If one were to look for a single event or person to pin Gulmarg’s enchantment on, it would perhaps be the stay of the Aurel Stein (November 1862 – October 1943) on these long grassy downs. Stein was an explorer and scholar of repute. He had traveled through much of Central Asia and his discoveries were able to add significantly to the corpus of knowledge of that relatively unknown area and to the study of Buddhism. In between his travels, Stein, who had seen some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, would camp for months on end at Gulmarg. He was not alone in his admiration of the beauty of the place and many of the British posted in India would holiday here.
Today’s Gulmarg has gone several steps beyond being a temporary home for those few holiday makers and convalescents – and this is, arguably, the finest mountain resort in India. The landscape has an unparalleled beauty, it has one of the finest golf courses in India and its ski slopes are considered at par with the best in the world. The word 'Gulmarg' means 'Meadow of Flowers' and the undulating downs are covered with a variety of wildflowers in late spring and summer. Most of the architecture is unaggressive and blends well with the terrain - and attractive wooden houses predominate with languid curves and easy dips and rises along the inner and outer circular roads that encircle Gulmarg. A walk right round the outer one, at an easy pace, will take a couple of hours.
Gulmarg rests on an edge of the Pir Panjal mountains. Clearly visible is the western marker of the Himalaya mountains, the 8,126 meters (26,660 feet) high Nanga Parbat. Several other peaks also ring the area. The ski club dates back to 1927. A fresh dimension was added when a gondola car became operational – the second phase was completed in 2005. This is able to carry serious skiers almost to the top of the 4,100 meters (13,451.4 feet) Mount Apharwat from where long runs over varied faces, bowls and ridges have become available on good powder snow.
Gulmarg, like most of Kashmir owes its stunning beauty to immense tectonic upheavals that took place millions of years ago. As the rock rose and dipped, as valleys were carved and mountains formed, they provided the raw framework over which the gentler elements of nature were to play. When the forests, plants and flowers came, they softened the harshness and left the place with a chocolate-box pastoral perfection. One of the early admirers of this great beauty is supposed to have been the saint Baba Reshi who lived in the times of the king, Zin-ud-Abidin. The saint’s architecturally aesthetic ‘Ziarat’ is believed to have been built around 1480 CE and this is considered to be the oldest extant structure in the Gulmarg area.
The name Gulmarg is believed to be a modification of the original name which was ‘Gaurimarg’. The name may or may not have had a connection with Shiva and his consort, Gauri, but this was the name that the shepherds of old used. The name is supposed to have been changed at the instance of sultan, Yusuf Shah who was also enamored with the place. If it were historical endorsements that Gulmarg sought, then the visits of the Mughal emperor Jehangir established the measure of its worth. Then in the late nineteenth century, several British officials posted in India, and their families made Gulmarg their home for the summer months and quite a few would again be there around Christmas; with worn headstones, the old British cemetery still has some graves of that time. The presence of these holiday-makers was also responsible for the foundations of the two activities that Gulmarg today is best known for – golf and skiing. The golf club dates back to the early years of the twentieth century and the ski club, to the late nineteen-twenties.
Taxis and buses from Srinagar connect Gulmarg. The drive to Tangmarg, at the base of Gulmarg takes around an hour. From Tangmarg, the remaining twenty odd steep kilometers up can be covered by jeeps that are available on hire. If you have arranged this with your hotel, they will send a vehicle down. The last jeep out of Gulmarg leaves by sunset. Local movement may be done in buses, taxis or on ponies. Walking on Gulmarg’s well-marked trails is the best way of exploring the area. Tangmarg has a toll barrier where vehicles going up to Gulmarg have to pay a fee.