In the Heartland of Dardistan

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‘After our two-day stay in Gurez, we braced up to return to the monotony of our lives. On returning, I alighted on Razdan Pass. While taking a deep breath of fresh air in the mountains, I roved around amidst the click-clanking of camera shutters.’

Text by Tanveer Magrey
Photos by Danish Maqbool

ON a balmy summer day on July 6, 2019, I met up half a dozen students in Central University of Kashmir’s then Srinagar campus. With backpacks strapped on their backs, they were carrying luggages and duffel bags, while boarding the yellow coloured university vehicle parked inside the premises of the campus.

No sooner the engine of our bus revved up, driver muffled prayers and continued until the vehicle trundled through the iron wrought gate to set off on its 146-kilometer-long journey.

Reclining on a seat, I was trying to imagine the fairytale landscape of Gurez, before my friend Muneeb elbowed me to reality. A de-facto guide Muneeb is supposed to know the different terrains of Gurez like the backside of his hand.

Our vehicle pulled up at few places on the way to pick up few more students. It was a small clique of 14 students who were on way to explore the mountainous checkered landscape of Gurez.

For moving towards Gurez, one has to get a written approval from District Magistrate Bandipora. Without much ado we received the consent.

Clock struck 1pm. Everyone moved towards the main market for some refreshment. We took our lunch of plain rice with meat balls with a dash of chutney against Rs 60. The bustling marketplace has all that it takes to call it a market. Nestled in the foothills of snow-clad peaks of Harmukh, the town overlooks the shores of Wular Lake.

No sooner driver sat on the wheels after finishing his lunch, we were again on the roads travelling through the serpentine ways to reach our destination. Road was dotted with potholes. Our next pit stop was Tragbal amidst the verdant mountains where a dhaba was serving hot brewing tea.

A shepherd family from Bandipora had pitched their perforated tents at this spot. While their herd was grazing, they would sip the salt tea inside their tents and their children were giving furtive glances at us. The photographic freaks among us who slung the camera around their shoulders were in no mood to give it a miss. They rope in the elder of the family for consent. Nod in approval ensued a spate of photographs.

After taking a glassful of tea, we again boarded our Gurez-bound vehicle, snaking through mountains to stop at 11,672 feet Razdan Pass for some more pictures. Peer Baba of Lahore sits atop the pass. Clouds hung low on one side like a white drape to keep Gurez hidden like a revered relic kept inside the sanctum Sanctorum. I wanted to put on the cassock and meditate to atone for my sins, for I felt the place like a holy grail, cut out for meditation. As vehicle sped past the Razdan pass, I felt like entering into the mystical world draped in idyllic beauty which warmed the cockles of my heart. Monotony of life fizzled out.

Gurez has many concentric circles and every layer lays bare its chequered history. Globetrotters roam in its all-pervading mountainous villages and hamlets. Linguists find it their gaunt for examining the different nuances of Sheena language. Those who study conflict find the people of Gurez and Tulail tehsil caught in a Catch-22 situation where they’ve not much to say about when guns rage at the peaks of mountains.

Kishan Ganga Dam is not talked about much but it has wiped out the whole village of Badwan. The only spire of the mosque stands tall amidst the water is testimony to the existence of life there. These aftereffects witnessed by Badwan village lays bare the cost the hydroelectric plant incurred on the people of Gurez.

Post the Kishan Ganga dam catastrophe, the villagers were accommodated at different places after government distributed doles to the affected lot. Despite producing electricity, Gurez still remains draped in darkness in most of the times .The bulbs blink on petrol in Gurez for 6 to 7 hours while as rest of the state encashes on the waters of Kishan Ganga which approximately produces 360 Megawatts. Here the axiom “Nearer the church, farther from the God” gets materialized.

Gurez reigns supreme while flipping through the books of history. Fabled Silk Route would run through it. Gurez forms the part of Dardistan. “These people still associate themselves with Gilgit,” says Dr. Musavir who teaches linguistics at Kashmir University.

Dr Musavir who was on a visit to Gurez along with the students of linguistics talked about the survival of this language. “I don’t know how far it is going to survive in future,” he expressed his concern.

Of 16 villages, only three villages speak Kashmiri language. Rest of them converse in Sheena.

While witnessing the mountain after mountain amidst military check posts, we spotted the first village. It ensued the cheerful hurrah. Kuragbal sits calmly amidst mountains. It is the first village on way to Gurez.

A local said that more than 80 households are dwelling there who eke out their living through farming and manual labour. Some people are also working in Government sector. Kuragbal is followed by Kanzalwaan, Nayal, Khopri, Badwan and Wanpora village. We stayed at Wanpora. The village houses Government degree college Gurez, Government high school and fishery department.

Dawar is the main town of Gurez. A sub-district hospital, a separate government higher secondary for boys and girls, a fleet of Sumos which ply on Gurez to Bandipora and Gurez to Tulail characterizes this town. The town has a population of 200 households. Vetinary staff is also available to cater to those who rear livestock. The town also has a J&K Bank office and an ATM booth.

Dawar market is all about one road which is the sought-after place for shoppers. Dry fruit stores and hair salon shops are surrounded by the houses and fields. Old men wear woolen cloaks, while young put on swanky drainpipe denims and T-shirts. Older women wore the traditional local headdress or the embroidered skull cap, called khoi. The young women simply remain head-scarves.

White fluffy clouds lie low like a white shawl covering Habba Khatoon — the graceful 13,000 foot-pyramid shaped peak that rises over the town and is named after the 16th century poet known as the Nightingale of Kashmir. She’s said to have lived near the mountain’s base as the young woman.

Dawar caters to all the 15 villages. Different guesthouses serve as the pit stop of travelers where they stay at shoestring budget for a night to unwind themselves. The verdant carpeted stadium at the foothills of the mini-mountain freckled with pine and other trees gives space to the youth to have fun and frolic. While some play cricket, a sprinkle of spectators reclines at the fringes watching the gentleman’s game. The huge six triggers hoots and a wicket ensues high-five.

Gurez is the smattering of all the famed tourist destinations of the valley. It has mounds of white snow like Gulmarg for skiers. White tourmaline waters of Kishan Ganga is the holy grail for anglers and rafting buffs. Verdant fields are ubiquitous in this backyard of our valley. All you need is a bit patience to stay in them, cuddle them and they fill your lungs with fresh air and a mystic gratification. Only a monk and a dervish can unravel them, for it is an apt destination for meditation from the chaotic life.

Enway to Chorwan I spotted a Habba Khatoon Spring at Achoora. The legend has it that the spring gushed from the ground when Habba Khatoon dropped a clay pot of water. The lyrics of the songs played on the mobile phone amplified through the loud speaker were corresponding with the poetry of Habba Khatoon.

Our vehicle was bereft of stereo. Everyone would rely on the mobile phones which were heavily supported by power banks lest they run out of battery.To keep the euphoria and excitement intact, teachers would crack a joke or two or would sing snippets of a Bollywood number much to our amusement. The milky water of the Habba Khatoon spring drives visitors to take a bath in it to keep sweltering heat at bay. It is believed that Habba Khatoon would wander in that area after her husband Yusuf Shah Chak was imprisoned by Akbar and sent to Bihar which linked this spring with her.

Chorwan is Sheena spoken habitation. It houses the shrine of Syed Masoom Shah. I spotted women pounding something into the stone mortar with wooden pestle while some women disgorge potatoes from the small rectangular terraced fields. Goat and sheep were tied to their pegs, while frothy water of Kishan Ganga flows silently along. Men carried logs on the horsebacks while children giggled while flung their lithe bodies into deep waters. Mud and log houses were ubiquitous with Dardic touch and a smattering of Sheena language.

Youth recline under the fir or pine tree through which passes the flecks of rays and chit-chat which sometimes ensue a peal of laughter. The air smacked the pastoral smell. No one is couch potato here. This is what characterizes the life of Gurez. I fell head over heels in love with this austere lifestyle.

Living near the border carries its own bagful of worries. Line of Control runs few miles north of Gurez. Some say a fifteen minute walk will land you in the hamlet across the border. Sudden staccato sound or a loud bang would send shivers down the spine of the people in nineties which receded since 2000. The villagers have constructed underground bunkers to thwart casualties when Indian and Pakistan trade fires.

Despite life threat looming in the mountains, smile writs large on their faces and the moment you direct your cameras towards them, their faces contort into a smile. With their perseverance and stoicism, they don’t let guns play the spoilsport in their idyllic life. A lesson or two for us whom trivial things sometimes give tough time.

Gurez has only Government Degree College to cater to the burgeoning demand of education. The college is located in Wanpora girdled by the mountains. Honking of vehicles, glitzy restaurants and swanky lifestyle is still unheard of.

Wanpora village has one high school as well. Some people on condition of anonymity said that this village has made fortunes after MLA came here to reside but most of the people negate this comment. “The large tracts of land are available only in this village and government made most of it by constructing Government Degree College, government high school and a fishery pond here,” said Muneeb Magrey, a local resident.

The college caters to the students from the villages of Chorwan, Achoora, Markoot, Mastan, Dawar, Shah Pora, Wanpora, Khopri, Nayal, Izmarg and many other villages.

In Chorwan village, Gulzar Lone, a government teacher, showers praises on the aptitude of local students. Giving credence to his assertion, he says, in a pitched voice, “Believe me, recently a boy from this village cracked Mains in the civil services. These children have the talent to compete with others provided they are given facilities.”

In the Budugam village of Tulail, I happen to visit the Sub Health centre along with my classmates and teachers. Patients were reclining on the bed and their family members were attending to them. As I was looking for a doctor, a person came in haste. Introducing himself as Ghulam Mohammad, he reasons the absence of the two doctors at the centre.

“One doctor has gone to see off his pilgrimage-bound parents at airport, while another has gone to Srinagar as his son has sustained a fracture in some part of a body,” said the visibly panting Ghulam Mohammad.

The absence of doctors in the mountainous areas of the valley is the tip of an iceberg and lays bare the lacunas we have in these border areas vis-a-vis health sector. The defunct X-Ray machines, blood testing machines, no availability of doctors characterize the health sector mostly in the small hamlets sandwiched between the mountains.

Despite having a sub-district hospital Gurez at their disposal, still most patients have to be preferred to Bandipora.

We were lucky enough to have chosen Wanpora as our place for our stay. It was the guest house with wood-paneled rooms. Windows scoured and buffed up, shelves dusted, and curtains washed and ironed. It was connected with few spick and span tiled-bathrooms .The façade was well complemented by beautifully manicured park.

Dog-tired, we took a hall where eight of us comfortably took a rest after the kitchen was taken over by some of us who waited with bated breath to flaunt their culinary skills. But Umer, my classmate, won the hands down in preparing lip-smacking dishes. He was well-assisted by two locals and few classmates. We would wolf down a piece or two of meat before cleaning our hands under the ewer with crystal cold water.

Taking those morsels of food in the late nights with my classmates is now an unwritten memoir committed to my memory for eternity. The birthday of Umer whose lip-smacking dishes drew a round of applause was the icing on the cake.

I had caught the wink when a friend tapped on the back whispered to come downstairs in the parking lot. Rubbing eyes and stretching arms, I joined party.

As clock chimed 12:00 AM, birthday boy knifed through the cake amidst jets of snow spray and a chorus of “happy birthday”.

After munching my share of cake, I went upstairs to hit hay. Sleep started playing hide and seek. I fiddled with mobile and browse through social networking sites. It generated soporific feeling. I soon dived into dreamy world.

It didn’t take us long to develop a rapport with our hosts. They always wear a smile on their faces. We got on well. We would banter with them and they would break into fits of laughter. They had a host of problems in their area but very rarely they would let that scrunch their faces into a mask of gloom. Mostly they don’t come up with those nitpicky complaints. But their demands are overdue.

Wanpora village has the luxury to browse Internet to connect to the outside world and make calls to their close ones. Internet is yet to make inroads in the most areas in this bewitching valley of Gurez.

People can only browse internet in Dawar, Achoora, Markoot, Mastan, Wanpora, Khnadiyal and Shahpora. Bakhtoor, Kanzalwaan and Chorwan do not have the luxury to avail internet facility, though they can make calls. Kuragbal, Nayal, Tarbal, Izmarg and Jalendora are yet to make use of mobile phones.

Dawar, Shahpora, Bakhtoor and Izmarg house Kashmir-speaking populace. Rest of the villages in Gurez tehsil converse in their native language: Sheena language.

In the main town of Dawar, Zakir Hussain was catering to his customers. Some would indulge in haggling before I stepped in. Zakir is MSC in Geology from Jamia Milia. As tourists keep on treading the untrodden paths in Gurez, Zakir cherrypicked some to give a peep to an outsider what it is to live in Gurez where adequate electricity is still a coveted dream.

“Out of 24 hours, bulbs blink only for 8 hours,” said Zakir while rubbing his hand on his trimmed beard.

Amidst the natural landscape, the overriding presence of jackboots and the spools of concertina wires plays the spoilsport. After every few kilometers one has to deboard at every army picket to get himself documented in the record books through the pigeonholes.

Driver’s name, passengers, registration number and the reason of visit is a sort of catechism between army personnel and our teacher at every check post much to our disappointment.

Every village has its own share of pickets and patrolling. In this part of the world such spectre doesn’t roll too many eyes. If I had my way I would have cut all the Gordian knots the Gurez valley comes across.

Apart from the military presence, the surface communication is equally troubling. A youth in Chorwan opine that a shoestring budget can cover the Gurez travel but bumpy stretch from Bandipora wears off the interest of many visitors.

After our two-day stay in Gurez, we braced up to return to the monotony of our lives. On returning, I alighted on Razdan Pass. While taking a deep breath of fresh air in the mountains, I roved around amidst the click-clanking of camera shutters. Dark white clouds were hanging low kissing the lofty mountains, fog was all-pervading cutting short visibility and winds blowing randomly in our faces, fitfully disturbing our clothes. Green pastures, tranquility and serenity embraced me. An eternal bliss refreshed me.

All this was souvenir from the place which is still a virgin to many who don’t open their blinkers beyond Gulmarg, Pahalgam, and Sonamarg. Writers wrote paeans to this place. Despite all the travails of life, they held their head high and take it in their stride. To me those who have not frequent this pocket of our valley has given a miss to the mystic slice of our state’s tourism pie.

Serpentine terrains were well complemented by the Bollywood numbers on way to Bandipora. At the main town, a glassful of tea with potato stuffed Samosas were enough to revitalize ourselves for final stretch of our journey.

At sundown, our journey home was somber. Some were browsing on their mobile phones. Some listening to the Bollywood numbers. Some trying to tailor the memories of past two years of university life. It evoked a deluge of nostalgia.

I deboard in Lal Chowk. Rickshawallas took me for a customer. I keep on walking the side paths much to their chagrin. Twenty minutes Later, I knocked at the door of my hostel room. At the drop of the hat, my roommate unlatched the door. After changing into casuals, I gulped down a tumbler of lemon drink.

As I was tailoring the different shades of my trip in the repository of my mind, sleep got better of me. Eyelashes of my eyes embraced each other like virgin tracts of verdant mountains cuddled me during the vacation.

Thus next day I woke up amidst the monotony of life far away the serene and calmness which Gurez caters to its visitors.

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