There were no sprawling suburbs skirting around Srinagar. Soon after we left it, the Kashmiri countryside began. The valley spread flat and wide, grain fields laid bare post-harvest, the high slopes of the Himalayas looming always close. Sparse trees dotted the margins, barely thick enough to really be wind breaking. Elsewhere, they clustered as small groves.
Kashmiri rice was grown right up to the road. The farmers were out at harvest, and cutting down hay. Flocks of sheep huddled close to the road shoulder, their shepherd well into the road lane. You just had to share the road with more than motorised vehicles. It was just the way it was.
They were headed south down from the highland, for the season was late in summer and the grain fields were golden.
The golden fields stagger up terraces as we approached the hillside villages. The brick houses had metal roofs, some of them streaked dark with rust. A few perched right at the edge of steep slopes only mountain goats could traverse.
Water flowed from the mountains, meandering through canals to irrigate the farming terraces. Here and there, slender trees were laden with hay; I’d never seen hay being dried that way before.
Every so often, I spied a building with higher roofs than the rest. Two-tiered roofs, which brought to my mind the Nepali style. It reminded me of a pagoda, which was the style of the original mosques in Melaka, before Mughal-style dome roofs became the de facto style in Malaysia. I peered more closely as the car sped past; indeed they were topped with loudspeakers for the azan, the call to prayer.
As we continued, we passed newer and bigger mosques, built in a more Mughal style. A shame, I thought. The Himalayan ones had a more distinct and regional beauty.
Beauty of a highland Kashmiri village
But we were headed to an upland village. Naranag was a Kashmiri village within a rocky dale, on high ground that dropped steeply to the boulder-strewn riverbank of an alpine stream, which flowed fast even though the monsoon was still incoming.
There were no grain fields in Naranag, its countryside was more suited to shepherding. But there were apple trees, and a walnut tree grew in the centre of the village. Past the little hamlet, the landscape was wild, for forests grew up the steep slopes and the peaks spread out in its native beauty. It’s no surprise that another local source of income was guiding trekkers who came to bask in the mountain’s beauty, particularly during the high May-July season.
The village homes were generally well – if simply – built. The bricks were well laid, but bricks seemed the more expensive material, for some buildings had them interspersed with rusting metal sheets. But the carpentry was good; the window casements and doorways were finely planed.
Mornings are mild in the late Kashmiri summer. We woke to birds twittering and crows cawing, the air fresh and beautiful. The family hosting us had a spacious home, though it was but little furnished. Niyaz was proud of it; tiled floor in the combined kitchen/living space, and there was indoor plumbing.
The realities of rural Kashmiri life
You left much behind to stay in a Kashmiri mountain village. Water was not a problem, for the mountains had it in abundance, sending them down in massive pipes to cities. We had electricity, and there was television broadcasting from India, but the internet was shut down. Though it was not winter, the electricity supply was unreliable. We had no power on our last night in the village.
There were no cafes or restaurants; you ate like a villager. The village had chickens, and our host had a cow for milk. But they actually ate very little meat, or even eggs. Meals were plain chapati with milk tea, rice and vegetable curry. And in the summer, apples. I suspect, even then, what we had was more than what they usually allowed for themselves.
It was a less lucrative summer for the village than usual. The lockdown ahead of Article 370 being revoked meant that the guides lost some income for part of the trekking season. Our host fretted over the prices of onions and tomatoes. 80 rupees per kilo! he griped at one point, as he helped his wife near the stove.
By contrast, his wife, a tall, thin woman, complained little. She grew the vegetables in the yard that our guest room window overlooked, and went to the shed to milk the cow in the mornings. The boys clambered up the apple trees, as much to bring ripe apples to the guests as to show off to us.
The beauty between people
But a burden shared is a burden halved. What I remembered the most about the young couple who hosted us, was how much in love they were despite the worries surrounding them.
They were childhood sweethearts, and three kids later, Meenah still looks at him with pure adoration. When we’re just chilling at the house, she would make chapati and milk tea for us to snack on (come to think of it, she seemed to be constantly at the stove churning out chapatis!). But she would not eat herself, while Niyaz was not yet home. And he, in turn, seemed the most contented when he was by her side.
The burden seemed more than halved, probably. It was a village life, after all, where there was still a beautiful flow between individual resources and collective sharing. There were always people dropping by for tea and a chat. Whenever the women came by, it was loud and lively (the usually reserved Meenah included), and his mother was clearly the boss of everyone. His eldest son, as seemed to be the case in every Kashmiri family we met, was the responsible one, helping his parents attend to guests. The littlest daughter, the baby of the family, would be clinging to her father, clearly used to having her way.
It was their nature. On our hikes around the village, our host would always stop by to have kehwa where family members or friends camped in shepherd huts – or tents, in the case of their Gujjar friends, who came annually from Jammu to pasture their sheep and cashmere goats. Gypsies, he explained the Gujjar to us, but the word was used innocently, in friendship.
You can always use more friends
There’s a reason why the Gujjar return south for the winter. Winter in the Kashmiri highlands is not for outdoors living. Heavy snowfall in the narrow dale often keeps the villagers indoors. When it is really heavy, the snow buries the houses, and they can’t open the windows. They’d melt snow for water, and keep a store of dried food to last 6 months. The electricity would usually cut out at some point, since the snow would down a power line, and no one could come to repair it until spring thaw.
In winter, you wouldn’t be able to get to a doctor, 20km away. I understood it intellectually, but my tropical brain visiting in Kashmir’s mild summer couldn’t quite understand just how it would be like for life to be on such a knife edge for so many long, lean months.
Walking around the village, we saw some people wear identical caps that had obviously been gifted by a past Indonesian visitor. If it had occurred to me, I would have brought them my spare winter wear that’s been languishing in my cupboard since my student years.
The villagers of Naranag
The Kashmiri mountains were beautiful, but I was more often drawn down to the rocky river. I loved the sound of the water, its hiss and thrum, never silent. Village boys would pelt stones towards the river, vying for distance. Along the steep way down to where we could look upon it, village girls scampered by us clambering over the rock walls. They were not separated by age, as would be the case in more urban living. Instead, the girls ranged from late teens to as young as three years old.
On our hikes along the river, we came across teenagers out looking upon the beautiful river. These rural trails were surprisingly busy in the summer, with women out on errands between villages, and men leading pack horses, goatherds and shepherdesses moving their animals, and village fishermen looking for fishing spots.
Back in the village, we came upon the walnut harvest. The green fruits littered the ground as men flicked long bamboo-like sticks against the branches to shake down more. I watched as the girls peeled them open for the walnut inside. Noticing me, they urged me to hold out my poncho, and dumped a fistful of walnuts onto it for me.
Nature’s beauty matters
Life in these mountains isn’t easy, even without Kashmir’s difficult political problems. In distress, it’s a human survival mechanism not to think too far ahead, and take things one day at a time. In the city, this feels draining and depressing, just going in circles, but it does not feel quite like that where people still live close to unspoiled nature. For nature also takes things one day at a time, but its cycles are beautiful with meaning.
Nestled within the sweep of Himalayan majesty, something new occurred to me. Beauty does not solve your problems, but when you’re surrounded by so much of it, it does make resilience just that much easier.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.