Four years after my first visit, there is little that has changed about the hamlet. Nestled among the hills, it looks straight from those story books, read years ago at school
IT WAS around two in the afternoon when Hussain, our sturdy little stole weaver friend from Pahalgam, dropped us in his rickety Maruti Zen at Aru – a pretty village set amidst tall Himalayan mountains, boundaring Lidderwatt valley on one side and Aram Pathri on the other. It had been four years since I was last here; not that much had changed, except, perhaps for odd tourists – one’s riding the cross-bed, malnourished horses (or mules should I say). The horsemen in their own innocence treated callow and credulous tourists with their self made tales to attract awe. I overheard one horseman pointing to the Tourism café – proudly declaring it the Mansion that Amrita Singh owned in Betaab movie. Betaab was shot some 20 kms away from Aru.
There is a strange mystic energy in Aru. It is said Katarnag – a lake that overlooks Aru, is one of the few places in world where there is extreme confluence of cosmic energy within a matrix of time. I’m not sure who did this research, but I’m hardly surprised. When you trek towards Aram Pathri or Katarnag, there is an abandoned hermit’s cave on the way. Right above it are remains of a fort — unknown to which period it belongs to, giving an indication that Aru in ancient times did hold an important position.
We yearned for a cup of tea to plan our trip on. Last time when I was here, I had befriended a virtuous man named — Ashraf. Ashraf had a modest motel back then but his cooking skills were boastful. I looked around for him. Unfortunately, the motel was rented to some other guy it seemed this year. Just as when we finished our tea, Ashraf walked in to my surprise. He looked pale and had lost weight. I greeted him, to which he responded. He recalled how we had parked our car in this motel’s backyard and how we relished his late night candle-lit dinner in rain drenched clothes. Four years back the high alpine torrential rains had followed us all over from Aru to Kolohai Glacier. For this year, Ashraf had taken a provision store near the other alley of the village. He told me he was not well and had some neurotic disorder, for which he was treated in Shehar (Srinagar).
Ashraf was actually from Sallar- a beautiful village on the road between Bijbehara and Pahalgam. Meanwhile we were introduced to Ali Bab – a 50 something year old man, who owned two horses and ferried tourists around Aru on them. He was tall, strong and had a slight bent back. He resembled Clint Eastwood. Ali Bab agreed to help us and offered himself to be our guide for our next day’s trek to Aram Pathri, as we laid our map on the dark brown table, sipping tea. Shawl, Ali Bab, Javed (the motel owner), Ashraf and I drawing our essential items required for the trip. As we came to know later, Ali Bab’s true love lied in mountains. People respected him a lot, fondly calling him the ‘Akash’ of these mountains. He invited us to stay with him at his house for the night and leave tomorrow early morning for Aram Pathri. We buoyantly agreed. We preferred to stay close to village life for a day. Eat in their utensils, share their joy and assemble some memories.
As we passed through the narrow alleys of Aru Village, life seemed sullen and dull – a quiet oasis. No one seemed to be in any haste. An old couple was sitting on the porch puffing hukka by turns; colorful dorking roosters with flowing earlobes were crowing almost from every house- houses that had thatched rooftops and brown sludge barns; aspen like Poplar trees were swirling with the wind carried from the surrounding mountains; pretty village girls lined up near the narrow stream, which flowed right through this hamlet, washing clothes: smiling and giggling as we passed, whispering jokes. Perhaps, they were amused to see two city dwellers walking into a village; a village which visibly had had not hosted a visitor from a longtime.
Ali Bab’s house was a typical village log-hut — warm with lots of wood work and clay quoting. In the hallway lied a stack of rice bags and whole gram, an indication that the family was doing well. After all, Ali Bab had been tending backpackers over the years. As he said later that afternoon while sipping noon chai in his koshur pyale, that his life was different before ’90 and he visibly missed it.
We took to the guest room, on the first floor, through a wooden stair-way that amplified the noise of footsteps. The wooden stair-way reminded me of my childhood days at my ancestral house in Khanyar. The sound produced by the footsteps were distinct, for our each family member. Father’s were delicate but brisk. Grandfather’s were the first I used to hear early in the morning. His resembled as if someone was playing drum beats with great musical taste.
The room was large with beige clay coating on walls and tiny shapeless mirrors engraved at some places. Windows from two opposite far ends ventilated the room perfectly. Calendars from yesteryears officiated as decorative hangings.
By now it was evening: calm and melancholic. Smokey chimneys left grey incense clouds in the air, which in the evening hue looked like fairies dancing, as I gaped through the window. The village looked straight from those story books, read years ago at school. Ali Bab came back from the day’s work and tied his two horses in the barn.
Dinner was ready and we were called out to join. Kitchen was neat and shiny. Copper appliances adorned the shelves right across the entire lengths of its walls. The radio played Kashmiri songs in the voice of Waheed Jeelani. Ali Bab’s wife Hasina was puffing hooka and daughter Zahida was busy giving final touches to the chicken which Ali Bab had brought from the nearby shop. Soon a mid aged man entered and introduced himself.
– ‘I’m Mushtaq Ahmed Shah’, stressing on Shah. As he later told me, Shah is a revered and elite cast in villages. Mushtaq worked in the forest dept. and was posted at Aru. He was Hasina’s distant relative, who meanwhile still was concentrating on her hukka. Hasina on her part had grown old. Wrinkles on her face spoke a nonchalant tale about her hard life. She had deep green graceful eyes, the ones which generate warmth and acceptance easily. Years of carrying firewood from the forest could be seen written all over her. And she was visibly irritated at her husband’s penchant for mountains. I think the idea of being left all alone, all by themselves, was the reason for such churlishness. The couple had three daughters- two were married. Walls in the living room adorned pictures of two son-in-laws. Zahida was youngest and unmarried. She had a distinct village girl look. Fair, young and exceedingly orange. In fact she was orange right from her crochet woolen cardigan to her plump cheeks.
While waiting for the dinner I couldn’t help but picture the scene where wedding of Ali Bab’s daughters must have been ceremonised. Guests must have poured from near and far. The open patch of land near the barn must have been decorated with red and yellow draperies for grooms welcome. Women must have danced rouf and sung folk songs. Biding adieu to his daughters must have been painful for Ali Bab and Hasina. The doughty man must have wiped tears flowing over his stubble beard.
The music from the radio was slow. In a moment my vague imagination got me thinking about when Ali Bab’s father or mother must have died. It must have been a harsh winter day. Everything must have been covered in thick white snow. The local cleric must have offered funeral prayers in the courtyard. Winters are tough for old to survive. Thinking about the years that must have gone by in this household connected me to this family. We ate our dinner together and retired to sleep. Next day we had to start early.
We were heading for the mountains of Aram Pathri, a trek that would take us into a wilderness of peaks, inhabited by nomads who wound their way through untrammeled landscape. Aram Pathri is a valley that lies straight above the cliff when looked from the Aru village verge. We started off early in the morning, walking through the village first, where people greeted Ali Bab all along; then through the passage above the stream which carries waters from Katarnag and various other glaciers. The noise formed by the gushing waters hitting rocks early in the morning with pleasant air and absolute pristine clear blue skies gave enough of what was more to be expected. The aroma of cedar and pine was growing and Aru village seemed distance away, unseen now amidst tall pine trees. Our first brush with human habitation was at Gagan Gir- a tiny shepherd hamlet, which acted as the first halt for these yearly visitors. We decided to have tea in a shepherd hut.
The hut was constructed of four sturdy trunks around which stone walls had been built, using mud as mortar. Someone had pushed little strands of wild plants into the cracks, allowing them to cascade down the walls. The family inside it sat mute, smiling.
We entered and made ourselves comfortable on the hay. Soon the hut was engulfed by children, who came to see the uninvited visitors. We clicked their pictures and received smiles in return. Not bad for a bargain. The elder shepherd men sported Babylon beards and could be easily mistaken as old testament prophets. Turbans were usually green and colored. Shalwars and loose duffel shirts were topped by brocade jackets which seemed to have endless pockets. Women wore robes of beautiful color with beaded hair and shawls draped over. Jewellery was minimum but enough to grab an eye. Copper earnings and nose beads on those charming shy faces looked absolute pristine.
We pushed along a herder’s path through whistling pines till we criss-crossed ancient boulders, formed by thousands of years of sedimentation. Green pastures awaited us after few difficult jumps on the boulders were safely negotiated. The smell of lilac filled the air. The skies were clear, meadow bereaved even of grazing sheep- we were clearly a few weeks too early into these pastures. The wildflowers were only just coming out on the hillsides, springing up with extra vigor because of the snowmelt. Little streams wound between pollarded willows, their crystal-clear water flowing between banks of vivid green moss. We took small breathers, in between, inhaling the fresh spring air of high Himalayan alpine pastures.
We camped at a place called as lower Aram Pathri — the snow ahead us preventing to pitch our tent anywhere else. We had an empty shepherd’s hut close-by, where Ali Bab tied his ponies and prepared hot sipping tea on the earthen fire pot, which would be used by its owners in a few weeks time. A small stream flowed along the ridges, where we had spotted a brown bear. A few annoying whistles by Ali Bab seemed to scare him him.
With enough time on hand, we spent the remaining late afternoon lazing around, reading books, giving rest to our tired legs, laying feet in ice-cold water of the stream — firm in our belief that these pastures and meadows must have hosted many a Sufis and yogis in olden times. The landscape evokes spirituality, Shawl and I contemplated, as darkness deepened, with sun going down above the cragged peaks.
We spoke about many things seated near our campsite- Sufism, spirituality, meditation, Kashmir. We go back a long way, me and Shawl. A friendship that fostered on mutual admiration and liking- we have too many things in common: which made us to call each other soul-mates. It’s a wonderful feeling to have deep inside our heart, that there is a friend whom you can call anytime, for anything.
Our conversation kept on drifting, invoking deep and profound reverie on the spiritual up-liftment of the soul. Of how the wiseness lies in letting go off things at times. ‘Everything that we desire, may not necessarily belong to us,’ quipped Shawl, while nibbling on the lamb steak. I had recently laid my hands on a Zen book, that dwelled on the purpose of life. We argued over desire- which suffocates our soul inside. Desire has no end, we both seemed to agree. The meteorite streaked skies above us, and Ali Bab’s uninterrupted lipton chai, kept our conversation going. Suddenly, the absolute wilderness around us insinuated our expressiveness – the lack of which we all suffer from. ‘We have to embrace the wisdom of humanity, the meaning of life is to serve the force that sent us into this world. Then life becomes a joy,’ Shawl quoted Tolstoy. Let doubts dilate in us about our own existence, I quietly whispered to myself while Ali Bab refilled our cups. Small doubts, small enlightenment. Great doubt, great enlightenment, I remembered a Zen saying from the book that I’d been reading.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.