Into the Gurez Valley
Once the gateway to Central Asia, Gurez Valley in a forgotten corner of Kashmir is still home to the Dard people who live on the fence of modernity
Ghulam Hasan, 76, standing behind a wall of curious onlookers, finally summons the courage to step up with a few questions of his own. It’s been many years since he’s seen so many strange faces at his home in Chakwali—the last village in the Gurez valley, a tehsil in Jammu and Kashmir, at the northern tip of India, and just a short distance from the Line of Control. He shuffles amid the crowd, keenly observing faces and baggage alike, asks a few questions about where we have come from, and returns to his perch in the shade, satisfied with the answers.
It takes a simple hello to get him chatting, and, in the next few minutes, he begins reflecting on an era when visitors frequented these parts.
“There were so many things to see, so many stories to hear. Everyone would be out of their homes, watching the entourage of caravans pass by—some familiar faces, others visiting for the first time," he says.
Hasan speaks of a time when trade flourished on the Silk Route and Gurez was considered the gateway to Central Asia. There was a sense of excitement each time a caravan made its way through the many villages en route. They brought essential goods from across the high mountains and, more importantly, news from distant lands, helping break the monotony of a secluded existence in the midst of nowhere.
Hasan grew up on a regular dose of such stories, narrated by his elders. For instance, the valley’s renowned potatoes would be taken to Skardu on a day’s march from Chorwan, a short distance from Dawar—the headquarters of Gurez. There, after a quick barter, traders would return with mules laden with apricots and apples. It was just one of the many exchanges that took place in this roving marketplace spread over a hundred miles. Gurez became a hub and a vital link between towns such as Kashgar and Gilgit in the north and Srinagar and Kargil in the south.
All that changed when India and Pakistan were handed their identities in 1947. The trade routes were sealed; the goods stopped coming in, as did the news. The people of Gurez were gradually pushed into a life of self-sustenance, isolation, and, to a certain extent, oblivion, tucked away in a corner of India that they are unfamiliar with.
What took me to Gurez was a simple call by Anil Gupta—fondly known as “professor" and founder president of Sristi, an Ahmedabad-based organization that works on grass-roots innovations—who wanted to set up a library at the Government Higher Secondary School in Badugam village. There is no greater joy for a bibliophile than to infect others with the same passion. Then, to do it for people in a remote land that has been afflicted by conflict and despondency was reason enough to gather around thousand books (mostly English, obtained through collection drives) and lug it over a thousand miles to them.
Located in the north-west corner of Kashmir, Gurez lies just 130km from the capital, Srinagar; the stark difference in lifestyles, though, is both enticing and appalling. Once you’re past Bandipora, the road climbs to the Razdan Pass (3,500m), before descending to a land that can best be described as inhabited wilderness. This sole link with the rest of the state gets snowed in from the end of November to April-May, cutting off the region for close to five months of the year. At the opposite end, and across the mountains, lies the same land that was once frequented by the people of Gurez and is today controlled by Pakistan.
This valley is home to the Dards or Dard Shins, who belonged to a region called Dardistan that today straddles India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A few have stories of family members who were stranded across the mountains once the borders were drawn. There was little to do but start life afresh in a new land. What bound them was the comfort of the Shina language that is spoken in these parts. Some have never been seen since, while those with money have had the opportunity to reunite with their separated relatives. Though this isolation has been a bane, it has preserved the culture of a tribe which traces its ancestry all the way back to the fourth century BC.
In his paper Dards, Dardistan And Dardic, Professor John Mock writes, “In a well-known and much repeated story, Herodotus mentions a war-like people on the frontier of India, near to whom are found gold-digging ants. Herodotus provides the name Dadikai for one of the groups living on India’s frontier, which was then the seventh satrapy of the Achaemenian empire...Alexander, whose travels provide much of the data for classical geography of India, apparently did not meet any Dard people, but he did go to a place called Daedala."
Not much has changed over the centuries in the daily routine of the Dards, who’ve built their homes in the valleys and on the slopes of Gurez and the neighbouring Tulail valley. Most farm vegetables such as potatoes and peas, and herd livestock for a living. A few tend to the needs of the Indian Army, ferrying supplies on their mules to posts high up in the mountains. The soldiers outnumber the locals, as is the case in most of Kashmir. Though shelling and infiltration have been sporadic in these parts of late, the army’s suffering isn’t very different from that of the Dards. Solitude and cold can break the strongest of people.
Kanzalwan, the first of the 28 settlements en route to Gurez, may seem like any other village in rural Kashmir. Past Dawar though, it feels like a different world. The Kishanganga river snakes its way through the valley, as fields and homes made of wood and mud lie in the shadow of the mighty Himalayas. The only aberration in the rustic landscape are the hidden army posts and checkpoints.
Most modern amenities that are taken for granted are missing from these parts. Given the proximity to the border, there is no mobile network, reducing the utility of a cellphone to a camera or a flashlight. Electricity is a 3-hour affair in the evenings, provided by the government through diesel-powered generators. The roads can best be described as dirt tracks. The hijabs that the locals don double up as face masks, given the rise in respiratory ailments these days.
“Twelve villages still don’t have electricity. What is more alarming is that they have no protection from natural calamities and bank on traditional methods for survival. Efforts are being made, but it is very difficult since the area is cut off for so many months," says Sajad Hussain Ganie, district development commissioner of Bandipora.
There is just one hospital that can tend to major illnesses in Dawar; else it’s a taxing, bumpy ride to Bandipora. Primary healthcare centres have been set up in some villages, as have schools; however, the doctors and teachers who are needed to run them are usually missing. These government jobs are considered punishment postings and the schools are at some distance from some of the villages, making it a gruelling trudge for the children.
“I know education is a must in today’s times, so I encourage my four children to go to school. But their school is 14km away and I cannot afford the Rs100 taxi fare each day. There have been times when one of my girls had blisters on her feet and could not go. During the occasional days of shelling, we simply have to sit indoors, which further hampers their studies. What is their future?" says Mohammed Hussain of Niru village.
Besides dealing with the absence of teachers, these schools have limited infrastructure; for instance, even those that do have computers, have little use for them given the erratic electricity, let alone an internet connection. Despite the odds, however, most children are enthusiastic about learning. It was heartening to meet a class IV student, who was fluent in Shina, Urdu, Hindi and English. In that moment, the effort of giving them access to over a thousand books seemed worth it.
Under the circumstances, the army has become a guardian of sorts for the 38,000-odd people (as per a 2011 census). From running schools to carrying out evacuation sorties in the dead of winter, its role goes beyond defending the border. And it has earned it the respect of locals.
A severe winter is central to life in Gurez. While we were slogging uphill to get to the hamlet of Abdulin, women with axes and wicker baskets slid down the slopes with bundles of wood. They are strong and shoulder a majority of the work. The load—usually over 40kg—is added to the pile stacked up next to houses as vital fuel for the weeks to come. The dependence on wood has taken its toll on the forests, and it isn’t unusual to see barren slopes behind villages.
But this is a battle against the elements for these landlocked communities, which may not receive help for days in the harsh winter. Nothing is left to chance: Dried meat is packed in cellars, potatoes buried in pits. As December sets in, life comes to a standstill, with most days spent keeping warm by the bukhari (stove-cum-heater) or sipping butter tea. The only time one steps out is to clear the snow—it piles up over 10ft during some weeks—or an emergency.
Higher education, job opportunities and a lack of basic infrastructure have seen the youth move to other parts of the state. “A lot of the youngsters have moved to other towns or joined the army," says Mohammed Imtiaz of Barnail.
“There’s little that has changed from when I was growing up here. What is the motivation for me to return home?" asks a teacher from Wazirithal, who had moved to Srinagar for higher education and has settled there.
In his 1895 book, The Valley Of Kashmir, Walter R. Lawrence writes: “Many of the Margs are visited every year by Europeans, and Gulmarg, Sonamarg, and Nagmarg are charming places for a summer holiday. Perhaps Pahlgam, the village of the shepherd which stands at the head of the Liddar valley with its healthy forest of pines, and Gurais which lies at a distance of 35 miles from Bandipura, the port of the Wular lake, will before long rival in popularity the other Margs."
Unlike Pahalgam, Gurez has survived the onslaught of mass tourism until now due to its proximity to the border, despite being promised ₹ 28 crore in July 2007 for upgrading the infrastructure. A few changes though are evident. The Kishanganga hydroelectric project can solve the region’s electricity woes. Though a fraction of it is meant for Gurez, smaller projects upstream are being proposed.
Permits were done away with a few years ago. But most outsiders here are either army men, or backpackers who venture out when the snow thaws off the mountains in cascades. As more follow in the years to come, sustainable growth will be key to protect the home of the hospitable Dards.