If there is a paradise on earth….

I must have heard this much quoted phrase repeated many times by local guides over my time in the Indian subcontinent, and attributed to various people about a number of different places. I could have looked it up, but hesitate to pin it down; in a way it seems better that the idea can be applied by anyone to that which brings enduring pleasure.


If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this

I remember it being said about gardens – part design, part natural in Lahore, Punjab, in Srinagar, Kashmir, and even the Alhambra, Spain, too. I believe the origin of the word paradise is a description of a garden, a landscape created by humans in tune with the natural surroundings to produce beauty, food, harmony and a sense of peace, of unity with nature.

A hotel I stopped in, in Marib, Yemen, on the edge of the now arid Empty Quarter was called Al-Janattayn, – ‘double paradise’, in memory of the flourishing landscape produced there by saving infrequent storm water from surrounding hills and channelling a beneficent flow throughout a dusty basin, in the time of the near legendary Queen of Sheba.

I think Kashmir has enjoyed a similar reputation, probably over a similar period of time. It is sheltered from the winter ravages of mountain climates, but also blessed by the same mountains when the plains of India lie scorched by sun until the waxing monsoon brings the sweaty lassitude that Europeans and Moguls alike sought to evade.

It is at once a gateway and a blocking point, Srinagar allows the trader, the pundit, the traveller access through Kargil to the remote fastness of the kingdom of Leh, or the parallel Zanskar valley, almost unheard of until the latter part of the 20th Century. It was also connected through millennia to the upper Indus valleys of Gilgit and Hunza where the inhabitants’ longevity inspired myths of immortality.


Shikhara boatmen on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Shikhara boatmen on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir


I had hardly heard of Kashmir until with a wide-eyed curiosity I came across a yellowing copy of Peter Fleming’s “News from Tartary” a now prized but still not widely known account of a journey through the seam of civilisations fringing the Taklamakan desert and the Tibetan plateau. Join the dots between oases, or die trying. The journey was undertaken with a doughty woman, Ella Maillart, known as Kini to her friends. She also kept a journal of the trip, quite different in tone and detail from Fleming’s.

One feels that the goal of Srinagar was always in Fleming’s sights, especially the opening of the shooting season (definitely a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, type of diplomat of the antediluvian sort). Maillart, a Swiss national, had taught English in North Wales, represented her country in sailing events, lived in Moscow, had a child as an addition to her light baggage while travelling and crucially, spoke Russian which gave her a whole different insight into the world they were travelling through, as it was almost the lingua franca in an area influenced by the revolution and by White Russian émigrés.

Against this background of literary wonder I came very late and could have seen only vestiges of the hardy lives of these mountain people so skilled in survival and trading, but it was enough to enchant me. A friend in Delhi had been exhorting me to visit his homeland for some time until I found a space between the tours I was working on, and the funds to fly in and out of Srinagar.

I landed to a tumultuous welcome from the Sheikh family (all the boys, naturally – a militarised airport was no place for the women of the house to go), and was treated like a prince throughout my stay in the valley. It was winter, so the leaves were off the orchard trees, a dull mist clung to the lakes’ surfaces and a dank chill crept into my bones, fresh from the plains. This was quickly dispelled by the warmth, nay heat, of the reception arranged, for I was now a family friend.

I was installed in one of the out of season houseboats of which I had only seen pictures – a floating palace, with a verandah around the side, elaborate fretwork in the wooden frame, a woodstove chugging out heat to dispel and damp from the boat. Carpets adorned the walls, chunky embroidered cushions left no doubt that I was to be treated to every luxury that could be found during my stay, and a succession of tasty offerings were brought to me as meals, and as snacks to ensure I could hardly move !


Women paddling along the shore of Dal Lake, Srinagar
Women paddling along the shore of Dal Lake, Srinagar


From day to day I was taken out to family houses in the town and countryside, particularly honoured by the welcome I was given by the women, especially the elders of the household. I was no stranger, though they did not know me, but I was trusted as a friend of their son / cousin /uncle. This was apparent to me, though not obvious, as a protective band drew around me at every possible point of risk.

These people would die to protect me now I was their guest; of that I felt in no doubt, though I never felt in need of it. I spent my days in an Edwardian-themed reverie, waking to tea in bed, brought silently by one brother, emerging to the verandah to be greeted by importuning traders from the slender shikharas which they would ply between houseboats and along the valleys lakes, fetching the tasty, the exotic, the ancient and the eye-wateringly beautiful creations of the deft hands of Kashmiris.

In between times, I spent hours gazing over the lake and valley, barely sensing the languid graceful passage of boats clearing the water surface by mere inches, their occupants swathed elfin-like in fine textiles against the diaphanous backdrop of the lakeside.

Pied kingfishers produced the only sudden movements on the borderline of air and water. As evenings drew in, they were often punctuated by sharp rifle cracks in the distance, in the lower hills and at times in the nearby settlements. When I came to fly out of Srinagar, I found myself searched twice on the pavement before reaching the airport, and a further 5 times inside the terminal, each by different agencies, each as jealously guarding their turf as LA or Detroit gangs, although admittedly with a degree of self appointed legitimacy.

By the time I had reached this land much of the tranquillity had been sucked out of it by the rapine struggle for territory, a struggle which will last as long as the last breath of the last Kashmiri; until men of power eventually find the humility and humanity to allow the breath of nature and of decency to flow over this most beautiful of places. Yet again, as with Syria, with Yemen, with Algeria, with Swat, and Baluchistan, I find myself in mourning for a loss we have engineered and we sustain, blighting lives, landscapes, nations and humanity.

We will find a way, though it may take forever, it will come, because hope outlives mere mortals.

An interesting view of Kashmir from a Pathe news clip from the 1950’s. Be warned; attitudes, particularly toward women and ‘primitive’ cultures are of the time and I do not condone them in the slightest. However, it does show an almost untouched way of life, now virtually gone forever, along with the illnesses and grinding poverty, but the sense of belonging and community remains.

It was sent to me on Facebook by a Kashmiri friend.

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