Paradise Regained?

Kashmir tries to reclaim its once-celebrated tranquility.

SUNSET over Dal Lake, Srinagar

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Slideshow: "Only Kashmir"

Joshua Hammer narrates photos of Kashmir's fabled houseboats and spectacular mountain peaks.

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The sky over the Himalayan foothills was just beginning to brighten, and the chants of worshippers wafted across the water from a white-domed mosque on the shore. Jeelani skimmed our wooden boat across the lake’s glassy surface, through dense clumps of marsh marigolds and water chestnuts, toward an underpass beneath the lakeside boulevard. “I’m going to take you to a place where very few people go,” he said.

Jeelani is a “shikara wallah,” as these boatmen are called, and on this spring morning he was taking me on a sunrise cruise on Dal Lake, an obligatory ritual for visitors to the Vale of Kashmir, in northern India. You recline on pillows beneath a wooden canopy, perhaps sipping a cup of sweet Kashmiri tea, while your boatman strokes from the stern of his gondola-like craft—and, if you’re lucky, takes you to hidden reaches of the lake. Shortly after gliding through the underpass, we entered a labyrinth of reed-filled channels, willow groves, and small islands covered with rice paddies and tidy vegetable gardens. We drifted for an hour as the sunlight filtered through the trees, casting a silver sheen on the water. A huge kite perched on a dead tree trunk turned its head toward us, flapped its wings, and lifted itself ponderously aloft. Black mynahs, egrets, long-tailed shrikes, reed warblers, and Indian pond herons flitted through the dense foliage, and Himalayan kingfishers dropped like turquoise missiles into the water. “This,” Jeelani told me, his paddle dipping rhythmically into the canal, “is the Kashmir that has never changed.”

The Kashmir he was referring to was the place I had encountered on my first visit, in 1985: a peaceful Himalayan enclave where backpackers and well-heeled tourists alike could retreat from the concerns of the larger world. “Kashmir, only Kashmir,” the 17th-century Mogul emperor Jehangir is said to have muttered on his deathbed when asked if he had a final wish. But the tranquility I found there in 1985 was ephemeral. Pakistan and India have been feuding over possession of the valley ever since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, and in 1989, Muslim separatists launched a rebellion against the Indian government. Pakistani agents began arming and training Islamist militants and looking the other way as they crossed the border. Over the next decade, tens of thousands of people—most of them civilians—were killed, the minority Hindu population fled the valley, and the tourists vanished.

I returned to Kashmir as a Newsweek correspondent on October 8, 2001—the day after the United States began bombing Afghanistan. In Srinagar, the main city, the violence had reached a peak. Islamist fanatics had just attacked the state assembly, killing some 40 people, and had started throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women on the streets. A pro-Taliban mob swarmed my car and tried to pull me out, screaming “American! American!” On my third evening, colleagues told me that an extremist group was planning to kidnap me, and five policemen evacuated me from the houseboat where I was staying to a hotel in the center of town.

The atmosphere began to change about two years ago, local officials say, in part because Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf started cutting off the militants’ funding and reportedly shut down many of their training camps. The violence dropped dramatically, and the tourists started to come back. Several daily flights now shuttle between New Delhi and Srinagar.

This past May I decided to go back myself, to see how much of the old Kashmir remained. The mood in Srinagar was upbeat, though tentatively so. “Mu‑ sharraf might be dictator in Pakistan, but for us he is a messiah,” Muzamil Jaleel, a longtime reporter for The Indian Express, told me when I met with him at Coffea Arabica, a new Starbucks knockoff downtown. But later that afternoon, Jaleel took me to meet Usmaan Raheem Ahmad, a Kashmiri American aid worker and the coach of a local soccer team consisting mostly of teenage war orphans. The team was eager to play but couldn’t find a practice field. All of the city’s open spaces had been turned into military training grounds or cemeteries. “The prime minister says that the peace process is irreversible, but moving forward is hard to do when you’re still stuck in a psychological gray zone,” Ahmad said.

Lodging on a houseboat is a storied tradition in Kashmir, dating back to the mid-19th century, at the height of the British Raj. The maharaja of Kashmir, who ruled from a palace overlooking the lake, submitted to British dominion, but insisted on one condition: that the occupiers and other non-natives refrain from putting up any fixed buildings in the state. They agreed, then put up homes on the water instead. (Among the first houseboat owners was John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father.)

The houseboat where I stayed in 2001, part of Butt’s Clermont Houseboats, has long had one of the best addresses in the valley: the secluded northwest edge of Dal Lake. There was a time when Butt’s houseboats were booked years in advance by diplomats and affluent tourists, but for the past 15 years, virtually the only guests have been war correspondents. On my return last May, I found the owner, Gulam Butt, in a guardedly optimistic frame of mind. “Welcome back, welcome back!” he exclaimed. The look of the place hadn’t changed. The walls of Butt’s office were still covered with faded newspaper clips from the 1970s (“Floating Paradise!”) and framed photos of the celebrities who had stayed there in a bygone era: George Harrison (five days in Houseboat No. 1, recently dredged up from where it had sunk in the shallows), Ravi Shankar, Nelson Rockefeller, then–U.S. Ambassador to India Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Butt’s five boats—long, delicately curving structures of cedarwood, with latticework trim—glinted in the sunlight from their moorings along the shore. Four were occupied, two by New Delhi–based British journalists and their families, two by tourists, and all were booked through the summer.

Along the lakefront boulevard—lined with dozens more houseboats with names like Young Mona Lisa, Golden Bell, Duke of Windsor, and New Cherry Ripe—the shikara wallahs were selling flowers, papier-mâché elephants, and cruises to the mostly Indian tourist crowd. A newly­wed couple practiced their golf putts on the vast manicured lawns of the Grand Palace hotel, formerly the maharaja’s palace. The magnificent 115-room villa, I learned from a receptionist, was running at 70 percent occupancy—quite a change from 2001, when I had waited 45 minutes in the deserted reception hall until a flustered clerk appeared. “Sorry, sir,” he’d said, “but we don’t ever receive guests.”

Still, the old aura of serenity has not quite been recaptured, and one can still glimpse fear and trauma beneath the surface. Everyone I talked to had a story about the conflict—the dusk-to-dawn curfews, the grenade attacks in the markets—and no one was willing to say that such things were safely in the past. When we encountered an army patrol in a market one evening, Jeelani instinctively grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “We keep our distance from them,” he told me. “Everybody’s still afraid the soldiers will be ambushed by militants, and we’ll be caught in the cross fire. It hasn’t happened in a while, but we can’t get it out of our heads.” There were other reasons to keep the soldiers at arm’s length: Indian paramilitary troops and police had recently been accused of killing men and planting evidence on them, hoping to claim rewards for fighting terrorism. “There is a generation [of troops] here who are used to killing, and they don’t know how to handle peace,” Muzamil Jaleel told me. “So they pick up guys at random to keep the momentum going.”

Meanwhile, the Islamists, though their numbers have diminished, also keep the valley on edge. When I got to town, Asiya Andrabi, the leader of the Daughters of the Nation (the group that had allegedly planned to kidnap me), had just said in a newspaper interview that she wished her son would grow up to assassinate George W. Bush. Usmaan Ahmad, the soccer coach, had recently organized a Kashmiri-rap concert at a local hotel, but he relied on flash-party tactics— spreading the word through text mes-sages on mobile phones—to keep the event discreet. “That element is still something to be reckoned with,” he told me.

As are militant incursions from Pakistan. The chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Police told me that in 2006, between 350 and 400 militants had been seized crossing between India and Pakistan—a big drop from the thousands who had crossed in years past, but still a significant number. Islamist militants attempting to disrupt the valley’s recovery killed several Indian tourists in grenade attacks in July 2006. The tourist flow had quickly regained its momentum, but, as Jaleel told me, “one more grenade attack could change everything.”

On my last day in Kashmir, my driver and I climbed from the valley floor to Gulmarg, the “meadow of flowers”—site of the valley’s most popular new attraction, a gondola that carries people up the slopes of the Pir Panjal range to some of the finest off-piste skiing in the world. A French engineering firm finished construction on the second stage of the lift—which reaches an elevation of more than 13,000 feet—three years ago, after abandoning the project in 1990 when two of its employees were abducted by militants. The cable car has become a potent, and lucrative, symbol of Kashmir’s renewal: world-class skiers flock here in the winter months.

By the time of my visit, the skiers had all gone home, but the cable cars were packed with vacationing families from Mumbai and New Delhi, bundled up in fur coats, hats, boots, and gloves. After riding the gondola, they paid a sledge wallah a few rupees to tote them further uphill and then push them down. I saw a small girl gasp in amazement as she took in the entire vale: the contoured terraces of strawberries and cherries, the silver splash of Dal Lake, and, far beyond, the serrated ridgeline of the Himalayas. Too young to know anything of Kashmir’s bloody history, she rolled a snowball in her mittens, balanced herself on a precipice, and let it fly. The missile made a graceful arc, then disappeared toward the valley below.