Category Archives: Kashmir

India for Introverts: 5 Destinations To Avoid The Crowds And Follow Your Bliss

One of the biggest complaints I hear from foreigners who travel to India is that the crowds and noise can be distressing. This can be even more overwhelming if you’re an introvert, like me. People and noise drain my energy and tire me out very quickly.

But India is not all crowds, noise and beggars. If you hate these, then I recommend you avoid all Indian cities, except as layovers, because you will find these three things in abundance in most cities.

Even though Indians are not known to have a concept of personal space, it’s possible for introverts to find destinations, in this vast country, where they’ll get nothing but peace and quiet. I know, because I found some of these places by actively looking for them.

So, if you love a quiet holiday, whether by the beach or in the mountains or the forests, here are five delightful destinations where you can avoid the crowds and follow your bliss.

  1. Talpona Beach, Goa

I went to Talpona Beach, Goa, in May 2018, because I wanted to take a road trip with my family and my two Labradors. I know Goa pretty well, having lived there for two years when I was completing my Masters at Goa University.

Sunset at Talpona beach

I thought I’d seen almost every beach in Goa worth seeing, until I chanced upon the perfect family accommodation at Talpona beach, in Canacona district at the very south of Goa. We stayed there for a week in a quiet little cottage with our dogs.

There were very few people, mostly locals, on the beach and the few creatures we encountered were stray dogs, cows and crows. With excellent food, Wifi and only my family around, it turned out to be a very restful and relaxing vacation, in spite of the road trip.

Read about my visit to Talpona Beach here.

  1. McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh

I went to McLeodganj a number of years ago to do a 5-day Introduction to Buddhism course at the Tushita Meditation Center. McLeodganj is a little town near Dharamshala – the Dalai Lama’s summer capital – in Himachal Pradesh.

View of the snow caps from McLeodganj

We spent hardly any time in the town itself and, except for my classmates, there were no crowds to disturb the serenity of our experience. The meditation sessions were an introvert’s dream. To sit in silence and contemplate was just what I needed at that point in my life.

The main meditation hall at Tushita. Image by Jaypee – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

But you don’t have to stay at a meditation centre to find peace and quiet here. You can use AirBnB to book a quiet little cottage or room with stunning mountain views in the hills of McLeodganj.

Read about my visit to McLeodganj here.

  1. Pahalgam, Kashmir

Pahalgam is a sleepy little town in Kashmir with scenic locales and sights that would be perfect in a Bollywood movie (and many have been filmed here, too).

We went to Kashmir on a 10-day trip in 2011 and Pahalgam turned out to be one of my favourite places ever. Walking along the quiet banks of the Lidder River, listening to only the sound of gushing water, was one of my favourite things to do.

The beautiful Lidder River

There were no crowds and the only people we met in the tiny market were locals going about their business. We saw no other tourists on our visit there – none where we were staying, at least.

I envisioned myself staying for a week in a little cottage by the river, enjoying the spectacular view of the pine trees and water gushing by my front door. Oh, Heaven! Accommodation in Pahalgam is also very cheap, so perhaps I’ll do that one day.

My dream cottage on the banks of Lidder River Pahalgam

Read about my visit to Pahalgam here.

  1. Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra

Mahabaleshwar is a pretty popular tourist spot near Pune, so it’s not a place an introvert would think of as peaceful and quiet. No, for that you have to avoid staying in the town and instead book yourself a room at Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar.

Our room at Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar

This quiet luxury resort is located in a forest where you’ll see very few humans around, except when you venture into the dining room for your meals. The only people who’ll disturb you are the people who come to clean your room.

You may see a monkey or two and a few forest creatures, but these are welcome distractions. The resort is pretty far from the town (most of Club Mahindra’s resorts are), so you don’t have to go to any touristy places unless you want to.

Read about my visit to Mahableshwar here.

  1. Pangong Tso, Ladakh

This remote destination is an introvert’s delight. A high-altitude mountain lake with spectacular views and few people to disturb your reverie… What more could one ask for?

On a trip to Ladakh in May 2016, we stayed for a night in a tented camp at Pangong Tso (Lake). I wished I could have stayed longer, never mind that it was freezing cold and the food and amenities were pretty basic.

Pangong Lake Tented Camps

For that matter, almost anywhere you go in Ladakh, you’ll find almost no crowds, and the only thing that will assail your ears is the wind blowing through the rugged snowy peaks.

If sadhus and holy men are the ultimate introverts, it’s no surprise that they choose such remote places for their reflections.

Read about my trip to Ladakh here.

I hope that, with these 5 locations for introverts in India, I’ve done my bit to change your vision of India as a place filled with crowds and noise.

Peace and quiet can be had in many places in India if you know where to look. These 5 travel destinations will help you find it.

Pahalgam: Kashmir’s Picture-Perfect Paradise Town

Growing up in India, Pahalgam represented all that was charming about Kashmir – a Paradise where many a Bollywood movie was filmed in the 1970s.

The closest we got to this town was on our TV screens, when Amitabh Bachan romanced  Rekha, in the song ‘Dekha Ek Khwab’ from the movie Silsila (1981), which was partly shot along the rivers and valleys of Pahalgam.

Amitabh Bachan romances Rekha on the banks of the Lidder river in Pahalgam

Filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s thriller Khamosh (1985) starring Shabana Azmi, was also set mostly in Pahalgam.

This picturesque town set amidst pine forests on the banks of the Lidder river is the kind of movie locale that rivals Switzerland in Bollywood’s playbook.

When we took our trip to Kashmir in October 2011, it was definitely on our itinerary. On our 10-day trip, Pahalgam was one of the places where we spent 2 nights, and even that, I felt, was too short.

Entering Pahalgam town

Not only was the town as picture-perfect and charming as it looked in the movies, but the kids had a lot of fun there.

Bridge over the Lidder river

The main street in the town is a road where you’ll find the few shops and a small cafe.

Main street in Pahalgam town

The coffee shop had, among other historical images and paraphernalia, this lovely ode to Pahalgam, written by a bard called Shail Gulhati, that describes the town perfectly.

Ode to Pahalgam

My fondest memories of Pahalgam are that of our excursion along the banks of the picturesque Lidder river that originates from the Kolhoi Glacier and joins the Jehlum River at Mirgund Khanabal.

The beautiful Lidder River

The kids had so much fun exploring the banks, we could have stayed all day.

Exploring the banks of the Lidder river

Our driver and guide, Parvaiz bhai – whose daughter, Maleha had joined us for the trip – found us a cosy cottage to sleep for two nights.

Our cosy cottage in Pahalgam

We spent the cold evenings huddled up under the covers, kept warm and toasty by the thermal blanket I had bought in Srinagar, watching television shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati, India’s version of Who Will Become a Millionaire.

The kids went for a pony ride in the morning (I have bad knees and don’t like riding animals), while Parvaiz bhai and I chatted about life and other things over a steaming cup of Kashmiri kahwah.

The view from our cottage in the morning

I was touched when the kids brought back a bunch of pretty wildflowers and pine cones for me.

The wildflowers and pine cones the kids collected

Another excursion we enjoyed was a visit to the Lidder View amusement park.

Lidder View Amusement Park – peddle what?

The park was closed, but Parvaiz bhai persuaded the man at the gate to let us in. Even though it was shut down, the kids enjoyed a game of pretend on the rides.

Playing pretend on the shut-down park rides
Just for fun on the carousel

As far as travel destinations go, I found Pahalgam a sleepy, lovely and quiet place for a vacation. There were no crowds when we went, just locals going about their business.

Mountains in the backdrop

Depending on the time of year you go to Pahalgam, there are many more activities that you can opt for, such as golf, fishing (permits required), pony rides, trekking, camping and skiing.

As I’ve been told, the situation in Kashmir is slowly returning back to normal. If that continues, who knows, I might just be able to visit Pahalgam once again.

Watch my video of Pahalgam, Kashmir, starring my own Kashmir ki kalis.

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Kashmir’s Martand Sun Temple: Intriguing Ruins Of A Lost Dynasty

In early November 2011, I was fortunate to go on a 10-day trip to Kashmir, a state at the very north of India, that has since been overrun by terrorism and violence.

During our sightseeing tour of Kashmir, our guide, Parvaiz bhai, took us way off the usual tourist route to see some gems of Kashmiri architecture that very few people get to see. One of these was the Martand Sun Temple that lies 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Anantnag.

The kids roaming in the ancient ruins

History Of The Martand Sun Temple In Kashmir

Martand is another Sanskrit name for the Hindu Sun-god, Surya. It was built during the 8th century A.D. by the third ruler of the Karkota Dynasty, Lalitaditya Muktapida, and destroyed by Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in the early 15th century.

Now only the ruins remain to tell the story of this excellent specimen of Kashmiri architecture, blended into the Gandharan, Gupta, Chinese, Roman, Syrian-Byzantine and Greek forms of architecture.

Greek style pillars line the smaller shrines surrounding the courtyard

Situated on top of a plateau, one can view the whole of the Kashmir Valley from this temple. The courtyard has a primary shrine in its centre and is surrounded by 84 smaller shrines, incorporating a smaller temple that was previously built.

Primary Sanctum of Martand Sun Temple Kashmir

According to Wikipedia, the primary shrine is located in a centralized structure (the temple proper) that is thought to have had a pyramidal top – a common feature of the temples in Kashmir.

A number of wall carvings in the antechamber of the temple proper depict other gods, such as Vishnu, and river goddesses, such as Ganga and Yamuna, in addition to the sun-god Surya.

Hindu god and goddess carved into the walls

Many other carvings, like this one depicting a lone musician playing the flute, can be found among them.

Musician playing the flute

In a straight line from the central shrine, was a carving of what looked like a flower, but is more likely the sun.

Carving of the sun in the floor of the temple

Strangely, this stone carving is no longer visible in any of the later images of the Martand Sun temple online. Was it destroyed or stolen by vandals? I would really love to know what happened to it.

Another carving that I have not seen anywhere else online is this Shivling (Shiva Lingam depicting Lord Shiva’s male organ) with a reddish, barely discernable Sanskrit ‘Om’ symbol painted on it long ago, that lies forlornly in the lawns of the ruins. Shivlings are worshipped all over India as a sacred Hindu symbol of creation.

Shivling in the temple grounds

There are some more fascinating relics of the ancient civilization that built the temple, like this motif displaying the ancient Śāradā script.

Motif displaying the ancient Sarada script

Although the Martand Sun Temple is a site of national importance and appears in the list of centrally protected monuments as Martanda (Sun Temple), these relics of a lost dynasty are lying in ruin today and there seems to be no motivation to restore them.

When we went, there was no security guarding the ruins. We could just walk in and out without anyone stopping us. I guess that’s why it’s so easy to vandalise these ancient sites.

I imagine that, with all the unrest in Kashmir, the Archaeological Survey of India can’t do much to preserve these ruins. However, they were recently in the news recently for a much more undesirable reason.

The Martand Sun temple was used as the backdrop for the song Bismil from the Bollywood movie, Haider, in which it was controversially shown as a place of evil. You can watch the video below.

As a lover of ancient ruins and architecture, I considered myself lucky to get a glimpse of this striking example of Kashmiri architecture in 2011,  at a time when the Kashmir valley was still relatively peaceful and tourism was flourishing.

How To Reach The Martand Sun Temple?

The best way to go here is to hire a taxi from Srinagar or Anantnag. On the way, you can visit a few other sights like the Kokernag Botanical Gardens and the Verinag Springs.

Watch the video below for more photos of our visit to Kashmir’s Martand Sun Temple.

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Verinag Springs, Kashmir: Origin Of The Jhelum

The kids squealed. As they threw dough balls into the spring waters, the carp sprang up to snap it up. The spring waters were a Maldivian turquoise and clear as crystal.

Carp in the spring waters

Our visit to Verinag Springs in Kashmir in November 2011 was quite a thrill. It was a great place for the kids to witness how a river originates.

The origin of the Jhelum river, these ever-flowing springs were built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1620 A.D. The Mughal Arcade and gardens around the spring were built later by his son, Shah Jahan.

Clear blue-green waters of Verinag Springs

Today the springs and the Mughal Arcade around it are recognized as a Monument of National Importance. The name of the springs, Verinag, arose because the nearby town was known as Vér. Nag is the local name for a spring.

Verinag springs in autumn

Before Emperor Jahangir decided to build a spring here, it was just a pond of water that formed a marsh. Always eager to improve on the beauty of Nature, the Emperor built the octagonal tank of sculpted stones using carvers from Iran, and – because that’s what Mughal emperors do – created a garden around it.

Mughal garden around Verinag Spring

The Mughal gardens were built as an adaptation of the traditional Persian Charbagh (four gardens), which takes its inspiration from the Quranic description of heaven as having four rivers, of wine, honey, milk, and water.

Entrance to Verinag Springs

From the entrances, a walkway takes the visitor towards the octagonal pool, which is approached through a colonnade.

Arch around the colonnade

This colonnade, composed of 24 arches, surrounds the pool, whose water comes from the spring deep below. The water exits from the pool into the 300-yard main axial water canal, which then flows down to the Bihat river.

The springs lead into a water canal
Water canal through Verinag Garden

Vernag is located on a steep hillside, with its water source at the top. The traditional Charbagh design had to be altered to fit the site’s topography, as the source of water shifted from the traditional centre of the square garden to the highest point of the garden.

Verinag Mughal Garden Plan by Akshey25, CC BY-SA 3.0

His son Shah Jahan, constructed the cascades and aqueducts laid in straight lines through the garden. Little trace remains of the hot and cold baths he built to the east of the garden, or of the pavilions that once decorated the area.

Could this be one of the hot or cold baths?

On the stone slabs built into the walls surrounding the spring are carvings in Persian that describe how the source of the underwater spring is contained without revealing its architecture. The construction date is also inscribed on a stone slab built into the southern wall of the spring.

Inscriptions in Persian in the stone slabs around the spring

The structure is also a sacred place for Hindus as there is a shivling, built in honour of Lord Shiva, in one of the arches.

Shivling in an arch around Verinag spring

How to get to Verinag Springs:

There are two ways to get to the springs:

  1. You can take a bus from Srinagar to Anantnag and then by taxi to Verinag.
  2. You can come the way we came, by car from Srinagar to Verinag via Kokernag, Achhabal Mughal garden and the Martand Sun Temple.

If you’re not pressed for time, the second route is preferable as it has much more to see along the way. Check out the video of our visit to Verinag springs below.

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All images are © Priya Florence Shah unless otherwise mentioned.

Kokernag Botanical Gardens, Kashmir: Straight Out Of A Monet Painting

I remember walking into the gate of the Kokernag Botanical Garden in Kashmir and being astounded at the beauty that lay before me.

Entering the ‘Pleasure Garden’

It was autumn, and the leaves were a multi-hued bouquet of red, gold and green. Wooded glens, lawns and streams created a tranquil and dream-like mood.

Wooded glens and streams create a dream-like mood

A gurgling spring ran over the pebbles beside a paved promenade. Ornamental lamps stood guard providing the perfect foil to a green Japanese bridge that spanned the stream a few meters ahead. It was a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Monet painting.

Looks just like a painting

The kids splashed about in the stream and played on the swings and slides in a tiny playground at the centre of the park while I took in the view and took some snapshots. The sweet fragrance of pine filled my nostrils as I collected pine cones fallen beneath the huge conifers.

The kids splash about in the stream

The gardens were almost empty. Either there were very few people interested in visiting, or it was not on the usual tourist itinerary. I found the lack of crowds a blessing because we could sit around on the lawns undisturbed and take in the sun.

Sunning ourselves on the lawns

Kokernag is a sub-district town in Breng Valley (The Golden Crown of Kashmir), a distance of about 22 km from Anantnag. A picnicker’s paradise, the botanical garden was developed in the shadow of a thickly wooded hill, at the base of which springs gush out.

Channels that resemble the claw-foot of a hen

The spring divides into channels that resemble the claw-foot of a hen, giving rise to the theory that Koker comes from a Kashmiri word for chicken and nag from the Sanskrit word for springs or serpent.

Magical springs in a picture-perfect garden

The garden is developed entirely around these springs, which are thought to have magical, healing powers. Ain-e-Akbari, the detailed gazetteer of Akbar’s empire, also recorded the curative and digestive properties of Kokernag spring water.

Gorgeous roses in bloom

Unlike the Mughal gardens built by the kings of old, the Kokernag Botanical Gardens were developed by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism department and are home to over one lakh (100,000) species of flora including trees, roses, shrubs and bushes.

To have created a garden that rivals the beauty of even the Mughal gardens is no mean feat and J&K Tourism must be commended for that.

The Kokernag garden rivals the beauty of even the Mughal gardens

Although the best time to visit the Botanical Garden is from March to October, we went in early November and were treated to a glorious display of colour, with the Chinar trees a bright shade of red.

We spent a blissful few hours at ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (I could see why it was called that), and I remember wishing I had known that we could’ve booked a stay at the little cottages in the heart of the garden, right under the shade of Chinar trees. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned for that.

You can stay in these little cottages

We also missed out on a visit to the trout farm at the end of the garden, but you don’t have to. The Kokernag Botanical Gardens left me stunned with their beauty. Be sure to put this little piece of Paradise on your itinerary if you visit Kashmir.

If you’ve visited Kokernag Botanical Gardens, do let me know how you liked it in the comments below.

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How My Kashmir Trip Went from Disastrous to Delightful

Freezing it up in Gulmarg

My trip to Kashmir in October 2011 was poorly planned and began rather disastrously until a stranger’s kindness took it from disastrous to delightful.

It feels strange to write about a place I visited almost 7 years ago – especially because, a while after my visit, there were devastating floods and an upsurge in terrorism in the Kashmir valley.

But it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve undertaken, in more ways than one, probably because it was so badly planned and began rather disastrously.

It was some time before October 2011 that I happened to spot a ‘great package’ to Kashmir on one of those deal websites that are now defunct. I booked the package and tickets for my child and me, and we set out on our 10-day trip to Kashmir.

A hasty decision, no chance of repenting at leisure

As a single mother with a young child, I usually err on the side of caution when it comes to making travel plans or booking a hotel. But this time I let good sense slide and ended up in Srinagar with literally no place to stay.

Here’s why that turned out to be a good thing. The hotel we had booked was a dump! Yes, that deals website turned out to be a scam outfit that didn’t pay its vendors. No wonder they went kaput.

The hotel manager refused to honour our booking and I was in a panic. After all, I was a single mom with a young child in a destination that wasn’t exactly known for its safety.

A stranger’s unexpected kindness

Our saviour was the taxi driver, Parvaiz, who drove us from the airport to the hotel. He gave me a sceptical look the moment we stopped in front of the hotel and didn’t seem at all surprised when we emerged looking downcast.

Like a lifeboat rescuing a passenger fallen overboard, he swooped in and saved us from what could have turned into a very sticky situation. He took us to a hotel owned by a friend, a short drive down the road, and booked us in immediately.

Parvaiz bhai takes us through the Mughal gardens in Srinagar

I was so grateful I could have hugged him, though I suspect that wouldn’t have gone down well. My child and I settled into the hotel, which was basic but comfortable. We rested while I contemplated our lucky escape, thanks to our quick-thinking and compassionate driver.

From then on, I was happy to put our fate in Parvaiz bhai’s hands, letting him decide our itinerary since he was a local and I knew less than nothing about Kashmir.

Bonus – Kashmir with a local flavour

For the next 10 days, he ferried us all over, from the snows of Gulmarg to a houseboat on the Dal Lake, to the picturesque Lidder river in Pahalgam. He even took us to some charming places that were not on the usual tourist itinerary.

A silent shikara sails by on the Dal Lake

I was touched when he invited us to his home for an authentic Kashmiri wazwan (feast) and we got to meet his wife and kids. It turned out his youngest daughter, Maleha, was the same age as my daughter. I asked him if she could accompany us on our journey so that my child had someone her own age to bond with.

Snowball fight in Gulmarg

I sat in the front with Parvaiz bhai while he drove us everywhere. Thanks to the kindness he showed us, he was no longer just a tour operator to me. He became my friend, and we talked a lot along the way, or at least as much as my broken Hindi allowed.

The picturesque botanical gardens of Kokernag

Also read: Kokernag Botanical Gardens, Kashmir: Straight Out Of A Monet Painting

In fact, he even called us from Kashmir months after we returned home and promised to invite us to his brother’s wedding. He never did, perhaps because of the floods that devastated Srinagar the following monsoon or the increase in violence in the valley.

Playing in an empty amusement park in Pahalgam

But I appreciated his kindness and think of him and his family with gratitude, especially when I browse through photos of his daughter and mine, walking hand in hand or playing together in an empty amusement park along the banks of the Lidder river.

The kids exploring the banks of the Lidder River in Pahalgam

It brings home to me the fact that the world can be a friendly place, even for a single mom, if you place your trust in people and go with the flow. I may never go back to Kashmir, but I’ll always remember how a stranger’s kindness took my trip from disastrous to delightful.

All images are © Priya Florence Shah

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