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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Decline of Kashmir's gardens
By Muzamil Jaleel in Srinagar

In Indian-administered Kashmir, places of recreation are becoming rare - and they are also becoming dangerous.

Nishat Garden
Nishat Garden - once a tourist attraction
Driving towards the series of enchanted Mughal gardens in Srinagar, along the emerald Dal lake, can be a refreshing experience.

But now debris litters the neatly trimmed landscape.

Last week a landmine blew up the well-chiselled granite parapet of the Nishat Garden. This Mughal-era beauty spot looks eerily deserted.

Just a few days earlier, it was teeming with spring revellers after the state authorities hosted musical programmes inside the garden.

But militants fighting for Kashmir's separation from India have a different agenda.

In the space of 15 days, they exploded three landmines inside this picnic spot in a move to scare away the visitors.

The landmine that exploded near the entrance to Nishat Garden on Friday evening blew a huge crater in the well-kept garden.

Police patrol
Police boat patrols have replaced tourist shikaras

The landmines have given security officials a headache as the state government wants to send the message that all is well in Kashmir.

"In the first explosion two people were injured. Although no one was injured [in Friday's explosion, it] was so huge that it blew apart stones," a police official said, pointing towards the broken pieces of masonry scattered in the distance.

Barbed wire

Police have been posted inside the gardens since the festival of Baisakhi, when the gardens are traditionally used for celebrations.

But their presence seems not to have deterred the militants who managed to sneak inside the Nishat Gardens to lay their mines.

On the nearby Boulevard Road, a cluster of Indian tourists are turned away by police officials standing by coils of barbed wire that fence off the garden.

"No visitor would be allowed in until we fence the whole garden with the barbed wire. We have turned away all visitors from India who didn't know about the blasts," a police official said.

Two couples with children in tow return in disappointment to their parked vehicle.

"We are from Delhi visiting Kashmir. We wanted to visit the Nishat Garden but the police told us that it's shut after three blasts here,'' said tourist Ramesh Kumar.

Gardeners arrested

At the entrance to the Nishat Garden, labourers engaged in the upkeep of the garden are agitating over the arrest of their seven colleagues.

Police patrol
The militants got past the security forces

The police took away the seven men after Friday's blast suspecting the labourers could have known about the landmine.

The police are asking "why we didn't inform them about the landmine. We are here to look after the garden not look for mines," said Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, chief gardener.

"We are protesting against this high-handedness by staying away from work. They have their men patrolling the garden throughout the clock and they could not stop militants from laying mines. How do they expect us to stop militants?"

Years of turmoil

The story of three other Mughal-era gardens - Harwan, Shalimar and Chesmashahi - is no different.

The years of turmoil have seen Chesmashahi (the Royal Spring) in the foothills of the Zabarwan mountain range, closed off to civilians.

Shikaras
Shikaras for tourists wait empty

It is now a highly fortified area and the waters of the Royal Spring have been diverted to the nearby colony of residential huts set up by the state government for its bureaucrats.

The fort-like Pari Mahal (the Palace of Fairies) is situated a few hundred metres up on the hillock. Built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's son, Dara Shukoh, as a site for astronomical study, it was a major tourist attraction until guns started booming across Kashmir in 1989.

Now this palace is surrounded by Indian security forces and lies in a dilapidated condition.

The Shalimar Garden overlooking Dal lake was once famous for its sprawling flower beds and its fountains' sprinkling water.

As the tourist rush dried up over the years, there is now hardly anybody to maintain the pristine beauty of this garden.

Graveyard flowers

And what of Dal Lake itself?

The chain of 1,400 houseboats once teemed with visitors and 'House Full' signboards.

Now they permanently display 'To Let' messages as shikaras roam empty and aimlessly in search of elusive tourists.

Violence has even percolated its serene waters and the motorboats which once ferried tourists now carry Water Police.

The renowned Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain has portrayed the tragic story of Dal Lake in a recent series of paintings. Instead of the lotus, he shows a wild growth of irises on the lake, together with a few empty boats. Irises are traditionally grown in graveyards across Kashmir.

"I don't even see that brightness in colours. The greenery too has somehow faded," he said.

Another Kashmiri sculptor has created a relief work showing cacti grown in Kashmir's gardens - a chilling reminder of the fate of the valley's lush green glory.


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