Waking up to the sounds of chirping of birds and splashing of water in the Dal Lake is an experience inconceivable to those who have never lived in the lap of nature. The glistening lakes, gurgling rivers, soaring snow capped mountain peaks and tall pine and chinar trees all add to the beauty and splendour of this valley. Add to these, the diverse cultural and historic ethos; we perhaps have the most perfect tourist destination in sight. Its beauty was not hidden away from the earlier rulers of the valley, be it the Mughal or the British. The valley continued to be a favourite spot for both tourists and filmmakers after Independence.
However, once the killings and kidnappings started, there was a drastic decrease in the tourist inflow and the Kashmiri locals were reduced to a state of unemployment and poverty due to lack of livelihood. Many believe that it was starvation and dissatisfaction with the callousness of the government that compelled many young boys to take up arms.
After two decades of struggle and strife, the threat that looms over the beautiful valley has been finally condensed and the ambience of Kashmir has once again changed. The tourists, who had once disappeared to other hill stations, are now slowly returning, bringing back the smiles and hope to the locals. Even the young generation is ready to leave guns and grenades for pens or even oars of shikaras. Ask them about the call of jihad that echoed throughout the state, the same reply comes from everyone’s lips, “we now want freedom from poverty”.
Today the empty, desolate houseboats are again full of people; the resorts and hotels are booked throughout the summer holidays. Life seems to be returning to normalcy, but Kashmir itself seems to be a ghost of its older self. The army is deployed everywhere, giving the valley a look of “a war zone” .The lurking fear and skepticism is apparent not only in the tourists but also in the hearts of the Kashmiris. When talking about the fragile peace that has been restored, our shikarawallah said, “If God so wills I will be able to see you all in a few years.”
The government is putting in efforts to address the issue of security and improve the tourism sector in Kashmir. Now Kashmir is not merely a place of astounding scenic beauty; instead gondola rides, well maintained golf fields, adventure camps and rafting as well as opportunities for winter sports such as skiing and paragliding are being introduced for young tourists and the adventure lovers. Nevertheless, the charm of Kashmir still lies in its old fashioned, ornate houseboats, slow paced shikara rides along the placid lakes, the snow capped mountains and a walk in the elaborate Mughal gardens. It remains one of the few tourist destinations, which have immense beauty to offer at all times of the day and year. The changing hues of the valley- white in winter, orange in autumn and green throughout summer together with the permanence of an azure sky and shadowy lakes can enchant one and all.
Kashmir today stands as an example of the destruction that war and terrorism can cause; yet its natural beauty is so powerful that one fails to associate the beautiful lands and its people with curfews, encounters, bombs, grenades and shootouts. The place that is considered to be synonymous with a lifetime of war, itself stands as an emblem of tranquility and peace.