As the plane made its way to Srinagar from Delhi, I wondered for the umpteenth time whether it was really a good idea to venture forth all alone to a place that is almost behind a veil. But then veils are always alluring. The short flight presented an impressive view of the stark Pir Panjal range. Ragged, imposing and forlorn. Like a long-lost dream full of mystery. On landing and after the usual formalities of a post-Covid travel world, I was headed to my destination, Anantnag.
If anyone tells you Kashmir is all about strife, insurgency, stone-pelting and guns, and maybe apples, they cannot be further from the truth. The city of Srinagar—or, what little I saw of it while making my way towards Anantnag—is like any small, dusty city in any corner of India. Dal Lake is no longer the lake from the many picture postcards. On the way to Anantnag lies the famous saffron-growing area of Pampore. If you are travelling here, make sure to pick some of the precious spice—a majority of which is exported leaving the slightly inferior Iran saffron for consumption.
For the past few years—especially the last one year—Jammu & Kashmir has been synonymous with disturbance. The ‘firdaus’ or ‘heaven on earth’ as it was famously referred to down the ages, turned into Neverland—a place no one wanted to visit. Anantnag district, led by its Deputy Commissioner KK Sidha and his team, is planning on changing that. “There is a lot of potential in this place. And people are also eager to come forth and move on. Everyone wants to be a stakeholder in helping to regain the lost beauty of Kashmir,” Sidha says.
This core belief pushed him to organise a cyclathon from Anantnag to Pahalgam—an event that was being held in the area after probably a gap of three decades, said many. Not many would connect Kashmir with cycling. Surprisingly, the Budgam district has a cycling club which trains the youth to compete nationally and internationally. And many of these youth from small villages and hamlets around Budgam have brought laurels for the district.
While Anantnag as a place may not offer much to a traveller, there are places around it that should be on your Bucket List. The first and foremost is the Sun Temple in Martand, built in the 8th century CE. It is probably the first Sun Temple in India. Now in ruins, it is still an impressive sight. If you are lucky, you might find a solitary guide there willing to show you around. Those willing to take a longer ride can find a beautifully laid Mughal garden and, of course, the Daksun Mountain another 30 minutes away. The Daksun does not have a motorable road. But one can always catch sight of the formidable snow-covered peak from the valley while sipping on some kehwa (Kashmiri tea).
Pahalgam is a little less than an hour away from Anantnag. If you have seen images of Gulmarg and think that no other place can match up to it, visit Pahalgam. With quality hospitality amid pine forests by the Lidder river in the famed Lidder Valley, it is a dream. In case you get tired sitting serenely by the gurgling river, head to the Betaab Valley or tee off at the golf course in the Lidder Valley. A weekend, seven days, fortnight… all would seem extremely inadequate here. Surrounded with so much calm around me, and ever-smiling and helpful faces of the locals, I was glad that I had managed to get a peak behind the veil. If only I could bring back the fresh waters from the many streams, the clear blue of the sky and the golden chinar with me.
(The writer was in Kashmir at the invite of the Anantnag Deputy Commissioner.)