Rashmi Talwar

“Go Gurez”…..

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           Traditional Potato Storage.

‘Gigantic walls of sun kissed ranges

Mountain tops with tresses on fire

As the wooded soldier sun,

Slides into the pockets of the greedy night

Silhouettes of shadows sway and play’….. Lily Swarm

Lying in wait on the northern axis of Shamshabari ridge, shadowed by the greater Himalayas, sits a beautiful girl –Gurez- shy, downcast eyes, a little flower in her luxuriant hair, and childlike innocence. She carries within her bosom a history of more than 2000 years as she stretches out on an ancient silk route floating through lush Kashmir to Gilgit-Baltistan (PoK) and Kashgar (China) and central Asia. The lovely lass Gurez is connected to South Asia and  ties across seven seas till fashionable Europe.

Matching her blue eyes, are tourmaline waters of Kishanganga-unshackled, flowing, playing unendingly through her lissome body. Alongside, her dainty hands play the musical Harp with the sound of Gurez’s fluted waterfalls, near the perfectly triangular peak named after the beautiful poetess- the Habba Khatoon peak.

Seated like the reigning deity in midst of Dawar the ancient capital of Dardistan- the land of the Dards, Habba’s melody brimming with love and longing for Yusuf Shah Chak, the King of Kashmir, echoes in Gurez’s enchanting valleys. Wafting through grain and grass, forests and flowers, snows and season; her music hangs on every spec of earth, mountains, and waters of nimble Gurez.

And as I was to discover, the mountain beauty -Gurez is an amalgamation of more than soulful songs, history of untouched magnificence, and exalted travelers of yore. Gurez is rich and plentiful, tough and resilient, bold and beautiful; with hidden gems and treasures, and a power seat of ancient faiths. Each of its nooks and crannies is wondrously brimming with stories, traditions, and rituals waiting to be discovered. I share a few select ones.

Habba Khatoon

“I will seek you down the wandering brooks;

I will look for you where the jasmines blow.

Don’t tell me we shall not meet again” ~Habba Khatoon

Of many women poets from all manner of social and linguistic backgrounds who dared to be heard, one woman was Habba Khatoon. A real-time moon-faced queen of 16th century Kashmir- poetess of the mountains aptly named ‘Zoon’ or the Moon for her beatific beauty. Habba – The Nightingale of Kashmir’ was also the second prominent woman to be wronged by the Powerful Mughal Emperor Akbar in his otherwise glorious reign.

Mughal-e-Azam, tells us a heart-rending tale of a blooming romance of courtesan Anarkali and crown prince to the Mughal Empire Shehzada Saleem or Jahangir, silenced and muzzled by orders of Emperor Akbar.

The Habba Khatoon, romance too was throttled by Akbar for the conquest of the crown jewel of the Mughal Empire, a veritable heaven on Earth –Kashmir

The tale went thus- Yusuf Shah Chak, last Emperor of Kashmir; while out hunting, spotted Zoon singing in the fields one day. He was entranced by her beauty, her voice, and the richness of her rhyme and rhythm and fell in love. He is said to have relieved Zoon of her earlier marriage and taken her away to his court in 1570 where she charmed him with her poetry while reigning as his Queen. In 1579, Akbar summoned Emperor Yusuf Shah to his court in Delhi. Yusuf Shah Chak is believed to be a Shia of the Dard Tribe belonging to Gurez and these parts. Yusuf Shah was flung into prison upon reaching the Mughal court, never to see the light of day or his beloved Habba again. Akbar had failed to conquer Kashmir militarily and resorted to tactics of cozenage. Yusuf died in 1586 AD a lonely, forlorn death pining for his love Zoon or Habba Khatoon. He was buried at Biswak, Bihar.

Habba is said to have roamed the valley in search of her love and poured heart-rending poetry into the mountains and hills of Gurez. Abdul Rehman, a Shepard who I met near the Habba Khatoon Peak, told me that as Habba lifted a large urn of water to the peak, it rolled down, she rolled down with it and her tears rolled down her cheeks. So intense was her breaking heart that it erupted into a natural spring at the foot of the peak and it was thus named after her as Habba Khatoon Peak and Habba Khatoon ‘Chashma’. The spring tumbles into the passing Kishenganga River below, in devotion to a lifetime of quenching the thirst of man and animal, birds and plants.

For the rest of the years, Habba pined away in an abode next to the Jhelum and was finally laid to rest at Athwaajan. Habba’s songs flow in pain, despair, of separation. The tale of Habba is retold in Kashmiri folklore, and her poetry finds resonance in all kinds of occasions including dirges and weddings. No Kashmiri wedding is complete without the mournful wedding songs of Habba Khatoon irrespective of any faith.


Hashtag Go Gurez- the big bang to Tourism

#GoGurez-‘Witness a slice of History’! “Hashtag GoGurez” spurred a new interest in Gurez. The hashtag, a social network baby is an amazing ingenuity of Er Sheikh Aadil –DSP J&K Police. Born in 2017, the catchy hashtag triggered a rapid rise in tourist count which leapt from a trickle to more than 2000 in the year 2018. To blaze a tourist trail to the sleeping beauty of Gurez, it didn’t employ misleading schemes, just pure unedited real-time photos, live videos, and eye-catching slogans that proved a perfect recipe for public attention, greater footfall and subsequently paved an assured road to the economic growth of the exquisite valley. Sample this caption -“Looking to catch a stunning selfie? “#GoGurez”.

The hashtag triggered widespread wanderlust, promising brilliant scenery, sweeping meadows, straddling history, walking the ancient silk route, and creating stories among the endearing locals. It proved an amazing tool, to drive socio-economic prosperity for the virgin landscapes of Gurez. “I felt Tourism could be a potent driver for Gurez’s fortunes”, the dashing officer cum crusader Er Sheikh Aadil, told the Author. Posted in Gurez awhile, Aadil changed the tourist footprint of this untouched beauty lying on the brim with Pakistan. Hitherto barred to the public for more than six decades, Gurez opened to travelers in 2018. “My reason was to uplift the area for socio-economic reasons; the exquisite land has huge potential. We thought besides social media, there needs to be something on the mainstream internet, so two websites emerged -www.gogurez.com and Gurezvalley. in; updating Gurez regularly”, Aadil detailed enthusiastically. The hashtag #GoGurez has certainly spurred the footloose, to wander these unspoiled lands, letting loose the vagabond within them.

The #GoGurez campaign –went all out, awakening a quiet remote hamlet to burst upon the holidaymaker’s map. Steadily enticing travelers with pictures, and posts on social networking – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it graduated to add a virtual tour of Gurez, on the website. Regular updates including news, testimonials, video clips, glimpses, teasers, competitions, and trekking, camping, festival broadcasts besides special occasions. Interestingly, they used merchandise car stickers, caps, and banners for the promotion of the hashtag GoGurez. I saw Posters of GoGurez dot walls of all hotels, guesthouses, homestays, restaurants, dhabas, and bakeries, on doors, on rocks, anything and everything had become its visual board. “It’s like ceremonial flags, the posters can be seen even on Army pickets!” an army man on duty points with a smile. After all “Issi ne inke liye rozi roti bhi behtar karni hai, log ayeinge aur kharcha kareinge aur Gurez behtar hoga, Gurez ke log bahar naukri doondne nahi niklenge kioki unke apni zameen hi unn ke kamaee ka zariya banegi”, (the posters will help to give them a better life, tourists will come, spend and make a prosperous Gurez, Gurez youth will not migrate to other places in search of jobs because their own earth will give them employment).

I, as a solo traveller converse with Mohammed Muzzafar Lone who operates the handle of “GoGurez- “The valley indeed is magical, and one cannot help but take hundreds of pictures of this beautiful locale. Like a beautiful diamond, it looks exotically different from each angle, and one cannot get enough,” he says as he shares Gurez’s spectacular latest pictures and videos across multimedia.

Interestingly, the father of the initiative- Aadil is a Masters in Technology, guides students during competitive exams, a fellow with kalingafellowship.org -a program for combating the human trafficking of women-children. Moreover, this supercop with a golden heart initiated “Walls of Kindness” in remote mountainous areas to help clothe the needy in the harsh winters of Jammu Kashmir. He is also credited with arranging plasma for hospitalized Covid patients. Is there a hint of an equivalent to the Sonu Sood social service giant, then it’s purely coincidental and seems like a connected DNA of ‘Joy of Giving’.

The supercop informed that in 2019 the total tourist inflow to Gurez was 179 to 200 people. However, in three months of May, June, and July year 2021, the tourist inflow leaped to cross the 15K- mark, post-GoGurez campaign.”

Achoora – and the host’s gift of Gurez’s prized cumin

Ushered into Gurez’s wooded home, in a tiny hamlet of Achoora near the LoC, Dawar, where shoes are left out at the entrance, my stubborn snow-shoe refused to be yanked-out drowsing as it was, that early morning, from its sleepy fitted comfort, even as I waddled on one leg, jerking the other. Seeing my struggle Haleema Begum, told me to keep the boots on. Not one to give up and finally victorious, over an adamant shoe, I felt like being treated royally in the household. The owners welcomed me with a tradition of a sprinkle of dry fruit on the head and circling it thrice. And before I harbored any thoughts about a victory over a measly shoe, it turned out to be an honor reserved for guests. They ushered me to the warmest corner where the sun rays touched the carpet in the tiny low roofed room, although sun-bathing is far away from my mind, coming from the hot plains of Punjab. It surely is love to offer the best corner, for a dear one. A grand spread of a variety of salties and sweeties laid on the traditional Dastarkhan (a long mat on the carpet). And following the royal gastronomical entourage was the King Cuisine of Gurez – a plate of steaming boiled potatoes, lightly sprinkled with salt and a touch of butter!

Now imagine the scene-“As hot potatoes advanced towards my hand, each pair (20 or so) of eyes in the roomful turned into spies, watching unblinkingly for that split second when the morsel touched my lips, tongue, and journeyed the throat. They wait for ‘that’ Nano instant when my eyes would light up! Gurez’s folks watched for the climax, with bated breath – “Ohhh! Ahh !” And as an effusion of praise escaped my lips, for their prized delicacy- the humble potato, the entire room lit up with knowing smiles, exchanged nodding glances, clasping hands, as if approving a girl for marriage. True to their belief, I was taken for a sixer. I am no food connoisseur but Gurez’s potato indeed possesses a lightness of taste and fragrance, a texture, perfect, smooth, like no other.

“Izmarg is famed for its high quality and yield of potato, Infact, the entire Gurez belt”. No wonder, Izmarg and Dawar are marked by Bandipore authorities for the production of high-quality potato seed ehmm! ‘potato-eyes’ in this case. This venture could add to the income of Gurez and generate employment avenues for Gurezi youth.

My joke on whether I was PM of India, that everyone is so serious, caused a burst of gurgling laughter, demurely stored, spilling unabashedly over; breaking the ice of Gurezi folk’s collective shyness and formality, in an instant. And then, there was no stopping. Haleema (45) pulled me by the arm and ushered me to her home in that home-cluster living, typically Gurez, to inspect her spic and span kitchen. She made me sit near the hearth a huge semi-dome and mock act the cooking ways, causing much amusement. She asked me to touch the embroidered Kashmiri floor coverings called ‘Namda’- “I have made these !” she pointed at two, I looked at the intricate needlework and the time that had gone into it, and appreciated her profusely and got a bear hug in exchange. I was theirs and they mine. The afternoon slid away in being lovingly fed, with Kehwa, food, anecdotes, and mirth of old friends.

Even the takeaway was profuse. Gurez’s people pressed a pack of cumin, painstakingly collected from the wild by household women, in my hands as a parting gift. A pack fetches a price of Rs 40,000/ kg, in the market. I was enamored by their heartfelt and generous hospitality. And as I came back home to Amritsar, I sowed some of the prized cumin in my Garden, hoping it will bear a sprout and bring me the fragrance of ‘my’ Gurez. (To be concluded)

Pics and text by author who can be contacted at: [email protected]

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