"Kashmir ka mausam aur halaat, dono ka bharosa nahin hai; pata nahin kab badal jaye," said Altaf, my taxi driver, on our way to Qayaam Gah. The luxury boutique property, set against the backdrop of the Zabarwan Hills on the outskirts of Srinagar, would be my home for the next few days.
On the day I arrived, the sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun was blistering hot, uncharacteristic for this time of the year—September typically signals the end of Kashmir's summer season. The streets of Srinagar were busy, bustling with the minutiae of everyday life—children returning from school, vendors hawking their wares, people going about their business, handsome taxi drivers lounging around, women circling the upcountry panipuri wallahs and, armed security personnel every few metres.
I didn't see many tourists, but Altaf insisted it was only a temporary lull before the Dussehra-Diwali rush began.
We drive past the Dal, cross the serene Nigeen Lake, and arrive at Brein village before beginning the climb uphill to Qayaam Gah. As we drive up, there are fewer houses and more trees, the Zabarwan Hills are closer, and the air is crisp and clear. Qayaam Gah sits at a higher elevation than the rest of the settlements in the area and can only be approached by a country road.
At first glance, the retreat is enchanting, with soaring, thickly forested mountains on one side and views of the shimmering Dal in the far distance on the other. The four luxury villas and three rooms stand on a clearing on the hillside amidst a profusion of wild plants and flowers. I loved the air of shambolic disarray, a respectful attempt to blend into the surroundings.
Altaf Chapri, the dashing co-founder and Managing director of ABChapri Retreats, greets me warmly when I reach, his face flushed not so much at the joy of meeting me but because of the sharp, unseasonal heat that has beset Kashmir.
Chapri and his brother Bilal chanced upon the land on which Qayaam Gah stands in 2010. "Bilal and my mother were visiting a spiritual healer in the area when they came across this patch of land. They were enchanted, as was I when I saw it; I felt an immediate spiritual connection," said Chapri.
The spirit of Sufism permeates many aspects of Qayaam Gah, as it still does many aspects of Kashmiri life. The stone and wood villa I was assigned is called Rumi. The one next to mine was Lal Ded, after the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic, while another is dedicated to Habba Khatoon, the 16th-century Kashmiri poet and ascetic.
Kashmir's association with Sufism runs deep and is considered the cradle of the philosophy in South Asia. In my room, there is an abstract sketch of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi on one of the walls, a framed quote by him on another, and "The Soul of Rumi" by Coleman Barks on the coffee table.
Qayaam, the highest mystical state in Sufism, follows sukoon (peace). "When building this resort, I did not want it to be like a regular hotel; it was a conscious decision to keep it small and intimate. Everything is locally made from the khatamband—ceilings made by juxtaposing small pieces of carved wood into geometrical patterns without using nails—to the wooden panels to the stone quarried from local sources," said Chapri. "Not a tree was felled during the construction of the retreat."
Chapri has a solid aversion to plastic and has kept it away from his property. The RO-treated bottled water comes from a spring high up in the Zabarwan Hills, and even the toiletries are refilled into tiny ceramic containers after every use.
"We get pure spring water from a chashme (spring) five kilometres up the mountains all year round," said Chapri. "Water is a problem in this area, so we are lucky to have found this perennial source."
Sufi Music And Other Delights
While Qayaam Gah is far away from the big city bustle of Srinagar, there's enough to do to keep boredom at bay. If you are fit enough, the retreat will organise a trek up into the mountains on a trail used by the Gujjars.
"The medium-intensity trek takes about six hours. We take guests on a guided hike up the mountain to the Dachigam National Park. There, we have a picnic lunch ready and a car from Qayaam Gah to take guests back to the resort," said Chapri.
Proximity to Dachigam means that Qayaam Gah gets its share of wild visitors. Himalayan black bears are frequent guests, especially when the trees on the property are laden with fruit.
"They are partial to cherries. In April-May, we can hear them making a feast of the harvest. I have put up barbed wire fencing to keep them away from the villas, but they roam the hills freely," said Chapri. There have been sightings of the Hangul (Kashmiri Stag) and one memorable sighting of the snow leopard that Chapri remembers vividly.
If a trek is not quite your idea of a vacation, you could relax at the property, dip in the heated infinity pool, and enjoy a stunning Himalayan sunset over qahwa and snacks, set to the tunes of Sufi songs performed by the students of the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, Nasim Bagh, Srinagar.
The resort also organises walking tours of downtown Srinagar. Our walk started at the grand Jama Masjid at Nowhatta, and wove through lanes and alleys along the now-heavily polluted Jhelum, where old wooden structures built in the Kashmiri style of architecture hung precariously on the banks. After some noon chai and tsot (bread), the tour culminated at the 14th-century Khanqah-e-Moula also known as Shah-e-Hamadan Masjid. Dedicated to Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadan, a Sufi scholar from Persia who propagated Islam in Kashmir, the mosque is known for its wooden architecture and beautiful papier mache decorations.
When we returned to Qayaam Gah, we found Sufi musicians setting the stage for their evening performance. With the craggy peaks in stark relief against the lapis blue sky, the Dal shimmering in the afterglow of a setting sun, and the cicadas striking up a symphony, I was still a long way from achieving Qayaam, but I had found some much-needed sukoon.
Address: Astaan Road Brein Hill, Pora, 191121 Srinagar, India. For more information, visit abchapriretreats.in