendour
, on the way to Aru,
the wooden bridge at Betaab Valley,
snow-capped Pir Panjal range embraces Pahalgam on all sides.
Pictures by: Barnali Chatterjee & Rohan Roy
Bohemians and avid travellers have a common view these days — that the world has shrunk! Name any remote corner on the globe that is kissed by the sun and mellowed by the stars — and it is within the embrace of man.
“A timeless road” — a common phrase of the poets from time immemorial, has lost its mystic appeal these days. The charm is undoubtedly timeless, but the road is real.
I can say this all the more confidently as we treaded on a road towards Pahalgam, 95km east of Srinagar, under a lazy summer sky this May. From a kaleidoscopic treat of the verdant valley of desires, we touched the road to Nirvana, impregnated with the inspirations of the divine muse.
The drive from the lakeside boulevard of Srinagar through saffron fields and the luxurious green tunnel to the quaint log huts of this smoky hamlet in Kashmir’s Anantnag district was like a frame from the magical world of Harry Potter.
It was akin to a direct transfer from the world of muggles to another world and another sky — of goblets and witches, of gnomes and broomsticks — all so palpable, with the unearthly beauty of the surroundings making it all the more ethereal.
Situated at a height of 7,200 feet, Pahalgam stands at the confluence of river Lidder and Sheshnag lake. It is famous for Kashmiri handmade gabbas and exquisitely designed wooden toys.
The place is unspoilt by the concrete syndromes of the modern times and has a thick rich cover of pine and cedar forests. The breathtaking vistas are a soothing pill to an urban mind and I’m sure it evoked the divine muse in a thoughtful heart.
The Pir Panjal range green meadows, pine forests, the rippling Lidder and the deep woods could easily replicate a frame from the Scottish highlands.
The luminous landscape of Pahalgam and the surrounding areas is a streak that insidiously seeps through the soul and weaves memories without an expiry date.
Around mid-afternoon on a day when the sky was heavy at heart, we drove towards Pahalgam, amid saffron fields, cricket bat factories, dry fruit markets and through roads meandering their paths through the deep woods that smelt of rain and pine.
About 30 minutes from Srinagar, we were in the purple saffron plantations of Pampore, replete with the aroma of spices. Anybody visiting Pahalgam would unanimously agree that Lidder is the showstopper in this stunning landscape and its myriad expressions at every bent are truly matchless.
The river meandered all along the trail and kept us company, while narrating untold tales of this mystic landscape.
Our abode in Pahalgam was a quaint white Victorian bungalow on the outskirts of the town surrounded by snowy peaks on all sides with the Lidder lapping on the boundary walls of the house.
As we entered the compound at dusk, there was a spooky sensation within the whispering pines and the soft purring of the Lidder, complemented by the reticent nature that engulfed us.
The smoke from the chimney kissed the clouds in twilight and the entire landscape looked surreal, making us heady.
The evening passed trying to read the messages of the whining breeze slashed with periodical rains and several times I felt the presence of the unknown through the cloudy white-laced curtains between the room and the adjacent lounge.
I felt this presence like a whisk around the rooms and corridors, in the nocturnal gurgle of the Lidder, in the granite shroud of darkness, the tearglass crystal lamps burning low and the wind whistling in the deserted corridor made the presence of the unknown even more tangible.
This rendezvous happened every night, chilling me to the spine, until I dozed off with the song of a thrush that whistled in the woods behind the cottage, in the wee hours of the morning.
Central Pahalgam bustles with tourist activities most of the year and there is an array of shops selling traditional dresses, pashmina shawls, brassware, art jewellery, wooden crafts and paper mache gift items. There are many dry fruit merchants as well, who sell saffron, walnut, almond, pine nut and the agro-produce of Kashmir.
A picnic at Baisaran, a green alpine meadow on the outskirts of Pahalgam, encircled by dense forests was a tempting option and we packed a cold lunch and spent the next day lazing in the heart of the valley. We were baked in the morning sun, drenched in the afternoon rain and mellowed by the twilight moon — we tasted it all along with the delicious lunch and mouth-watering nature that ruled supreme.
To our delight, we discovered that the Lidder was also an angler’s paradise, and despite being amateurs, we caught several rainbow trouts from the rushing streams.
Roop, our caretaker at the Sunflower cottage cooked us a delectable dish of butter trout for dinner, along with lamb kebabs with a paste made of garlic and mint.
The taste reminded me of the delicious trout from the sonorous Beas I had tasted in Jibhi, a village in Himachal Pradesh way back in 2002.
A penchant to penetrate deeper into the heart of paradise geared us for day trips around the district and on the third morning, shaded with sun and clouds, our first destination on the list as the crow flies, was the filmy Betaab Valley, which literally took our breath away.
Named after the blockbuster movie Betaab, the valley is indeed a romantic destination and perfectly befitted the dreamy frames of a movie buff, where the knight in shining armour met his beaux by moonlight.
Ashraf played the perfect host, as we were lost in the velvety green valley, with clouds enveloping us in a wet embrace and the wind serenading the romantic mush from a dream.
After a round of coffee, ice creams and cosying around, we drove to Aru, a tiny charming hamlet and 11km upstream the Lidder, replete with bird songs and rainbow stones. The golden-green meadow of Aru as we reached there mid-morning was an oasis of beauty, poignant with blessings.
The green meadows were like rolling green waves in an ocean, gently unveiled as they met the heart of the mountains.
From Aru, we drove to Chandanwari, the base camp for Amarnath yatra that led to the abode of Lord Shiva.
The place is bedecked with a captivating combination of the Sheshnag river on one side and snow-covered Pir Panjal range on the other, with nature unfolding in every possible colour and enigma in this sacred land.
During the month of sawan, an ice stalagmite forms a natural Shivling in the Amarnath cave, which, according to a local myth, waxes and wanes with the moon. There was a mild blizzard at Chandanwari, adding a fresh white coat to the landscape and we took refuge in quaint makeshift shacks, serving as restaurants, for a cup of tea and sizzling hot noodles.
I tried the trout and chips from a restaurant and polished it off with kehwa, the famous Kashmiri drink.
The blend of the cool whispering breeze and the food made me heady and my steps were unsteady as I held on to the wooden gate of the cottage — it was time to return to concrete, it was time to go home.
The journey through the lavender and saffron fields will remain with me forever — as the best of times, as the age of wisdom, as an epoch of belief, as the season of light, as a spring of hope: We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.