Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Destinations: BANIHAL

The first train emerging from the tunnel at Banihal
Banihal was in the news recently. Northern Railway commissioned a tunnel connecting Qazigund in Kashmir Valley with Banihal in Jammu Region boring through the mighty Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas. Termed as Asia’s second longest tunnel it is a little more than 11 kilometres long at an average elevation of 5770 ft. Qazigund is already connected with Barammulla in North Kashmir via Srinagar. It is part of the ambitious and somewhat formidable railway project that will connect Kashmir to the rest of India over a series of mountain ranges by rail. This is the third tunnel that has pierced the Pir Panjals.

This is a very vital road as it is the only one that links Kashmir with the country. Before partition the approach to the Valley was via Muree, Muzaffarabad, now Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This road was of lesser importance, being known as the Banihal Cart Road (BC Road). They say even tongas (horse-drawn carriages) from Jammu occasionally would audaciously use it and cross into the Valley through the Banihal Pass at around 11,000 ft. Now it is the lifeline for the Valley; the old Mogul Road via Poonch and Shopian is yet to be commissioned. The road via Rohtang Pass does connect the country with Kashmir but via Ladakh requiring a difficult detour.  

The train
The news reports called Banihal a town. May be it is so today. When I saw it first in 1957 it was no more than a mere village. My parents and we siblings were on our way to Kashmir that summer to visit a brother who was posted at Srinagar. The bus, having been delayed due to landslides on the way, had to stop at Banihal village for the night. Depending on the time of the day the buses would normally go across the Pir Panjal Range to stop at Qasigund which was the first town in Kashmir Valley. Perhaps our bus driver did not consider it safe to climb a few more thousand feet at night over winding rough and bumpy roads to cross over to the Valley through the Jawahar Tunnel that was at an elevation of around 9000 ft.

As it happens in villages, there was scarcity of accommodation for so many people. With great difficulty we could find two rooms that had their walls plastered with clay and cow dung. And they smelt of hay and hookah smoke. With no available alternative we had to put up in them. Right through the night we could hear a few enterprising truck drivers negotiating the treacherous road, pushing their vehicles hard up the mountain over the dangerous mountainous roads. 

We got the measure of the height we had to climb only in the morning when we looked up and saw as a tiny spec the mouth of the tunnel way up the mountain, almost touching the turquoise blue morning sky. As we recommenced our journey we came across another tunnel being bored through the Pir Panjal a few kilometres ahead of Banihal at a higher elevation. Those days the country was in its socialistic phase and, therefore, the East Germans (who had a communist regime) had been engaged for the work. They were working on two tunnels for up and down traffic in order to avoid jams that used to occur for years at the Jawahar Tunnel during the tourist season. A decade later I had the occasion to drive through this tunnel on my way down from Srinagar.

The Jawahar Tunnel took some time in arriving. The climb appeared to be steeper and the wretched road, at places was too narrow, made it more difficult. Looking out of the windows with the sight of drops of thousands of feet in case of a mishap was scary. Down below the villages looked far too miniaturised – one of them must have been Banihal. After an agonisingly slow climb we entered the little-more-than 2 km long tunnel that took us through the Pir Panjals – avoiding the other road that led to Banihal Pass, hardly used for motorised vehicles then, still higher, at around 11,000 ft. As we emerged from the tunnel we got a fabulous and an unforgettable view of the Valley, green and verdant sprawled a few thousand feet down below in front of us. The visibility was so good that one could see for miles with snow-covered mountains on both sides. As the sides of our bus grazed the mountainside we got the scraped off lumps of snow right inside. 

Another hour and we were in Qazigund, elated at having arrived in Kashmir but tired and hungry. Its wayside joints are known for their parathas and omelettes, the aroma of which seemingly permeated the place. We too had our fill of them fortifying ourselves before commencing our onward journey to Srinagar another couple of hours away.

The photographs are from the Internet

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