Letter From Kashmir

In What Was 'Heaven on Earth,' 18 Holes and 13 Dead

A beautiful sunset on Dal Lake belies the violence rending Kashmir.
A beautiful sunset on Dal Lake belies the violence rending Kashmir. (By Mukhtar Khan -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

SRINAGAR, India -- Everyone from Buddha to Led Zeppelin found inspiration in the stunningly beautiful Kashmir Valley, with its fields of wildflowers, stream-laced forests and glaciered Himalayan mountains.

The late Beatles guitarist George Harrison rented a houseboat on Dal Lake and learned to play the sitar, jamming with the 4:15 a.m. Sufi chants that echo through the valley just before sunrise.

The Buddha called Kashmir his favorite place to meditate. And after lounging on Kashmir's sleepy Nagin Lake, Led Zeppelin's lead singer, Robert Plant, was moved to pen "Kashmir," an epic rock anthem fused with Eastern riffs. Plant called it the band's best musical achievement.

"Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face / stars to fill my dream," Plant sang. "I am a traveler of both time and space / to be where I have been."

Backpackers looking to escape India's scorching 115-degree heat in favor of Kashmir's mild summers saw trekking through its rustic pine forests, apple orchards and hills with trout streams as the ultimate adventure-tourist destination. Worn billboards today still tout Kashmir as "Heaven on Earth."

But the signs seem like an ironic joke after an 18-year conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir has left tens of thousands dead and as many as 10,000 people, mostly young men, missing after being detained by Indian security forces.

"This place was oh so grand, before it became hell," said Gulam Butt, whose wood-carved Butt's Clermont Houseboats on the quiet western shores of Dal Lake were once a destination for rock stars and royalty.

The boat George Harrison rented from Butt is now flooded and sinking. "My dream is that the tourists will one day come back," said Butt, who is known to hug his remaining guests tightly and often.

Butt does not dream alone. With violence slowing and peace talks inching forward between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is hoping to reclaim its place as a top South Asian vacation spot.

It's a wonderful piece of real estate. But it's in a rough neighborhood, with two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, each claiming it.

There have been two wars fought over Kashmir, along with daily skirmishes between the half-million Indian security troops and the Pakistani-backed militants, along with home-grown separatists who want Kashmir to be its own country.

But with mainland India reaping the fruits of its "Incredible India" tourist campaign, local officials say Kashmir can be a golfing destination.

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