Paddar Land of Sapphire

Manoj Dogra
Nestled in the foot hills of Great Himalayas and known for its world famous sapphire, Paddar is one among the many places in the state  yearning for official attention.
Bordering with Himahcal (Pangi) on the eastern side, Zanaskar (Ladakh) on the north and Dachan-Marwah (Doda) in the west, Paddar is a remote, scenic valley in the district Kishtwar comprising valleys like Machail, Ghandari, Kabban, Ongai, Bhuzunu, Barnaj, Bhuzas, Kijai Nallah and Dharlang etc.  Besides being famous for its sapphire mines, which lie in the greater Himalayas, along the Chenab River basin, the beauty of Paddar is unmatched and unparallel.
Historically the area too has its own significance as legendary Dogra warrior General Zorawar Singh (1786-1841) used the mountainous track of Paddar to conquer Ladakh, Baltistan and Tibet under the Dogra dynasty extended the borders of Jammu and Kashmir beyond Himalayas.
After Ladakh, it is the mountain peaks in the region/Paddar which is emerging as the favorite place for the adventure lovers especially the foreigners as the number of trekkers of other countries has soared considerably over the past few years.
The annual Machial Yatra is also being performed by passing through one of the tough terrains of Paddar as devotees throng to the shrine of Goddess Chandi in the Machail village during the month of August. With a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist populace a number of monasteries/Gompas can been seen in Paddar. His holiness Dalai Lama had last visited one of such monasteries in  Gulabgarh in June 2010.
It is not hot in Paddar during summers though winters are a bit chilly as it receives heavy snowfall. Gulabgarh is the significant village of Paddar. 60 kms from the district headquarter Kishtwar, it is the hub of all the activities that happen in the area. All the transport services run from here, be it to the Kishtwar town or towards Pangi in Himachal Pradesh.
Mata (Traditional Yatra) is a Goddess Durga shrine popularly known as Machail Mata and is located in the village Machail in Paddar. Goddess Durga is also known by the name Kaali or Chandi. Thousands of people visit the shrine every year and the pilgrimage happens in the month of August every year. The shrine was visited in 1981 by Thakur Kulveer Singh of Bhaderwah. From early nineties, Thakur Kulveer  Singh started ‘Chari Yatra’that happens every year and thousands of people visit the shrine every year during ‘Chari Yatra’.  There is a substantial increase in the number of yatris visiting Machail Mata as the Yatra has become quite popular not only in the Jammu division but also other neighboring states as number of yatries performing pilgrimage during the August last year crossed the mark of 1.5 lakhs.
From Gulabgarh, the foot journey starts, that is 32 kms. Though the work on motorable road is in progress but being on a snail’s pace one can drive only upto Massu village, which is around 5 kms from Gulabgarh. Throughout the entire yatra track right from Gulabgarh, the Bhot Nullah (a tributary of river Chenab in Gulabgarh) accompanies the devotees all along the track till the village Machail. Glaciers can also been seen occasionally during the yatra.
Usually people take one and a half days to reach the shrine on foot with night halt at Hamori or Kundail villages while those enjoy walking can reach the shrine in a day while starting journey early during the dawn. There are lots of supernatural happenings that the pilgrims experience and report. Opposite to the shrine of Machail Mata standing tall is Shiv Pahar (mountain) which remains covered by the clouds and snow throughout the year. Sometimes devotees are lucky enough to have glimpses of a Shiv Lingam on the top of peak given the fair weather.
The Chari takes three days to reach Machail. Sarv Shakti Seva Sanstha (an organization affiliated with the annual Yatra) with the assistance of State Government also arranges basic amenities for the pilgrims. Many people organize roadside ‘langars’ on the way to the Shrine. Other means of reaching the shrine of Goddess Chandi is by helicopter being operated from Gulabgarh/Kishtwar. This year chopper service is also commencing from Jammu. However by going through chopper, one will be miss  scenic beauty of the nature, the meadows, the streams and the splendid landscapes.  There is strong belief among the devotees that it was the blessing of Goddess Chandi that made Dogra Warrior General Zorawar Singh to conquer Ladakh, Baltistan successfully and extend the borders of Dogra rule upto Tibetean region. Zorawar Singh had paid obeisance at the Shrine of Chandi Mata in Machial Village during one of his missions to Ladakh.
Barely couple of miles away from Machial Mata Shrine there is an old Gompa in village Haluti. Young lamas from monasteries of Spiti, Pin Valley, Kinnaur, Manali in Himachal Pradesh can been seen meditating in this Monastery which is said to be 1000 years old build by Lama Serpo. This monastery is associated with some of the monasteries based in Himachal and Ladakh and monks’ oftenly visit this monastery as part of their annual preaching program. During the annual Machail Yatra some devotees also visit this monastery to quench their curiosity.
Trekking over the main Himalayan range is always a challenging task and Paddar is a perfect place for adventure lovers.  At the onset of militancy in the Chenab valley region the trekking activities in the region (which was famous among foreign trekkers and hikers) came to a halt but now the return of peace in the region has started yielding results with trekkers from European countries again flocking there from last few years.
Tun is the remotest village of Paddar in Gandhari Nala which separates Paddar from Himachal Pradesh, whereas Suncham, the highest inhabited village situated at an elevation of 3385 metres from sea level. Suncham links Paddar with Padum in Zanskar after crossing Umasi La or Bardhar Pass at a height of 5340 meters above sea level.
The Kishtwar Himalayan range is of sharp rocks and ice peaks. Brammah is a mountain range in the Kishtwar Himalayas , east of the town of Kishtwar and near the border with Himachal Pradesh. It comprises four peaks, Brammah-1, Flat Top, Brammah-II and Arjuna. Height of all these peaks is over 20,000 feet from the sea level and these have been ascended in the decades of 70-80. As per available records, British mountaineer Chris Bonington, along with Nick Estcourt, aided by the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering, made the first ascent of Brammah I in 1973 via the Southeast Ridge. The second ascent of Brammah I in 1978 was also made by a British group.
The Paddar Sapphire is considered to be the best in the entire world for its unmatched qualities of durability, variety and beauty Suncham, the highest inhabited village in Paddar and from here one can see the famous blue sapphire mine. Government has stationed a police party in the village to check the smuggling of Sapphire. However villagers are of the opinion that there is no more sapphire left in the mountains/mines as Britishers have taken away the lions share during their rule and whatever is being extracted today is mere remnant.  However, facts have something else to say as government has reined in private companies for the extraction of the gemstones and has also conducted the auctions in the recent years. Though, some claim that only a portion of sapphire is going in the government’s kitty.
Since labour, extraction and agriculture is the main source of earnings of the local population of Paddar, annual Machail yatra has  slowly and steadily generated remarkable employment opportunities but it remains confined to a particular period only. Some serious steps on the part of government in creating basic infrastructure linked to its religious and adventure tourism potential will surely change the fortunes of the people of this scenic remote area called Paddar, the land of sapphire.