The bloom at Nishat Bagh and CheshmeShahi are worth spending some time in the backdrop of the Zabarwan ranges and the gigantic decades old Chinar trees are a real treat to watch but if you are a Bangalorean then you will find that the Moghul gardens are more or less the same as Lalbagh botanical gardens.
Some of the lesser crowded places to visit in and around Srinagar are Doodhpathri, Pari Mahal near CheshmeShahi, Hari Parbat, Shankaracharya Hill, Avanthipora, Parihaspora, Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Verinag, Yousemarg, SInthan top, Gurez valley, Warwan valley and Daksum.
If you have to explore newer and quieter destinations you can clearly skip places like Gulmarg, which is an over hyped place with annoying horsemen who will cling like leeches. There is absolutely no scope for a relaxed walk on your own here as you will be haunted and hunted down by menacing horsemen. We did not want to take the Gondola ride but just walk around the place but the horsemen kept stalking us throughout the time spent in Gulmarg. It was a complete waste of time driving up to Gulmarg. So don’t make that mistake just head to Pahalgam.
Srinagar to Pahalgam is a distance of 96kms and a 3hours drive. This route is heavily guarded by the Army. En route you can find vast stretches of paddy and saffron fields. It is really heart breaking to see that this panoramic heaven _ Kashmir _ the abode of Kashyapa Rishi is today plagued by terrorism turning most parts of the region into a no go zone!
Beyond the saffron fields you can find shops selling saffron, dry fruits, Kesar based perfumes and face creams.
Avantipora or Avantipura is 29kms from Srinagar. The Avanthipura Ruins is an ancient Vishnu temple site with huge columns, carved pillars and arches. Two massive columns with figurines of Devi, Devathas and the royal family of Avanthiverma etched in those carvings welcome you to this huge heritage site that is not a living temple anymore.
It was first damaged by an earthquake and further destroyed and looted during Mughal and British era. There are depictions of goddess Lakshmi, Garuda, Navagrahas on the columns.
The Vishnu shrine lies above a large double base, surrounded by 4 smaller shrines which were dedicated to Shreedevi, Bhoodevi, Ganesha and Saraswathi but now there are no sanctums but only the bases. It is alleged that the silver idol of Lord Vishnu was stolen by the British. But much before the British the temples of this region were destroyed by Sultan Sikander who was known to be a fanatic temple destroyer in Kashmir. Owing to his madness for temple destruction he came to be known as Sikander Butshikan as Butshikan literally means Ídol Breaker’. During his time he would melt the idols of Gods and turn them into coins to fill his treasury. He was lethally instrumental in converting the Hindu masses of Kashmir into an Islamic den. He had restricted all Hindu practices, broken and burnt temples, slaughtered those who refused to convert. Most Kashmiris either escaped out or poisoned themselves and those who could not escape submitted by converting to Islam. The Martand Sun temple near Pahalgam had witnessed the most brutal assault during his time.
The Avantiswami temple has 27 arches on a broad stone platform representing the 27 nakshatras. The site is maintained by the ASI and is a must see place that reminds us of the grandeur of our ancient past but the fallen structure in its ruined form is also a gruesome reminder of the gory past, if only a reconstruction of such a grandeur in these very regions would be possible to undo the past sins!
The pillars are believed to extend deep down up to 20 feet below the ground, the site lay buried until it was excavated in the eighteenth century. It was constructed by Avantiverma hence the town gets its name after him.
King AvantiVerman of Utpala dynasty reigned here between 855-883AD at the banks of Jhelum river. The king had built two magnificent temples, one for Lord Vishnu and one for Lord Shiva. The Avantheeswar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is a few kilometers away from the Vishnu temple and faces similar conditions.
Today a mosque lies just adjacent to this vast ancient splendor that now remains in a pitiable state of ruin yet the grandeur architecture and the techniques employed in those times cannot be missed. It is a pity that the locals do not know their own brutal past!
After Avanthipura, the sides of the highway are laden with stacks of similar sized wooden planks that are neatly arranged in front of every other shop cum home. Yes they were the cricket bat making units. The Kashmir Willow bats are known for its sturdiness. We stopped by one such home unit where we could witness the making of cricket bats. We also ended up buying one!
On the way we stopped for lunch opposite an Apple farm that was selling fresh apple juice and apple jams. We also spent some time in the apple farm and then we were passing through the bypass of Anantnag district that is known for its notorious terror activities. There were Madrasas and Mosques blaring out aggressive speeches on loud speakers and locals stared at us like animals in a cage as we passed them but we were travelling with a taxi guy from the Hurriyat dominated Lal chowk markets and hoped that we were safe as we were actually giving business to these stone pelting India haters but there was no other way!
We reached Pahalgam around 2pm and after quickly dumping our luggage at the hotel, we took the pony ride to see around this Switzerland of India as it is known!
The local sightseeing is dominated by the pony and local cab drivers or so they make it up, our personal taxi driver claimed that they are denied permissions (unofficial mafia) to tour around to those spots in order to give the locals some business. This is the standard problem across J&K tourism especially in Kashmir. Most of these people are uneducated and are not digitally savvy they don’t have their presence online and heavily depend on their Srinagar brethren who bring them tourists. So there is no escape from these local pony and cab mafia if you have to see around.
We took the pony ride for was a fixed number of places which would be covered in 3hours for Rs.1500 per person. We took the ride apprehensively but sitting atop a horse felt really kingly! We trotted off like royals beside the Lidder River which was an ashen turquoise.
Pahalgam is an extremely beautiful place away from the overt commercialization that still maintains its scenic solitude.
We took the hilly routes ascending the steep rocky paths amidst dense trees and large roots. We had gained some height and could now view the picturesque Kashmir valley and the Pahalgam golf course. Sitting on a horseback requires a certain understanding with the horse to bend back when descending and bend forward during ascend, as we were getting used to these majestic beauties, our horseman Shaka kept company with a lot of local information.
Some of the places on this route were Baisaran which is vast expanse of grassy meadows it is called the Switzerland of India. There is a small cafeteria serving hot snacks, maggi and tea here, the place also has some sporting activities like zorbing. Just as we were clicking pictures it began to rain. The locals rightly point out that “Mumbai Ka Fashion Aur Pahalgam Ka Mousum _both are fast changing”!
Horses are very intelligent animals they tread very cautiously and cleverly, discovering the shortest possible routes and have an amazing sense of directions. We reached an isolated serene hill which has now become a popular spot after the movie Bajrangi Bhaijan that was shot in these locations. One can get a breathtaking view of the landscapes here.
Next we descended a steep hill, where at its bottom a clanking stream flowed past the rocky paths in all force revealing the pebbles beneath. Our young horseman was a regular to the Amarnath caves escorting pilgrims, guiding and aiding them in their holy endeavors. The people of Pahalgam are not so educated or tech savvy and are dependent on Srinagar travel agents for the inflow of tourists but they express that they are tired of the hate and rage and really wish to welcome tourists from across India but as of now they still have to rely on their Srinagar counterparts for all bookings. It was a memorable ride in spite of the terribly chill weathers.
The next day morning we took the cab ride to Betaab Valley, Aru Valley and Chandanwari.
The valley gets its name after the movie Betaab that was shot here, the plush green valley has a small stream flowing through it making it a scenic solace to the tourists but the commercialization has cost it its serenity. The place is owned by politicians who have fixed up a gate and an entry fees is charged to enter the valley. The artificially paved paths seem like an encroachment on nature’s beauty.
The Aru valley is another beautiful and calm place which is home to some resorts. At every location, you can find shawl sellers, photographers chasing tourists like werewolves.
The best place was Chandanwadi which is the base camp of Amarnath Yatra. We spent a lot of time climbing the steps beside the gushing waters of NeelGanga that flows down to join the Jhelum downhill.
We walked up to the point from where the mule routes begin. Amarnath cave was 37kms from here.
The place is extremely serene and evokes spirituality. We vowed we would one day take the pilgrimage and headed back to be leaving for Srinagar.
Some of the other places we totally missed out are the Martand Sun temple, Mamaleshwar temple, Mattan, Tarsar lake. I wish to come back here making my own itinerary some day!