A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee
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After two consecutive strenuous treks, we wanted the third day at leisure. A big green board welcomed us to Pahalgam, the valley of shepherds. ‘Pahalgam’ literally means ‘The First Village’. It was perhaps named, as per a common mythical belief that during Lord Shiva’s way to Amarnath Cave, this small village served as His first resting point. It was here, a primeval Shiva temple is also found nearby (popularly known as Mamaleshwar Temple), He had performed a rigorous meditation for many days before heading onto His heavenly abode.
History of Pahalgam depicts an interesting trend with the change in kingdoms. Until 1346 AD, Pahalgam used to be a rich Hindu kingdom; later it was captured by the Muslims led by Shams-ud-Din. Centuries later during 1586, when Kashmir was conquered by Akbar, Pahalgam was seized under the Mughal Empire. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, it was further attacked by the Afghans and was temporarily annexed to Afghanistan until Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh captured it from Ahmed Shah Durrani. In 1846, the British took it back from the Sikhs and sold to Jammu’s Hindu Maharaja Gulab Singh against a hefty sum. Till then, Pahalgam has a mixed lineage of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim residents. Presently it falls under the administration of Anantanag District of Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir.
The average elevation of Pahalgam is 9000 feet, located centrally in the Lidder Valley. It marks the confluence of two significant Trans Himalayan rivers – the Seshnag stream and Lidderwat. The hill station is quite popular among tourists, adventure seekers as well as pilgrims for the geographical significance, natural splendour and comfy weather. Just at a pebble throwing distance there was a river and if you look up from there were ranges of snow-peaks. You just need to carry a pocket camera to take snaps – wherever you click it’s bound to be the best one ever!
We had put up at Hotel Glacier right at the middle of the Mall Road. Though a budget hotel, but the view of Kolahoi Glacier and Lidder River from our room (#104 in first floor) was enthralling. Food, room conditions and overall hospitality were decent as per the rent paid.
There was a pony stand just behind our hotel from where we had hired our horses for Aru trek. Since the first rays of dawn, they start gathering at the assembly point emulating an alarm for the sleeping souls like us. Thanks to their neighs and dung odours, it did not let us doze beyond a limit.
A group of young folks had already reached the riverside, charging up for an adventurous rafting expedition. Little beyond the Lidder River, there was a helipad and we were lucky to sight a chopper during our stay.
Having a late breakfast, we decided to take a walk around Pahalgam town and visit the ancient temple we could see from our hotel window. It was around 11 o’ clock in the morning we started our walk to the famous 400 AD Mamaleshwar Temple nestled on top of a small hillock on the banks of Lidder.
The very touch of icy cold waters of the Himalayan stream left a divine impact.
Arguably, it is perhaps the smallest and oldest temple of Kashmir Valley. It was hardly a mile away from our hotel. The interesting name of the holy shrine was my principal interest of visit. Mythological legends say that Ganesha was appointed as the doorkeeper of this ancient temple to prevent admitting anyone inside, so that his father Lord Shiva can perform meditation without any earthly interruptions. Ganesha performed his duty so much of dedication that he did not even allow his mother Devi Parvati to enter the temple. That is why even today, during prayer time no ladies are allowed to enter the temple beyond a certain limit. Basically, ‘Mamal’ in Kashmiri means ‘do not enter’. An interesting notice board did catch our attention the moment we stepped in.
As per historical evidences, it was built by a Muslim ruler dating back to 4th century AD who had wreathed the entire temple and shrine with pure gold. However, later rulers invaded the gold and left it at its present state since centuries.
As we reached there, the strangest thing I discovered was a Muslim priest, offering prayers to the shrine on behalf of the Hindu devotees and distributing sacred prasad after the rituals. No shame to say, the hospitality we received from the Kashmiri people was quite contradictory to our preconceived notion about the state.
While walking back, we stopped at couple of Kashmiri shops selling almonds, black raisins, apricot, dry dates, saffron and other local products like pashmina, silk, blankets, leather items, wooden craftworks etc. Though we purchased a few items as memento, but most of the items were highly overpriced. Funniest thing was, everyone would ask you ‘Khush ho naa?’ (Are you happy) after demanding a hefty bill against petty service or product. Another striking aspect was, it’s very difficult to publicly discuss in Bengali at Pahalgam because every second Kashmiri can speak Bengali and knows Bengal better than a Bengali.
We came back to our hotel by 2pm and enjoyed a delicious meal contradictory to our expectations – Ghee Rice, Dal fry, Mixed veg with Chicken Rogan josh. We came across neighbouring hotel boarders who were having lunch at our restaurant, which was probably hinting at the dearth of food availability around. One thing we learnt during our short stay in Kashmir – Never order a non-veg dish at any Kashmiri restaurant unless you are comfortable with lamb and beef. Chicken preparations are mostly unpalatable, it is better to opt for vegetarian meals otherwise.
Post lunch, we had plans to take a sneak peek of the local market; but after such a wholesome meal, we could not make any other way than to bed. Waking up for coffee, we had it quickly before the frosty breezes chilled it. Dinner we kept light to let our stomach settle with the lunchtime spicy chicken. We preferred to order it from Food Point Restaurant near Prince Bakery. A lip-smacking sweet pan was the perfect finish.
Imminent stormy night tempted us for a noisy slumber. We jumped into depths of dream under the furry blanket.