Tag Archives: Melanie P. Kumar

A Glimpse of Heaven–Kashmir

As soon as our flight begins its descent into Srinagar, I see a glimpse of heaven as snow-capped mountains, flowing rivulets, and Chinar trees appear and take shape below.

The Dal lake in Kashmir

This is a family holiday and in the next eight days, I will see many more sights that will make me realize what the poet Hazrat Amir Khusro is said to have penned about Kashmir—“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast” translating as, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

The rush at the airport and the conveyor belt makes me wonder whether the whole country has made a beeline for Kashmir. With tourism opening up in the last couple of years, it seems to be a popular destination for travelers. But the road blocks and the re-routes that our driver is forced to make gives us an idea of what the average Kashmiri has to live with every day—a state of uncertainty. Yet, when I look around, I see peaceful faces, perhaps even resigned faces. One driver, seeing our bewildered look, leans and yells out, “This is Kashmir!” The only frustration that is visible is the constant tooting of horns, making one wish for a set of ear plugs.

At Bloomingdale Cottage, our home-stay, we are greeted with the rich Kashmiri tea called kahwa and cookies and the warm welcome of one of the best hoteliers that I have ever had the good fortune to meet. Firdaus Saheb is the quintessential gentleman host who takes us sightseeing in his car on our first evening in Srinagar (and shopping on our last one), when we have our first sighting of the Dal Lake and the famous houseboats.

Bloomingdale turns out to be our home away from home, thanks to Firdaus Saheb’s familial warmth and the care of his two Man Fridays, both of whom see to all our comforts and needs.

A visit to Srinagar is incomplete without a visit to the Mughal Gardens. As the name suggests these tastefully landscaped spaces were set up during the era of the Mughals and reveal their love for natural beauty. Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar and the Botanical Gardens play host to a variety of flowers, fountains and waterfalls, which are a feast for the eyes. Kashmir ki Kali and many other Hindi films of the ’60s and ’70s made use of the valley’s scenic sights for the romantic duets of the leading pairs.

At Chasme Shahi we scoop fresh water from mountain springs and enjoy the feel of the ice cold water going down our throats.

A visit to the Shankaracharya Hill reveals a bird’s eye view of Srinagar from the ramparts of the temple.
There are crowds milling everywhere except perhaps at the Hazratbal Mosque, where there is a strict dress code for men. Women can only have a view from the outside.

Mist shrouding Sonamarg

Abdul Majeed, our well-informed driver who ferries us around, becomes our friend, philosopher and guide for the rest of our stay in Kashmir. Our first stop is Gulmarg, where a steep trek by foot to the ticketing counter is followed by a long wait for a cable car—a gondola that operates in two phases. It has to be mentioned here that though Kashmir thrives on tourism, there is complete mismanagement in several places. In Gulmarg, we see touts running the whole show and allowing people who have paid speed money, to jump the queue. The ride on the gondola affords scenic views and we decide to get off at the second phase, which is higher than the first. I’m excited to be walking on snow, for the first time, a task easier achieved with a pair of rubber boots (compulsory and available on hire) as also a ride on a sled.

Pahalgam is the next stop on our itinerary. En-route, we get off at the Avantipura Ruins, where the Pandavas are said to have stopped by. It is a beautiful place for photographs and we click away to our heart’s content. We stop by some apple orchards, where a few green apples are making their appearance. Our driver also shows us almond, walnut, chinar and pine trees.

flowing waters at Kokernag

The Himalaya Discover Resort at Pahalgam turns out to be a great shock, as what we booked on the Internet is different from what we actually find. We are fortunate enough to find an alternative and use the rest of the day to take rides through the Aru and Betaab valleys and Chandanwadi, from where the Amarnath yatris start their pilgrimage. These journeys are compulsorily done with the use of a local car and driver and we stare spellbound at the sights of the lakes and springs and snowy mountain tops, as he drives us up and down the valleys. One can only say that in Kashmir the journeys can be as pleasurable as the destinations and we request the driver to stop so that we can sit on the rocks and dip our feet in ice-cold streams we encounter along the way.

Pahalgam turns out to be memorable in more ways than one because here is where I take a toss along with a mountain horse whilst heading up to Baisaran Valley, also known as mini Switzerland because of the hill and dale view. Luckily my wounds are superficial but what is disturbing is the lack of first aid for such possibilities. Nevertheless, I sit back on the horse again and enjoy the rest of the journey, opting for first aid at a civil hospital in Pahalgam town. The doctors tell me that I am fortunate, as they have seen much worse.

There is a saying that wherever you throw a stone in Kashmir, you will find a beautiful sight to behold. We realize this again en-route to Hotel Paradise Resort in Daksum. The hotel is luxury personified and my room has a small sitting area overlooking the mountains, where I spend some happy moments just gazing out at nature’s bounties.View from the aircraft

After breakfast the next morning, we climb approximately 14,500 feet to the snowy Sinthan Top. As always, the views along the way are enthralling. At the top, the stream waters slide down and drench the road so the driver has to be proficient. On account of a sprained foot, I climb only a portion of the mountain and spend the rest of the time just enjoying and photographing the wondrous sights around me.

The fountains of Chashme Shahi

At our next halt in Kokarnag, we stay at a quaint cottage run by Jammu and Kashmir Tourism. The service here is passable but the staff is friendly and the greatest attraction is its location, which is inside a park. After the tourist crowd leaves, it is like having the park to oneself whilst walking past the waterfalls and stopping to smell the multi-hued roses, which are huge in size and blooming in gay profusion.

One cannot visit Kashmir without picking up dried fruits, the famed Kashmiri chillies and saffron. We do this in a place called Paunpur and are surprised to find the driver pointing out bullet pockmarked buildings along the way; battlegrounds between security forces and militants. In many of the tourist spots, it seems a little eerie to see uniformed police keeping guard—a reminder of the insecurities that beset this valley.The ruins of Avantipura

Farah’s Homestay on the way up to Sonamarg is the saving grace for this part of our journey. It is a charming little place run by a Kashmiri and French couple, who have named it after their perky four and a half year-old daughter, Farah, who barges into our room, demanding chocolates.

This part of our journey is marred by bad weather and the climb up to Sonamarg is dark and dreary. The sky is overcast and the mountains are out of sight.

Near Farah's Nest at Sonamarg

Now, that I am back and writing this piece, I wonder if those were portents for what was to follow. Everywhere we went, people spoke of the lack of security and the breakdown of systems. One young lad said, “Please offer dua that peace is restored in the valley.” Having seen the beauty of the Heaven on earth that is Kashmir, what else can I do but pray for peace there.

Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and mass communications.

Charmed by Budapest

My first impression from the bus entering Budapest, after a pleasurable tour of the Herend Porcelain Manufactory, is not a pleasant one. Streets congested with vehicular traffic and jams remind me of my home-city of Bangalore. But there the comparison ends, as I am soon charmed by the magical city and the river Danube that flows through it.st.stephens_basilica

Budapest, the Hungarian capital, was formed by the joining of the calm Buda on the west and the vibrant Pest on the east, in 1873. It is ten times larger than any other city in Hungary and has several bridges and railway bridges connecting Buda and Pest, the most important of them being the Szechenyi Lanchid or the Chain Bridge.

I am fortunate to get a room with a view on the sixth floor of the majestic Hotel Inter Continental, which is located in the old city center or Pest side of the River Danube. The hotel affords stunning views beyond the river and Buda, including the Castle Hill and Royal Palace. With their lights twinkling and also reflecting on the waters of the Danube, I feel like I am in fairyland and throughout my stay in Budapest, I keep the curtains drawn wide open so that I can see the majestic river, the last thing before going to bed and the first thing after arising in the morning. The Danube offers contrasting views by day and by night and both are unforgettable.thehungarianstateoperahouse

Budapest is well-known for its gastronomical delights and an evening visit to the Gerbeaud Café is a palate-pleasing experience as their confections, with liberal dashes of chocolate, melt in one’s mouth. Gerbeaud, one of the largest and most traditional cafes located in the center of the city was started in 1858 by Henrik Kugler and bought in 1884 by its late owner, Emile Gerbeaud, a Swiss confectioner, who expanded it considerably.

One cannot speak of Budapest and not say a word about its delicious wine, Tokaji (pronounced with the j silent), which has its origins in the Tokaj region. It is possibly the sweetest and best wine that I have ever tasted. Tokaj is UNESCO-listed and its wine industry is one of the main employment source, estimated to provide nearly 5,000 jobs. Hungary’s central government and the European Union have joined together to invest in upgrading Tokaj’s vineyards and bolstering the international reputation of its wines.

I embark on a walk around the World Heritage listed Castle District on the Buda side, not realizing that it is quite a climb to Buda Castle. The colorful tiles dotting its rooftops are eye-catching but the most exciting part of being up here is the breathtaking view of the Danube. Entering the slightly hard to pronounce, “Halaszbastya” Restaurant on Castle Hill becomes worthwhile, not so much for the refreshing drink as to hear a small orchestra play soothing melodies. They quickly oblige when I make a request. And what a treat it is for the eyes and ears to look out at the “Blue Danube” whilst hearing Johann Strauss’ composition by the same name. But I will have more as I pull an obliging friend and we twirl around in a waltz much to the amusement of the other visitors.

outsideviewoftheszechenyithermalbath

After dinner at the Michelin-starred Pierrot Restaurant, comes the best part of the day—a cruise on a speedboat across the Danube. The ride includes a glass of liquor, which I offer as obeisance to the Danube whilst the ride does the intoxicating. There are lights winking everywhere, including on the magnificent Chain Bridge under which the boat passes several times. Their starry reflection on the waters is enchanting and, for me, a never-to-be forgotten sight.

inside_view_of_the_thermal_bath

A visit to Budapest would be incomplete without dropping in on their Parliament. The building looks like a palace from the outside and is no less impressive inside. The external façade is awe-inspiring with pointed arch arcades, eighty-eight statues of the many Hungarian rulers as also numerous spires, gargoyles and Gothic ornaments. On first sight, it seems to bear a striking resemblance to London’s Houses of Parliament and the penny drops when I hear that they provided the inspiration for its Neo-Gothic design. The construction was started in 1885 and completed 17 years later in 1902. Not surprising, as it is the largest Parliament building in the world with ten central courtyards, twenty kilometers (~12.5 miles) of staircase and 691 rooms. I barely manage to negotiate a few of them and find the interiors stunning in their decoration by Hungary’s best artists. Here, Neo-Gothic melds with Renaissance and there are Byzantine influences too, especially visible in the staircase hall.

danubebynight

A room that arrests one’s attention is the circular Copula Hall with its display of the statues of Hungarian monarchs and a ceiling as intricate as ones in cathedrals. The Coronation Crown and the insignia, which were given to King Stephen during his anointment as King in the year 1000 CE, are displayed here along with the other Coronation Jewels. I am fascinated by the majestic chandeliers as also a numbered cigar holder that is allotted for each Member of Parliament, to place his cigar in, as smoking is not permitted in the Assembly area! The Parliament is open for tourists only when there are no sessions on.
The Szechenyl Thermal Bath is the largest in Europe and highly-recommended for its medicinal waters, supplied by two medicinal springs. Built in the NeoBaroque style, it is an imposing sight and I wonder about how the Great Baths of Mohenjo-Daro would have been described by a traveler. But, on the day that I stop by, the place is jam-packed and I am glad that I have decided not to take a dip.

nightviewofthechainbridgeconnectingbudaandpest

The Hungarian State Opera is a Neo-Renaissance building that is worth checking out, even if one is not able to catch an opera. It looks majestic from the outside and I stare in awe, before stepping inside. Designed by Miklos Ybl, a leading architect of 19th century Hungary, this construction is considered to be one of his masterpieces. There are gleaming marble columns in the foyer and a vaulted ceiling covered with murals, imaginatively depicting the nine Muses.

Andrassy Avenue, on which the Opera House is located, is a part of the UNESCO world heritage and an exciting place to walk around and shop in. I locate a shop to pick up chocolates from and am persuaded to settle for marzipans, to prevent the risk of melting chocolates.

After dinner, it is time to check out the vibrant nightlife of the Pest area. I find myself in the “ruin pubs,” which look in a state of dilapidation but are apparently meeting places for people of all age-groups.

There are people thronging everywhere and I decide on an early pack-up, as my flight back is early the next morning. The fallout of the party is visible at the International Airport the next day, with very few staff present on Saturday morning to proceed with the formalities. As I complete mine and head into the departure area, I make a silent wish to return some day. The city had me in its spell.

Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer. She enjoys writing about life in its many manifestations. She also does literary reviews and is an avid traveler, who never misses an opportunity to pen her thoughts about her travels.