Thursday, January 20, 2011

Autumn Chinar

There isn't a better season than autumn to cruise down the scenic Jhelum when the Valley is dressed in shades of gold and auburn 

In a season as painterly as autumn is in the Valley, nothing escapes its surreal magic. There's  a special luminosity in the environs, giddy fragrance fills the air and every nook wears fresh colour. The accolades for nature’s makeover are all directed towards the elegant chinar, which dresses its leaves in the most blazing colours to lend a radiant twist to the vistas and add a new hue to life and its routines. That a simple leaf can herald hope and joy appears quite incredible but that is what’s always been on view. As autumn enters its final stages, the chinar is at work again, preparing for the grand finale of its fall collection that carpets its grounds to add a degree of romance to reality.

A lingering image of Srinagar in autumn is, well, not the Dal Lake, not the bustle of Boulevard Road, not the Mughal Gardens but something quieter and hidden from popular itineraries. It’s the sight of the impressive AD 1395 Khanqah-e-Moulla — a shrine dedicated to Persian preacher Shah-e-Hamdan in Downtown — standing as a serene backdrop to a silently flowing Jhelum. Theirs is an enduring companionship. Like the Khanqah, the river has seen the designs of destiny change continuously in the Valley. In an altering landscape it has remained unchanged, following its karma to flow through it all, whether grunge or glory, at a rhythm quite tranquil.

The autumn chinar has the astounding ability to transform and one of the experiences it turns around is a leisurely cruise down the Jhelum. A journey by shikara is an excellent way to soak in the river spectacle; and for a change, abandon the option of the tourism pros and instead befriend a genuine local boatman who can genially bring alive the river and give soul to its stories and songs.

So modestly does the river run its course through the city, that more than often it lies forgotten and almost-never has the tourist spotlight on it. Srinagar was essentially a city by the Jhelum till urbanisation distanced the thoroughfare from it. And as the naturally-beautiful waters of the Dal and Nageen lakes magnetically began drawing more attention, the river got further overshadowed. Life by its banks, however, continues to blossom, even as it remains a world away from the standard picture-perfect montages of the city. Experiencing it first hand is like chartering unfamiliar territory where expecting the unexpected becomes the norm, which initially bewilders and then infinitely charms.

The lifeline of the Kashmir valley, the Jhelum, like all subcontinent rivers, is believed to be a form of god, with legend speaking about a celestial combat having lead to its origin.  Known as River Vitasta or Veth in Kashmiri, its source is a spring at Verinag, another striking spot in the foothills of the Pir Panjal. It ribbons through 76 km of the Valley before entering Srinagar and thereafter flowing into the Wular Lake, Asia’s largest freshwater lake, en route its final journey to merge with River Indus.

Srinagar was established on the north-eastern bank of the Jhelum and over time grew on the opposite flank too. The two sides are linked by a series of seven cantilevered wood bridges or kadal, and today only a few, as Zero Kadal and Zaina Kadal, exist in their original shape adding to the fable of Downtown.

As you cruise past villages and pastures, mosques and homes, a day in the life of the Jhelum gradually unfolds to the music of oars softly patting the waters. The visuals almost-appear like sepia-toned watercolour frames, albeit not minus the grime, that fallen leaves of the chinar valiantly try and mask. Despite the woes, the images are alluring…shikaras moored on the banks, a baker carrying his ware in wicker baskets, children rowing to school, a pheran-clad woman packing her boat with freshly plucked spinach, boatmen enjoying early morning cups of kehva, a fisherman casting his net even as his wife prepares the kangri or a tween getting his first lessons in handling oars. At times an impromptu invite to join in for a meal of basmati rice and gustaba adds distinct flavour to the journey.

This older part of town still exhibits classic Kashmiri architecture, which has a Central Asian influence. Most houses along the Jhelum date back close to a century-plus. What typifies them is their lean cubical wood structure with tapering pyramidal roofs, brickwork and characteristic latticed windows. In contrast, almost all new construction in the city shows no admiration for convention and completely no desire to preserve. Some like Iftikhar Jalali, though, take pride in tradition and his lovingly kept home in Zadi-bal gets its share of admirers. The landmark in this riverscape quite distinctly is the Khanqah (halting place for Sufis). It embodies the essence of Kashmiriyat or cultural harmony, and is visited by persons of all faiths. Its remarkable medieval wooden structure, further enhanced by richly engraved and painted interiors, is another exemplar of fast-disappearing characteristic architecture.

The river presents a collage of daily chores; it’s their unhurried pace that appeases. You see it once and move on with a stock of memories. The Jhelum has been a mute witness to it all since centuries and continues to be.


Published in India Today Travel Plus, Jan-Feb 2011 


Khanqah
Hazratbal
Jama Masjid


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