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Heaven on Earth

Bittu Sahgal |

Amir Khusrau put into words what anyone with a beating heart feels when stepping into the heaven that is Kashmir: “Agar Firdaus bar r?y-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast,” (If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).

For my family and me, Kashmir has been home for decades. In the 1980s, when Dachigam was still relatively unknown, I was privileged to trek the Himalayan forests in the company of the legendary forest guard Qasim Wani.

We would spend hours birding, watching the antics of langurs and waiting with baited breath for sightings of brown and black bears and, of course, that magical creature, the hangul.

I also recall sitting late into the night with the late Mir Inayet Ullah in the company of General R. K. Gaur and Brig. Moti Dar (who went on to become Vice Chief of the Indian Army), speaking about the good fortune of breathing in Himalayan air, drinking water straight from the river and listening to the rutting calls of hangul deer.

Wild wonderland

Every Kashmiri child now knows that the crystal waters that flow from Upper Dachigam, through the Dagwan river to the Harwan Reservoir and then into the Dal Lake, are vital to the health (and economy) of Srinagar. As the life-giving Dagwan makes the journey from its glacial source in the high Himalaya, it also feeds countless creatures, great and small, including snow leopards, brown and black bears, the endangered hangul deer Cervus elaphus hanglu, amphibians, reptiles fish, birds such as the Koklas and Monal Pheasants and uncountable smaller life forms including insects and spiders, some surely yet to be discovered by science.

As may be expected, Dachigam is fiercely protected to safeguard this ecological wonderland, however, the Government of J&K encourages trekkers, birders and naturalists, and issues permits liberally, provided they have advance information.

Speaking for myself, I have never once been to Kashmir without walking Dachigam’s wilds! But there is vastly more to J&K than this. The state supports as many as 73 mammalian species, 358 species of birds, 68 species of reptiles, 14 different amphibians and as many as 158 types of butterflies. It’s a wealth that cannot be measured in financial terms. I have walked up from Sangargulu to Marsar above the tree line, over the ridge to Tarsar and then followed the road to Pahalgam situated on the banks of the Lidder River.

En route I was able to see the living heritage that is the Overa-Aru wilderness. But walking at such altitudes is not exactly easy. The legs do complain, but a 15-minute halt, some hot-butter tea and conversation with the ever-friendly Gujjars at their temporary camps… and you are good to go again. And then there is Gulmarg, which more often than not triggers thoughts of skiing in people. That no doubt is a lot of fun, but for me the real heart of Gulmarg lies in its grassy flower meadows, its picture-postcard, conifer-lined forested trails, the incredible birding experiences to be had and, with luck, sightings of musk deer, langurs, black and brown bears and more. Come winter and Gulmarg’s slopes are virginwhite.

I once followed musk deer and leopard spoor in the snow, uphill, for over two kilometres, until I got to the site of the kill… blood and fur strewn about. But I never actually saw either animal as the leopard had dragged its kill beyond a point where I could safely tread. All the while, up and down the mountainside, the tap-tap-tap of woodpeckers and the sight of ever-present choughs and Large-billed Crows kept me company.

Even if walking is not your thing, cable cars can carry you to stunning points such as Khilanmarg and Kongdori from where incomparable views remind you of just how insignificant you are when compared to the vastness and beauty that surrounds you.

The ever-present pony and horse-wallahs are also willing to transport you effortlessly to accessible places. Imagine birding from horseback!

Wetlands and more

But wait… Kashmir is not just forests and Himalayan snows. There is something utterly hypnotic about travelling around in one of Kashmir’s many wetlands. Hokersar, a relatively-small (1,375 ha.) Ramsar Site of global importance is one of the finest birding spots I have ever seen. Just 10 km. from Srinagar, on a good day you could tick off something like 40 or 50 different species if you stayed long enough in the right season!

Another miraculous wetland is Wular, one of India’s largest (18,900 ha.), most spectacular bird havens, which also offers sustenance in the form of fodder for livestock, food and livelihoods for thousands. Both these wetlands are threatened by the usual perils of low-lying places – pollution, encroachments and attempts to reclaim the swamps for construction. Young Kashmiris, however, are aware that these are the very defence mechanisms they will need for their survival, particularly in light of the flood-prone nature of the Happy Valley.

In the lower reaches, such wildernesses as Jasrota in the Kathua district, and Ramnagar and Nandi in Jammu are desperate for an injection of both visibility and resources. Tourism, wellmanaged and controlled, should be able to provide jobs and livelihoods to lakhs of life-loving Kashmiris, but this will take vision, foresight and statesmanship on the part of the political and administrative system at work.

Further afield, distant Ladakh’s cold deserts are home to all manner of exotic lifeforms in Protected Areas such as Hemis, Kishtwar and sanctuaries such as Karakoram and Changthang, where snow leopards, brown bear and ibex rule the slopes, with large herds of wild asses laying claim to the stunted meadow grasses.

This natural paradise also supports such rare and endangered creatures as the Tibetan gazelle, the Black-necked Crane and Pallas’ cat that only the very adventurous have ever had the privilege of seeing. Without a question, this exquisite state should be on everyone’s bucket list.

There are parts of it I have not yet explored, but I intend to correct that situation this year, without fail.

(Editor of Sanctuary Asia Magazine)