Patnitop: Mountains, meadows and mutton

Relatively unknown compared to other tourist destinations, Patnitop is a hidden gem worth exploring

Rakesh Agarwal Patnitop 

Our journey to Patnitop culminated on a picturesque note with clouds engulfing us as we strolled along whispering meadows. It is an exquisite hill station in Jammu region, bordering the Kashmir Valley. Perched at a height of 2,024 metres, this offbeat Himalayan town is a cherished destination of honeymooning couples and love birds. With its stunning deodhar forests it has much to offer lovers of nature as well.

The story behind the naming of Patnitop is a rather interesting one. It is a distortion of the original name of the place, ‘Patan Da Talab’, meaning ‘Pond of the Princess’. “A long time ago, there was a pond here in which a princess bathed. Some part of the pond still exists near the local youth hostel. Once, a British engineer who was building the road here asked the name of the place and, being unable to pronounce it, he wrote it as Patnitop in the revenue records,” says Thakur Chunni Lal, caretaker of Hotel Alpine.

Of late, it has become a detour of sorts for many of the pilgrims who visit the holy shrine of Vaishno Devi, about 80 km away, every year. “As most hotels here belong to the hoteliers at Vaishno Devi, they persuade their clients and send them here for a one-day trip,” we were informed by Rajesh Uppal, assistant manager, Jammu Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC).

Whether it be pilgrims arriving from Vaishno Devi or honeymooners looking to have a gala time, Patnitop has plenty of delights for everyone.

One such surprise is Sanasar, a rolling carpet of verdant valleys, whose landscape is dotted by a serene lake, mule tracks, orchards of apple and walnut and an ancient temple. The meandering country road takes you through waterfalls, springs and towering pine forests. After a couple of hours on the broken, washed away road, the homes of Van Gujjars, a nomadic tribe who rear buffalos for a livelihood, came into view in the light drizzle. These homes are made of mud and wood, using an ancient architectural secret which only the Van Gujjars know. Grass growing on these roofs gave me the impression that the Van Gujjars had started a new way of ‘terrace farming’ altogether. When we asked Rakesh Kumar, our driver, he promptly replied, “No, when they have been benefitted immensely by this tourist influx that has increased during the last few years, why would they destroy their homes?” 

Well, it turned out he was right. Milk and milk products like curd, butter and ghee sell like hot cakes because of the rising demand from hotels, dhabas, and restaurants that have mushroomed in the region over the past decade. The Van Gujjars, a Muslim tribe, have assimilated well in this Hindu-dominated region of the state. “We wait for the summer as it is the season when many tourists, mostly Vaishno Devi pilgrims, flock to our little hill station and all our stock is sold and we and our animals eat bharpet,” said Bashir Ahmad, a Van Gujjar who lives in Nashri village of the Sanasar valley.

Visitors to Patnitop can relish Kashmiri food to their hearts’ content, which is what we did when we devoured hot plates of gushtaba served with wheat naan and kahawa with a pinch of butter and dalchini. Not just the Van Gujjars, the Bakarwals (goat rearers) have also benefitted from the influx of tourists atPatnitop.

The increasing number of tourists means more demand for goats’ meat as many tourists love to eat gushtaba, a Kashmiri delicacy made of mutton. “While I used to rear only12 goats a decade ago, now I have about 100 goats in my herd as there is a good demand for goats’ meat these days,” says Ghulam Mohammad, a resident of Madhatop village which is five kilometres from Patnitop.

En route Sanasar, we witnessed a lot of people paragliding. Like free-flying kites, young men and women were flying through the cold mountain air with gusto. Visitors to Patnitop who want to paraglide should go to Dawariyai, which lies on the road to Sanasar.

Ahmad, who runs a small hotel in Patnitop, sounded ebullient while describing how things have changed for the better. “In 1997, there was just one hotel as this destination was yet to be discovered by tourists, now there are as many as 58 small, medium and large hotels in and around Patnitop. The boom in tourism has been a boon for taxi-drivers, hoteliers, tourist guides and street vendors.” Despite the rising number of tourists, Patnitop retains its air of seclusion and stillness. This hill station still remains a hidden gem worth exploring.

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This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2016