Once a hub and a vital link between towns such as Kashgar & Gilgit (controlled by Pakistan) in the North and Kashmir in the South, Gurez was considered the gateway to Central Asia. All that changed when India & Pakistan separated in 1947. The people of Gurez were gradually pushed into a life of self-sustenance and isolation in a corner of India. The stark difference in lifestyle of these people is distinctly visible as one climbs across Razdan Pass before descending to a land that can be best described as inhabited wilderness. Hasan, a young 24 years old boy speaks from the knowledge inherited from his ancestors, that a very little has changed in the valley since Independence. The change that he speaks of is availability of modern technology & growth in civilisation to which Gurez has been large insolent. One still finds villages with not more that 15-25 houses, maximum of which are made of wood and mud. They have to be maintained every year during summers to survive through the harsh winters forcing the local populace to be self-sustained for almost five months every year. Local language Shina is still the most widely used means of communication unlike other parts of Kashmir where Urdu & Kashmiri are spoken. Schools here might not be able to provide the quality education as in other parts of the country but the cultural legacy has kept the generations still humble & polite. People still care about each other & it is still the neighbours in these villages who are present with each other during testing times of the community. The main source of income has been farming & grazing for these people. One can witness the harmonious coexistence of humans & animals living together in the same houses. Also, one does not find crowded streets with people chatting & complaining about the system in-spite of the fact that very basic essential of today’s lifestyle like electricity & network are found missing. Rather everyone is busy doing his best to enjoy the old school way of life.
In metropolitan cities, we often hear feminist voices fighting for the rights of women empowerment & politicians asking for votes on the same agenda. While women in Gurez, covered under a hijab have always shouldered responsibilities along with males of their society. Often women are seen with a load of wood over their heads & walking up the steep climbs around the villages in this rugged area to collect vital fuel for winter days. At the same time they can be seen enjoying during various functions & festivals celebrated in the villages’ along with their male counterparts.
Though school and primary health care buildings are visible in some villages but more than often teachers & doctors are found missing. This has not impacted the local population much since kids here still become doctors & engineers. Illness is not too common, may be because of the healthy lifestyle being followed & other emergencies being responded by the Indian Army. Besides dealing with the absence of teachers, schools have limited infrastructure. Despite the odds, most children are enthusiastic about learning which reflects in their inquisitive eyes during random interactions. It is evident that science & civilisation cannot buy happiness. People often move out to hill stations, to escape from the aridity of city life in search of peace and happiness. The happiness index of people in places like Gurez is much higher as compared to city dwellers, a humble reminder of the cost of progress on our healthy & meaningful lives. If one considers one’s purpose to live in absolute harmony with cosmos, Gurez offers a utopian land away from the corrupt influence of civilization today. Visiting Gurez like a tourist is not enough but living life the Gurezi way may hold the secret to the elixir of life.