Islamabad, the second town in Kashmir,stands a few miles higher up the Jhelum from Bijbehara, just where the river narrows. It is the starting-point for the Verinag-Jummu route. At the foot of the hill, overlooking the town, there are numerous springs, and consequently remains of Mughal gardens. But only some Kashmiri pavilions, and the stone tanks which swarm with sacred carp are left.
The direct road from Islamabad to Verinag Bagh, Nur-Jahan’s favourite Kashmir garden, runs for nineteen miles across the rivers and the rice-fields and a very bad road it is. For the traffic of the country goes down the new Jhelum valley road by Baramulla and Domel, up over the Murree hill, and out to join the railway at Rawal Pindi. Now, if a river washes away a bridge or two between Islamabad and Verinag, no one hurries to replace it ; and the old road is left to the pilgrims from the plains or to stray travellers, such as the little company who gathered in the gardens at the northern foot of the Banihal Pass to spend, after the old fashion, the last hot weeks of June by the ice-cold holy spring.
The previous autumn I had tried to reach the gardens and failed ; but on my second visit to Kashmir the journey was accomplished, and I and some friends arrived there at last.
Camped under the chenars of the ruined garden, where the pine forest runs down a steep limestone spur to the tank in which the spring rises, it is easy to understand the romantic charm of Verinag (the secret spring, the supposed source of the Jhelum, ” the snake recoiled,” as the literal translation runs) and the spell which held Jahangir and Nur-Mahal in their palace by the bright blue-green pool, where the largest of the sacred carp bore the Queen’s inscriptions on gold rings placed through their gills. On the cold mountain pass above, Jahangir died ; leaving a last request that he might be brought back and buried by the spring. But as we have seen, his wishes were set aside; the courtiers no doubt were frightened by the approach of winter, and the danger of the passes being closed ; and the Court continued their journey south- wards, carrying the dead Emperor down to Lahore.
The octagonal tank built round the spring is designed to form the centre of the palace buildings. No omrah’s house at Delhi was complete without its fountain court, and the same idea is carried out on the grandest scale for the Emperor’s palace at Verinag. Round the reservoir there are twenty-four arched recesses still roofed over, some containing small stairways ‘which led to the rooms above; and the few carved stones of the cornice that are left show how fine the building must have been. The current rushes out through the large arched crypt on the north side, flowing under the chief fagade of the house. The stream, flashing through the gloom, lights up the dark arches with a flickering green magic like a mermaid’s cave, beyond which lies the serene upper world of the sunlit watercourt.
The palace is built on a succession of small arches extending across the width of the first terrace.Only the lower story is left, the rest of the building having been destroyed by a fire a few years ago. A road and an ugly rubble wall shut out the terrace and turfed wooden bridges across the canals, and spoil the whole effect, which must have been most impressive when the palace walls formed the southern garden boundary, backed by the dark pines on the cliff behind the spring. The main canal is about twelve feet wide, and is crossed by a second watercourse running immediately under the building. The garden has been a large one, although it is somewhat difficult to make out the whole plan. At present the first terrace is alone enclosed, but a broken water-chute leads to a lower level, and a big hummum with stone-edged platforms and other buildings can be traced on the east side.
For those who feel the charm of solitude in a beautiful setting, Verinag Bagh is still an enchanting place to pass the early summer days. So at least we found it ; reading, writing, and painting under the fruit trees, or ensconced in latticed summer-houses built across the stream, where straggling Persian rose-bushes scented the garden with their soft pink blooms. Early every morning the Brahmins in charge of the spring came to gather the flowers to decorate their shrine. Later in the day, a school of small boys were usually busy at work in the shade of a large chenar, or were drawn up in line for a diving lesson, learning to swim with merry splashings in the clear, fast-flowing stream.
At noon even the shady garden grows too hot ; and then the alcoves round the tank prove a welcome refuge, the icy water making the temperature of the surrounding court some degrees cooler than elsewhere. From the curiously vivid green depths of the tank an emerald flash lights up a polished black marble slab let into the walls, revealing Jahangir’s inscription : ” The King raised this building to the skies : the angel Gabriel suggested its date 1609.” The mason’s tablet on the west side, erected seven years later, on the completion of the work, runs : ” God be praised ! What a canal and what a waterfall ! Constructed by Haider, by order of the King of the World, the Paramount Lord of his Age, this canal is a type of the canal in the Paradise, this waterfall is the glory of Kashmir.” Brave words these, but no doubts troubled Haider a master-builder sure of his patron and his own skill. A Hindu shrine is set up in one of the arches where the marigolds and rosebuds wreath the drab plaster walls. Pink indigo bushes and lilac wild -flowers flourish on the earthen roofs, and grow between the grey cornice stones; behind which the giant poplars whisper rest- lessly in the lightest breeze ; while over the close, delicate, northern harmonies the pine woods brood sombre and remote. Then with a sudden burst of sound and colour, a band of newly- arrived pilgrims flock in to make their puja at the shrine. The sacred fish are fed, roses are lung into the reservoir, the pradakshina is performed. Three times round the tank they go in their saffron, mauve, and marigold robes, and the water glitters bright with all the brilliance of the hot southern plains.