When Kashmir’s Gilsar Lake was a sanctuary of solace

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The lake which once used to enchant sightseers.

“My eyes watered as the vivid childhood memories flooded my mind. That is when I mustered all my might and took it upon myself to create awareness about the plight of Gilsar Lake.”

I was born and raised in the heart of Srinagar, Zoonimar (Shehr-e-Khas), Kashmir. As the only sister among six brothers, I received a major chunk of love and attention from my parents. My beloved father Haji Habibullah Magray and adored mother nestled less than a mile away from the serene banks of the famous Gilsar Lake.

Our home embraced the idyllic wonders of nature. At the banks of Gilsar, time seemed to stand still as golden sunrays danced upon the crystal-clear waters, creating a shimmering tapestry of light and shadow. Chirping birds and rustling leaves provided a harmonious symphony, filling our hearts with joy. As the seasons unfolded, this beautiful lake offered a vibrant spring, a cool summer refuge, a magnificent autumn tapestry and a frozen winter wonderland. 

But beyond the scenic beauty, Gilsar was a place of togetherness, where families bonded and nurtured memories to be forever cherished, under a canopy of twinkling stars. Now, whenever nostalgia tugs at our hearts, we are transported back to the enchanting embrace of our childhood home, touched by the timeless allure of the lake’s pristine beauty.

During my early years, I attended Nowshehra Primary School, a place where my childhood took a flight to destiny far from the harsh realities of life into the fairy-tale wonderland, a place of innocence where knowledge and discipline were intertwined. This abode of sheer sweetness was a short walk from my home.

I loved this daily stroll for one reason more than others, a little stop over every day, on the rustic bridge, painted black and white, crossing over the sparkling waters of Gilsar. Into this, my eyes would gaze with wonder and joy, as if teleported into another world. I remember throwing pebbles into the clear waters and feasting my eyes on the ripples that brew. Ah, the little pleasures of life!

I often wonder how we as adults let ourselves get trapped in our self-created, myopic struggles and become oblivious to what is truly precious.

On the way back home, I would witness a dramatic shift from the early morning calm to afternoon hustle. The whole town, up and running, revealed facets of every day chores which remained hidden in the crisp morning air. As I would approach my favourite spot, all crowd and noise would fade away, the cool breeze feeling fresh on my skin and eyes once again transfixed on the lights dancing on the surface of this enchanting lake. As if unable to resist, my feet would find their way to the banks below, with my gaze penetrating the clear waters to witness the fish coursing effortlessly through the aquatic world.

More often than not and much to my father’s annoyance, I would find myself taking a dip in the Gilsar. The sheer thrill of splashing in this pristine natural pool, underneath the open blue skies, fenced by tall green trees, overpowered any fear of the inevitable punishment to come.

My childhood desires grew at supersonic speed and no one could fathom my whims except my tender heart and swimming in the azure waters of Gilsar was the prince among other ordinary fancies.

My fancy would soon come to life as my brothers who were avid swimmers took me along with them to teach me to swim. Even though my fragile body would sometimes refuse to draw its way through the calm waters of the Gilsar Lake yet the inner flame came victorious every time. I witnessed people from various regions coming to the lake with a shared passion for learning to swim, making it a thriving hub for water sports and fostering connections among diverse minds.

One profound memory from my childhood archives involves the cherished activity of collecting Nadur (Lotus Stem) with my brothers from the tranquil shores of the lake. This healthy and wealthy recollection holds a special place in my heart and soul, serving as a reminder of Gilsar’s primary role as an ecological treasure, brimming with diverse and vibrant forms of biodiversity. It was in those moments of harvesting Nadur that I truly appreciated the rich domains of life that Gilsar sustains, making it a place of both personal nostalgia and ecological significance.

Amidst this charming locale, there also existed a place of profound significance—an island nestled within the tranquil embrace of Gilsar Lake, affectionately known as Tala Bair. It echoed the enchanting magnificence of Char Chinari in the iconic Dal Lake.

With eager anticipation, alongside my brothers, I would traverse the waters, gliding towards the ethereal island that beckoned to us. Our hearts brimmed with excitement as we embarked on an expedition, driven by a desire to explore the avian abodes. The nests of these feathered inhabitants delighted us as we revered in the joy of discovering their intricacies.

I feel grateful for having had the privilege of engaging with these magnificent creatures up close in their natural habitat. It was within these hallowed moments that our souls were nourished, basking in the profound contentment that only nature can bestow. What a blessing indeed!

And just as you would begin to think that you experienced nature in all its glory, the night drew in with a surprise, tantalising the senses to a whole new taste of Gilsar. The fishermen lived in their small boats, and their way of life was inseparable from the waters which brought them their livelihood.

The lake would come alive with the flickering lights of kerosene lanterns that adorned the fishing boats, their reflection on the dark waters adding to the magnificent beauty of the stars shining above. It was a sight to behold and attracted huge crowds from in and around the locality.

The splendour of Gilsar mesmerised all, young, old and children alike, and I was no exception. The gentle breeze coming out of the shadows would sway my tender thoughts back and forth, while I stood there with my own family, captivated in a trance, whilst taking in the panoramic view of the lake and its surroundings at night.

Those halcyon days in Zoonimar, the Gilsar Lake with its mystic allure, remain forever etched in our hearts. They are a testament to our deep-rooted connection with the natural world, where solace and tranquillity intertwine with our very essence.

Gilsar Lake, I observed, served as a splendid abode for thousands of migratory birds. These avian visitors graced the lake’s shores in distinct seasons, enhancing its glory and ecological importance. Their seasonal arrival not only added to the lake’s charm ecologically but aesthetically too, with a vivid display of colours and soothing melodies. This played a vital role in the delicate ecological balance of the region. Gilsar’s allure, both in its visual appeal and its ecological significance, was significantly amplified by the regular arrival of these migratory guests, turning it into a true heaven for nature enthusiasts and conservation alike.

In every season, the water body would enchant sightseers. Some of them even walked across its frozen waters in circa 1963. As a child, I enjoyed this natural phenomenon even more because the warmth of childhood didn’t let me feel its freezing bite.

The clock kept ticking, and in 1968, I passed my 10th-grade with flying colours, receiving much appreciation and love from my teachers and family. It was a moment of great pride and joy for me and my family. As I continued to excel in my studies, in a sad turn of events, Gilsar was beginning to face the cold shoulders of its very own people, slowly choking its length and breadth to silent death.

A prime tourist attraction until the 1970s, the lake was significant for its rich contributions to culture, society, and the economy. Tourists embarked on enchanting journeys through picturesque waterways, navigating traditional boats called Dongas. This scenic route led them to the vibrant festivities of Mata Kheer Bhawani Temple in Ganderbal, immersing them in the cultural tapestry of the region.

Gilsar Lake also captured the hearts of locals, particularly during Eid Milad-Un-Nabi, as families hired Dongas to embark on a pilgrimage to the revered Dargah Hazratbal Shrine. They found solace in the lake’s tranquil beauty, connecting with their faith while embracing its serene allure.

Transcending culture and religion, the lake’s significance extended beyond, to the economic realm, as it emerged as a vibrant commercial hub. Gilsar Lake is connected to Dal Lake via Nallah Amir Khan. Local vendors skillfully navigated its bustling waterways, transporting fresh produce from Gilsar through Nallah Amir Khan to various markets, sustaining their livelihoods and contributing to a thriving local economy.

Gilsar Lake stood as a multi-faceted gem, a sanctuary for cultural immersion, spiritual rejuvenation, and economic opportunities. Its natural splendour and strategic location left an indelible mark on all the lives it touched.

But the story sadly took a turn for the worst, the serenity began to plunge into chaos – a state of sorry affairs reigned heavy, a sullen cloud of hapless sighs from Gilsar hovered, yet it never complained, never filed a suit, never demonstrated on streets and never raised an eyebrow for it was her own people poisoning her to death. Alas!

As I write I remember the many freshwater springs around the lake that not only enhanced its beauty but also served as the main source of drinking water for the residents. However, the lackadaisical attitude of people gradually led to their death too, which still troubles me today. The ensuing years revealed the bitter reality of Gilsar losing its sheen and dying a slow death.

The year 1988, I remember so dishearteningly, was when the encroachment of the Gilsar Lake began. As sewage was dumped relentlessly, its once crystal-clear waters turned murky, screaming the silent shrieks. The stench of death went unnoticed. Ignored and abandoned, the once thriving and vibrant lake suffocated, along with all life in and around it. Sigh!

Crossing over the same bridge years later, my heart ached as there was nothing of the once mesmerising lake to be seen. Instead, a large, foul smelling dumpster with no life presented itself. My eyes watered as the vivid childhood memories flooded my mind. That is when I mustered all my might and took it upon myself to create awareness about the plight of Gilsar, hoping to initiate a movement to revive the lake to its former glory.

I raised awareness through social media and various other media platforms to garner support and encourage others to come forward and help clean the lake. My brother late Ali Mohammad Magray was amongst the first to donate to CLEAN GILSAR mission. A few prominent NGOs like ‘Ehsaas’ joined the mission to bring Gilsar back to life and restore its lost charm and glory.

The journey has not been an easy one. We have succeeded to a significant extent. However, there is still a long way to go, and I hope that more people will come forward and join hands to restore the Gilsar Lake to its former glory.

My childhood memories are too precious to let them fade away, and I hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the lake’s beauty and serenity, just as I did.

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