In almost all travelogues written about Kashmir by foreign travellers the most conspicuous picture is of poplar avenues on way to Gulmarg. Often the pictures captured and projected by photographers from all over the world depict Kashmiri farmers, both men and women working in the fields. It has frequently been mentioned that the farmers, the shepherds, and the villages give feel of a Biblical land. Kashmir of good old days depicted long avenues of poplars and willows with miles upon miles of paddy fields on most of the routes especially on those leading to the tourist resorts of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Not now. These landmarks are now on picture post-cards and in books only. The landscape has changed. It has been “modernised”. Almost all major roads have dozens of houses and that too of ugly cement concrete, and rows upon rows of shops. The paddy fields are visible only occasionally. One gets just a passing glimpse of the Kashmir that was once called the “Paradise on Earth”. Situation is same with every facet of our life, a fast changing landscape! One would not mind progress and development. It is the law of nature but nature also has some aesthetics and order. It is said that in earlier times conversion of paddy land was probably the highest crime. Any person destroying paddy land or converting it for any other use than growing paddy would go to jail. Laws seem to have eased with the onset of “Freedom” and “Democracy”. These days it is not a big deal to certify that a particular piece of land had been barren and unable to grow anything for last 40 years or so and get permission to construct ugly concrete monsters on it. This has probably been a mandatory requirement under the relevant laws concerning land use. The truth has been the first casualty in “Modern or New Kashmir”. A non-Kashmiri friend who recently visited Pahalgam was horrified by a couple of things. Firstly on entering the valley she totally missed the beautiful scent which would greet a visitor. The scent was a mixture of individual scents emanating from the Pines, the River, the Ponies, and a host of natural herbs. One would get refreshed immediately on turning the bend in the road which would make the Lidder Valley pop up suddenly. This time there is a sickening dull scent. The entry into the valley of the shepherds itself has changed into a totally urban landscape of rows upon rows of ugly hotels. The days of nice wooden chalets tucked into pine forest are gone. Pahalgam is no longer a hill resort. It is a small town now. To cap it all, my friend was shocked by the noisy amusement park. It is difficult to convince a nature lover about the necessity and urgency of building an amusement park in the lap of nature. It was the contribution of a “Banker” to please the strange fancy of new rulers of Kashmir. He defied all laws, bye-laws, and master plan stipulations to achieve this project against the utmost legal and rightful opposition of some of us comprising the committee controlling tourism development of the area. He defied all laws and got away with, courtesy new rulers. On being told that history will not forgive him for this defacement of nature, he brazenly remarked that the whole system is on nuts and bolts and the future rulers can remove it if they find it obnoxious. Another loss due to this amusement park has been the stone paved walkway along the Lidder River which had been set up a couple of decades back. Literarily the last nail in the coffin of Pahalgam landscape has been Amarnath Yatra. It used to be a traditional pilgrimage limited to a week corresponding to the festival of Raksha Bandan. About fifteen to twenty thousand pilgrims used to accompany the holy Mace of Shiva to the Cave Shrine. Now it is a two month long affair with numbers exceeding a quarter million people. More than pilgrimage it has assumed the political overtones of affirming of the spirit of Hindutva. This happened after the militants banned the pilgrimage in early nineties. The entire trek has suffered colossal environmental degradation. Last year there were allegations of tampering with the naturally formed Shiva lingam which had failed to materialise due to high temperatures. It was alleged that some persons had artificially created the lingam. Apart from the ecological damage, the Yatra changes the complete landscape of the entire area for at least two months with layers upon layers of security forces. It has become a pilgrimage under the shadow of the gun. The fate of the other resort in Sonamarg is no different. It once used to be really a meadow of Gold. In thirties it was the best rock climbing spot and the Royal Air Force had its Mountain School here. This has been replaced by the High Altitude Warfare School of the Indian Army. In addition, its main meadow has become a marshalling yard for convoys going to and coming from Ladakh. Additionally, the best camping season is overwhelmed by the Amarnath Yatra. Gulmarg too has lost the earlier charm of an Alpine meadow tucked amidst lofty pines. Before the construction of Tangmarg-Gulmarg road, a visit to Gulmarg on horse back or after trekking was a journey of discovery. The travails of a steep climb would be rewarded by the first glimpse of the meadow after entering the gap. The meadow with herds of sheep grazing all around and the racing horses would give it the picture quality of a movie of American Wild West. The wooden chalets with smoke rising from the chimneys seemed unreal and out of this world. Those memories are in travelogues now. Gulmarg has now been totally reduced to a Gondola going to the top of the mountain! The Romance of the meadow which had played host to Yusuf Shah Chak and Habba Khatoon is gone with the wind.
The city of Srinagar has also seen a drastic change in landscape. In fact, it has grown dramatically without any restrain on all sides. However, the first change in landscape which hits one straight is the virtual rape of the mountain at the very entrance of the city by stone quarrying. Apart from defacing drastically the beautiful mountainscape, it has created a dangerous situation for the collapse of the whole mountain. Inside the city itself, the first loss has been a world famous landmark which made foreign travellers compare it with Venice. A system of water channels throughout the old city including famous nala mar. These are gone now. Thanks to our brilliant engineers. Ernest Neve in his book “Beyond Pir Panjal” mentions that in the beginning of twentieth century Srinagar was about six square miles with a population of 126,344 living in 20,000 houses with an average of six persons in each house. A truly congested city. The conditions of life were extremely insanitary. However, at present it must be over 100 square miles, with a population of over a million people, yet the maintenance of the sanitary conditions do not seem to have kept pace with its growth. It has rather become a very dirty city. Let us start with the Dal Lake which has been the living heart of the city. It is now threatened with extinction. The shimmering waters are fast turning into a marsh. Along the Boulevard there is a long line of House Boats which have been slowly inching towards the shore and are almost touching it now. In the past these used to have sign boards, “To let”, which were changed to “Vacant” after a foreigner remarked that he had mistaken these for a row of toilets. This is what these have ultimately turned into in the absence of proper sewage disposal arrangements. Similar, is the case of the hotels which have mushroomed all along this once rejuvenating popular walkway. The most famous and prestigious River front known as the “Bund” has completely vanished. It used to be a walk to be remembered as an important landmark of Srinagar. No one could imagine taking even a bicycle on this River front. Now one can see cars running over it raising clouds of dust. The River itself has become a large drain carrying all the muck from the city and all other habitations on its banks. A boat ride along the historical seven bridges of Srinagar was a joyful experience to be remembered for a long time. It is doubtful if one can even stand the garbage, muck, and stink for even a couple of bridges on this “River of Kings”. The expanded City has now dozens of new colonies. In these colonies there are a variety of houses and villas some of which are among the finest anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, due to extreme greed people have economised on various basic civic services in most of the colonies making access to these posh areas difficult in normal times and a nightmare in bad weather. One important landmark which constitutes a dramatic change in landscape is the dozens of multi-storey shopping complexes and malls. There is no restriction absolutely on the growth of these monsters. These can come up in any area regardless of the fact whether the areas have been marked residential, private, or commercial in the City Master Plan. While as new complexes are coming up at a fast pace, the earlier heritage buildings and monuments are crumbling with equal speed. There seems to be total public apathy about our heritage. The deprivation of the knowledge of history naturally makes common people totally ignorant about the heritage. Additionally, in a situation of conflict there are other pressing issues being faced by the common people that hardly leave time or inclination for finer qualities of life. The main human instinct is to somehow survive the onslaught on our very basic right to life. Here one is reminded of a major change in landscape in last couple of decades. The whole valley is teeming with gun totting uniformed security personnel. Bunkers, pill boxes, road blocks, barriers, and rolls upon rolls of barbed wire have become a part of our landscape. Foot patrols, anti-mine armoured cars, personnel carriers, and bullet proof vehicles are part of the regular traffic on almost all the valley roads and even in lanes and by lanes of Srinagar and other towns. People have stopped taking any notice of this last change in the landscape. In earlier times, it is said that a single policeman with his red turban would keep an entire village on toes. Now, even tanks don’t excite people and they remain unmoved. This demonstrates one of the most peculiar characteristic of Kashmiris. Their unique ability to take everything in its stride, which gives rise to an incredible optimism that Kashmiris will survive all changes of landscape including the last one! However, Kashmir itself may not survive the physical degradation and ravaging of its other landscape by unscrupulous elements unless we all put up joint mass resistance. Kashmiris, without Kashmir, the “Paradise on Earth”, will become meaningless!