valley of Gurez, which was recently brought on the tourism map,
is yet to catch the fancy of tourists because of its harsh
climate and proximity to the LoC, reports Ehsan
Fazili after a visit to
The Gurez valley in Bandipore district remains cut off from the world during the seven months of winter Photos by the writer
There is no space to build more houses. Therefore, the clusters of wooden houses are closely packed
THE beauty of the
picturesque valley of Gurez in north Kashmir can rival even the
Swiss Alps. But the valley’s harsh climatic conditions, with
many parts being avalanche-prone, coupled with continued
cross-border firing till about five years back have made life
here difficult. Situated at over 8,000 feet above the sea level,
this unique valley remains cut off from the world for more than
seven months every winter as the only road connecting it to the
state remains closed.
problems, this Himalayan valley has a lot of tourism potential.
Prior to the Partition, it had been a popular destination for
foreign tourists, including F D Roosevelt, who is known to have
visited the valley, much before he became the US president.
Moreover, the development of tourism may be helpful in the
overall prosperity of this landlocked valley.
Even though the
valley is only a four-hour drive from its district headquarters
town of Bandipore, 57 km north of Srinagar, it seems far from
civilisation. The Razdhan pass, which connects the Gurez region
with the rest of Kashmir, also divides the two regions on
geographical, socio-cultural and linguistic lines.
The region, a part
of the Bandipore district, has its borders touching Kupwara
district on the one side and parts of the Ladakh region on the
other, with its peripheries touching the LoC. Its central
township is Dawar.
Bandipore-Dawar road is the only road link that connects the
valley with the rest of the state. This road passes through
11,672 ft high Razdhan Pass also known as Sanga Top.
cut off from here," says my driver, Imtiyaz Ahmad, as he
drives on the fair-weather road to Gurez, the land of barren
fields and hard rocks.
A huge mountain in
the heart of the valley that looks like a massive pyramid is
called Habba Khatoon Mountain. Gurez falls along a section of
the ancient Silk Route that connected Kashmir valley to Gilgit
and the rest of Central Asia.
The valley is home
to a unique Shina-speaking tribe of Dards, numbering more than
30,000 and living in the Gurez and the Tuleil areas. This tribe
has been cut off from its mainland Astore, Gilgit and Chilas
across the LoC.
But over the past
six decades, the natives of the valley have been influenced much
by the Kashmiri culture, though the region still enjoys its
distinct socio-cultural and linguistic identity.
"It is like
living in wilderness in winter here," says Ghulam Ahmad
Khan, a local Forest Officer. The only road remains closed for
six to seven months, there are no air services and helicopters
make sorties only in case of an emergency during winters as they
mostly cater to the troops guarding the borders."
Khan adds that
even the internal roads remain closed due to snow. It even
becomes difficult to take emergency cases to the lone
sub-district hospital at Dawar.
Though the main
food is rice, it is not grown in the area, which is known for
potato, wheat and other cereal cultivation. Storage of all food
items, kerosene, and other fuel products is completed by
mid-October every year. Nothing is left to chance, as there can
be untimely road blockades even in the autumn.
the barren landscape reveals rocky slopes with leafless burza
trees (batula utillis), the scaly skin of which is known for its
traditional use for rooftops in Kashmir as well. But its use in
the Kashmir valley, which had been in vogue till about four to
five decades ago, has almost become extinct. The layers of burza
leaves covered with about one foot of soil on the sloping
rooftops make it a thick and strong enough covering to provide
insulation against the summer heat and harsh winter snow.
The road slopes
from Sanga Top, winding through Koragbal, to reach the last
resort of Kanzalwan, 15 km short of Dawar. The 140-km-long
stretch of Gurez valley, with a width of less than one-km from
Kanzalwan to Chakwali between steep hills, falls in an
"About 80 per
cent of the people are bilingual and speak the mother tongue,
Shina and have the adopted Kashmiri language as well," said
Masood Samoon, IAS, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, who
belongs to the area.
attribute the spread of education in the area to Samoon’s
family, whose father was a teacher, devoted to the cause of
imparting education to his people. Over the years, the literacy
rate has gone up to touch 60 per cent.
The Shina tribe of
Dards is also living in the Drass sector of Kargil district in
Ladakh region. Over the past 18 years, since the ST status was
granted to the residents of Gurez, the educated youth have
benefited immensely from reservation in government jobs. But
since they have been largely posted outside the landlocked Gurez
valley, the area is yet to benefit by their progress.
When the local
high school was upgraded to the level of higher secondary, it
took five to 10 years to make it fully functional because of the
lack of requisite teaching staff. Earlier this year, the
coalition government had announced the setting up of a degree
college in the area, which, according to the locals may not be
realised in the next two decades. That is because of the lack of
the local staff and inability of the teachers from the mainland
to cater to the needs of the people here.
A grant of
scholarships to the local students at the undergraduate and the
post-graduate levels can raise the status of educated class,
asserts Masood Samoon.
literacy rate, coupled with harsh geographical conditions, has
divided the locals into three main groups, says the
Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Mohammad Rafi. These include those
below the poverty line, who cannot afford to move out of the
valley, those shifting out of the area temporarily during winter
and those having permanently migrated after getting good
But poverty is
rare here as almost every household in this area has at least
one person having a government job. "My eldest brother is a
girdawar, two others are teachers, while another is a patwari. I
am only a Class IV employee because I could not complete Class
XII," comments a youth.
many people like me, who cannot return to their roots after
serving in a government job," says Samoon. Most of his
family members and relatives have government jobs elsewhere in
There have been
three major factors for migration from the area — employment,
harsh geographical conditions with most parts of the valley
being avalanche-prone, and the continued cross-border firing,
which, however, has stopped over the past five years. About 40
per cent of migration from the area had taken place due to the
For those who
stayed back, there is hardly any safe space to move out of the
firing range, because the area is avalanche-prone. "One
cannot move house even four metres away as one can become the
victim of avalanches," says Masood Samoon, who belongs to
Budwan village, near Dawar. "No expansion is possible and
therefore, the clusters of houses, made of wooden logs, are
closely packed," adds Samoon.
Bane or boon?
hectares of demarcated forest land suffers damage every year due
to snow and avalanches. But this provides huge quantity of
firewood to the lower areas through the flowing waters of
Kishenganga. "It is a natural phenomenon and every family
consumes around 200 quintals of this wood for cooking and
heating purposes annually," says Mohammad Shafi Dar, Forest
Range Officer. There is minimal use of LPG, which has been
introduced recently, for cooking. Piped-water supply is
non-existent during winter as the water gets frozen. When the
road connectivity snaps, the availability of food is restricted
only to rice, potato and cereals.
There is not much
land for cultivation. The holding capacity is very little,
which, too, contributes to the migration of the people from the
"There is no
cottage industry and as a result people have no work throughout
the winter months," says Samoon.
Most of these
issues are on the agenda of the political parties whose
candidates are contesting the Assembly elections in the area.
There are four
major issues concerning the populace in the Gurez constituency.
Apart from tourism development, these include road connectivity
through a tunnel between Bandipore and Gurez, hydel-power
projects, and jobs for the youth in the police and the security
forces who have been not benefited by the government services
due to the lack of requisite qualifications.
say that the state government cannot afford funding the massive
tunnel project connecting the Gurez valley with Bandipore.
Though potential for hydel projects is there which can generate
nearly 10 MWs of power, says Nazir Ahmad Khan. At present the
area gets six hours’ power supply daily that provided by
was carved out of Bandipore in 1995. It had so far elected two
members to the state Legislative Assembly. Faqir Mohammad Khan,
an Independent, was elected as the first MLA in 1996, while
National Conference member Nazir Ahmad Khan, was elected in
2002. These two were among the six contestants during the recent
elections. Faqir Mohammad Khan this time was contested on the
Congress ticket, while Nazir Ahmad Khan remained the NC
candidate. Other candidates included Nazir Ahmad Bhat (PDP),
Riyaz Ahmad Wani (BSP), Mohammad Iqbal Lone (All India Forward
Bloc), and Abdul Azziz Wani, an Independent candidate, fielded
by the expelled PDP leader and former minister, Ghulam Hassan
Mir, heading the Democratic Party (Nationalists).