Monday, February 04, 2013

Photo Story - Getting to My Village

As it appeared

My Mint travel piece, on reaching the village, has disappeared off the internets.

Here's the full unedited version.

I have a favourite spot outside our cottage here in the village. It's in the front garden just off the patio, overlooking the mountains on the other side of the Chenab River [we're on 'this' side]. It helps that this spot is always in the sun and intense research on my part has revealed that it has the fastest 2G mobile internet connectivity anywhere near the house. So I spend a lot of time here squinting over my phone, checking emails, tweets and reading up on the web. All the while gradually turning into a prune because that's what the mountain sun does to you.

Cast aside notions of fair, rosy-cheeked Kashmiris with full red lips. In my neck of the woods we are pahari [mountain] folk, and we are a wrinkled, hardy people with tanned leather for skin and crows' feet around smiling eyes.

Daadi Puphi - My father's aunt

'Our' side of the Chenab. This is about halfway up to my village.

Let me take you to my village, Breswana, as typical a hamlet in the invisible pahari belt of Jammu and Kashmir as you can hope for. I say 'invisible' because very few people outside the state have an idea of the terrain, culture and lifestyle we have here. The pahari region in Jammu and Kashmir is different from the Kashmir Valley, which is what most people's idea of Kashmir is. No shikaras, open green meadows or santoor as running background music. We're all about mountains, rocks, subsistence farming, livestock and hardiness. Our way of life in the mountains is very different from that in the Valley proper. We speak the same language, i.e. Kashmiri, but our accent and local slang differs.

My life today is very different to what I imagined it would be as a child growing up in Dubai in the eighties. Back then it was all about 'study well, get a good job, make money, kick back and enjoy'. I stuck to the formula for many years, with college and then a well-paying, very fun job in Bangalore. In late 2008 everything changed; I decided I wanted to be with my family and help out back at home and I upped and left the city suddenly. What I do now is run the Haji Public School with my family – it's a school we set up in our ancestral village in the mountains of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir. This is Breswana, at an altitude of approximately 7,100 feet overlooking the Chenab River, with no motorable roads going all the way up even today, and really, a most wonderful corner of the world. My great grandfather established the village in the early 1900's; today, almost every resident of Breswana is family – by blood or marriage. In every sense of the word, it is home.

The school and that

My work has me shuttling between Jammu ['the big city'] and the school in Breswana throughout the year. It's a whole day's travel, with mixed measures of driving, walking and horse-riding. Jammu is my town house, and I head there every time I need to catch up on paperwork, have official meetings, purchase supplies or access proper internet. This is at least once a month, if not more often. And it is a beautiful, if exhausting journey. I haven't tired of it yet and it's been five years of scampering uphill and down, and driving on the national highway in all seasons.  
There are three legs of the journey from city to village: 1. Jammu to Doda – 183 km by road, 2. Doda to last motorable stop – again by road, and 3. Horseback/Trek to Breswana up the mountain- horse trails, rocks, ravines and forest. [Also a water mill.]

Water mill or "gratt'" in Kashmir

The drive from Jammu to Doda takes about five hours provided there are no traffic hassles. Doda to the final motorable stop is another hour or so. If, like me, you happen to get car sick on loopy mountain roads, the best thing to do would be to try and get some shut eye and not look out too much. Very tough, considering. It is a most scenic mountainous drive along the NH-1B and with a dramatic U-turn at Batote (an important transit town en route), we are into Doda District. Somewhere after Batote you'll spot the River Chenab for the first time, going the other way; it will accompany you on the left of the highway for the remaining portion of the journey.

Bakarwaals on the move
On the highway you will see Gujjars and Bakarwaals moving north in the summer taking their animals to higher reaches for a season of grazing. Before the winter you can see them heading down with their livestock in the thousands. Traffic moves very slowly during these seasonal migrations in J&K.

On the Jammu-Doda stretch, our family has gravitated towards certain establishments for their good food and quick service: Manhas Dhaba at Samroli, Prem Sweets at Kud, a chai-stall at a pine-covered corner of Patni-Top [a very popular hill station about 3 hours out of Jammu], and, most importantly, Sharma Vaishno Dhaba at Bagar [pronounced like the rude word] for its flawless victory with rajma daal-chawal and desi ghee

My favourite stretch of the journey to the village is the last bit. On horseback. Nothing compares to riding a good mountain horse on tough mountain trails. Our family has always had horses, both local stock as well as Zanskaris [these are really matchless]. Everything about horses brings out the romantic in me. They're such gorgeous animals, and it's quite incredible to be able to do our mountains like they do. 
Zanskar se, Mr Balla
With horses and me, it's a case of true love, and I have my father to thank for showing us the ropes well as kids and making us comfortable with them. I know of people screwing up their noses when assailed with horse smells but for me it immediately takes me to Breswana, to my trips up home.

Footbridge at Premnagar

So. The final leg of the journey is when we wave goodbye to the car/jeep at a small roadside hill town called Premnagar. [The town is so named only after a gentleman called Premchand and not, as one hoped, a tragic local love story.] There's a wooden footbridge at Premnagar we cross over the River Chenab that takes us to 'the other side'. Where the horses wait. If you look up at this point, you can spot Breswana on the neck of the mountain towering above the town. Here onwards, all luggage goes up on carriage animals or on the backs of men/women. It's a 7km route on very steep, rocky uphills for about three to four hours. We stop a few times to rest the horses along the way. Again, we have our preferred spots for resting – shade, wind and water being the deciding factors.

Starting uphill, on average 3+ hours
Riding Up
Over the years, this final ride up home has become a real pleasure for me. This is where one gets to see the real pahari J&K, still relatively untouched by the outside world. We pass through villages, see the people go about their daily lives and work through different seasons. Things carry on as they used to, farmers still follow traditional farming methods and all the villages look more or less as they always have as far back as I can remember. Everyone knows everything about everyone else in the mountains and much current information is traded between travellers going up and down. 

I usually ride into Breswana with the sunset and a nice, hot cup of noonchai [Kashmiri salt tea] and homemade bread welcomes me. Along with a fireplace [optional] and all the familiar sights and smells of home.

It's always a physically demanding trip, this Jammu to Breswana business. Achy back, sore seat and tired legs. But a day later, sitting in the favourite spot in front of my cottage, waiting for a web-page to load on the mobile phone, with school kids chattering in the distance and the sun warming my back, I find I really cannot complain. At all. [Just get me some internet up here.]