For most of Kashmir, Machil is a border sector where the rival armies shell each other’s positions. Mahmood Ahmad, who visited the belt in the areas most happenings year, said the valley is the youngest inhabitation of Kashmir with breathtaking locations and impressive people
Tucked in the extreme north of Kashmir, behind the mountains of Shamasbari and beyond the densely forested clothed slopes of Lolab, lies Machil (also written as Matchil or Macchil). For most of its history, Kashmir knows it as a “sector”, a border belt. The fact is that it is a beautiful place with great people and interesting anecdotes of their history and evolution.
Machil is the last outpost from the Kashmir side, seldom visited by tourists. Given the sensitivity of the area, only residents, Government employees and the soldiers are frequenting the area. All others excluding soldiers require formal permission that Deputy Commissioner, Kupwara issues.
The Lolab Gateway
Almost 58-km from Kupwara town, one has to enter the Lolab valley first. From Lolab, the road leads north towards Kalarous through dense green deodar forests. Kalarous is famous for its caves and the Satbaran (Seven Doors).
The legend has that the caves lead from Kalarous to Roos (Russia) a myth blasted by a group of foreign explorers a few years back. Perhaps these caves were mined for copper in distant past and the hollowed spaces gave rise to legends. However, the Satbaran an ancient monument perhaps belonging to Kashmir’s Buddhist era and might have been utilized for mediation by the monks. Visible from a distance as it is located on the lower spur of the mountain, the monument can be approached by a short detour and a little hike.
The road leading beyond Kalarous is narrow and passes through habitations and rice fields. It is the most pleasant drive during spring when golden mustard is in full bloom on either side of the road. People harvest mustard and start paddy plantation.
The road reaches Sarkuli, the last inhabited village on the Kashmir plains side before it enters densely clothed Sarkuli Thiayan forest. After passing through dense conifer jungle, it emerges out at a Ziyarat near an army camp, only to get into an unending lush pine forest with a moderate. Finally, the road seems to be rescuing itself by emerging out at a pass known Zamindar Gali. Also known as Z-Gali, it lies at an altitude of 3150 Mts. This is the p[lace where all entries are to be recorded with the army authorities. The pass is home to a large army garrison which is the base camp for logistics to the forward positions in Machil.
As Zamindar Gali, the most delightful part of the view is that one can see Nanga Parbat, an 8126 –meters peak in the greater Himalayas. The road is macadamized and remains open till the first snowfall. Last year, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) managed to keep the road open for most of the winters. The area around Z-Gali is flat and is called Koker Seena (the chicken chest) by the locals. Its slopes are thickly clothed by Fir and Pine.
The Machil Fish
Machil is basically a Dardic word meaning fish. Local folklore is that the name was given to the place on account of the abundance of fish in Matchil streams. I did not observe any fish in the stream but I did find many stone diversions laid down by locals to funnel fish into traps. These diversions were visible across the entire stretch of the Machil stream, an important left bank tributary of Kishanganga. It originates from the higher reaches of Poshwari, one of the last Valley villages.
Sitting at an altitude of 2450 mts, Machil is a cluster of villages with Matchil itself holding the central place of the valley. It is surrounded by Poswari, Dabpal, Misri Bahak, Katwara, Cuntwari Bala and Chuntwari Payeen on its right bank while Dudi, and Hardurang are on its left side.
Machil is seen as a recent inhabitation. In his Gazetteer of Kashmir, Charles Ellison Bates has recorded: “The village of Matchil was founded some years ago by the present lamberdar, who migrated from a village of Satti in Gurais. The population now numbers eight families of Mohamedan Zamindars, four Fakirs, two Pirzadas, a shepherd and a barber.”
Seemingly, the Zamindar inhabitants of the region gave Z-Gali its name. However, the population of Matchil in 2011 was 21500 with a literacy of 75 per cent.
Given the young age of the area, the records maintained by the government offers interesting reading about the origin of these villages.
Misri Behak: Founded by a Kashmiri Gujjar named Misri, he settled along with his livestock and it became Misri Behak. Much later, various castes like Bhat, Lone and Chopan joined them. A few years back army has constructed a road passing through this village to the forward posts that later connect with Gurez. This is a restoration of a historical trek that the army has re-established.
Dudi: A person named Kamal son of Mohammad Akbar settled down to establish this village. His herds produced a large quantity of milk that gave the hamlet its name, Dudi.
Chuntwari: Its means a small apple orchard. The record suggests that in 1930 Bikrami, Rasool Hari settled in the village. Later a Gujjar, Din Mohammad Chandoo settled there during the reign of Maharaja Ranbir Singh. As the population increased, it spread over a fair area – the village near the Matchil stream became Chunwari Payeen and the one atop the mountain became Chuntwari Bala. Payeen and Bala are Persian/Urdu words for lower and upper.
Dabpal: Dab in Kashmiri is a verandah and Pal is a rock. A simple combination means a verandah over a rock that is what Dabpal actually is. This name was given to the village by a Gujjar family. Later people from Kandyal village in Gurez and Kupwara settled in this village.
Hardrung: Legend goes that this place had flowers of different colours in the spring. Then, a person having Tantray caste visited and gave the place a name Rang Pathera (a colourful land). Later it got corrupted to become Hardurang meaning different colours.
At Katwara, a village adjacent to Dubpal, I was informed by the two elderly gentlemen Haji Gulam Ahmad Khan and Haji Imam Din Khan that most of the inhabitants of the village have migrated from Pakhli in Hazara and settled here. The villagers speak Pashtu.
Agriculture and animal husbandry are the mainstay of the economy. People grow potatoes and beans. Earlier, they used to grow buckwheat but it was discontinued after the public distribution system assured easy excess to rice.
Machil potatoes are known for taste and quality like its beans. The belt has about 13000 kanals of agriculture land under cultivation – over 8000 kanals for potatoes, 3300 kanals for maize, and 1800 kanals for beans. Its clay loamy soil is ideally suited for potatoes and turnips. Almost every household grows collard greens. They rear backyard poultry along with sheep and cows. While the lush green grazing lands help them manage larger herds in summers, the population stores ample quantities of grass and fodder to feed them. Maize is primarily grown for fodder as it does not yield corn due to cold climatic conditions.
The other source of income is their dependence on armed forces and police. Both the forces have recruited many people and the remittances help people better. To avail various government schemes, however, the inhabitants are required to secure income and ALC (Resident of Actual Line of Control) certificates from Kupwara – a long journey.
Machil owes part of its affluence to some degree to the army that gives them fair share in the jobs that local terrain and requirement produces.
A Historic Year
This year, locals said, was historic. Under Sobagyi scheme, electricity has reached Machil for the first time in history. A power transmission line stands laid across the mountain from Kalarous to Machil as a result of which Matchil and Dudi are electrified. The laying of electric cable and setting up of a receiving station is underway. Given the quantum of snowfall, it seems that the weak power line may not survive the winter.
Earlier PDC (Power Development Corporation) had embarked upon the construction of a mini-power plant on the Matchil stream. Seemingly, it stands abandoned. A partially damaged penstock and turbine building is visible, however.
However, the government has provided solar-powered lightings and other items. Residents said their battery replacement has not happened for almost a decade as a result of which most of the lights are presently defunct.
On October 7, when Lt Governor M K Sinha visited Matchil to unroll B2V3, the local delegations sought better mobile connectivity. Though the Airtel network is available in Machil, soon other networks are expected to operate their services from there. The lone branch of Jammu and Kashmir Bank continues to be the only financial institution.
Houses are primarily constructed of wood. The ground floor is laid in stone and partitioned – part cowshed, part sheep-shelter and in certain aces, part kitchen. The first story is entirely constructed of wood. This arrangement helps keep inhabitants warm during harsh winters. The houses are extremely graceful and look very picturesque in rural settings.
While the people co-exist with the ecology of the people, emergencies are a crisis during winters. Residents have horrific stories to narrate. When his daughter-in-law fell seriously sick, Mohammad Maqbool Khan, Sarpanch of Dubpal, said they arranged almost 24 people to carry her on a makeshift stretcher over 10 feet of snow to Kupwara. That horrifying incident, he said prompted him to purchase a piece of land and construct a house in Lolab where the family spends the winter now.
Same was the case of Mohammad Amin, a forest official, who now lives in Lolab for the winters. His wife had fallen ill and after desperate attempts, he had managed to fly her to Kupwara in an army chopper.
Now more than fifty percent of the population migrates to Kashmir for half of the year to escape the isolation. Interestingly, the Lolab residents attribute the escalating land prices to this migration.
The inhabitants live in constant fear of border shelling. The ubiquitous bunkers indicate the crisis. Pointing towards north to a cave in the mountain, Ali Mohammad Mir, a Chuntwari Bala resident, said his village takes shelter in the cave during border shelling. The particular mountain has abundant caves and that is why people call it Hoi Bal, the mountain with caves.
Mohammad Dilbar Khan, the Sarpanch of Chuntwari Bala said the tribesmen had managed to reach Matchil in 1947. However, they left with the onset of winter around November after which the Indian army secured Machil. He too has lost 13 relatives and neighbours in the border shelling so far.
Gulam Rasool Khan heads the Block Development Council. Knowledgeable about his area while we were having tea with honey in an ideal setting over a verandah in Hurdarang Bala, one of Machil’s picturesque villages, I was perturbed by a thud. He laughed it out saying it is just a “friendly exchange” that routinely happens from both sides. The worst shelling in his village, he said was witnessed during the 1999 Kargil war and 2002. He lost a neighbour in shelling some years back.
The interior Matchil roads are rough, dusty and sometimes slippery so a 4-wheel drive is recommended. August and September are the two best months for an ideal visit.
However, there are very few staying options – a forest department guest house is in better shape than that of the Roads and Buildings Guesthouse. However, homestay is recommended. The people are warm and hospitable These cheerful people mostly speak Kashmiri but some do speak Pahari and Pashtu. They are all Sunnis and every village has a mosque. But Machil could be the only place where there is not a single shrine.
Isolated and beautiful, the biggest problem for Machil from becoming a tourist destination is its location. It is literally the Lie of Control. But if the area is declared an organic agriculture spot, it can chnage the destiny of the people and the place. Most of the crps being grown here are organic.