Banihāl’ - meaning blizzard in Kashmiri language, is a notified area committee town in Doda district in Jammu and Kashmir State of India. With an average elevation of 5466 ft Banihāl is located at 33.4209 latitude and 75.2045 longitudes on National Highway 1A. Banihāl is 37 kilometres from Qazigund of Anantnag District.
The Pir Panjal Mountains separate the Kashmir Valley from outer Himalayas on the north and from the plains on the south. Known as the Gateway to Kashmir Valley, Banihāl Pass was the only passage from Jammu to Srinagar post partition in 1947 as the “Murree-Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road got closed. In 1956, a tunnel was bored through the Pir Panjal Mountain and the pass is accessible only in summer and remains closed rest of the year because of heavy snow.
Banihāl means ‘the blizzard’ which must have been named so because of the considerate amount of snowfall and snow storm that it experiences each year – because of which it is cut off from the rest of Kashmir during winters.
Built as a part of the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link Project of the Northern Railways, the Banihāl-Qazigund Rail link will now connect the Kashmir Valley to the outside world through rail. This railway tunnel was inaugurated and operational from October 2011. This project was constructed by Hindustan Construction Company and cost Rs. 391 crores. You would find it interesting that this railway tunnel passes about 1400 feet below the existing Jawahar Road Tunnel in the same Pir Panjal Mountain. The Jawahar Road tunnel gets blocked with snow during winters. Before the Jawahar Tunnel, porters would carry goods on their back and make it across the Pir Panjal Pass on foot during day time.
The tunnel is 27 feet wide and 24 feet in height. A 10-feet wide concrete road is laid alongside the railway track throughout the length of the tunnel in order to facilitate maintenance and emergency and relief. The tunnel is equipped with fire-fighting system throughout its entire length and is 100% water-proof. The alignment of this tunnel crosses the National Highway 1A at three different points.
New Austrian Tunneling Methodology (NATM) was employed for the construction of this tunnel. NATM was developed in Austria by Ladislaus von Rabcewicz – an Austrian Engineer, Leopold Müller – a pioneer of Rock Mechanics (science of the mechanical behaviour of rock and rock masses) and Franz Pacher – Austrian Engineer. The latest technology of 3D Monitoring System was deployed. The NATM was employed in the construction of this tunnel because of the challenging geological strata of the Himalayan Rock in the Pir Panjal Mountains. During the initial geological investigation of the Mountain site, the Engineers discovered of eight different types of geological strata and to meet this challenge, three excavation techniques were adopted. The core concept of the ‘New Austrian Tunneling Methodology’ is to use the geological stress of the surrounding rock mass to stabilize the tunnel itself. NATM was defined by the Austrian Society of Engineer and Architects as “a methodology where the soil formations and the surrounding rock are integrated into an overall ring-like support structure – making the supporting formations a part of the supporting structure”. NATM was originally developed for use in excavating tunnels in the Swiss Alps.
Banihal comprises of mini valleys and highland pockets such as:
1.Pogal: A rugged mountainous region drained by River Bichlari’s tributary – ‘Pogal’. Cattle-rearing is the main occupation here and Maize is the staple crop.
2.Peeristan or Paristan: It means the abode of a Saintly Person with miraculous powers or of fairies and is a rugged mountainous region. It is beyond Pogal and it includes the Neel mountainous region.
3.Mahu – Mangat: It is a mountainous region towards the west of Banihal and is drained by River Bichlari’s tributary.
4.Ramban: Formerly called ‘Kamban’ meaning the place of ‘Kam’ Trees, was named Ramban by Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1819. Currently, it is the 630 Megawatt hydroelectric Project of Baglihar. Ramban is also a prominent station on National Highway 1A.
5.Batote: It is a lush green hill station with dense conifer forests.