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Two of the most beautiful lakes in the hills east of the City of Jammu are Mansar Lake and Surinsar Lake. Linked by Hindu mythology, the lakes are about 10 miles apart yet tightly connected to the religious beliefs in the snake-god with six heads, Sheshnag.
The mythology sounds somewhat convoluted to the literal Western mind, involving the story of a battle in which the hero unknowingly kills his father. To bring his father back to life, he makes a 'snake-hole', or tunnel with his arrow, captures Sheshnag and gains the power of the mani to restore his father's life. The hole where his arrow went into the ground became Mansar Lake (shortened from Mani-Sar) and the exit hole formed Surinsar. The two lakes are also connected geologically, formed naturally over 10,000 years ago and fed primarily by springs.
Mansar Lake, the larger of the two, has recently been promoted as a tourist destination by the local government tourism department. A bus goes to the lakes on a regular basis from Jammu, and most area tours include the lakes. Recently the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department has developed a small hotel and guest houses at Mansar Lake, hoping to attract more foreign tourists to the area.
There has never been a shortage of Indian tourists; the shrine to Sheshnag is only one of several shrines and temples located near the lake. Ancient temples near the shore include edifices dedicated to Narsimha, Umapati Mahadev and Durga. Pilgrimages arrive to perform ritual bathing ceremonies in the lake each year. It is a popular custom for newly-married couples to walk the two-mile path around the lake three times to ensure a prosperous and happy marriage. Some religious sects come here to perform the ritual first haircut of their sons. Mansar Lake is considered an acceptable alternative lake for certain pilgrimages to Manasarovar Lake, located in the Tibetan Highlands under the control of China and difficult to reach.
Foreign visitors to Mansar Lake and Surinsar Lake are impressed by their natural beauty amid the forested green hills. The lighted, paved pathway around the lake allows for views from every angle, with plenty of viewing platforms along the way. The path accesses most of the temples and shrines along the lakeshore, passes through Mansar Gardens filled with flowering shrubs and trees, and leads to the small wildlife sanctuary where a variety of native animals and birds dwell, including spotted deer and the nilgai, a type of large Asian antelope also known as the bluebuck. Cranes, waterfowl and other birds enjoy the shallows with some of them breeding in the adjacent wetlands. Turtles are abundant here.
Because of this wealth of nature, Mansar and Surinsar lakes were named a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance in 2006, a designation that draws ecology-based visits. The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department provides a boat rental facility along the eastern shore so visitors can see the landscape from the lake. Most visitors comment on the many large fish they see at the lakel most are varieties of carp that cluster near the shoreline, waiting to be fed wheat pellets sold at the stalls along the lake. Many vendor stalls are located around the lake, selling food and small souvenirs.
In addition to the religious festivals and ceremonies around the lake, many visitors arrive to attend a recently established food and crafts festival in April, the Dogra cultural festival in May, and the annual Chhing festival which features local wrestlers. Although a bypass road leads directly to Surinsar Lake from Jammu, all facilities and activities are located at Mansar Lake. Local Backarwals and Gujjars dressed in traditional costume live in the hills surrounding the lake and are often seen with their open tents from the lakeside pathway. The area is quite heavily populated, with a number of small farms depending on overflow water to irrigate their crops.
Mansar Lake has no inflowing streams; water comes from springs and run-off from the surrounding hills. During the monsoon season, water in the lake may rise as much as five feet, with the overflow caught in pipes for irrigation purposes. The excess ends up in the wetlands and local streams. At least 20,000 people receive their drinking water from Mansar Lake.
Considering the number of people living in the immediate area, the water quality of Mansar Lake is good. There has been concern that deforestation of the surrounding hills and recent construction of additional visitor facilities have been contributing to sedimentation and possible water contamination. The Indian government and international groups have been closely monitoring water quality in recent years and are working to prevent any degradation of the lake's cleanliness.
Tourism efforts are in their beginning stage. Some Western visitors complain that lodgings don't yet meet expected standards for European visitors. That will no doubt change as improvements are made. As the two lakes are only a short distance from Jammu, Mansar and Surinsar Lakes are usually a day trip out of the main cities where more formal lodgings can be found. No visit to the Jammu and Kashmir region would be complete without at least a day spent exploring the visual and cultural delights of the two scenic lakes. Plan to stay at least one day here so that you don't miss any of the sights, and don't forget to feed the fish!
*Statistics listed are for Mansar Lake only. There are few facts available for Surinsar Lake.
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