I am in the town of Ramban standing across the road from a confusing jumble of honking buses and jeeps. There is no immediate bus to Srinagar but there is a jeep leaving for Srinagar right now. Today’s paper however talks of the ongoing curfew there and recent killings. I don’t think it’s a good idea to visit Srinagar. I’ll have to turn back and take the longer Himachali route to Ladakh.
‘Why don’t you visit Bhadarwah?’ suggests the guy next to me in the bus to Jammu. ‘It is a beautiful place among the hills and deodar forests.’
Apparently, Bhadarwah is a place of growing popularity. When Srinagar is in trouble, people visit places of tourist interest spread around Jammu. Bhadarwah is one such place.
‘Have you seen the movie Noori?’ asks my fellow traveller. He is a Patna graduate and works as a medical officer in the hills above Ramban. He has walked seven kilometers this morning and then taken a passing jeep to get to Ramban bus station.
I believe Noori is an old movie. I certainly haven’t seen it. Apparently the entire movie was shot in Bhadarwah. The medical officer says it with pride. As the bus winds, the river Chenab which has been flowing quietly below surges from a gorge on its right. I see a dam. One of the gates is open. The river thunders down spectacularly and the entire gorge is bathed in its misty spray. The view is only for a moment and it quickly disappears between the folds of hills.
‘Bhadarwah is as beautiful as places around Srinagar,’ says my fellow traveller. ‘But tourism is not developed in these parts. There has been no political push.’
‘What degree do you have?’
‘Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Sciences,’ he elaborates.
We get off together at Batote and wait for a bus to Doda. I get cash from SBI ATM while my friend from Doda buys some vegetables. The bus to Doda arrives after a long wait. We follow the Chenab for a long time. I get off at Puldoda. I am on the river’s left bank. I don’t know if this is still the Chenab or some tributary of it. There is hardly an embankment to the river. If there should be continuous rain for a day or two it could easily flood out the narrow road.
‘This is old Doda. There used to be a bazaar here. It got submerged when the dam was opened,’ mentions a street vendor. The river’s bank has crumbling structures of the old bazaar. Standing in the river’s flow are dead trees sticking out their bare branches to the skies.
‘What happened to people who lived here?’ I ask.
‘They were relocated five years ago to present Doda. The dam was opened only a year ago.’
These are things you hear on the news or read cursorily in the papers. Seeing it firsthand brings a new sense of reality. The next time I read the morning papers I would have shed some of my old apathy.
At Puldoda, I board another bus to take me to Bhadarwah. Rice fields fill the foreground with their waving contours. When the breeze blows, the fields dance in orchestrated waves. Chenab’s tributary, the life giver of the valley, hides in hilly folds. On the opposite bank, corn fields climb to drier land that give way to pine woods leading up to the ridge above.
Bhadarwah is indeed a cool place with hills all around. The town itself is basic with only a couple of decent hotels. Places for a clean meal are next to nil. The town has a large Muslim population. Almost every house seems to have some fruit tree in its backyard. Apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums and pomogranates are some of the fruits that grow at Bhadarwah. It may be a couple of months for the apples to mature for ripe picking. I do find a man selling early varieties from elsewhere for forty rupees a kilo.
I walk through town, past a playing field where a cricket match in underway. Later I arrive at a landscaped park locally called the Fish Pond. There is a small lake here where boating is a leisurely pursuit. I don’t spot any fish though. Little waterfalls or water channels bordered with peonies and primroses decorate the park. Flower beds add a great deal of colour to the green lawns. Dahlias and roses seem to love this climate. As elsewhere in India, people continue to throw their garbage in this beautiful park. As the day comes to a close, sunset colours the skies with streaks of orange beyond the pine topped hills. In distant mountains to the east, patches of snow cling in the shadows bound by dark rugged slopes rising to pointed peaks.
This morning I attempt to climb to one such peak. I find a path going steeply uphill past houses and an uninteresting fort. Soon after leaving town, the path turns muddy. The walk becomes slow and difficult on this slippery track. Once that is through I enter low forests leading to higher slopes. The forest track continues for more than an hour. I do not manage to arrive at any open meadow I had desired. I do not find any quaint village tucked among the hills. I do not pass through any temporary settlement of hilly nomads. It is a walk wholly dedicated to the forest. The canopy casts its maze of shadows. Under it, the forest is dark, deep and quiet. Once in a while views open up to the valley below and terraced fields on far slopes, only to return quickly to resume my communion with the forest.
I make my return by the same path. Halfway, I scramble down a steep slope of scrubs and ferns towards an easier path on lower ground I’ve just spotted. Few minutes on the lower path, I pass a few cows grazing. Their cowherd is keeping watch a little away on a slope. He carries a shotgun. I am surprised at the sight of the gun. The only danger I can think of is some wild animal of the forest, possibly a bear or a leopard. Upon leaving the forest, I enter a clearing leading to a path between corn fields. On the flat roof of a house a man is standing. He is looking with expectation towards the forest. I ask him about it.
‘I’m waiting for the horses,’ he replies. I join him on the roof. Roofs in these parts are flat, spread out with sand or dry earth. The edges are raised to a little embankment of gravel, stones and dry brushwood. Such a construction is necessary for heavy winter snowfall. The roof keeps the rooms below dry and warm.
‘Horses?’ I ask.
‘I trade with the gujjars living on the high meadows,’ he explains. ‘I’m expecting them to arrive any minute now with their horses.’
I wait with him on the roof. A little drizzle starts. I am thinking of returning to town. Right then, I see a part of three men walking with four horses. Tightly bound sacks are saddled on the horses as they make their way down.
‘What are they bringing?’ I ask the Muslim businessman.
‘Ghee and stuff,’ he replies. ‘I buy them at two hundred rupees a kilo and sell them for three hundred.’
‘Do you also have fruit orchards?’ I ask.
‘Yes. All sorts of fruits.’
‘You must be a rich man. I see Bhadarwah has many large houses. Lots of construction is going on in town.’
‘I have two houses here and one more in Jammu. In Jammu, my house is right in the heart of the city,’ he emphasizes with pride.
By now the gujjars have come down the hill. The businessman walks back to town while I walk with the nomads with the horses leading the way.
‘What are they carrying?’ I ask one of gujjars as I point to the horses. The guy is wrapped in a woollen shawl. Below the shawl, he wears a kurta top and a lungi almost in South Indian style. His companions are dressed in plain kurtas and pyjamas.
‘Koya,’ he replies. None of these guys are of the talking type. They are too busy getting their produced to the market.
‘Is it ghee?’ I ask.
‘Koya,’ comes back the short reply. ‘Used to make sweets.’
I walk with them for a while. Their nomadic life is one passed down through centuries. During summer they come to these hills. In winter they take to paths leading into Punjab. They know very well the hills and meadows of North India. A whole year spent travelling with the gujjars can be quite an experience.