Kashmir: A Treat for the Five Senses

A few weeks ago (the day after Deepavali, to be precise) Gurgaon received its first winter shower. As it rained late in the evening, most people were indoors and did not notice the rain. The next morning we were greeted with a fresh new day and a clear blue sky. After months of being pegged at the ‘very severe’ level by the weather department, the atmosphere came to the ‘normal’ level. Later, strolling in the lawn, I took in the clean fresh air in deep breaths, filling my lungs with precious oxygen. For the first time after months (yes, months!) I could smell the grass and the flowers.

What an unforgiving climate the plains have! I feel sorry for all the living creatures (including myself) who have to bear the brunt of a most inclement climate. The blazing heat of the summer sun scorches the skin, and the profuse sweating makes one feel sticky and unbathed. The skyline boasts only skyscrapers and flyovers, making the eye seek desperate relief. Each time I breathe, my lungs are filled with air full of dust and smoke. And the noise! Of course, some people become immune to it, but if one happens to have sensitive ears, one is attacked with a cacophony which makes one want to scream.

Sitting among the birds and flowers my mind flies to my native Kashmir. What shall I say of Kashmir? I could utter a million words in its praise, but one phrase only will suffice – a treat for the five senses. The refreshing taste of natural mineral water, the sweet-sour flavour of cherries, the unique taste of delicious Kashmir apples eaten with Kashmir walnuts…these are some of the ‘natural’ flavours of Kashmir. Then there are the ‘man-made’ flavours and smells – the delicious taste of roganjosh and kalia, the delicate aroma of girda and khatai…Then there is the fragrance of kahwa infused with saffron and cardamom, the heady smell of isband at a Kashmiri wedding, the smell of freshly bloomed roses and new chinar leaves…I could go on and on (and end up overshooting the word-limit).

And what about the sounds of Kashmir? It is not easy to define the sounds of a particular place for the simple reason that we tend to get distracted by our other senses. However, I believe that every place is known by a set of sounds that are unique to that location and culture. With Kashmir, first and foremost, I associate the sounds of its folk music. The chhakri with its special instruments sarangi, rabab and nott, has a distinctly Kashmiri sound and beat. It is the type of music that is best enjoyed at leisure, since a chhakri takes its own time to warm up and runs anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes (maybe even longer). Listeners who have fallen asleep during the first half find themselves awakened by the bright and peppy ruff in the second half!

The other form of Kashmiri music, sufiana mausiqee with its gentle chanting accompanied by melodious strains on the santoor is my personal favourite. Those who connect to it find that it never fails to soothe even the most agitated mind. Speaking of sounds, I have faraway memories of wanvun and shankhnad (auspicious chanting by women and blowing of the conchshell, respectively) at marriages. As Pandit weddings become more and more modernised, these beautiful sounds are heard less and less. Besides these, the one ‘natural’ sound I somehow associate with Kashmir is the cawing of crows (or are those ravens?). Kashmir seems to be home to a large population of these birds, and their cawing is a sound I rather enjoy hearing. I do not know why the poor bird is so denigrated for its ‘bad voice’ !

And what shall I say about the sights of Kashmir? There is not enough room to say all that could be said on the subject. Such a description would fill a book (nay, several books). Let me simply borrow some great words from John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist-author of the early twentieth century: “In every walk in nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Kashmir is mountains. In Gurgaon where I live, one is surrounded by a concrete jungle; no matter where you are in Kashmir, mountains are never far — and that is such a magical thing! Mountains – their peaks covered with soft white snow, glistening like gold in the sunlight and silver in the moonlight.

And then there are the trees – regal chinar trees like grand old sentinels; tall, stately poplar trees swaying gracefully in the breeze; willow trees with their delicate beauty – all these lend grace and charm to the landscape. And amid the abundance of green, there are the blue and red sloping roofs of houses. Kashmir has the advantage of vastness, allowing Nature to spread its wings freely. So we have rolling meadows like Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Yusmarg and the like. Even if there were nothing else to do, one could feast one’s tired eyes on the limitless expanse of green. Casting one’s eyes on the ground, there is the green grass; looking up, there is the thick foliage of spreading trees; looking up further, there is the clear blue sky! What more could one ask for?

While the residents of Kashmir understandably yearn for warmth in their cold climate, to a person from the hot plains, the words ‘winter’, ‘cold’ and ‘snow’ sound the sweetest! I remember once when my family and I were visiting our ancestral home in Srinagar back in the 1980s, I asked my grandfather what it was like here in winter. He replied with a shudder: It is so cold that even the water in the taps freezes! “Really!” I responded eagerly. To my 10-year-old mind the idea of water freezing in taps was a most exciting one, as I thought of my home in Delhi where in the month of June one had to open the tap carefully lest one be scalded by the hot water coming out in a gush!

To a nature-lover and a keen observer, Kashmir offers a wealth of flavours, smells, sights and sounds. The epicure (and the average tourist) would certainly be enticed by the rich flavours of the cuisine and the melodious sounds of the music. To me, however, the taste of the cool water is the sweetest, the touch of the fresh air the softest. And the vision of red rooftops merging with green trees, and green trees merging with the blue sky is the loveliest.

The author is a free-lance writer, editor and translator based in New Gurgaon.