For rulers from Jehangir to Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmir was the heaven on earth. Its allure was irresistible. No wonder, travellers from abroad also felt the same. Across centuries, scores of them arrived in Kashmir and, without exception, went back overwhelmed by its beauty. Francois Bernier was one among them. The French physician came to Kashmir as part of the imperial entourage of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb via the Mughal Road that connects Shopian in south Kashmir to Poonch and Rajouri in the Jammu region. In the valley, he was surprised to see European flowers and fruits like apple, pear, plum, apricot and walnut. His travelogues are full of praise for Kashmir’s beauty.
William Moorcroft, an East India company veterinarian, was the first Englishman to visit Kashmir in 1823. In Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab, 1819-1825, the travelogue he co-authored with his assistant George Trebeck, he says it is doubtful that if any of the descriptions yet published on Kashmir have conveyed an accurate notion of the country. "In truth, the beauty of Kashmir surpasses all that my imagination had anticipated. It is probably unequalled by any country of the same extent," writes Moorcraft. He says Emperor Jehan Guyre [Jehangir] became so enamoured of this little kingdom as to make it his favourite abode and he often declared that he would rather be deprived of every other province of his mighty empire than lose Kachemire.
Berner calls Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, a city without walls, built on the banks of a freshwater lake―Dal Lake―which is formed from the live springs and rivers descending from the mountains and communicating with the Jhelum, which runs through the city. He describes the lake as having several islands and pleasure gardens. "They look beautiful and green in the midst of water," he writes.
Moorcraft says the lake is nearly circular and the floating gardens prevent its outline from being distinctly made out. These could have been vegetable gardens of houseboat dwellers, who make them by placing fertile soil on floating mats. Today, this practice has become increasingly rare.
Travellers were also enamoured by the splendour of the majestic Shalimar Gardens of the Mughal emperors. Moorcraft writes the garden can be approached from Dal Lake. "The entrance from the lake is through a canal, bordered by a green turf between two poplar rows, leading to a summer house in the middle. The marble used to build the house is far superior to ours." Even today, Kashmir is well known for marble carving and polishing.
Francis Younghusband, a British military explorer, who lived in Kashmir for four years from 1906, also mentions the canal in his book Kashmir. "We glided through channels of still, transparent water hedged in by reeds and willows.... Country boats laden with their produce continually pass, usually propelled by some old man or woman squatting at the extreme prow, and balancing with extraordinary confidence and skill. Numerous kingfishers of brilliant sky-blue plumage flash across the water; and gorgeous yellow-golden orioles dart from tree to tree."
In 1895, British Indian civil servant Walter Roper Lawrence published his book Valley of Kashmir. For him, Dal Lake is perhaps the most beautiful place in the world. "It is difficult to say when the lake is the most beautiful. In spring, the fresh green tints of the trees and mountain sides are refreshing to the eye. But, it is perhaps in October the colours of the lake are most charming."
On the two ends of the lake are Hari Parbat and Shankaracharya Parbat, the two hills overlooking Srinagar. Between these two lie the capital and a number of Mughal indulgences like the Shalimar Gardens. Bernier says Hari Parbat is an isolated hill with handsome houses on its slopes, with each one having its own garden.
"Opposite to this hill is seen another, on which is erected a small mosque with a garden and an extremely ancient building, which bears evident marks of having been a temple for idols, although it is named Tact-Souliman [Takht-e-Sulaiman]." The hill is called Shankaracharya Parbat to commemorate Adi Shankara's visit to Kashmir as part of his philosophical expedition across India. The Shiva temple atop the hill is managed today by a trust chaired by Karan Singh, MP and son of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir.
Seen today from the two hills, Dal Lake is only a pale shadow of its glorious past, something Lawrence warned about many years ago. "People say that the lake is silting up... and as years pass by, the deposit of the Arrah river which feeds Dal Lake will result in the lake becoming even more shallow than it is now as its only outlet is through Dal Darwaza...," writes Lawrence.
Today, the floating gardens mentioned by the old travellers are becoming a thing of the past. Encroachment is rampant. The lake has turned into a dumping ground for houseboats, hotels and residential colonies nearby. Its pristine water, which was once used to lend a velvety touch to the famous Kashmiri shawls, has a sorry story to tell today.
The government has tried various measures like the use of dredgers to clean up the lake, but they have not produced desired results. Historical accounts show that the governments of the past, too, did not fare better. For instance, Moorcraft, who is all praise for the natural beauty of Kashmir, is quite critical of its civic structures and facilities. "The general character of the city is that of a confused mass of ill-conceived buildings, forming a complicated labyrinth of narrow and dirty lanes, scarcely broad enough for a single cart to pass, badly paved, and having a small gutter in the centre full of filth, banked up on each side by a border of mire." And, the story continues to this day.
Tariq Patloo, who has been lobbying for the conservation of the lake, says the government itself is responsible for its plight. "Some years back the government decided to build a road through the lake to reduce traffic congestion. After thousands of truckloads of soil were dumped into the lake, the project was deemed unviable. But, the damage was already done," he says.
Environmentalist A.M. Kak says the lake is dying because the government is not serious enough. "The weeds and the encroachment have not been dealt with effectively," he says. "If we continue to procrastinate, the future generation will only read about the lake in books."
THE FIRST mountains... are of moderate height, of the freshest verdure, decked with trees and covered with pasture land, on which cows, sheep, goats, horses and every kind of cattle are seen to graze. Games of various species are in great plenty, partridges, hares, antelopes and those animals which yield musk.... These mountains may indeed be characterised... as flowing in rich exuberance with milk and honey.
Beyond the mountains just described arise others of very considerable altitude, whose summits at all times covered with snow, soar above the clouds and ordinary mist, and, like Mount Olympus, are constantly bright and serene.
―Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-1668