Gulmarg: Enchanted Meadow

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An all-year round destination, Gulmarg has much to offer – hikes, gondola rides, horse trails, excursions to Baba Reshi and Buta Pathri, besides winter sports, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

Skiing in Gulmarg - Winter landscape

Every winter, Gulmarg’s snowy slopes transform into a world-class skiing destination boasting the highest ski slopes in Asia. In spring the frozen landscape thaws in preparation for the summer splendor of daisies, forget-me-nots, buttercups, lupins and wild flowers dotting the grassy knolls.

Unlike other tourist spots in the Kashmir Valley, Gulmarg remains open all year round. Immortalized by Bollywood, it was on these pastures that Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz crooned ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ while Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia sang ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein band hon’ in the film ‘Bobby’. Yet Gulmarg’s romantic tryst was not new…

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Local shepherds called it Gaurimarg, the enchanted meadow of Gauri or goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort. In 16th century Sultan Yousuf Shah of the Chak Dynasty who frequented the heavenly hill resort with his queen Habba Khatoon fondly renamed it Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers).

Mughal emperor Jehangir collected 21 varieties of wild flowers from here for his gardens. A temple dedicated to the divine pair Shiva-Parvati was built in 1915 by Mohini Bai Sishodia, wife of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir.

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The drive from Srinagar was short as we climbed from Tangmarg through alpine forests. Located in a cup-shaped valley in the Pir Panjal range of the Western Himalayas, Gulmarg was perched at 8,694 ft. The undulating meadow loosely ringed by hotels, shrines and colonial edifices formed the heart of Gulmarg. Pink and blue flowers rebelled against the blanket of green as horses grazed unfettered in the meadows.

Oddly, the credit of ‘discovering’ Gulmarg goes to a Croat architect! Around the mid 1800’s, Michael Adam Nedou sailed to Lahore from the port city of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) to construct a palace for a maharaja in Gujarat. While traveling from Murree (in present-day Pakistan) to Kashmir in 1880, he stumbled upon Gulmarg.

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Nedou introduced it as a holiday destination to British aristocrats, civil servants and royalty who would spend the summer fishing, hunting and hiking here. After building his first hotel in Lahore, Michael set up Nedou’s Hotel in Gulmarg in 1888.

However, we were headed not to the oldest but the best address in town – The Khyber. The five star resort with stunning wooden architecture has been voted India’s Favourite Boutique Hotel for the fifth year running at the 2017 Condé Nast Traveller India’s Readers’ Travel Awards!

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A whiff of pine welcomed us at the foyer dominated by large Moroccan lamps, plush seating and painted papier-mâché wall panels. Delicious steaming kahwa (Kashmiri tea) awaited us at Chaikash, the tea lounge, before we were ushered to our room.

The balcony opened to a view of the snowy peaks of Apharwat and gabled cottages with green roofs strung with chinar leaf designs. At Cloves restaurant, we savoured a Kashmiri Traami (platter) – a hearty fixed meal of rogan josh (mutton curry), tsaman kalia (paneer in yellow gravy), rista (meat balls in red gravy), tabakmaaz (fried lamb ribs), seekh kebab and haak (greens), served over rice.

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The radial road encircles Gulmarg’s central green, part of which forms the world’s highest golf course at 8,690 ft. Gulmarg Golf Club was conceived as a 6-hole course in 1890-91 by Colonel Neville Chamberlain, the man who invented snooker in Ooty! Three golf courses were established in Gulmarg including one exclusively for women. Golfing was so hectic that all three courses had to be used simultaneously – Upper course, Lower course and Rabbit’s course. Only the first of these survives.

Abutting the course was the 1890s Anglican St Mary’s Church surrounded by clumps of wild flowers. Made of austere grey stone, the green-roofed Victorian edifice had beautiful stained glass windows. On the other end atop a grassy bank, Shree Mohineshwar Shivalaya or Maharani temple’s red roof could be spotted from afar. Ironically and in a disarming display of communal harmony, both the Christian and Hindu shrines had Muslim keepers!

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A signboard proudly announced ‘Gondola, masterpiece of French technology’. Built by the French company Pomagalski, the Gulmarg Gondola is indeed an engineering marvel. One of the highest in the world, the two-stage ropeway ferries 600 people an hour from Gulmarg to Mary’s Shoulder (3,979 m) on Apharwat Peak (13,800 ft) via Kongdoori.

After stupendous views of the Nanga Parbat and Harmukh mountains, we returned to Khyber to relax with almond detoxifying massages at L’Occitane spa and apple-flavoured sheeshas at the Hookah Lounge.

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The next day, we set out to the Shire-like setting of Highland Parks Hotel. Walking past pretty flowerbeds, we reached the famous ‘Bobby’ cottage, where a still from the movie graced the wooden wall. “Six of Rishi Kapoor’s films have been shot here,” the manager drawled, “Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Yash Chopra stayed here in 2012 during Jab Tak Hai Jaan.”

Gulmarg’s brush with Bollywood continues as Haider and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani too were filmed here. We padded across to the upholstered lounge lined with old lanterns, colonial era paintings, hunting trophies and funny ‘Rules of Golf’ illustrations. The brandy toddy and chili chicken seemed perfect for the chilly weather.

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We drove 12km to Baba Reshi, the venerable shrine of Baba Payamuddin, a courtier of 15th century Kashmir King Zain-ul-Abedin. Renouncing his worldly possessions to serve the people, the Sufi saint lived and meditated here. A three-storey monument with lofty minarets was built in 1480 in Mughal and Persian style with the devout flocking to the Noor Khwan (holy grave) for blessings.

Gulmarg has no dearth of adventures. Enjoy mule rides to the meadows of Khilanmarg, bite into freshly plucked Kashmiri apples inside an orchard in Tangmarg, go on an excursion to the Pandav Pathri ruins at eco village Drung or try fishing in wild mountain streams.

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At remote Buta Pathri or Nagin Valley near the international border we were warmly welcomed into hutments of nomadic Gujjars and Bakkarwals. Men with flowing beards smoked hookahs sending up smoke trails that diffused into the mist.

An unending procession of sheep posed a roadblock as we patiently allowed them to pass. The mist stirred ever so gently…

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Fact File

Getting there:
Fly to Srinagar from Delhi (1 hr 20 min) or Mumbai (2 hr 45 min) and drive 56 km to Gulmarg (90 min).

Stay:

The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa
Ph 9906603272
www.khyberhotels.com

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Hotel Highlands Park
Ph 01954-254491, 254430, 9419413355
http://highlandspark.in

Nedous Hotel
Ph 0195-4254428
http://nedoushotels.com

Book Gondola ticket online
http://gulmarggondola.com/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in HT City, Mumbai on 4 Jun 2018. 

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