Memories of a bygone Era - Visiting Achabal | Reminiscences of a Different Era

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Memories of a bygone Era - Visiting Achabal | Reminiscences of a Different Era

Summer time used to be fun time for us kids as it meant a visit to Kashmir valley and meeting family members besides an escape from the blistering summer heat of the plains. My father was posted to Pathankot, in 1965 and dutifully, the family moved with him. Our Matamal was at a place called Khankahi Sokhta, Safa Kadal, near the Mata Roop Bhawani Temple in Srinagar. My younger Mama Ji was working in the Forest Department as Forest Officer and would be posted to exotic locales; to ensure uninterrupted education of his children, however, his family would mostly stay at Srinagar!

Visits to Matamal obviously marked a high point for us kids. The grand house was located at the banks of the river Jehlum. It was a big collective family – 2 real brothers of my mom and 7-8 first cousins, all living in 3 U shaped connected buildings with their respective families. All our Mamas & cousins were outgoing personalities, expert swimmers and cricket players; one of them even captained the J&K State Cricket Team.

During the summer of 1966, younger Mama ji invited us to be with him at Achabal. Located approximately 60-65 km from Srinagar, in District Anantnag, Achabal is famous for its Mogul Garden, developed in 1616 CE by Queen Nur Jahan, the favorite consort of Emperor Jahangir. Queen had the water gushing out of the spring trained to flow along a well-designed path full of fountains. At a particular place a sitting place (Baradari) was designed with long stone slabs on which carpets & Masnand was spread; Jahangir is said to have been fond of watching dance & enjoying Rabab as fountains played and water gushed under the stone slabs of Baradari. Achabal water is very sweet and has excellent digestive properties. I have experienced this first hand several times. Jahangir is said to have been very fond of Kashmir and is said to have died while traveling from Kashmir to Lahore in 1627 CE.

We were 3 siblings – at 8, I was the oldest and at 3, my brother was the youngest, with my sister in the middle! Senior Mama Ji decided that traveling unescorted would be unsafe and deputed his 14-year-old son to escort us to Achabal. Somehow, we got late in leaving our Mama’s house for the KMD Bus Stand from where we were to catch our bus for Anantnag. The journey took almost 2 hours. By the time we reached Anantnag, it was evening. To our dismay, we learnt that the last bus for Achabal had left and no public transport was available for ferrying us to Achabal. This posed a serious problem. The concept of staying in a hotel for the night was alien to our society at that point in time; besides, I doubt if any hotels were available at all at Anantnag. We were waiting at the Tonga stand, 3 kids plus my cousin and my mom, very helpless and worried as it was turning dark. The option of chartering a Tonga (full Tonga) for Achabal might have been available but since it was already dark, my mom would not have dared to take the risk.

I am not sure how, but the news of a family stranded at the Tonga stand spread amongst the shopkeepers around Tonga Stand. Soon a gentleman from the local Pandit community came and after making enquiries offered us his home as shelter for the night. This gesture, I am sure would have come as a huge relief to my mom. We followed the gentleman across the typical lanes of a sleepy town to reach a group of tall houses, a typical Kashmiri Pandit cluster. The house was four stories tall, with a big courtyard(angan), built on an elevated plinth. Rooms were airy and large with a vast ' kaeniyee' living room) on the top floor.

We were treated like honored guests; served steaming kehwa, while the ladies of the house exchanged notes with Mom. We were told that it was a special day for the family as one of their daughters had got a ‘seat’ for doing MBBS study in Govt Medical College, Srinagar – a rare honor, indeed! We joined the festivities very gladly!! Dinner was a very sumptuous spread – typical Kashmiri nyen-batt (mutton dishes)! Shortly, we retired to a big room and were delighted to be in clean bed linen after a long journey. The ladies of the house suggested to Mom to take us kids to the famous temple (Nagbal) before starting for Achabal next day. Early morning, post breakfast, we first went to the famous temple Nagbal before leaving for Achabal by Tonga. Mom, very obviously, thanked the family profusely before we took leave.

Anantnag is famous for its numerous springs including two Sulphur springs – in fact there were at least 25 springs in and around the town at one point in time. Wherever springs & naags (water bodies associated with springs) were associated with temples, Hindus would consider the fish in those water bodies as sacred. Nagbal had a naag(tank) teeming with fish as had Verinag, and Mattan, the famous Hindu pilgrimage center near Anantnag. Maybe not eating fish from the temple naags was one way of preservation of fish. Kashmir had many places associated with such water bodies – Anantnag, Kokernag, Vicharnag, Kousarnag, Malaknag, Gajnag etc.

I cannot recall the name or face of the angel who gave us shelter that summer night, five decades ago! I really wonder if in today's atmosphere anyone will do that – give shelter to 5 unknown faces! We have become so self-centered and narrow in our outlooks. God bless the family, wherever they/ their descendants are! My mom passed away in 2003, so it is too late to ask – even my cousin cannot recall name of the family that gave shelter to 5 strangers! I also would like to salute my Mamas. They were normal, middle-class people with families of their own. Yet having 4-5 extra people around for weeks, if not months, was a perfectly acceptable norm in that era.

Today's Ola-Uber- Cell Phone generation might laugh when they learn that the distance between Anantnag and Achabal is less than 10 km! There were no phones available so there was no way Mama ji could have ascertained our whereabouts. Likewise, there was no way we could have informed Mama ji that we were stranded at Anantnag so that he could come to our rescue! It indeed was a very different world from the one we live in today. More gadgets & facilities have not made the world a better place to live in!

Our stay at Achabal was memorable, to say the least. Mama Ji had rented a small house on the Kokernag road, another beautiful spot some 16-18 km away. I recall ‘Tourist’ buses rushing up-down the road, all day long at high speed, ferrying ‘visitors’ to these most picturesque locales. A lovely stream was flowing next our house and we children made the most of it, wading into knee- deep waters, crystal clear and ice cold, throwing cups and plates into the water and running downstream to catch those. Those obviously were ‘primitive’ times by today’s standards – no TV, or Radio, not to speak of PUBG! A five-minute walk from our house was the famous Trout Breeding Farm where Rainbow Trout could be seen in small pits dug in the ground. People would often come to buy Trout and we kids found it very fascinating to throw feeding material to the fish.

The Mogul Garden, Achabal was just adjacent to the Trout Farm and we children would make our way through the trout farm to the Garden. Again, running in the water flowing from the spring, getting into the spot where water came down cascading down, watching fascinating rainbows develop in the misty spray of the waterfall were things that would hold our attention. Running in the grounds to catch each other, stepping on to the Baradari Stones, where, once upon a time, the mighty Emperor Jahangir would have sat with his Queen, sipping wine, watching fountains play and listening to the song & dance of his courtesans – well, we were playing on grounds steeped in history! The only problem was that the spring water would help digest all the food our mom would have put into our bellies and we had to run back to the house for refills! The concept of ‘pocket money’ and eating out was alien then, at least in our families!

We also visited the well-known Ashram at Nagdandi, around 2-3 km from Achabal. Swami Ashokanand, a gentleman of Bengali origin and associated with Rama Krishna Math had established this Ashram in early 1940s. Maharaja Hari Singh of J&K was a frequent visitor to the Ashram. In fact, the day we went to the Ashram, Dr Karan Singh, son of Maharaja Hari Singh and then Governor of J&K, had also visited the Ashram. I recall the calm, serene & smiling face of Swami Ashokanand as he was discussing Vedanta with some elderly gentleman in his garden. Swami Ji was kind enough to grant me permission to pluck an apple from the Ashram orchard, much to my delight!

Mama ji, being a Forest officer had quite a bit of local ‘clout’! One day, on reaching home, tired after a day full of running around the Mogul Garden, we found a sack full of corn cobs (Makaivet, in Kashmiri), fresh from the field plus a sack of green walnuts. This is a typical Kashmiri delight though extracting the delicious kernel from green walnuts takes some effort and expertise. We tried our hands at the green walnuts – only to find our hands and clothes stained. Mom was a whiz at such extraction and in roasting the fresh corn. In fact, she just loved corn!

Oue weeklong stay at Achabal, alas, came to an end too soon! Memories of those carefree days remain fresh in my mind, even after 57 years! I have traveled around a bit since then, both in India and abroad but still consider the vacation at Achabal as the best in my life! Thank you, Mama Ji!

 

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