The beauty of small towns can any day take on the big city splendors. While Srinagar serves as the main tourist attraction, J&K's quiet towns of Bhaderwah and Bhalessa offer an equally enthralling experience of the Paradise. Hikers have long enjoyed these picturesque hidden treasures of the UT, but now these God-gifted landscapes are being explored to their full potential. Some travellers go so far as to say that these valley towns are a reflection of the Kashmir valley or 'Chhota'-Kashmir!
Bhaderwah is a quaint mountainous town on the foothills of the Himalayas in the Doda district of J&K. It bewitches the visitors with its pleasant summer weather, a respite from the city heat, and its traditional, simple lifestyle. Its lush grasslands, sparkling rivers, fertile valleys, and distinct flora and fauna have earned it a special place on the map of the UT. Situated at 5,295 ft above sea level this fairytale land is a gateway to hundreds of pristine river basins meandering through mountains, alpine valleys marked with ancient temples, deep and silent deodar forests, undiscovered snow-peaks, and hidden meadows enveloped with wildly growing fuchsia rhododendrons.
Its panoramic views coupled with the basic lifestyle of the locals have made it popular even amongst international travellers who take an active interest in its history, local legends, and folklore. Bhaderwah also offers itself as a doorway to nearby mesmerizing destinations such as the Chinta Valley, Padri Meadow, Neeru River, Seoj Meadow, and Sylvan Valley. Chinta valley, wrapped by dense coniferous forests, houses the surreal Chenab River at an elevation of 6,500 ft above sea level. Perfect for romancing with nature, Seoj meadow stands out for its river flowing west and for the out-of-the-world view of Pahalgam from its peak. It also serves as a camping ground for Kailash Yatra pilgrims and a paragliding base with its dangerous views. Sylvan valley, pregnant with conifers, allows the visitors a trek to an archaic Shiva temple and skiing opportunities.
A special mention has to be made for the Padri Meadow. You have not had a picnic if you haven't had it at an elevation of 10,500 ft on the thickest carpet of wildflowers and berry-shrubs enjoying the lazy afternoon sun that hypnotises you to a state of trance. Padri showcases nature's bounty with its hundred shades of green and secret waterfalls in the middle of nowhere. The colour palette of the valley changes quite strikingly through the seasons. For adventure lovers it's the destination for skiing, paragliding, horse-riding, rock-climbing, and challenging treks.
The 200-km road from Jammu to Bhaderwah which offers India's most unbelievable terrains, forests, and the graceful Neeru River has long been slept on. With the road developments taking shape in the UT it seems like this saucer valley of Chhota Kashmir is ready to make its mark as India's new found paradise found.
Bhalessa, another gem of the Doda district, shares its boundaries with the mountains of Kishtwar, Thathri, Bhaderwah, and the Chamba valley of Himachal. The name Bhalessa is probably derived from the Sanskrit word Bhalla meaning 'doing good', or from 16th century Queen Bhalla of Bhaderwah; either way, it aptly fits the region's hospitable people and culture. Bhalessa was mentioned in Rajatarangini and according to it, the town dates back to 1112-28 AD. It is best known for its vast forest cover which has allowed it to remain a secret to the world for centuries. Its natural meadows are gifted with lush green Deodars and Kails, matching up with the beauty standards for the internationally recognised Gulmarg. Its valleys and villages of more than thirty sites are slowly being discovered by tourists.
The Bhalessa area is gifted with two enchanting valleys: Bonjwah and Bhalessa. Bonjwah captivates with its multiple streams while Bhalessa houses the Kalgoni stream. Both the valleys meet at Donadi and merge into the Chenab River, a sight surreal to the eyes of the beholder.
Bhalessa's mountainous meadows (known locally as Dhar) like Chashool, Kanthi, Soin Bhagar, Bal Padri, etc., have innumerable trekking routes of vertical mountains making it a haven for adrenaline junkies. Earlier due to the town's geography no one could have imagined development; it was seen as an ancient civilization. But with the recent fast-paced growth of the valley, the government is putting the special impetus on the advancement of this potent town. The narrow roads that pass through the colossal hills are being widened, tourism development authorities have been appointed, and its rivers are being discovered with potential for the power sector. Moreover, Bhalessa also has a Government Industrial Training Institute for imparting technical training to employable individuals, an excellent initiative for the commercial revolution of the area.
The construction of a motorable road connecting Bhalessa with Bhaderwah and subsequently villages that pass through the two regions is in full motion. It starts at Kahara in the Bhalessa area with Jai in Bhaderwah passing through the villages of Malanu, Gugara, Bittola, Kencha, Bagdair, Halaran, Budhi, Joura, and Shamdalian. An alternative link to Bhaderwah, the Gandoh-Chinta road, and Gowari-Khaljugasar road is another parallel project in full swing to open the UT's doors to the rest of the world.
Bhalessa is now being viewed as a comfortable base for the mountaineers aiming for the Great Himalayas. Its exquisite landscape with patches of wheat and mustard crops dot the streams flowing down from perpetually snow-dusted mountains, and later meet the glistening river Chenab at the horizon. In the sweeping meadows, Gujjar and Bakkarwal men are seen leading flocks of hairy mountain buffalos, sheep, and goats adding to the majestic view. In the summer months, they sell milk, cheese, and ghee, and also involve themselves in their ancient tradition of beekeeping, handloom weaving, blanket making, and cattle rearing.
The people of Bhalessa are surprisingly well represented in an array of sports, civil services, education, and politics. Much like any small town, it is respected and known for its peace and interfaith harmony.
Gone are the times when tourism was synonymous with big city wonderland. People are seeking the simplicity of small-town life. The fewer shiny distractions, the chirping of birds, the ivy-green blur, and connection to nature, are the USP of these places. Both Bhaderwah and Bhalessa had been hiding there in plain sight. And now that we have discovered this fairytale land of J&K, our fantasy is complete.
( 1061 Words)