Anticipated for a few days, the IAF missive arrived one late autumn evening confirming placement of a Jammu-based helicopter at Srinagar for a proposed visit to a couple of locations within Kashmir valley and a survey of the Mughal Road. Within it was the unwelcome suggestion that take-off would take place at daybreak. This was justified by assertions that the sortie would be an extended one, flying in the afternoon was impermissible and the crew had to return to Jammu well in time; they had another long-duration commitment scheduled for the next day.
After our scheduled arrival next morning, pre-flight checks detected a snag in the helicopter. Hot cups of coffee did not dispel the dismay arising out of a delayed departure. As soon as the defect was repaired, 45 minutes later, the pilots suggested that we make a circuit over Srinagar for checking out the serviceability of the machine before heading out. Taking off from the lee of the Zabarwan Range past the impressive seven-terraced Mughal-era Pari Mahal, we headed towards the northern banks of the Dal Lake, then an expanse of caliginous water bereft of its daytime brilliance, and its impassivity broken only by the wake of an occasional shikara. Soon, we were abeam of the Hazratbal dargah, the marble dome of which was bathed in a remarkable pink-orange blush by the sun emerging from behind promontories overlooking the lake. Together with its minaret and the golden leaves of chinar trees, it made for a sublime sight. Satisfied with the aircraft’s performance, the pilots turned around. The Durrani Fort atop Hari Parbat, a 500-foot hillock in downtown Srinagar, came into view. Building upon fortifications commenced in the 16th century, the fort was completed in the early 19th century. Its slopes comprehensively betoken the syncretic culture of Kashmir: the temple of Jagadamba Sharika Bhagwati, the shrine of Hamza Makhdoom (a 16th century Sufi saint) and a gurdwara of the sixth Guru adorn its western, southern and eastern slopes, respectively.
Within moments, we were flying past Jamia Masjid in the heart of the old town, the most important mosque of Kashmir valley built in the early 15th century. Encompassing a 3.5-acre grassy courtyard with a large fountain, the mosque sports turrets with pagoda-like roofs on each of its four covered arcades. No dome and no minarets; the building influenced by Indo-Saracenic architectural traditions denotes acceptance of other cultures. My well-informed acquaintances had explained that the roofs of the entire structure are supported by lofty deodar columns, some of 6-foot girth. A privileged aerial view is the only way to appreciate the grandeur of this well-formed and impressive structure.
With this unexpected but quick, yet fulfilling, aerial tour of Srinagar, we headed south past the Shankaracharya Hill and its famed 9th century temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and venerated equally by Hindus and Buddhists.
Following the narrowing but shimmering Jhelum river several hundred feet below, maturing crocuses on the plateau beyond Pampore preparing to deliver saffron in a few weeks and a bumper apple crop west of our course provided a window into the sources of prosperity of this region. Another dimension of nature’s bounty was evident in the pageant produced by the blaze of autumn colours by ‘flaming’ chinars dotting the valley. My gratifying reverie was interrupted by the Captain, who declared that if the crossing of the Pir Panjal Range was to be achieved, proposed visits to Anantnag and Kokernag would have to be abandoned. He had been eyeballing the clouds gradually enveloping Banihal Pass and the massifs to the west of it, and had determined from the Meteorological Section at Awantipore that there was unlikely to be a let-up. I had no option but to submit.
Just before the aircraft banked right to establish a south-westerly course, in the distance, I got a great view of the quadrangular Aishmuqam Ziarat constructed in the 15th century to mark the substantial contribution of Sheikh Zain-ud-din towards promotion of the mystical Rishi (Sufi) culture in Kashmir. Adnan Sami was obviously swayed by the widely held belief that none returns empty-handed from this shrine; he had chosen this venue for his moving rendition of “Bhar do jholi” for the Salman Khan-starrer movie ‘Bajrangi Bhaijan’.
Before we crossed Peer ki Gali, a pass at 11,400 feet, into Poonch area of Jammu region, we were treated to a view of the Aharbal waterfall gushing down into a pool of crystal-clear water. On the other side of the pass was Noori Chhamb, a waterfall named after the wife of Mughal Emperor Jehangir high enough to create a permanent mist. Aliabad Sarai and Hirpur Sarai, two Mughal time resting places, were on our flight path; both appeared to have deteriorated significantly.
Staying with the 16th century Mughal Road and descending about 8,000 feet, it did not take long to reach Poonch. The helicopter was set down on hallowed ground; an airstrip built by 6,000 refugees in six days in December 1947 soon after the year-long siege of Poonch town commenced. Entrenched positions of the raiders were strafed by Indian aircraft such that construction remained uninterrupted. Soon after, Baba Mehar Singh, legendary IAF pilot, landed the first aircraft on that 600-yard airstrip, under enemy gunfire. His daring effort led to the setting up of an air bridge; Dakotas flew in supplies day and night and extricated refugees on return flights; artillery flown in countered Pakistani bombardment.
With the pilots declaring that return to Srinagar was not possible, I wound my way back by road savouring the sights along the 140-km Mughal Road, once traversed by Mughal kings on their way to Kashmir.