Jammu and Kashmir is a proverbially happy combination of the mighty splendour of mountains, of lovely glades and forests. The river Jhelum meanders its steady course through cornfields into the heart of the Srinagar city and, onwards, till it rushes headlong through the frowning gorges, and dashing against boulders joins the Arabian Sea through the plains of Punjab. The onlooker will find nature wild and vibrant wherever he may go in the country. The mountains lend unique charm to the land and in this aspect of its natural beauty, Kashmir even excels the much-adored Switzerland.
To a traveler hailing from the plains or other parts of India and the world, familiar with the routes leading into Kashmir, the whole sweep of towering ranges opens up before his eyes when he steps up the Pir Panchal whose peaks rise over 15,000 feet on the South-West of the country. The natural surroundings of Kashmir unfold themselves on the journey both through the Banihal and the Jhelum Valley roads. Here he observes a sharp change of scene.
The freshness and the peaceful calm of the atmosphere on these snow-peaked ranges as against the arid heat, din and fatigue of the Sun-baked plains of India, act as a tonic to his body and fill his mind with a feeling of pleasant contrasts. This is the first glimpse the sun-tanned visitor has of the glamour of Kashmir, which he had often heard, sung in prose as well as verse. In fact, no other part of the country offers such a lovely sight.
On the Panchal range, there are a few remarkable peaks viz., the three peaks round the Konsar Nag (12, 800 ft.), Tratakoti (15,524 ft), the highest on this range, and Romesh thong also named as Sun-set peak by Dr. Arthur Neve when he climbed it. A feature of this mountain range is the luxuriant growth of wild flowers. Also an alpine plant called Saussurea Sacra grows here in abundance
From Pir Panchal range further North, the open grassy highlands of Tosa Maidan (14,000 ft. high) catch the eye. The Pastures of this vast highland are the regular haunts of the cheerful, homely shepherds who bring up their flocks for grazing. Further Northwest is the Kazi Nag range – the home of the Markhor. It stands 12,125 feet high and is snow-covered with slopes coated with dense forests. The towering peak of Nanga Parbat (26, 620 ft. high) stands as a sentinel guarding, as it were, the Valley on this side. It is an imposing sight. Far away from here are seen the Karakoram ranges also known as Mustagh, with some of its peaks rising over 25,000 ft and among them the World-famous K2 (over 28,000 ft.), the second highest in the world, stands out boldly in its mountain glory. To the east of the valley stands the noble, snow-clad peak of Haramukh (16,903 ft.) overlooking it.
The famous Gangabal lake of Haramukh is regarded as sacred by Kashmiri Hindus to the same extent as Haridwar is held in India. Here also Saussurea Sacra grows in plenty. Another remarkable peak in the east seen all over the city is Mahadev (13,000 ft.). in Summer pilgrims climb this peak. On the lower sides of this mountain, one comes across a herb Macrotomia Benthami in wild profusion. This herb is well known as Kah zaban or Gaw Zaban. It is frequently prescribed by the local physicians to ailing persons.
On the South of the Valley, the peaks of Amar Nath and Kolahoi springing from the same massif are found prominent. Amar Nath stands 17, 321 feet high and Kolahoi 17,800 feet.
Kolahoi is also known as Gwash Brari. At dawn the radiant rays of the sun fall on this cone-like peak and the lurid glare of the dazzling snows is a sight. Here and there on this range, one is attracted by wild graceful flowers, wild roses, poppies, anemones and hosts of other unknown floral
It is interesting to observe the colors these ranges richly display at certain hours of the day. These are peculiar to Kashmir mountains and are aptly described by Sir Walter Lawrence thus:
“It would be difficult to describe the colors which are seen on the Kashmir mountains. In early morning they are often a delicate semi-transparent violet relieved against a saffron sky, and with light vapor clinging round their crests. Then the rising Sun deepens the shadows, and produces sharp outlines and strong passages of purple and indigo in the deep ravines. Later on, it is nearly all blue and lavender, with white snow peaks and ridges under a vertical sun, and as the afternoon wears on, these become richer violet and pale bronze, gradually changing to rose and pink with, yellow or orange snow, till the last rays of the sun have gone, leaving the mountains dyed a ruddy crimson with the snows showing a pale creamy by contrast.”
For its fresh-water lakes and tarns, Kashmir is known all the world over. Those lying in the valley against the charming mountain background are : the Wular Lake, the Dal Lake and the Manasbal lake. The Wular is the largest fresh-water lake in India and according to some, perhaps in Asia too. It is 121 miles long and 5 miles broad. It lies to the north-cast of the valley with mountains overlooking it. The Dal Lake lies on the suburbs of Srinagar in the east. It is at the foot of the mountain range. The lake is 4 miles long and 11 miles broad. Against the mountain background which is reflected in its calm expanse and enclosed by trees the lake looks superb. In summer, it is a paradise for visitors who glide over its waters in shikaras and houseboats. The Manasbal lake is the deepest lake in the country. Its greenish-blue waters are wondrous and beautiful.
Besides these lakes, which are fed by the melting snows from the mountains, there are hosts of mountain tarns form-glared by the glacial action and other phenomenal activities of range nature. There are several glaciers on Haramoukh. On the South side they only descend to about 13,500 ft., but alter the North 1,500 ft lower. They are fed by the large snow fields on the summit, which are of great thickness. The snow cliffs on the middle peak show a vertical thickness of nearly 200 feet. In there seen all the surrounding valleys. There are lakelets varying in size from mere ponds to sheets of water a mile or so in length and quarter a mile broad., most of these occur at a height of 11,500 feet. There can be no doubt that they are all due in some way to glacial action , and that they are not of very remote age. Tydall points out that a glacier 900 feet deep would produce a vertical pressure of 486, 000 lbs. upon every square inch of its bed. But the small glacier on the shoulders gone, of such mountains as Haramoukh or Tutakuthi would not exceed 200 feet in thickness, and would not be capable of excavating hard rocks beneath. So the numerous tarns and lakes may be own regarded as due chiefly to the formation of embankments across line of drainage. Sometimes such embankments may have been caused by the deposit of avalanche debris from a slideslope or by the advance of a side glacier with its lateral moraines. The lakes and lakelets found in upper valleys around Haramukh mountain are Gangabal, Lool Gool and Sarbal. They are at an elevation of nearly12,000 feet above sea level. The shimmering waters lend glory to the Gangabal Lake, which stands at an elevation of 11,800 feet. To the South cast of the Pir Panchal range lies the lake Konsar Nag (12,800 feet) surrounded by three peaks. Its is fed by glaciers. It is said to be a source of the Jhelum. In the spring and summer, the water is some 40-ft higher than in winter. In the spring, its surface is said to be covered with icebergs, which are driven about by the wind.
Coming into the Valley proper, we find the frozen lake of Alapathar or Apharwat, well over Khilanmarg. Flowers of rainbow colors are found in wild profusion here. The mountain tarn stands at the height of about 12,500 feet. It is said to be 500 yards long and 150 yards wide. The surroundings are austere and wild. It is popular haunt of tourists.
The nearest tarn to the city is that of Harwan on the slopes of Mahadev Mountain about a mile and a half further away from the Moghul garden –Shalimar. The source of its fresh water is Tarsar, a lake on the Amar Nath Mountain. Harwan looks beautiful in its sylvan surroundings. This tarn is the chief source of water supply to the city.
Besides the above enumerated lakes and lakelets, there are scores of tarns and glaciers found in the mountain ranges around the Gurais valley, Ladakh and Karakorams.
Kashmir is rich in forests. A variety of spruce, stately trees some of which are towering masses, grow in them such as Blue Pine, silver Fir, Himalayan spruce, Birch, Maple, Beech, Hazel, wild Oak. Almost all the mountains are coated with dense forests, which, besides lending charm and healthful fragrance to the atmosphere,
are a great factor of revenue to the country. The best varieties of pine and Deodar are found in the dense forests of Kishtwar and Bhaderwah. The Lolab valley too is thick with them. These forests are regular haunt of lovers of sports. Ibex, Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Wolves, red Bear, Markhor, Backbear, Barasingha etc can be found in these forests. Ibex is a wild goat with very long horns. Snow leopards are found in high forests.
The country also holds a variety of winged game, such as duck, goose, chakor, monal pheasant, Patridge and Snipe. These are found in low forests, in swamps and on banks of the lakes. Kashmir is pre- eminently the land of forests which stately among othet things are the mainstay of its economy. These are thus guarded against erosion and other losses so as to yield Maple, more and more income. It was not until 1891 that a separate forest department was formed under Mr. MacDonell – first conservative of forests. He organized the department, marked out the forest areas and made a plan for the control of felling of forests. Export began to increase until timber become a major state industry. By 1924 it had grown to such proportions that the forest department had to be reorganized and a uniform system of working was introduced in the Lolab area and later extended to the other forest ranges.
Belladonna grows well among the firs, and its roots and leaves which are used in pharmaceutical processes yield about 500 maunds a year, the price being between Rs 150 and Rs200 a maund. The Drug Research Laboratory makes considerable use of Bella Donna. The scattered wild growth of this plant is being framed out on a larger scale at Tangmarg with considerable success.
The blue pine is one of the most useful trees. Its wood makes excellent charcoal, its resin is used for medicinal purposes, and in the mountain villages pine chips are used as lights and torches.
The silver fur has durable wood, free from knots and consequently easy to work. This tree grows to great size, reaching in some cases to one hundred and fifty feet in length and sixteen feet in girth.
The elm is a dine tree and is used for ploughs and buildings. The young shoots are fed to the buffaloes Boatmen like the ash tree for the paddles it produces, and walnut is priced for the making of furniture and spinning, wheels, but its growth and has not yet been fully developed.
The most magnificent tree of Kashmir, and one of the most splendid in the world, is the Chinar. Sir Walter Lawrence states that he once measured one, which was sixty feet in girth. It is a beautiful tree, majestic, and giver of perfect shade from the sun and of protection from the rain. In the autumn, its reddening leaves are one of the sights, which the visitors to Kashmir can never forget. Its Timber is used for making oil-presses, boxes of all kinds and furniture. The Moghuls, it is said, introduced the Chinar, and the poplar, into Kashmir. The Chinar is splendid monument to them.