A crimson-beaked blackbird plays hide-and-seek between the waterlily leaves. “Jalmurgi,” the boatman informs me, wagging his bushy beard. Those pearly birds dipping through the air? “Safeda,” he mumbles. The hilltop palace across the lake is “mahal” and the spire beyond is “mandir”. That’s all I can get from the man who boasts he is the best guide in Srinagar! Vending boats jostle our shikara, selling everything from kulfi to cream biscuits. Lensmen wave camera and costumes, promising to turn me into a Kashmiri belle floating on Dal lake!
Daughter of the deep south I may be, but Kaashmeera-desham is part of my pluralistic heritage. These mountains resounded to Vedic hymns. This mystical place was home to Nila Naga cult and Saivism. The fountainhead of Buddhism under Mauryan Ashoka, Kashmir hosted the 4th Buddhist Council of Kanishka, the Kushan emperor. Kashmir’s majestic grandeur inheres in Gandhara art, in the verses of Asvaghosha and Bilhana, in historian Kalhana’s “Rajatarangini” (Chronicles of kings).
Kashmir’s effulgent learning drew Advaitin Adi Sankara all the way from Kerala to compose his hymn to the Sakti principle. Vishishtadvaitin Ramanuja trekked from Tamil Nadu to consult the texts available exclusively in Kashmir. And the philosophers of Kashmir! Anandavardhana’s dhvani theory combines mystique and logic. Abhinavagupta’s commentaries open such spectacular vistas that in sheer gratitude I name my son after this Kashmiri polymath.
Of course, Kashmir spells romance, best echoed in Mughal emperor Jehangir’s cry, “If there is heaven on earth — it is here!” Didn’t he fashion the splendid Shalimar Garden for Queen Nurjahan, his Light-of-the-World? Didn’t Shahjahan haunt Kashmir with his harem entourage? Doesn’t the terraced Pari Mahal pay homage to Prince Dara Shikoh’s begum? I am amazed by Verinag, where the master Mughal gardener has lyricised the source of the Jhelum river — five mountain springs — with an octagonal arcade and walkway.
I know Hazratbal shrine, housing Prophet Mohammad’s hair. I long to see the Rozabal mausoleum of Yuz Asaf (Jesus Christ!?), “who rebuilt the tomb of Solomon at the time of King Gopadatta, and came as a prophet to Kashmir.” Guarded through centuries by an Israeli family, drawing Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist devotees, Rozabel symbolizes old Kashmir — where different faiths inspired one another in peaceful co-existence, where rishis were peers, and seers, sufis. But curfew in the old city bans my visit.
On long drives through breathtaking mountain-riverscapes, topped by dazzling glaciers, I follow sinuous Jhelum, frolicking Lidder, ethereal Sindhu — all ice cold, crystal clear. Touching the river is an act of worship.
Under the chinar tree, beside the jade-green, foam-flecked Sindhu, in an antique land sacred to many faiths, I ruminate on little talks with strangers on this trip — driver, dhabawala, ghodawala, saffron seller, carpetmaker, shopkeeper, apple picker, idler, boatman, vendor, peacekeeping jawan. Each has distinct ideas of what mulkand azaadi mean, but also a sense of being exploited by governments — state, Central and foreign — as a pawn in a game which brings neither benefit nor victory to the aam Kashmiri.
Amidst the flowers and fountains of Achabal Gardens an old man tells me, “I follow the leader out of fear, not faith. I trust no group, political or religious. And fear has brought blood, only blood.” Suddenly I know what contemporary Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali meant when he said, “And I saw poetry/dissolve into letters of blood.” I try to talk to a young woman seated alone on the grass under the reddening sky. She gets up, dusts her kameez and walks away. I strain to catch her fading words: “Nothing is alright, not yesterday, not today, not ever…”