The other day a photograph and a write up below it in a national newspaper rang a faint bell. It depicted children playing around in caves in what it called the “Kalaroos area” in North Kashmir. It also said that the Kashmir government is opening up newer areas in North Kashmir beyond Kupwara in the Kalaroos area and in and around Lolab Valley, hitherto the hotbed of militancy fostered by infiltrators from across the Line of Control (LoC) drawn after the 1971 war with Pakistan.
The bell rang rather weakly because of the weight of the years under which the memories of these two places lay buried. Way back in 1969 when I was posted in Kashmir I had had the occasion to visit both these places. Both of them are of exquisite natural beauty but Lolab Valley had a special distinction of hosting a secular Hindu clairvoyant in the midst of an overwhelming Muslim population.
The department of the Central Government that I worked for had a small establishment manned by a part-timer at Kalaroos. One cold March morning I received a telegram that the establishment had caught fire and everything in it, including a substantial amount of cash, had been lost. I had to go and, that too, in a jiffy. Next morning with a couple of inspectors I set out for Kalaroos. Proceeding via Sopore and Kupwara, we had our official vehicle parked at a place that was a kind of a pass between two ranges. The road to Kalaroos took off from that pass. Kalaroos was three miles up that road and the vehicle could not have made it as the road had a thick layer of snow on it.
Never have I had the occasion to negotiate such a torturous three miles as the one that I did with my junior colleagues that day. We had to climb a few hundred feet along the pretty wide road that was completely snowed under. Although it was a delightful day with bright sunshine and a bracing cold breeze blowing down the surrounding pine-covered mountains, the road was under ankle-deep of freshly-fallen snow. Walking on the snow is difficult but the effort gets more toilsome if one has to walk in ankle-deep soft and yielding snow with the feet sinking in with every step. Every time one has to pull one’s feet out to take a fresh step. It gets more laborious if one has to do so while walking uphill. For me it was nightmarish. The only thing that kept us going was the compelling beauty of the surroundings. Down below was the freshest and the whitest of snow-white snows with the mountain sides and the precipitous valleys dressed in bright green of the ever-green conifers and under the lapis lazuli blues of the sky were, again, snow-capped mountain tops gleaming in the bright March sun. It was ethereal – almost spiritual. Every bend of the road would open up a new vista – a panorama so arresting that one wouldn’t be human unless one stopped and beheld it.
We huffed and puffed our way up and eventually reached the village. It was located in a clearing and I noticed three chairs placed in the sun with a tray with about a couple of dozen shelled eggs. Dog-tired as I was I made a beeline for one of the chairs and literally collapsed into it. Recovering after a while as I took in the landscape I was amazed to notice an uncanny resemblance with the paintings I had come across of the Holy Land. The thatched rundown houses, the green pines in the background and the tall, extraordinarily fair, heavily bearded handsome men with pronounced Semitic facial features, draped in long ochre coloured clothes, it all appeared to me to be straight out of the Biblical times. The only distinguishing feature was the Islamic cap that some of the villagers had placed on their heads. The whole thing was stunning and picturesque and made the tiring trip memorable.
After finishing off the offiial work and consuming more than my normal quota of eggs to subdue my ravenous appetite I tore myself away from that incredible setting. Climbing down the mountain was not so difficult. As the afternoon sun was dipping down rapidly we decided to stop for the night at Chandigam in Lolab Valley. The place had a rest house which was said to have been built for the Late Indira Gandhi. It had hot and cold running water, a luxury not available in those days in most of the rest houses in Kashmir, and had a couple of extra bed rooms. It was situated at an elevation and hence commanded a panoramic view of the narrow valley in front, dominated by a lone poplar, and the thickly forested hills on its sides. It was a lush green little valley of indescribable beauty, mostly uncluttered by human interventions.
The hill that separated Kupwara from Lolab Valley was thickly forested with walnut trees. In the midst of this forest of walnuts was a resident clairvoyant who was popularly known as Baba. A religious recluse and a Hindu, he was known for being able to look into the future of whoever cared to go and ask him to do so. Having nothing much to do in the evening, we trooped into his lair. A fire was raging in a pit and around half a dozen devotees, all Muslims, were sitting closest to the entrance facing the Baba on the other side of the fire. As we entered the simple and austere enclosure Baba noticed us and asked us to be seated next to the fire. After some small talk about the Baba and his fame in the surrounding areas, one of the devotees told us the story of a Pakistani Lt. Colonel who had stumbled into Baba’s presence.
Lolab Valley was overrun by the Pakistani Army during the 1965 war. The Pakistani Army had also captured the hill where Baba was in residence. They used the top of the hill to fire at the garrison at Kupwara. Keen to clear the hill of all enemies, a Lt. Col. of Pakistani Army came to the Baba’s lair. As soon as Baba saw the officer he told him to get back home as his daughter was seriously sick. Even before he could recover from the shock a messenger arrived to tell the Lt. Col. to report to his headquarters. The officer left, organising a detachment to maintain a guard on the recluse. He did not return for a few days. After a week or so the guards were withdrawn and the Baba was told the daughter of the Lt. Col. had died.
One does not know whether the recluse is alive or not but I have had occasion to hear some local army officers in Bhopal who had had similar encounters with the Baba. Apparently, he was a kind of an institution; his was a much-visited lair by all those who happened to visit Chandigam.
It was only four years after the 1965 war with Pakistan yet I had visited Kupwara and Chandigam several times all by myself travelling in my own car. Never was there an unpleasant incident. Later, during the twenty-odd years of militancy, however, these two areas became popular with infiltrators from across the LoC. Now, it seems, the things have quietened down and the Kashmir Government is thinking of opening them up for tourism. One can only wish it Godspeed. Let the tourists enjoy the nature’s bounty in North Kashmir. After all, there is more to Kashmir than just Gulmarg and Pahalgam.