In which Srinagar is reached
and how the houseboat is exactly the same
it was a hundred years ago
Kashmir Valley, Jammu &
was about 7:30 in the morning when they reached the tunnel with a sign that
HEAVEN IN PARADISE
Heavily guarded, uniformed guards held machine guns
pointed directly at the oncoming vehicles. Passengers were asked to step out of
the vehicle so the guards could bomb-sweep the bus and cargo, but this time the
foreigners were supposed to sign in with their passports. With the sun out and
after finishing a reasonable amount of mixed whiskey from his water bottle,
Nathan was excited about finally reaching the valley.
"Look," he said, pointing at
a door at the wooden shack:
Foreigners Register Here
There were more foreigners
than just the three of them. There was a guy Hellmantle and D'Aqs had started
to call Pepper from Sweden and his husky Korean wife who was fluent in
Swedish, and a guy from Afghanistan. They all had to show their passports and
fill out a form. Nathan, being Israeli, and being in a place where over 85
percent of the population was Muslim, was questioned by the guards. A few minutes
later he emerged from the sandbagged station and climbed aboard the bus, now
Rich in beauty was the
valley that spread before them at the end of the tunnel. It was where the magic
of Kashmir began. Breathless in size and scale, the posture of rock was so
robust it made their mouths drop open. Trees and sectioned fields exposed rich
soil spread outwards to a horizon that stood 5000 feet above sea level. The
Himalayas had arrived.
"Wealthy in volume" mumbled
Hellmantle, unusually understated. The sheer audacity of the mountains shocked
him. As the natural charms of Kashmir lured Hellmantle into an instant love for
the country, so did another thing occur. He looked closer at the people passing
by. What he saw stuck him deep down to his sense of who he was. He kept looking
into an Indian face that had a facial architecture that was similar or the same
as his. Looking straight into their faces, he recognized his own relation to
the root. Hellmantle felt a deep sense of identity with India as if it truly
was the land of his ancestors. He had not foreseen how similar in bone
structure the Indian peoples were to the Norman Anglo-Saxon architecture. It
was a homecoming; a return to an ancient homeland after millennia that once
flourished before the United Kingdom and America were even ideas. He said to
"This is the face of the
people of the Indus River Valley, a people that stretched north into the
mountains north of Srinagar and remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel."
"I see what you're getting
at I think. They have the same face."
"Being mistaken is the
essence of the traveler's tale, as a writer once wrote." There was a grin on
Passing through the towns
along the main road were summerhouses built in the unique Indian architecture
tradition. Everything looked old: merchant houses, balconied hotels and
two-story shops with wooden shutters still in tact. The trees dominated the
ride along the wide valley floor where yellow leaves still clung in the
February chill. Hellmantle knew they had reached Srinagar when he saw the
massive 16th-century fortress on top the big hill in the middle of
the valley floor. It was a steep hill with a tabletop surface surrounded by
huge stonewalls and cornered turrets. The stone fortress overlooked the
"Moghul. Roughly 16th
bus let them off some miles from the fort but there was a man there holding a
white envelope with the following name written on it:
Recalling Pradeep explicitly insisted Hellmantle to
ask the man for the four-digit reservation number because he said: "only me and
you and him know the number."
you know my reservation number?" Hellmantle asked the Indian man with the
envelope in his hand.
sir. You are 5422." Sure enough he knew the four-digit number. Hellmantle and
D'Aqs both gave him a smile and introduced themselves.
am Ramazon," said the lean-faced Indian man.
So Hellmantle got into the
man's motorcycle sidecar and D'Aqs doubled on the back of the seat, the three
of them sped down the road. Quick and zealous was his horn-beeping hand - every
pass was honored with a short beep from the steering wheel and greeted with a
kindly wave of the hand from the driver. To Hellmantle, who was forever
interested in road etiquette among motorcyclists around the world, noted that
the driver being passed also let his foot off the accelerator. This constant
action was done throughout the road trip. Much worthy of note to Hellmantle was
that he didn't witness even one incident of rudeness or bad etiquette on the
country roads between vehicles. Kashmir was a place of friendliness and
brotherhood, where people's riding technique was in harmony with Nature.
Entering the town of
Srinagar, they drove around the great fortress that stood atop the huge ridge
surrounded by ancient buildings at its feet that made up Srinagar. Hellmantle
took note that there were many people on bicycles.
six o'clock prayers to Allah filled the valley with divine song amid the eagles
soaring to their nesting peaks in the tall trees that looked like dwarfs
against the sheer rock of the mountains all around them. The orange hue of the
setting sun turned to yellowed gray just beyond the western rim. Muslims
broadcast their prayers over loudspeakers from the minarets in the mosque
across the water. The audio was old and the sounds crackled as an early fog
settled over the great Mogul fort on the top of the hill.
"Who built that fort up
there?" Hellmantle asked Ramazon as they reached their houseboat. "Moghuls?"
"Yes, sir. The same people
who built the Taj Mohal."
"Can we see it?"
"It's closed to public
because the Indian army uses it."
The boathouse was fashioned
in the British colonial style with carved wood fascia, rugs and an open deck in
the stern. The fully functional houseboat was no doubt host to some of its own
British subjects during the reign of the East India Tea Company. In fact for
Hellmantle, with its long narrow corridor with its spacious bedroom, dining
room and smoking room with adjourning riverside sun deck, it was much more
comfortable than a hotel room. The deck was there for the old stick-propelled
wooden boats that still traveled the river. The lush valley where steep
mountains lined the horizon created an overpowering sense of openness under an
untrammeled sun. Neither smog nor clouds marred the heavens 6000 feet above sea
level. The sounds of automobiles and industry were replaced with thousands of
birds, screams of happy children at play and the distant knock of a carpenter.
It was here where first St. Thomas and then Jesus the Nazarene lived and
finished out their lives. They knew this river and this lake.
The houseboat - or boathouse as Hellmantle liked to
call it - is just like a first-class car on a train. There is a long corridor that
joins a master bedroom and then a second room (which was vacant) and the
kitchen and the main entrance, and the dining room with the old carved wood
chairs and ceiling facia and rich colored rugs, and finally the smoking room -
or drawing room as Ramazon had introduced it - with a desk and couches in the
corners with flowing drapes over the lavish windows. This final room opened
onto the deck where one could sit out under a canopy from the rain but also
perfectly facing the west unobstructed by anything. In fact he hadn't seen a
high-rise building since he left Delhi. Underneath the dozens of rugs that
lined the boat were the moaning squeals underfoot from water-warped wood. But
it did nothing to take away from its splendor. It was a step back to the 1920s
with the view and surrounding absolutely unaltered since not only the 1920s but
from the time of Jesus and Thomas journeyed here from the Holy Land. The other
side of the river was just as it had been back then.
After over 26 hours on the road, he was happy to
have his own place on the water with no neighbors and all in the luxury of a
time period that, for all intents and purposes still existed in Kashmir. He
promptly unpacked and then put his feet up on the sun deck and had a smoke and
a pot of Kashmiri tea. His senses felt as if they were coming out after a long
period of being in a bent or oppressed position, so there was a warm relaxing
feeling that flooded out of him. Muscles twitched and joints fought off aches
as he wondered if it was here, 6000 feet above ground zero where Jesus and
Thomas lived their last days.
When the sun went down Hellmantle quickly felt five
kilometers from the ocean's shores and proceeded to put on a wool poncho that
Ramazon had brought in for him. He had told him he wanted to wear what
Kashmiris wear when they trek in the mountains. It fit perfectly and brought
him the warm inner hearth that one sought in cold climes.