The Sind Valley of Kashmir

Brigadier Ashok Abbey

In the Vale of Kashmir, some 53 km north of the capital Srinagar is the gateway to a river valley of enticing beauty. Enclosed in the folds of high mountains and exceptionally god gifted, this is no ordinary valley. Emerald coloured lakes, mountain streams strewn with dense pine forests, high mountain passes criss-crossed by fascinating mountain trails and snow clad peaks, indeed make this valley special. Delicately crafted, as if by nature herself and drained by the fast flowing pristine waters of the Himalaya, this is the Sind river valley of Kashmir.

A natural ‘emerald coloured lake’ formed in the upper course of the Sind river

A natural ‘emerald coloured lake’ formed in the upper course of the Sind river

The Sind river of Kashmir is distinct and different from the Sindhu of Ladakh, which is today synonymous with the Indus river. However, in the ancient times the present Sind river of Kashmir, was considered to be one of the principal sources of origin of the Sindhu or the Indus by the locals. Geographically, the waters of both the rivers have nothing in common, neither their riverine course nor the civilizations they support. The confusion with regard to their names is historically interesting. Stein1 while recording the geography of Kashmir has clarified

It is customary in Kashmir to distinguish the two rivers by giving the designation of ‘the Great Sind (Bud Sind),’ to the Indus. This is found as ‘Brhatsindhu’. The identity of the two river names has led to a great deal of confusion in geographical works down to the beginning of the present century. The Sind River of Kashmir was elevated to the rank of one of the chief sources of the Indus, or else represented as a branch of the great river taking its way through Kashmir. This curious error is traceable, e.g., in the map of ‘L’Empire d’un Grand Mogol’ reproduced in Bernier’s Travels, Constable, from the Paris Edition of 1670, and in the map of Ancient India. Compare Hugel, Kashmir. Even Wilson, writing in 1825, says of the Kashmir Sind that “it is not improbably a branch of the Indus”.

The Sind valley lies in the Kangan tehsil, of the recently created Ganderbal district of Kashmir, with its headquarters at Ganderbal on the outskirts of Srinagar. The valley earlier formed part of the erstwhile district of Lar or Larpargana (the ancient Lahara or Lar, was then one of the main sub divisions) and formerly covered two tehsils of Srinagar district i.e Ganderbal and Kangan. Ganderbal district today covers four blocks and two assembly constituencies. The district has an average elevation of 1616 m and covers the entire Sind valley. The valley is bounded by the Lidder valley to its south, the Kishanganga valley and Tilail to its north. To the northeast lies Ladakh and to the east lie the Sainnala, Bat Kol and the Warwan valley of Kishtwar.

The Gazetteer of Kashmir2 describes the Sind valley as follows

The name of a long and narrow valley opening into the north side of Kashmir, a few miles north-west of the city of Srinagar. It lies between long. 74° 50’ and 74° 30’, and extends from the village of Ganderbal, in the Larpargana, which comprises the whole of the lower portion of the valley, to the Zojji-la pass on the east, a distance of about 93 km; its breadth varies from a few hundred yards to about half a mile. It owes its name to the river Sind, which rises in the mountains at the eastern extremity, and near the cave of Amarnath. To those who by inclination or necessity are chained to the high roads, the upper part of the Sind valley, above the village of Gagangir, gives the best idea of the grandeur of the mountain scenery of Kashmir. On either side are lofty mountains, whose tops are usually covered with snow, whose sides, more or less precipitous, are clothed with large forests of pine, and whose feet are lined with walnut, chestnut, and many other kinds or trees.

The climate of this valley is considered the healthiest in Kashmir and it is a favourite resort for the upper classes of native society during the malarious months of July and August; its fruits also, especially the grapes, are very highly esteemed.

The Sind river is the largest of the rivers of Kashmir after the Jhelum, which drains into the Vyath or the Vitasta, the original Sanskrit name for the present Jhelum. Even today, waters of the Sind river link with famous lakes of Dal, Anchar and Manasbal. It is interesting to note that Jhelum, as the river Vitasta is called today, was earlier unknown by this name in Kashmir3. The Sind river contributes more water to Jhelum, than any other river including its southern neighbour, the Liddar. The Sind valley, apart from being bestowed with exceptional beauty, is also of strategic significance as the National Highway 1D to Ladakh, runs through it. In the earlier times too, it was the highway and the main trade route between Kashmir and Central Asia4.

Sir Francis Younghusband, who first entered Kashmir in 1887 described Sind valley5

The most bold and striking of the side valleys is undoubtedly the Sind valley. A fourteen miles’ ride, or a night in a boat, takes the traveller to Ganderbal at its month from which Sonamarg the favourite camping ground near the head of the valley, is four marches distant. The lower portion is not particularly interesting, though even here the pine wood, the rushing river and the village clusters are beautiful. But at Sonamarg ‘the golden meadow’ - the great peaks close round, glaciers pour down from them almost on to the camping ground and the scenery has all the grandeur of the Alps.

Ernest F. Neve6 in his journey to Kashmir remarked

The upper part of the Sind Valley is one of the finest and most magnificent pieces of scenery in the world. The valley becomes narrow with sheer precipices on either side and the Sind river, hemmed in and falling steeply, becomes a roaring, foaming torrent. As we emerge from the gorge, we come in sight of the beautiful glacier of crescentic terraces and ridges, the outer of which are a mile across. These are the successive terminal moraines of the immense glacier valley of Sonamarg.

The Sind river, which is also referred to as the Kashmir Ganga in the ancient scriptures emanates from the southern slopes of the Great Himalayan Range and flows in a northwest and then in a southwesterly direction. The volume of water increases, as numerous smaller mountain streams join the river from the north and the south of the valley. The united waters of the river form an impetuous torrent, which flows over a rocky bed7. The river initially takes birth in the east from the head wall of Mashran Bal, the mountain barrier which separates Kashmir from the Kishtwar valley. The principal tributaries here are Nek Nar, Kel Nar and other small tributaries. At Panjtarni, five streams join the budding stream, in a grassy plain. Further west, the Amarnath Nar from the holy cave of Amarnath joins the fledgling rivulet at Sangam, before flowing in a narrow defile towards Baltal. Short of Baltal at Domel, it is joined by the Hiurbagwan stream. At Baltal from where the Sind valley broadens and takes a beautiful shape, it is further joined by the Zojipal Nar from the north. From here the river fans out towards Sonamarg and flows in all its splendour. Between Sonamarg and Gagangir, the river passes through the Gagangir gorge, under the shadow of precipitous heights and grey cliffs of the Sogput Dhar which towers, some 1524 m to 2439 m above the river. This is the upper Sind valley. The river after Gagangir flows via Kangan to Ganderbal, the principal townships of the middle and the lower Sind valley, respectively. After Ganderbal, towards its confluence with the Jhelum, the river fans out in multiple channels and forms an extensive delta. The river here onwards becomes navigable and the Hanjis operate in their dungas and shikaras. It partly flows into the numbal and then on, into a lake on the outside of Srinagar called Anchar. It finally joins the Jhelum in a single channel, at its western extremity opposite the village of Shadipur, after covering a distance of over 96 km.

Principal mountain streams which join the Sind river from the north in its steady down stream journey are the Kokurun Nar, Nilgrar Nar, Sonamarg Nar, Nichnai Nar, Reyil Nar, Kulan Nar, Kankanaz Nar, Brahamsari Nar and Dudh Nar. Hiurbagwan Nar, Durin Nar, Thajiwas Nar, Basmal Grar, Sona Grar, Pashat Nar and Kaithol Nar join Sind from the south.

While the traditional source of the Sind continues to be near the Zojila, the Amarnath group of peaks and Mashran Bal, an important sacred source of the Sind river or the Kashmir Ganga, was also considered to be the Gangabal lake, located at 3660 m at the base of Haramukh8. Haramukh peak was earlier known as Haramukuta or ‘Siva’s diadem’, the mountain being the Lord’s favourite residence. The Hindus in their annual pilgrimage of Haramukut Ganga immersed bones of the dead in the holy Gangabal lake, also called the Uttar Ganga for salvation. Nundkol, a nearby lake according to folklore is inhabited by Lord Shiva and his ever loyal attendant, Nandi. The lakes are considered to be the holiest of the Kashmir, the Tirthas9.

Nand Kol (left) and Gangabal lakes, with Haramukh (5125 m) towering behind, as seen from Zajibal Gali (4081 m)

Nand Kol (left) and Gangabal lakes, with Haramukh (5125 m) towering behind, as seen from Zajibal Gali (4081 m)

The Sind valley is enclosed by a rim of high mountains, both from the north and the south. While to the east is the mighty Mashran Bal, to the immediate north is the Great Himalayan range. The Sogput Dhar which emanates from the Great Himalayan range in the east, moves due west till Ganga Gali. Heights ranging from 5000 m in the east, to 4100 m in the west, crown the Sind valley from the north. Some of the passes on this ridge are Nichnai Bar, Tsur Bar, Satsarnbar Gali and Pandsher Bar. The Haramukh range lies further west of Ganga Gali, with heights ranging from 4500 m in the north, to 3200 m in the southwest. The range continues unabated to the Safapura heights, before merging with main valley floor at the Sonawari plains. Some of the important passes in this area are Ganga Gali, Malud Gali and Kaindalau Gali. The south of the Sindh river is bounded by the long Mahadeo ridge, with heights ranging from 1500 to 4000 m. It is the watershed between the Sind and the Lidder valleys. Some of the streams which drain from these slopes are Thajiwas Nar, Durin Nar, Son Nar and Pashat Nar.

At the head of the Sind valley in the north, lies the mighty Zojila, which is a witness, to the historic events in Kashmir. Apart from being located on the ancient trade route, it was the gateway to and from the Kashmir into Ladakh and onward to Tibet and China. Historically, the Sind valley was traversed by all the invaders coming from the north. Ranchen Shah, the Turk invaded Kashmir in the fourteenth century, which led to downfall of the Hindu rule in Kashmir. Mirza Muhammad Haidar, with his small band of Mughals also successfully fought his entrance into Kashmir in 1532 AD. More recently, the Indian Army after moving up the Sind valley captured this strategic pass from the Pakistani Raiders on 1 Nov 1948, after launching ‘Operation Bison’. Even today, the Indian Army stands guard to protect this link, between Kashmir and Ladakh.

Mountains towering above the Sind valley

Mountains towering above the Sind valley

Northwest face of the Amarnath massif, towering above Zojila

Northwest face of the Amarnath massif, towering above Zojila

The Sind valley is a revered valley, with many sacred sites designated as Tirthas and worshipped as gods, from ancient times. Of particular significance, at the head of the valley lies the Amarnath group of peaks, with the highest summit at 5280 m. Dedicated to Soami Shurji or Lord Shiva, the mountain towers above the holy cave and the Amarnath Nar.

The Gazetteer of Kashmir10 describes the holy cave

The celebrated cave, which is annually visited not only by the Hindus of Kashmir, but by the pilgrims of that faith from Hindustan of every rank and caste is an enormous fissure on the south side of the mountain situated in a deep and narrow valley, which is bounded by steep and lofty mountains and traversed by a torrent which flows from a very large glacier at its upper end. The opening of the cave is about 200 or 300 feet above the torrent and the path leading up to it is steep and rocky; it passes straight inwards for about 75 feet and then turns to the right for about 125 feet. The height of the cave varies from 10 to 50 feet, and large drops of water are constantly trickling down from its roof. The inner portion is intensely cold and contains two large blocks of transparent ice, which have been formed by the freezing of the water which oozes through the rock and behind which the pilgrims throw their offerings, consisting usually of money, fruit, grain and flowers. A small Brahmini ball carved in stone is placed in the middle of the cavern and broken pieces of stones lie scattered about in all directions.

The great festival takes place in the Hindu month of Sawan, the day depending upon the moon’s phase11

Time and even the conversion to Islam of the great majority of the population has changed but little in this respect. For besides the great Tirthas which still retain a fair share of their former renown and popularity, there is scarcely a village which has not its sacred spring or grove for the Hindu and its Ziarat for the Muhammadan. Established as the latter shrines almost invariably are, by the side of the Hindu place of worship and often with the very stones taken from them, they plainly attest the abiding nature of local worship in Kashmir.12

The confluence of the Sind river with the Jhelum from the early times enjoyed exceptional sanctity as a Tirtha at Shadipur13 and is of particular importance. This confluence according to the Kashmiri tradition, as recorded in the Nilamatapurana, is of equal sanctity to that of Prayag, the confluence of the great rivers Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad. The Vitastas-Indus-sangama (confluence of the Jhelum and Sind rivers so formed), mentioned in the Rajatarangini and other texts, is considered sacred in Kashmir.

Due to the length of the Sind valley, the two ends of the valley experience extreme conditions. From mid-November every year till the beginning of May, the Zojila closes due to heavy snowfall. In fact from Gangagir onwards, the upper Sind valley remains cut off and even the picturesque township of Sonamarg remains inaccessible during the winter months. In and around Sonamarg, the snow depth in winter varies from three to five m. The annual rainfall is 48 to 59 cm. Unprecedented cloudbursts in the upper Sind valley in 2015 and 2014 extensively damaged human habitat and the communication network. While the summer maximum temperature in 2015 reached 25° C, winter temperatures in the inhabited areas plummeted to -20° C. Sarbal and Nilgrar, the last inhabited villages ahead of Sonamarg enroute to Ladakh are migratory villages, which too are vacated in winter. Some detachments of the Indian Army, the civil population and the civil administration, ahead of Gagangir relocate to the middle and the lower Sind valley.

A majority of the population in the Sind valley comprises Sunni Muslims, with major human habitations well spread out along the valley floor. Shia belts are few and primarily concentrated around Kulan and further east, including the village of Nilgrar. Gujjars and Bakkarwals primarily inhabit the valley till Gund and further east, the habitations are those of communities like the Pahadis, Bakkarwals and those of Balti origin. A handful of Kashmir Pandits live in Wusan. As per 2011 census, the total population of the Sind valley was approximately 121000. Apart from Kashmiri, Urdu, Balti, Shina, Gojri and Pahadi languages are spoken.

The Sind valley has a thick forest cover. While the upper reaches are bare, with the tree line finishing at 3350 m, the margs are beautiful, widespread and the alpine forest evergreen.

Francis Younghusband observed with regard to the upper Sind valley14

All the slopes and meadows are covered with alpine flowers. Rich forests of silver fir, intermingled with sycamore and fringed on their upper borders with silver birch, clothe the mountain sides. From each valley flows a rich white glacier. Grand rocky cliffs encircle the forests and meadows and culminate in bold snowy peaks which give a crowning beauty to the whole.

Ernest Neve15 observed that ‘the Sind Valley is covered by a dense forest of pines and Himalayan Spruce. In places, the crest of the ridge broadens out into a flowery alp’. Deodar or Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara) the most revered tree, is found between 2134 to 3659 m in the valley. Birch (Betula utilis, Betula tartarcia) grows upto great elevation. Some of the other trees found in the Sind valley are the Himalayan blue pine (Pinusex celsa), pine (Pinus longofolia), Himalayan spruce (Picea morinda), Himalayan silver fir (Abies webbiana), elm (Ulmus wallichiana), walnut (Juglans regia), alder (Almus nitida), willow (Salix tetrasperma) and the common yew (Taxus baccata). Chinar (Plantanus orientalis), the flagship tree of Kashmir, is found in the lower reaches of the Sind valley, especially in and around Ganderbal. Some of the important forests of the valley are Sarbal, Thazwas, Surapaharao, Kulan, Reyil, Gund, Hayan, Tsunt Wali War and Gangabal. Juniper and rhododendrons, too grow high in the Sind valley at heights ranging upto 3354 m. Roses, irises, anemones, primulas and a variety of flowers abound the margs and the pine forests.

Agriculture and livestock rearing are the primary occupations in the Sind valley. Almost 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture.Those in Government services are few. Many inhabitants are businessmen, entrepreneurs, hoteliers, taxi drivers and shop retailers in Kangan, Ganderbal, Gund and Sonamarg towns. Every year, the Gujjars, Bakkarwals and the Chaupans, move to the upper reaches in search of fresh grazing pastures for their livestock. A lot of them come to the Sind valley from across the Pir Panjal range, on their annual migration which is a centuries-old family tradition. Many earn their livelihood by conducting pilgrims, who throng the Sind valley during the annual Amarnath Yatra and tourists, to and from Ladakh.

The temperate climate of the Sind valley from its origin to its confluence permits cultivation of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Oats, potatoes, peas, brinjal, asparagus, leafy and root vegetables are grown in abundance. It is rightly said that, if Kashmir is a country of fruits, then the Sind valley is a cradle for horticulture. Mulberry, apple, apricot, cherry, peach or Tsunnan, almond and walnut are grown in the valley. Grapes which were once abundant in Kashmir are today found in the few vineyards located at the mouth of the Sind river.

As elsewhere in Kashmir, the rabi and the kharif crops are grown in the Sind valley. The rabi or the spring crop ripens by July and kharif by about by mid - or early October. Rice is the principal crop, which is grown in terraced fields upto 2134 m. Maize is the next important crop. Wheat, barley, millet, pulses and buckwheat are also grown in the upper reaches of the Sind valley.

The geology of the Sind river valley primarily comprises of a mixture of rocks. The metamorphic rocks formed near Kangan and Wangat comprise a coarse genesis associated with grey sandstones and beds of limestone, some of which are white and high crystalline and some blue and scarcely altered16. At Sonamarg in the upper Sind, the river cuts through a barrier of igneous rocks,which are weathered and firm,running northwest to southeast. At Thajiwas, in the Sonamarg valley, the rock comprises soft lime and sand-stone above the old moraines17.

The vast area of the Sind valley and its thick forest area is rich in Himalayan fauna. The forests of Sind abound with the Bengal monkey. Large numbers of the Himalayan langur, bright and reddish in colour can be seen in the valley. The leopard and the Snow Leopard, are found in the upper parts of the valley. The jackal and the Common Fox are found in the lower Sind valley.

The upper reaches of the Sind valley are also inhabited by bears, namely the Black Bear (Ursustorquatus). The Brown or Red Bear (Ursusarctus orisabellinus), is found in good numbers. The ibex (Capra sibirica) also inhabits the upper Sind towards Zojila and Bot Kulan Ganj along with the mountain goat. The Barasingh (Cerrus) or Hangul, the Kashmiri stag and the musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), also inhabit the valley. The latter is particularly visible in the Lar Pargana of the Sind valley.

The Sind valley is also home to a number of birds. The Large Grey Quail a pheasant, breeds in the valley. The Himalayan magpie and the woodpecker along with a variety of pigeons, ducks, geese, owls are also found. The Steppe Eagle, the Laemmergeier and the Monal are regularly spotted.

The Sind river supports a rich marine life. It is home to many varieties of trout such as the Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout and the Snow Trout.Trout also breeds in the high altitude lakes of the valley.

Walter R Lawrence observed 18

In the Sind river, which also abounds with fish below Ganderbal, are found the Sattar Gad, Chash Gad and Charri Gad, the latter species attaining a very great size.

The Sind valley is a haven for mountaineers, nature lovers and adventure-sports enthusiasts. The mountain peaks of the valley, though not very high, are a mini climbing amphitheatre for the alpinist. Rock-climbing on big walls is another delight which the valley offers in plenty. Heli-skiing, too, is fast becoming popular in the valley. Seeing the training potential of the area, the Aircrew Mountain Centre of the Royal Air Force conducted its training in the valley till 194419. Subsequently, the High Altitude Warfare School of the Indian Army, since 1963, has been regularly conducting training in the upper Sind valley. The valley, which is ideally wedged between Ladakh, Lidder and the Kishanganga valleys, offers numerous trekking routes across its many fascinating passes, ridges and lakes. Of late, white-water rafting in the Sind river has become popular, especially above Sonamarg and near Wusan.

The Sind valley epitomizes the natural beauty and versatility of Kashmir. Nowhere is the balance of a traditional way of life and the ‘developmental transition’ more visible than in this valley. However, the natural environment of the Sind river is under threat today - a matter of grave concern. Increased human population and consequently, the human footprint and habitat has put enormous pressure on the limited resources and carrying capacity of the valley. Global warming, coupled with an increasing influx of tourist and vehicular traffic has further accentuated the problem. Rapid commercialization and construction, as a result of increased economic activity and development, has led to rising ambient temperatures. Thawing glaciers have increased water levels in the rivers. Deforestation is another major cause; the lower reaches of the valley have been completely denuded of forests. Extensive grazing in the upper reaches and vanishing lowland meadows have given way to concretization, like the virtual disappearance of the golden meadows of Sonamarg, which today is choked by hotels. The Amarnath Yatra is an ecological disaster for the Sind valley, giving it very little time to recuperate from the deadly annual human onslaught. Religious tourism needs to be regulated and balanced.

The marine life too is threatened. Illegal methods of fishing and diversion of river water to power canals and hydro-electric projects have endangered the marine life of the river. Unchecked extraction of soil from the river and encroachment on the river bed has further aggravated the problem of soil erosion and has also threatened the existence of the traditional Karewas or Wudars. Cloudbursts in recent times have been severe and have not only altered the course of the river, but washed way precious side forests and destroyed infrastructure. The consequent inundation of the river in its upper and lower reaches are gory reminders of nature’s wrath, when unleashed. All these are worrying signs of a disturbed ecological balance, which needs to be restored.

The administration, and in particular the inhabitants, thus have to ensure that the environmental sanctity of the Sind valley is maintained if it has to survive the onslaught of development and time. This splendid valley must continue to bring joy to all those who live in its pristine environment, to the eternal traveller, explorer and the mountain climber, who will always frequent it!

As Ernest Neve put it ‘Sind Valley is one of the finest and most magnificent pieces of scenery in the world.’

Let us ensure that it stays as one!

Nomenclature in the Sind Valley

Sindhu-Indus river
Vitista/Vyath-Jhelum river
Panjtarni-Confluence of five streams
Sangam-Confluence of two streams
Grar-Big stream
Kashmir Ganga-Sind river
Sindh Nullah-Sind river
Sonamarg-Golden Meadow
Hanji or Hanz-Boatmen
Dunga-Ordinary passenger boat
Shikara-Small passenger boat
Numbal-Marshy land
Tirtha-A sacred ancient place of worship
Harmukuta-Mount Haramukh
Gangabal-Uttar Ganga
Dhar-Mountain ridge
Bar-Big pass
Vitastasindhusangama-Confluence of Sind and Jhelum river
Gujjars-Semi-nomadic tribes which tend buffaloes and cows
Marg-High upland meadow
Karewa or Wudar-Dry tableland

A description of the Sind valley of Kashmir.

A highly experienced mountaineer, Brigadier Ashok Abbey has been climbing for more than 37 years. He has climbed extensively in the Great Ranges, namely the Himalaya, Karakoram and adjoining mountain ranges. A serving Indian Army officer, he is presently serving as the Deputy Commandant and Chief Instructor at the High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg. He was President of the Himalayan Club from 2010 till 2015.


  1. The Ancient Geography of Kashmir. By MA Stein, Ph.D. First published in 1899.
  2. A Gazetteer of Kashmir. By Charles Ellison Bates.
  3. The Ancient Geography Of Kashmir. By MA Stein.
  4. Ibid. Bates.
  5. Kashmir. By Francis Younghusband.
  6. Things Seen In Kashmir. By Ernest F. Neve.
  7. The Gazetteer Of Kashmir. By Charles Ellison Bates.
  8. Himalayan Journal Volume - VIII, p. 148.
  9. The Ancient Geography of Kashmir. By M.A. Stein.
  10. A Gazetteer of Kashmir. By Charles Ellison Bates.
  11. Pandit Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a Sanskrit masterpiece covers events from 3000 BC to 1149 AD. Nilamatapurana another masterpiece, contains myths and legends regarding the origin of Kashmir.
  12. The Ancient Geography of Kashmir. By M. A. Stein.
  13. Shadipur is the present name of the old Shahabuddinpur, the name given to the place by Sultan Sahabuddin (A.D.1354-73).
  14. Kashmir. By Francis Younghusband.
  15. Things Seen In Kashmir. By Everest F Neve.
  16. The Valley of Kashmir. By Walter R Lawrence.
  17. A Climber’s Guide to Sonamarg. By CWF Noyce, published by The Himalayan Club.
  18. The Valley Of Kashmir. By Walter R Lawrence.
  19. A Climber’s Guide to Sonamarg. By CWF Noyce published by The Himalayan Club.

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