(August 25, 1943 – October 14, 2020)
by M Saleem Beg
Ashraf Saheb, a doyen of travel and tourism in Jammu and Kashmir spent all his professional life and an active career spanning over 30 years as a practitioner, guide and thinker. He died of a stroke at SKIMS on October 14, 2020, at around 11 pm.
His pursuit of the passion for travel and adventure resulted in the singular contribution of laying the foundation of a significant economic sector for Jammu and Kashmir. His aptitude for adventure led him to a profession that he loved most, Travel and Adventure Tourism. Early in his career, like other aspiring youngsters and for a meritorious student, a position holder in pre-engineering in Jammu and Kashmir Board, he got entry into the most sought after professional course of his time, a degree in civil engineering.
During that period, this college was one of the best rated professional colleges and among the first ten Regional Engineering Colleges of India. Those were also the days of student activism and he was drawn into the rough and tumble of politics. For someone who had the requisite drive and passion, it was not to be a smooth affair. He landed up in prison disrupting his education and training. However, what looked like something like the disruption of a budding career also led to the flowering of an adventure enthusiast and a tourism specialist.
Born: August 25, 1943
Birthplace: Maisuma (Srinagar)
Grand Father: Technical Teacher in polytechnic
Father: retired Deputy Secretary
Schooling: Islamia Middle School, Tyndale Biscoe School, S P Higher Secondary School
College: SP College, Regional Engineering College, Srinagar. Completed his engineering but at final examination time went to jail in 1965.
Specialisation: Joined Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. Joined Alliance Française in New Delhi for French language course
Government: Joined Tourism department in 1973 to set up Adventure Tourism Wing. Became a Deputy Director in 1992, later elevated to Director and Director General in 1996. Retired in 2003.
Associations: Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation; Introduced rescue measures in Kashmir mountains and was awraded Merite-Alpin by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. Ws lifetime patron of the Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club. He played key role in laying foundations of tourism in Ladakh in 1974. Has extensively travelled to PaK and Gilgit and Baltistan besides Europe, America, and Middle East.
Those were the days when the tourism sector across India as a whole and particularly in Kashmir saw shining and brightening of its prospects. State, especially Kashmir was already on the world map of mountaineering. Travelogues of mountaineers and tourists in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are a testimony to the potential and scope for adventure tourism in Jammu and Kashmir. However, even with this reputation, the sector vastly lacked the ingredients of publicity, information, human resource and equipment. Some baby steps by the State agencies and private players helped in the concretization of some ideas leading to hunting for a person who could provide leadership of thought and action for developing mountaineering and adventure in all its forms
That is how Mohammad Ashraf turned out to be the right person for the right job. He got a break with his appointment as Mountaineering Organizer in 1973. He took over the responsibility of preparing the road map for its growth in Jammu and Kashmir. The seventies were the happening years in the State for travel and tourism and Ashraf Sahab along with some other tourism professionals rose to the occasion.
A windfall for this sector was the opening of Ladakh for tourism in 1974. Ladakh and its magic and mystery were there to be explored. Its landscape, culture, tradition environment, the mystique of mountains was a great pull then, as it is now. The team that included another veteran, Rauf Sahab, the then Assistant Director of tourism, capitalized on the opening of Ladakh and imaginatively co-branded fame of Kashmir with the virgin charm of Ladakh.
We find from the records that in the very year of Ladakh opening, i.e. 1974, he and Rouf Sahab travelled in far-flung parts of Kargil and Ladakh and came up with a road map for mountaineering in the wilderness and high ranges spanning Kashmir, Kishtwar and beyond to Kargil and Ladakh. What looks today a natural terrain and destination was actually fathered by the passionate adventure leaders like Ashraf And Rouf Sahab.
Roauf then moved on to more challenging pastures of the private sector, resigned from the Tourism Department and joined the prestigious SITA Travels, a highly reputed international travel company. His joining SITA Travels created a much-needed interface and ecosystem that produced excellent results in terms of publicity, growth and market penetration. Ashraf Saheb published the saga of this engagement with Ladakh in his book Travels in Ladakh that Gulshan Publishers published in 2012.
The singular contribution made by the adventure tourism fraternity under the leadership of Ashraf Saheb is promotion and professionalization of skiing at Gulmarg. Ashraf Sahab, in one of his illuminating write-ups thus speaks of Gulmarg.
“Kashmir has virtually White Gold when one considers the potential for skiing! It would be interesting to reproduce the paragraph about Gulmarg in the International Report while describing skiing in India. Out of the Ski resorts, the largest one is Gulmarg, in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. It is one of the most famous in this region of Asia. The ski area was equipped a few years ago with a 2-section gondola, famous for carrying skiers to an altitude of nearly 4,000 metres above sea level at its top station”.
With the statistical data available now, we know that Switzerland has traditionally been the largest ski market. Therefore no wonder that his focus and eyes were on Switzerland. He cultivated this market thoughtfully with the zeal and dedication of an evolved professional. The fructification of his efforts at gaining credibility in that country is reflected in the fact that to commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded Merite-Alpin by Switzerland in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. His commendable contribution was nationally recognized by the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), where he was also elected as Secretary and one of the longest surviving members of the Governing Council of IMF. At his home turf he continued to be the Patron of the Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club.
Post-retirement his writings, all eternalized in his blog Kashmir First reflect his diverse and multifarious interests. While travel and tourism in its entirety remained his theme and focus, his penchant for history and politics is reflected in ample measure in his blog as well as his write-ups in newspapers and magazines. In this diversity, one finds pathos and protest on the trials and tribulations of his land. He comes out to be a passionate and insightful thinking mind. Arts, Siachen and histories got a new definition and interpretation when it came from his pen.
I had the good fortune of stepping in his shoes in the Tourism Department as his successor in 2003. The physical and intangible assets that he had created, most of these single-handedly, were a mind-boggling spread and span of leisure, culture and above all adventure. His networking with the best of the professionals from top-notch travel industry leaders, filmmakers, photographers and adventure professionals was an asset that sustained the sector and made the work that much easier for me and others who followed him in the sector.
He was one of the founding members of Jammu and Kashmir Chapter of INTACH and continued to provide intellectual and creative support to the Chapter.
We are here to celebrate your life,
And the measure of its worth,
And every single life you touched,
While you were on this earth.
(Former Director General Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir, the author is Convener INTACH).