Potato and Seed Preservation
Potatoes are segregated for propagation and seeds of peas, wheat, Rajma are buried in-ground for warmth, before winter sets in. Azizullah having a Kiryana Store in Achoora bang on the old Silk Road explains to me the indigenous procedure –“A pit is dug, loose soil is packed or compressed with logs. Birchbark lines the bottom and sidelining. Selected and Prized ‘potato eyes’ are placed over it; another layer of Birch covers the hidden edible life; then topped with soil. Layers are formed thus finishing with topsoil over the last layer of Birch. Interestingly the Birchbark has natural properties of being waterproof- “Natural polythene!” I exclaim. It can be molded after sitting in water for many days. Birch also used as insulation and waterproofing for roof linings in old homes of Gurez, is interestingly found growing over 11,500 ft. above sea level.
Birchbark or ‘Bhoj Patra’ was extensively used to make paper in ancient times and members of the Royal palace wrote letters, books, commands, farmans, testimonials, and secret messages on it which were speedily delivered on horseback in the form of scrolls.
Sheikhpora – Sheikhpora descents on the riverside, as a kachcha exit road from main Tulail road about 3-4 Kms ahead of Purani Tulail, a narrow path descends to a serene, scenic huge plain-land. Homes in clusters joined by narrow raw sawed fencing create mysterious zigzag tracks. Spray-laden winds, music of gushing waters, and swaying fields of maize and mustard lilt me gently. Log huts here, with brightly painted windows, of burnished wood have seen many winters of 20ft snow or more. Lanes in Sheikhpora are flanked by wood plank fencing on both sides. This little lane is covered with tin sheet and thick polythene, and quickly cleared to facilitate a track to neighbors during snows A homestay is also in place in Sheikhpora with a smiling host owned by Jibran Mohammed Seeing this virgin locale makes me think aloud ‘what would be my first-hand experience be to stay at a local’s home and watch this beauty, I think it would be matchless! Hamlets Badoab and Badi Daas in Wanpura catch up as popular camping sites near here along Kishanganga’s floodplain. I would love to stay here one day.
Internet stepped into this lovely silent valley in 2021, and since then, weak signals are even more exciting! Informed Abdul Qayoom, a resident. His explanation turns true, as I spot a youth balancing himself, with legs inside his Pheran on a strategic rock, on a sunny field playing online games, despite weak signals. And these, once the Earth children, who couldn’t be seen sitting idle for more than a minute, as summer sun seeped into their chilled bones, infusing energy and vigor, post-hibernation. However, not entirely shedding the spirit of physical gaming, boys here concoct a game of sorts, to locate who can find the spot with the ‘best mobile signal’. Surely mobile addiction is here and Tulail is infected.
Khandiyal – This elusive sunset point commands an incredible aerial view of the entire Gurez Valley, with a sky-full of colors, as a snaking river forks, creating a natural island in the waters. From that vantage point, in a distance, modernization is seen to slowly creep in the lovely locale, cement bags, bricks, and crushers with mortar intend to defeat the famed log wood homes of the valley. I look with dread at new concrete buildings, which have caught the fancy of little Gurez, and wonder if it comes at its huge cost with the only advantage of looking new and modern, and offering little to save the mountain souls from the biting cold. This, over the traditional, insulated old rumbly-tumbly-brambly huts laden with warm hearts.
Time stands still as one watches the glacial waters of the turquoise Kishanganga river flow along the valley. Upstream lies the equally brilliant Tulail valley, sandwiched between Gurez to the west, and Drass and Mushkoh valley to the West. Time and connectivity are relative concepts in Gurez, where phone connectivity that became available in recent years has transformed the entire region in terms of education, travel, and entry of liberal thought.
Sitting aloof, Tulail is hard to reach, as snows disturb the equilibrium of its tracks most mercilessly and what is left of the road, is gorged down by melting waters, cracks and one wonders if beauties too have to pay a price. Tiny pockets of midnight blue huts studded with a lone red or orange peeking through is like the exquisite zardozi work in the flowing dupatta, embellished with vivid and rich floral delights and meandering spaces filled with rivulets that abound the lush valley. I found the Tulail more exquisite than Dawar.
The little known Gurez
The perfect triangular landmark of Habba Khatoon peak, a calm sliver of a curvy river, Gurez’s gifted beauty, historically, is a part of ancient Dardistan- the land of the Beautiful Dards- with Dawar as its capital. Gurez sits royally in elegance in the sacred Vedic seat etched between the ancient shrine of Sharada Peeth (West), Minimarg (North), Drass in the East, and Bagtore in the South. Various archeological surveys of her carvings provide insights into the origins of the Kashmiri people and the early history of the Buddhist faith that touched her. During the 1947-48 Indo-Pak partition and attempted tribal invasion of Gurez, she even entertained foreign dignitaries; nothing less than a would-be 32nd US President -Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Enviably located in lush-land, between Ladakh and LoC, Gurez is a poetess and a warrior, water and a mountain, a valley and a fall, coveted by suitors, but remains committed, lofty and graceful. Sitting elegantly in a forward command area, she is luscious silk but frayed and raw in places. She tempts nature lovers- offering historic trekking routes Ninao Gali and Darkhaun Gali, to have been followed by travelers of yore through the silk routes. A wild side to her love story and beauty lies as a playground to the Himalayan Brown Bear, Ibex, and the Snow Leopard.
Predominantly, Sunni Muslim, Gurez, before the arrival of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani, was Hindu-dominated practicing Buddhism. Due to the attitude & atrocities of Kabaili/ raiders under Gilgit Baltistan scouts, the local population of Gurez turned against the marauding muslim invaders in the 1947-48 war and secured Gurez Valley, guided and assisted by the Indian Army. This fact is authenticated by a kiryana merchant whose shop is bang on the ancient Silk road- Mohammed Muzamil who relates about oral history abounding in Gurez “One Major Akbar of Pak army along with his five juniors used to flash the proverbial rod in Gurez and take away cattle and livestock of the villagers, along with girls of Gurez. Enraged Gurezis laid a trap, found an opportunity, and hacked all six men. During the Indo-Pak partition in October of 1948, villagers of Kilshey, Tuleil, were asked a choice and Gurez favored India. The first army officer of the Indian army here was Major Ashok, who cannot be forgotten by the people for his benevolence. Gurezis were given rice and kerosene by the army, they had never dreamt of this bounty. This endeared India to Gurez”.
- Bagtore and Sheikhpora got selected as “tourist villages” in Gurez valley.
- Razdan top is also called Sanga top.
- Footbridges built of wood planks are knitted together with supporting logs for a wider river expanse. Just two logs or planks suffice for rivulets, all over Gurez and Tulail Valley. I notice rough wood fencing to protect vegetables from wild animals. The vegetables with vivid colors, fragrance, and taste are grown in pure, fertile mountain soil.
- I am convinced that mountain Maggi and mountain omelette with chai or Kehwa have an astonishing soul connect that flies only around Himalayan peaks.
- In Markoot just ahead of Habba Khatoon peak, for decades majestic crooked log huts look like something out of fairytales; built over stone foundations raised above the ground. Homes in Markoot are far more striking than found in tiny hamlets dotting Gurez. They give a -cobbly-wobbly-comfy look.
- Ahead of Dawar, the stunning valley of Tulail lies low along the river bed not even a kilometer in width, sitting amidst contrasts of snow-clad peaks, rugged mountains, bald mountain crags, and densely forested mountain cliffs. Enchanting Tulail is a perfect place to sink in the lap of nature!
- Log hut café by the army is charmingly decorated with multi-colored glass Turkish lanterns.
- Cut flowers here retain vivid colors. Younis owner of Kaka Palace graciously handed a dry bouquet carelessly lying about in his restaurant from an occasion, days ago. Neither did the petals fall, nor did colors fade; pure air ensured the preservation of dried cut flowers. The potential is huge. 00—00
Gurez’s Typical Lifestyle
- Handlooms have been a steady feature of Gurezis who prided themselves on being self-sufficient until the internet caused the humble handloom to be discarded as a symbol of backwardness and poverty. However, I saw homes in Tulail valley still possessing handlooms, used in winters to weave ‘Pattu’ cloth for Pheran and bed sheets. Excess wool is sold. I notice the Mule as their absolute King, as weight bearers and the humble cow and goat, the Queens -for their life-giving abundant udders, and as lifelong manure-machines!
- Older Women roam and collect firewood while younger lot studies, and attend to household chores including cooking, knitting, cleaning, embroidery, and cattle care, besides working in fields and vegetable gardens.
- Cooped indoors in winter months, people mostly cook lentils and rice and summer dried vegetables, besides feeding, and caring for livestock that lives in the lower portion of the house and baby livestock housed in cave types rooms for added warmth.
- Shoes are left outdoors scattered or neatly on a rack as per financial status, at the entrance. The Gurezi home’s warmth comes not just from the hosts but also from the kitchen hearth exuding much-needed heat. It is the warmest place both in temperatures and in shared emotions. Entire families sit together every single night sharing meals, and details of their day. It is also a time for entertainment with jokes, mimicry, dances, and the exhibition of new skills. That is one reason; I noticed why families in Kashmir are so close-knit.
- Windows in Gurez are free-flowing. One can easily jump in and out and children are wont to make slides of snow from their first-floor windows in early snows. Valley windows are shadowed with thick transparent or opaque plastic, according to the arriving chill. A transparent one, for sunshine on sunny days and opaque by evening, and a thick dark blanket or Pattu during nights and winters to beat the icy chill.
- Older women roam riverbeds and forests collecting traditional herbs, grass & firewood, also picking priced zeera on these rendezvous.
- It’s quite fascinating to see Beauty of the Dards stand out with their sheep wool, woolen-caps called ‘Pakol’ also called Pakhui, Seeked, Phartsun, in white, black, brown, grey with dyed Red using walnut shells, embellished with a white or black fluttering plume (feather).
- Homestays: The concept of homestays in Gurez is on, and simple village folk fed on a diet of ‘Guest is God’, having seen few visitors in lifetimes are coming to terms with charging money for services or stays. Since Gurez boasts of top cooks in the state, Majid, a cook student, and the owner started a homestay ‘Hillside Resort’/ 6005826540 in Achoora–A 5-bedroom, two bathrooms, kitchen, set with envious views, cooking entire homemade meals for his guests. Recently Izmarg, Kanzalwan got its first homestay cum camping site with the support of the army – “The Afsara Homestay” owned by Hasmat Lone. Jibran Mohammed in Sheikhpora in Tulail sector is a proud owner of a homestay in Sheikhpora.
- “Gurezi ‘Wazas’, are outstanding chefs in the state”, former Director Tourism Mahmud Shah, now Director Industries and Commerce additionally Director Handloom and Handicrafts, Jammu and Kashmir, remarks during a discussion. “A grand wedding or any occasion, in any part of Jammu and Kashmir wouldn’t be counted impressive if not for food cooked by Gurezi Wazas”, he adds.
- Gurezis love sports especially team play with cricket football and volleyball being front runners. However, Cricket runs deep into Gurezi hearts and winters with snow cricket is the newest addition to Gurez’s sports menu. Cricket is worshipped and carries on till the autumn in October and beyond as weather permits. If you are a hardcore cricket buff, play snow cricket in Dassi Bagtore bang on LoC, and store a story of lifetime experience in your memory chip.
Summer suns infused crouching bones with vigor and an energized population vigorously tills land bringing forth the tastiest, greenest vegetables, walnuts, potatoes and lentils, nurtured on pure air, water and naturally manured valley soil. Fish is food too and Gurezi are some of the best anglers. Some rush off to get employed in jobs with the army and BSF. Everyone works in summer, there is no time to soak in the sunshine and collect the heat. A song comes to mind….Dil Doondta hai, hai fir wahi, fursat ke raat din…thandi safed chaadron pe, jaagen der tak, taaron ko dekhte rahe…chhat par pade huye…’ – (Heart searches those footloose fancy-free moments …on white cool sheets of summer , laying stargazing from rooftops…’) But the local Gurezi possess little wealth of ‘time’, to sit or enjoy.
- Cultural dances, handicrafts, singing, and other acrobatics are honed as preparation for the prestigious annual Gurez Mela or Fair or Festival in July or August. Many cultural, sports & local art stalls are the main attractions during this event. The traditional Pony race -‘Gurez Race’. (To be concluded
Pics and text by author who can be contacted at: [email protected]