`IF there be Paradise on earth,'' wrote a Mogul ruler centuries ago, ``this is it; oh, this is it!'' To the uninitiated, the emperor's enthusiastic assessment of the charms of Kashmir may smack ever so slightly of Madison Avenue hyperbole. But for those who've been to India's northernmost state - nestled in the snowy arms of the Himalayas - the Mogul's description is hard to fault.
Snowcapped peaks surround the Vale, or valley, of Kashmir like a panoramic post card. In the spring, rice paddies spread across the valley like a lush green carpet and ``shikaras'' - gondola-style boats - skim quietly across the lily pads that fill Dal Lake.
There is a tranquillity here of centuries gone by, a gentle cadence of living that has yet to be hurried along by the pressures of the 20th century. Which is not to say that Kashmir has been untouched by the modern world; for 40 years now, since Indian independence, Kashmir has been a territory sometimes violently disputed by the governments of India and Pakistan.
Typically, Kashmiris simply shrug off the ongoing standoff. They are a proud people, and some of them see their land as a country apart - a detachment that stems at least partly from the fact that although Kashmir was conquered by the Moguls in 1587, it was never incorporated by the British into colonial India.
The British, however, did leave a legacy of sorts in Kashmir. Like the Mogul emperors before them, the colonial British rulers flocked to the cool heights of Kashmir when the scorching heat of Delhi became too much to bear. Although Kashmir's maharajah refused to allow the British to own land or build on it, the British came up with the creative alternative of living on houseboats on Dal Lake. Today, houseboats are still a popular form of housing, especially among tourists.
History seems to have a hold on Kashmir; walking along a lakeside road next to an ox-drawn cart or prowling through the jumble of alleys and leaning buildings of Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir, is like entering a time warp that leads to medieval days. It's a feeling that's not far from the truth: Parts of Srinigar have actually survived from the Middle Ages.
The narrow, twisting streets of old Srinigar are hemmed in by multi-story buildings, yellowed and crumbling from age and the sun. Children call to each other from rickety balconies, while their grandparents sit at windows and watch the foot and oxcart traffic below. Women in dark veils are a reminder that Kashmir is a predominantly and devoutly Muslim state; hidden from the eyes of men and strangers, they shop in small stalls, buying richly colored spices and flamboyant silks.
Another world, another time, a place apart. There is a mystery to Kashmir, a sense of one's having stumbled into a secret garden.
The Mogul emperor wasn't far from the truth:
``If there be Paradise on earth....''