In Kashmir's Harwan Bagh, a paradise regained

A charming eighth-century Buddhist temple and sweeping views of the Dachigam National Park bring forth the facet of Srinagar that few travellers may have seen
Circular meditation room at Harwan archaeology site.(Photo courtesy: Joydeep Mondal)
Circular meditation room at Harwan archaeology site.(Photo courtesy: Joydeep Mondal)

Drive past the main Srinagar city, the mesmerising Dal Lake, the politically surcharged Lal Chowk and Hazratbal Dargah, and you reach the village of Harwan Bagh, 19 km away. The next morning, the musky smell of chinar wood (sycamore, the house is made of it) at our homestay nestled in the pristine neighbourhood settles in the idea of being in Kashmir firmly. The scenery shifts to a green glade, walking among the meadows, tugging over little streams in the meandering paths leading to an ancient Buddhist stupa. Lalaji, a 75-year-old Kashmiri gentleman from the village, is walking ahead, encouraging the guests to take ‘buland kadam’ (confident steps) on the tiny path. He claims to have climbed many mountains and walked many valleys, led many treks and seen many wondrous sights.

Chucking a few unripe walnuts from a nearby tree, Lalaji trots on to show us an eighth-century Buddhist temple at the top of the hill. Shrouded in mystical clouds climbing down from the mountains beyond, the sight is breathtaking. History reveals that the stupa at Harwan dates back to the time of the mighty Kushana Empire, between the second century BC and second century AD. It is fabled to be the residence of the great Buddist patriarch Nagarjuna. “It is one of the oldest heritage sites in Kashmir. There is none else like it,” Lalaji says while picking wild berries to munch on.

Iqbal Ahmed, an author on the anthropology of Kashmir, explains, “The peculiar interest of the Harwan monument lies in the fact that they (the terracotta tiles) are the only remains of their kind found in the subcontinent (possibly in the world). They supply a life-like representation of the features of those mysterious people (Indo-Scythians and Parthians).”

The protected monument is merely a representative of a lost culture since the unique terracotta tiles excavated at the site no longer remain for public viewing. “These tiles occupied exactly the position they were laid in by ancient workmen is borne out by the fact that each one of them bears a number in Kharoshthi script,” writes Ahmed. Interested travellers can see some of the terracotta recovered by the Archaeological Survey of India at the Srinagar Museum.

The facade of Nadis Kashmir, our exquisite boutique hotel, opens out to endless views of the lush Dachigam National Park that lies beyond the little streams gushing down from Marsar lake. Located 21 km from Srinagar, the park recently welcomed the return of the Hangul, the endangered Kashmiri stag. Last month, Dachigam was also included in the paragliding itinerary. One can catch the beauty of the woods here from high up in the air. The Dagwan Nallah lake (the main source of drinking water for the city) flows via the park, watering the mustard fields. The greens of the forest and the yellows of the mustard make this place picture perfect.

The evening cold bites, even in summer. The home design of Nadis maximises insulation with sun-facing windows, to use less energy for warmth in the colder months, says Yaser Shaw, the host-owner of the homestay who holds a deep regard for building a sustainable business. Especially in Harwan, where civilisation left imprints from thousands of years past. Like most large residences in Kashmir, Nadis has underground water pipes from the boiler to the floor heater for energy efficiency. A collection of books in the spacious, naturally lit lounge catches attention. The photographs by Croatian artist Igor Sitar adorning the corridors speak of the timeless beauty of Kashmir and its people.

An apple orchard by the side of the large garden is a testament to the relentless enthusiasm to try new things, and preserve traditions. Shaw and Lalaji stand guard at the little orchard that shall bear the sweetest fruits for the guests one day.

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