The Gurez Valley, tucked between the belligerent sides of Nanga Parbat, is a tiny part of a region known as Dardistan. The ancient land of the Dardic Aryan tribe stretches across both Pakistan and India, and its capital, the village of Dawar, is situated in the Gurez Valley. In the northern part of Indian Administered Kashmir, the unacquainted might presume that this place is dangerous. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The month of July was a month of celebration for Muslims as they prepared to celebrate the holy festival of Eid, which marks the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan, and the first day of the Islamic month of Shawwal. Kashmir is a Muslim-majority state known for its breathtaking landscapes. It’s been called “heaven on earth” by poets and writers. But it’s also an area of political turbulence. The Indo-Pak border, hemmed by both the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range, is one of the world’s most militarised zones.
While political discussions revolve around the quarrels between India and Pakistan, it’s scarcely known that the last few villages of India, in the Gurez Valley, are home to the Dard Tribe. Their identity is still largely unstudied, let alone adequately represented. They speak the Shina language and have countless folkloric tales and cultural nuggets that haven’t been adequately represented in any art form or by the written word.
My friend and I visited many homes in the eleven villages in the valley on the occasion of Eid. With 450 ‘chulhas’, or ovens (a way of counting the population), and an average of eight people residing around each chulha, approximately 35,000 people call Gurez home.
We were used to Eid festivities in the rest of the Indian subcontinent being full of exhilaration, with throngs gathering in shrines, and people loudly and joyfully celebrating. But, watching Eid being celebrated in Gurez was a calming and peaceful experience. The locals embraced each other with all the warmth of the world, wore their best attire, cooked lavish meals, cheered with a few firecrackers. But it was mostly a time of respite for the whole of Kashmir: India and Pakistan had mutually agreed upon a ceasefire. Eid and the ceasefire were celebrated, in Gurez, by parents taking their young ones for walks, and exchanges between neighboring villages.
The constant, nagging worries about unemployment, lack of basic amenities, insufficient opportunities for children’s futures, and the subconscious fear of living in a border town were all pushed to the back of people’s minds during this celebration. The people here are unimaginably generous and hospitable. A young man in the village of Tulail read parts of the Quran to us, who were born Hindus and are practicing humanists. As we looked outside at the Himalayan range, we knew we would have to come back to this most exquisite part of Kashmir. Dangerous? Not remotely, for a traveller. Home for a wandering traveller’s heart? Undoubtedly.
Article and photos by Anisha Mandal. These originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.