India’s northernmost and sixth-largest state, Jammu and Kashmir (usually shortened to J&K) is one of its most mountainous and staggeringly beautiful. It also encapsulates the cultural and religious diversity of the Subcontinent by falling into three distinct regions. The southwestern corner of its sprawling expanse is the Hindu-majority area around the winter capital of Jammu. Directly to the north across the first range of the Himalayas is the almost exclusively Muslim Kashmir, as infamous for its ongoing political woes as it is renowned for its enchanting beauty. Finally, to the northeast, hugging the disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, the remote and rugged region of Ladakh, which occupies nearly seventy percent of the state according to its de facto borders, is populated mostly by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism.
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Jammu is the state’s largest city and the traditional stepping-stone into the region, worthy of a stopover in its own right for its imposing fort and admirable collection of temples. Most foreigners, however, head immediately for the summer capital of Srinagar, lynchpin of the famed Kashmir Valley, which also offers the green hills and meadows of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Ladakh is only accessible for a few months each year, thanks to the region’s harsh climate, unless you fly direct to its enchanting capital, Leh, itslef surrounded by numerous villages dominated by venerable monasteries such as Thikse and Hemis or, further west, Lamayuru. The latter provides a good stopover en route to Kargil, halfway along the Srinagar–Leh road and the jumping-off point for the isolated Zanskar Valley. Other sparsely populated but exquisite areas worth the bumpy detours involved in reaching them from Leh include the icy lakes of Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, as well as the almost surreal Nubra Valley, with its sand dunes and wandering camels.
The region that comprises the current state of J&K has been a cultural, religious and political crossroads for millennia. There is archeological evidence that the area around Jammu, whose name appears in the Mahabharata, was part of the Harappan civilization, based in the Indus Valley, one of the oldest in the world. Remains of other powerful kingdoms, such as those of the Mauryas and Guptas, have also been found near the city, although the foundation of Jammu itself is credited to the Raja Jambu Lochan in the late fourteenth century. It later fell under the control of the Sikhs but after their defeat by the British in 1846, became part of the Hindu Dogra dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of its people still identify themselves as Dogras and speak the Dogri dialect.
Developments in Kashmir
Kashmir, meanwhile, had become an important centre of Buddhism and, subsequently, Hinduism during the first half of the first millennium AD and these faiths coexisted side by side, regardless of the region’s rulers for the best part of a thousand years. In 1349, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir and the area continued to be controlled by followers of Islam from Mughals to Afghans, until it was taken over by the Sikhs and continued on the same historical path as Jammu from the 1840s until Independence.
Kashmir’s problems since 1948 have continued to be reflected in state politics. Most recently, following a period of optimism under the Congress-aligned National Conference, with young Omar Abdullah as Chief Minister (2009–2015), there have been alternative periods of President’s rule – under the direct authority of central government – and control by the BJP-aligned People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose policy of collaborating with the Modi central government has dismayed many. At the time of writing, the PDP/BJP alliance had been thrown into further chaos by the premature death of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and the issue of his succession by PDP president Mehbooba Mufti.
The origins of Ladakh
The first inhabitants of Ladakh are thought to have been a mixture of nomadic herdsmen from the Tibetan plateau and a small contingent of early Buddhist refugees from northern India called the Mons, joined in the fourth or fifth century by the Indo-Aryan Dards, who introduced irrigation and settled agriculture. The first independent kingdom in the region was established in the ninth century by the maverick nobleman Nyima Gon, at around the same time as Buddhism was first disseminated by the wandering sage-apostles such as Padmasambhava (alias Guru Rinpoche). This was followed by the Second Spreading, among whose key proselytizers was the “Great Translator” Rinchen Zangpo.
Around the fourteenth century, Ladakh passed through a dark age before being reunified by Tashi Namgyal (ruled 1555–70), who established a new capital and palace at Leh. This power eventually succumbed to the mightier Mughals, when Aurangzeb demanded more tribute, ordered the construction of a mosque in Leh and forced the Ladakhi king to convert to Islam. Trade links with Tibet resumed in the eighteenth century, but Ladakh never regained its former status. Plagued by feuds and assassinations, the kingdom teetered into terminal decline, and was an easy target for the Dogra general Zorawar Singh, who annexed it for the maharaja of Kashmir in 1834.
Ladakh became a part of J&K in independent India in 1948, following the first of the three Indo-Pak wars fought in the region. Tensions over the disputed Line of Control still flare up sporadically, and when you consider the proximity of China, another old foe who annexed a large chunk of Ladakh in 1962, it’s easy to see why this is India’s most sensitive border zone. There is also a degree of internal friction. Long dissatisfied with the state government based in Srinagar, the Ladakhis finally saw the establishment of their region as the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in 1995, localizing – in theory – government control. A group of Ladakhi Buddhist and Muslim parties formed the unified Ladakh Union Territory Front in 2002 to push for separation from J&K and gain Union Territory recognition from Delhi but this merged with the BJP in 2010, leading to a heavy defeat by Congress in elections. Since then, no new local party has formed to pick up the separatist baton.
Known as “the city of temples” because of the many shrines that dot the town, Jammu is more attractive than its reputation suggests and worthy of at least a full day en route to Kashmir, for which it is the railhead (at least until the line to Srinagar is complete). The main place of worship in town is the revered Ragunath Temple, although it is surpassed in importance by Vaishno Devi, near Katra, some 60km north. The city also boasts the impressive Bahu Fort, which crowns a hill overlooking the Tawi River and the splendid Bagh-e-Bahu gardens. The town’s principal museum is the mildly absorbing Amar Mahal, which showcases period art.
Although most foreigners head straight towards the Kashmir Valley, there are a couple of places you might consider stopping near the road to Srinagar, which is predictably punctuated by army signs spouting militaristic slogans – “the power behind the punch” is a common one. Around 40km north of Jammu a road branches off to the small town of Katra, which is the base for the 12km hike to Vaishno Devi temple, the second most visited shrine in India after Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, drawing around eight million pilgrims a year. It lies at a comfortable altitude of 1615m and is approached by a relatively easy and well-trodden path. The cave shrine itself is entered via an ankle-deep stream, whose chilly waters you must brave in order to get darshan of the image of the goddess, a triple incarnation of the female Shakti.
Long before Kashmir was immortalized in the eponymous Led Zeppelin song it had already achieved legendary status with Western travellers, from officers of the British Raj to the first hippie overlanders in the 1960s. No stint in the Subcontinent was complete without an idyllic sojourn on the famous houseboats of the capital Srinagar, which sits at the heart of the idyllic Kashmir Valley. By the end of the 1980s, the tourist business was booming alongside agriculture, and had in fact overtaken it as the region’s main source of income. This all came to an almost overnight halt with the onset of the conflict in 1989. Only in recent years has the situation stabilized enough to see the number of visitors swell to more than a trickle, though it’s still well below the 1980s zenith and domestic tourists continue to greatly outnumber foreigners.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the hot and dusty plains around Jammu and the cool green belt of the Kashmir Valley. Apart from the geographical divide, separated as they are by a rise in altitude of more than 1000m, there are huge cultural and religious differences. While the whole area around Jammu is predominantly Hindu, the Kashmir Valley and its capital, Srinagar, are distinctly Muslim, a key factor in the sectarian problems.
Most people content themselves with a visit to Srinagar, although the towns of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, both in prime trekking territory, are regarded as safe these days, as is the lovely town of Sonamarg on the Kargil road. Nevertheless, before setting off for Kashmir, it is wise to check on the current security situation.
Steeped in tradition and set in one of the most dramatic locations in India, with majestic mountains pressing in on three sides, Srinagar is the summer administrative capital of J&K. All too often associated with strife in recent times, this city of almost a million inhabitants is most famous with tourists for the houseboats that line the fringes of Dal and Nageen lakes, as well as the central section of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus. Dal lake is usually as flat as a mirror and incredibly photogenic, with the surrounding peaks reflected in the greenish-blue waters. There are some other splendid attractions, which in recent years have once again been opened to visitors after long periods of being off-limits. Chief among these are two of the most venerated mosques, Jama Masjid, deep in the heart of the atmospheric Old City, and the lakeside Hazratbal. Another important Islamic place of worship is the Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, halfway up to the Hari Parbat Fort.
Staying in a houseboat
Few experiences are as romantic as lounging on an exquisitely carved houseboat, watching kingfishers diving for their dinner between the floating lilies or gazing at the moon reflected in the dark waters. These floating hotels of one to four rooms have existed for generations; many originated at the peak of the British Raj, when Victorian families would spend the entire hot season here. They originally chose to stay on boats to get around laws that forbade them from owning land. Ironically, in recent years the houseboats themselves have been under threat from the authorities due to a government mandate that they should install expensive sewage treatment units in order to prevent further water pollution. The allegedly corrupt Department of Lakes and Waterways has yet to enforce any regulations, though.
Choosing a houseboat
Srinagar has no fewer than 1200 houseboats lining the shores of the two main lakes, Dal and Nageen, and the banks of the Jhelum River. And that’s just the official ones. Consequently, it can seem like a bewildering business to know where to start looking. One approach is to organize your stay through the Houseboat Owners Association, whose office is opposite the Tourist Reception Centre on Residency Road. They produce a clear price list of the different categories of boat from Deluxe Class (₹7400 for a double with full board) down to D Class (₹1600 for the same). In practice, these official prices are never charged, even in peak season, and the association can help arrange accommodation at reasonable discounts, which will be a fraction of the published price at slack times.
Undoubtedly the best way to find a houseboat, however, is to hole up in a town hotel for the first night or two and then hire a shikara to embark on a scouting mission. This way you can stop and look at a number of boats to compare prices, amenities and location. Note that quite a number of houseboats on the far side of Dal Lake and most on Nageen are accessible by road or footpath. Those on Nageen are generally a little cheaper.
- The golden rule is to ignore touts in town (or further afield) who try to get you to commit yourself with all sorts of promises. Never prebook in Delhi or Jammu.
- Check with other travellers and on forums to see which houseboats have been offering positive experiences or are doing special deals at the time.
- Always view the houseboat in person before agreeing to stay there, checking things like bedding, plumbing and security issues.
- Be sure to agree exactly what is included in the price, such as the number of meals, drinks or whether a daily shikara ride to the shore is part of the deal.
- Make it clear that you do not want to be pestered by floating salesmen and that there should be no deterioration in houseboat service if you do turn them away.
- Do not be pressured into accepting other services the owner might offer you, such as shikara rides round the lake or trekking trips.
- Do not leave valuables such as your passport unattended or even with the houseboat owner for safekeeping.
Some 56km west of Srinagar and at an elevation of around 2700m, Gulmarg, whose name means “flower meadow”, is a pleasant escape from the city but is rather more geared towards domestic tourists and can get very crowded. It is also rather spread out, with no discernible centre. The meadow itself is 1km wide and more than 3km long, allowing ample room for picnics, pony rides and even one of the world’s highest golf courses. The surrounding pine slopes can be ascended for a distant view of Nanga Parbat (8126m) to the north, in Pakistan-controlled Baltistan. Less active visitors can ascend one of these slopes on the Gulbarg Gondola, the world’s highest cable car. From mid-December to mid-March, the gondola is used to get to the top of Gulmarg’s skiing slopes, which are underused but highly recommended for the quality of powdery snow.
Kashmir’s number-one trekking base, Pahalgam enjoys a stunning location around 100km east of Srinagar in the deep-cut Lidder Valley, whose pine-crested ridges ascend sharply from each bank of the chilly, fast-flowing river. The town, whose altitude is 2139m, mostly occupies the slightly flatter east bank and the lower surrounding slopes. Main Market, the central thoroughfare of the modern town, runs parallel to the river and contains most of the facilities, while the more pleasant old village lies 1.5km north, beyond Pushwan Park with its fancy flowerbeds and topiary. The town’s parks have nominal entry fees but there is free entry to the attractively landscaped grounds of the grand main mosque, Jama Masjid. The only other sight of interest is the Mamal temple, across the bridge above the west bank of the river, but eager pony-men tout rides at fixed government rates to various local beauty spots.
Pahalgam becomes extremely busy and security is tightened during the Amarnath pilgrimage in July and August. During that time especially, nearby Aru makes a quieter and more relaxing base.
The third main location in Kashmir that has started to see a return of foreign travellers is Sonamarg, 84km northeast of Srinagar. Perched beside the River Sindh and surrounded by forests of pine, fir, beech and sycamore, with towering peaks all around, it is a scenic spot to break the journey to Kargil or Leh. This is also the place with the best display of spring and early summer flowers. A further attraction is that the Thajiwas Glacier is an easy hike, just 4km away. The town is also a good base for the famous Amarnath trek.
Sonamarg itself is not particularly attractive, with its main bazaar strung along the vital Srinagar–Leh road, which means there is a constant flow of traffic and a noticeable military presence. Most of the more established hotels, restaurants and shops line the north side of the bazaar, with the opposite side given over to government complexes, the bus and taxi stands, plus a couple of the larger new hotels. More new hotels are starting to proliferate like mushrooms further along the valley.
Although Kashmir’s climate is not as harsh as in neighbouring Ladakh and the road up from Jammu is kept open by the army, the winter months see some seriously sub-zero temperatures and heaps of snow. If you do come between November and March, you will need to bring very warm clothing – locals wear a thick woollen cloak called a pheran. By contrast, as much of the Kashmir Valley, including Srinagar itself, is well under 2000m in altitude, high summer can be surprisingly hot, sometimes topping 35 degrees Celsius. Therefore, the late spring or early autumn is the best time to come, especially if you intend to do any trekking. The former sees the meadows carpeted in an abundance of flowers, while the latter offers warm golden days, chillier nights and the first signs of the foliage changing hue.
Security concerns in Kashmir
Although the situation in Kashmir is calmer than it has been for twenty years, it is still essential to check the current state of affairs with reputable media sources before travelling – kashmirtimes.com is a good local resource. No tourists have been directly targeted since 1995 but if trouble is flaring up, then you will have to endure a very heavy military presence and may even run the risk of getting literally caught in the crossfire or an act of terrorism. You should not necessarily be put off by government advisories, however, as these tend to be extremely cautious and Kashmir has remained on the list of no-go areas even when at its most peaceful.
Once you are in Jammu and the Kashmir Valley, you will find that security is taken very seriously and the vast majority of tourist sites, such as temples, mosques, museums and forts, are heavily guarded. You are usually prohibited from taking bags or electronic items inside; tokens are given when you check them but if you are not comfortable about leaving possessions like cameras or mobile phones in the cloakroom, then it is better to lock them in your hotel. Both Jammu and Srinagar airports have extra-high security and passengers are often not allowed into the terminal until a certain time before departure – usually two hours but occasionally less. Sometimes no hand luggage is allowed on board, so it is best to check in advance.
Trekking in Kashmir
Despite being prime trekking territory, the security concerns of recent decades mean that relatively few foreigners take to the hills. The once booming industry is slowly picking up, however, and there have been no unpleasant incidents involving foreign tourists since 1995. Given the tricky terrain and the delicate political situation, however, it is not recommended to set off without at least a local guide. Trekking agencies in Srinagar and Pahalgam can provide fully organized treks with ponies, porters and all the requisite equipment.
Pahalgam is still the main base for treks, which vary in length and level of difficulty from the two-day round trips within the Lidder Valley to the week-long hike to Panikhar in Ladakh’s Suru Valley. You can also do some good walking from Sonamarg, the last main town in Kashmir before the Zoji La pass. Conditions for trekking are pretty hot and uncomfortable in high summer and the shoulder seasons of late spring and early autumn are the optimum time. The best map is Sheet 1 in Leomann’s India Himalaya series. For more general advice about trekking, see Basics.
When travelling to Kashmir it pays to be aware of the variety of scams perpetrated on unsuspecting tourists by unscrupulous Kashmiris, especially in Delhi’s Paharganj area or Jammu. It is best to take with a pinch of salt any advice about safety in Kashmir (or the lack of it) from people who approach you. Some make out you will be in danger without a guide and then try to sell a tour costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. These people should be avoided at all costs, as should agents trying to sell you rooms on houseboats. At best you will be overcharged and in the worst case you will be seriously ripped off.
Best time to visit Jammu and Kashmir
J&K’s harshest climate is in Ladakh, with passes into the region open only between late June and late October, when the sun is at its strongest and the weather, at least during the day, pleasantly warm. Although it is officially a high-altitude desert, recent years have seen increasing bouts of rain in July and August, sometimes making trekking difficult. From November onwards, temperatures drop fast, often plummeting to minus 40°C between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is along the frozen surface of the river. Note that nearly all hotels and guesthouses are closed from some time in October until April, while many garden restaurants only open in the peak summer months.
Kashmir is at its best (though also at its busiest and most expensive) during late March and mid-May, when spring flowers abound, and from September to early November, with its golden days and chillier nights. Although the region’s climate is less harsh than Ladakh and the road up from Jammu kept open by the army, the winter months see some seriously subzero temperatures and heaps of snow. By contrast, as much of the Kashmir Valley (including Srinagar itself) is well under 2000m in altitude, high summer can be surprisingly hot, sometimes topping 35°C. It can also get quite wet in July and August.
Sitting at the top of the plains, the Jammu area can be visited at any time of year, though it can get extremely hot and humid between April and August and rather cold and foggy in the middle of winter.
Festivals in Jammu and Kashmir
Losar (Late Jan to late Feb). Tibetan/Ladakhi New Year, celebrated with dancing and music throughout Ladakh.
Baisakhi (Usually April 13/14). Fairs are held in Jammu to celebrate the north Indian harvest season in Hindu culture. Women are especially prominent, with colourful dress.
Id ul-Fitr. The Muslim festival to mark the end of Ramadan is celebrated with feasting and various events throughout Kashmir.
Festival of Ladakh (Sept 1–15). This popular J&K Tourism-sponsored two-week event, held principally in Leh, is designed to extend the tourist season. It features archery contests, polo matches, Bactrian camels from Nubra and traditional Ladakhi dance along with some tedious speeches.
Ladakhi gompa festivals. Just about all the major gompas (monasteries) in Ladakh hold annual festivals.