Recently Gulmarg was in the news but for very wrong reasons! There has been extensive damage to the ecology of the area by mushroom construction of hotel buildings in concrete and bricks inside the beautiful pine forest. The resort which was supposed to be the best this side of Suez during the British days seems to be on way to total vandalization.
This was not the case just few decades back. The master plan prepared by the world famous architect Joseph Allen-Stein was in full force and no body dared violate it. Not to speak of private parties even the government departments were not allowed any construction within the bowl. Everybody had to respect the bye laws prescribing the type of construction and the use of building materials. Having spent ten winters, from 1976 to 1986, the present state of vandalization of Gulmarg doubly pains me. Those were probably the best years of my life.
Gulmarg was in its prime both in winter and summer. The resort has a very romantic and colourful history. It is supposed to have been discovered by Yusuf Shah Chak the last ruler of the sovereign and independent Kashmir. It is said that the King with his famous queen Habba Khatoon used to camp here. Subsequently, Jehangir and Noor Jehan are also reported to have frequented the meadow. The resort has surely something mystic and romantic about it. It is very quiet and calm especially in winter, an ideal spot for a writer and a thinker.
In British days it is reported that there were two hundred-room hotels, a cinema, a famous “Bazaar”, and hundreds of chalets. There were two 18-hole golf courses and a 9-hole one also. The Gulmarg Golf club had started holding various championships in 1902 or so. All these tournaments were extensively covered in London newspapers.
The Gulmarg Bazaar was famed throughout the British gentry in India. It was stocked with a lot of goodies. Whatever one could not get in any part of the British Empire in India was available in this Bazaar. These included exquisite perfumes, soaps, and dresses and so on. These things were specially imported from England for being stocked in the Bazaar.
Another very famous event in Gulmarg was the “Tea Dance” held every evening near the Club. Marion Daughty in her travelogue, “Afoot through Kashmir Valley” writes how she took her time in the Residency at Srinagar for choosing the appropriate dress for the “Tea Dance” at Gulmarg!
Apart from this the walks in Gulmarg were a treat. One could take the circular track round Gulmarg and enjoy wonderful walking for hours. Same was the case in Khilanmarg area. In winter Gulmarg transformed itself into an unspoilt part of the Alps.
A winter fairy land! Skiing in Gulmarg started as a sport almost at the same time as it began in the European Alps. The Ski Club of India was established in 1927 by Major Hadow and Major Metcarp with B N Peston Ji who was designated as its first Secretary. A number of tournaments were introduced. These included the famous Lilywhites Cup. Lilywhites was a big sports firm in London. The firm continues its existence even now in the famous Piccadilly Square of London!
During my trip to London in 1975, I went to the office of the firm but they did not know anything about Lilywhites Cup in Gulmarg! There were many other trophies. Some of the ridges also had British names like the “Merry Shoulder”, a very good ski slope from Apharwat downwards. All the competitions were held at Khilanmarg. The pony track to Khilanmarg was kept open throughout the winter.
Most of the rush used to be at Christmas and Easter events. In 1938 it is reported that the attendance on the Christmas Event at Khilanmarg was 500. Ironically, we have yet to reach those levels these days! In early thirties the Ski Club of India had set up a ski-hut in Khilanmarg near the Monkey Hill. This is a very steep spot just before reaching the Khilanmarg meadow. The hut was destroyed sometime later by an airborne avalanche and caused some casualties.
Apart from the traditional downhill or alpine skiing, Gulmarg was ideally suited for cross country skiing and there were many tracks round the entire area. Even these days a large number of foreign skiers prefer cross country skiing in Gulmarg area. In fact, Apharwat slopes are very popular with ski-mountaineers who use downhill skis with special bindings and skins. One can go up the slope in two to three hours and enjoy a downhill run in excellent powder for half an hour or so. In spring the snow is hard with a couple of centimetres of powder on top. It is the most thrilling experience. Now with the second station of the Gondola lift, one can have a number of runs from the top.
This most famous and popular resort of the British had an abrupt end in 1947 with the departure of its entire clientele. Summer activities did continue as there were many Indian golfers. Earliest winter activity was undertaken by the High Altitude Warfare School of the Indian Army which was set up there.
From the civilian side skiing was initiated in 1965 by Abdul Rauf who was posted there as the Tourist Officer in 1961. They were donated old wooden skis by Peston Ji, the first Secretary of the Ski Club of India. Those days staying in Gulmarg in winter was an ordeal. Even though the Golfing side grew back quite fast with a number of national level championships being organised there, yet skiing got a boost only after Government of India decided to develop Gulmarg as an international ski resort.
Gulmarg Winter Sports Project was formulated by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. A National ski school was set up to train the first batch of instructors. These efforts got assistance from UNDP and an Austrian Otto Santener was appointed as an Advisor for development of skiing and other winter sports.
The activities got a big boost after Tangmarg-Gulmarg road was inaugurated in 1968. Even though the road speeded up development, yet Gulmarg lost its mystique due to this road. I remember during our school days we used to go to Gulmarg. The vehicles would go only up to Tangmarg and then one had to either walk or take a pony ride. It was a very refreshing walk through pine trees. One had to go slowly as the entire track was going uphill and some places it was quite steep especially the last bit. However, one was amply rewarded on entering Gulmarg through one of the gaps.
Suddenly a lush green meadow would pop up before one’s eyes. It was just like the Wild West movies where cow boys would be roaming in similar meadows! In fact, the approach to Tangmarg itself was quite fascinating. It was a long avenue of poplars and people used to go on Tongas. Now all those poplars are missing and we have a four or six lane highway under construction. Well, modernization often results in such grotesque changes and one has to bear these. Still it is always a joy to nostalgically recall the experiences of good old days in Gulmarg!
This article has been contributed by Mohammad Ashraf IAS, of kashmirfirst.com who spent over 30 years in Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department and retired as Director General Tourism, Governemt of Jammu & Kashmir. Mohammad Ashraf has been associated with the Adventure Sports at National level and is a past Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. He was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss at Les Diablerets in 1993, to commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the Patron of the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.