Tawseef Ahmad Mir
Kashmir is undoubtedly dotted with numerous picturesque places across its length and breadth. From vast green pastures and magnificent snow-capped mountain ranges to pristine water bodies and verdant valleys, Kashmir has everything to offer to the enthusiastic nature lover, trekker, hiker, etc. Its scenic beauty has fascinated all and sundry since antiquity. The oft-used sobriquet of ‘paradise on earth’ for Kashmir may have worn out due to the prevailing political conflict, and sounds more of a cliché now, but it still retains some semblance of its former sheen and glory. A good number of tourists visiting the valley every year attest to it.
The ongoing pandemic has affected every facet of our lives but it has not been able to keep the nature lovers at bay, at least in our part of the world. Despite our valley being in the midst of a virulent pandemic, tourist places are eagerly sought after these days. Hardly were the public parks thrown open that the lockdown-fatigued people started thronging them. Tourism, which had come to a grinding halt with the lockdown, picked up pace with nature lovers scurrying to scenic places.
Though not an avid nature lover, I went to Aherbal, a well-known tourist attraction in Kulgam, more than a fortnight ago. I took my grandmother along on her insistence, as she had never been to it. The place was humming with nature lovers who had come from different places of Kashmir. There can be no better sojourn than Aherbal to beat the scorching summer heat. Its chilly environs and grand waterfall have made it a great attraction. It is an ideal place for a languid break from the monotony of staying indoors because of the lockdowns since last August.
Some 22 kilometres from Kulgam, and rightly called the Niagara Falls of Kashmir, Aherbal is nestled in lush green forests with towering pine and fir trees, resplendent meadows, and lofty Pir Panjal mountains all around. It is well connected by roads from both Kulgam and Shopian districts. If you are coming from the Kulgam side via Nihama, you would be wise to make a detour at Bhatipora. A narrow road that branches off the main road from here passes through expansive apple orchards, and cuts the journey by a few kilometres. It passes through several beautiful villages, which are in their own ideal for rural tourism. Riding through these places is amazing, and makes the journey to Aherbal enjoyable.
As you reach Aherbal, you are immediately greeted by a well-maintained, sprawling park which is bisected by a long, straight, and slightly raised tiled walkway which, on the side of the waterfall, merges with the deftly built winding and steep stone stairway descending to it. The valley becomes more exquisite on the descent, where the turquoise waters of the fall flow in a gorge with steep rocky walls on both sides. It is indeed an onerous task to reach the fall, but is worth it. After the lengthy descent, your eyes are rewarded by a vista of the majestic waterfall. One just stands in amazement while catching its first glimpse. Watching the oceanic blue waters cascade down rapidly over the rocks is enchanting and delightful to the eyes. Water roars tumultuously over the edges, and hits the water and rocks below forming a plume of mist. If it is a bright sunny and breezy day, the ideal conditions for a rainbow, it can make the moment really jaw dropping.
For the weak hearted, this is not the place to go too near. One can just bask in the breathtaking view from the park overlooking it. However, watching from the above offers a limited view of what lies of the vista below. The trip will not be worth it if one does not go down to see the gushing waters from up close. Visitors can safely enjoy the view of the mesmerising fall from the vantage points of their choosing without going near the danger spot. It offers the clearest view, but has thankfully been fenced now for the safety of the public.
The excitement of going with my grandmother died out soon and turned out to be kind of a damp squib. Many elderly people including my grandmother had come for the first time to have their maiden glimpse of the waterfall, but they could not make to it owing to their old age. Travelling can be challenging to them with so many barriers depriving them of the right to enjoy nature. While the world is talking of making disabled friendly cities, we have not even been able to make sightseeing easier for our elderly and disabled people. At some time in our life, we are physically disabled in one way or the other. Therefore, imagining ourselves in the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, we need to revisit and fine tune the infrastructure accordingly to make such natural spots accessible to all.
The Aherbal Development Authority (ADA) has over the years done a commendable job to make the place safer as well as alluring for visitors. Chain-link iron fencing has been diligently done to stop anyone from going too near the waterfall. However, wide holes have been cut in the fence at many places, including the danger spot mentioned above, which need to be fixed. As stated above, we should strive towards making these places accessible to all. Therefore, ADA should furnish the place with ramps at appropriate places, and walkways should be paved with non-slippery tiles so that the elderly and disabled do not have difficulty waking. If possible, ADA should also consider installing a stairlift for the benefit of weak and disabled visitors. Visible and clear signage should also be put up to guide the first timers properly. ATM services, at least in the peak season, should also be made available. If these things are taken care of, I think it will go a long way in attracting more tourists.
Other locales worth exploring and rich in natural beauty en route Aherbal are Kungwatan and Chiranbel. They are within easy-to-reach distance from Aherbal. Kungwatan, known for its meadow land, is higher up about five kilometres from Aherbal. It takes about half an hour on foot to reach there. Chiranbel, an alpine meadow, is equally bewitching. It can be reached via Hallan, Manzgam or from Avil village.
A smorgasbord of tourist attractions, Aherbal is truly the crown jewel of Kulgam. Its ambience and serene surroundings make it an ideal place for an outing with friends and family. A day spent there makes for everlasting memories.
The writer hails from Kulgam and is a scholar at CCAS, University of Kashmir.