A sudden splurge of sunlight disturbs me and for the first time I take my eyes off the in-flight travel journal to get the first look of the imposing Himalayas. The aircraft was literally amidst the mountains. The mountains felt deliriously close, almost as if you could reach out and touch them. I had been amidst these Himalayas before, but the aerial view is bound to leave each one of us amazed, amazed by its imposing stature and its grandeur.
“You’re welcome to the International Airport at Srinagar. The temperature outside is 11 degree Celsius.” Sheesh! Eleven, did they say? Its way colder than what I had expected. I wasn’t complaining though. The winters, the chilly breeze blowing past you had always exhilarated me as much it had given me goose bumps. The chill was a welcome break from a rather humid Delhi’s October.
As the car speeded off the airport, the first billboard that catches my attention reads “Welcome to the paradise on earth.” Indeed, I thought. ‘Though I will be able to say things better when I see this board on my way back to the airport’, I said to myself.
Entering the city, the ample paramilitary forces make it evident the wrath this place had seen in the past. The city had been heavily fortified ever since the insurgency took its toll. ‘The situation in the last four to five years’, says Farooq Bhai, our guide cum driver for the entire trip, ‘has improved a lot. And subsequently, the tourists have been pouring in, since then.’ Any building of value had a sandbag bunker with aiming guns. The excruciating pain, this valley; the people here had experienced is in the stark contrast to the scintillating beauty it possesses. A little further, the string of European houses grabs my attention. Coming into one of the largest cities in India with a non- Hindu population, this was the least I had expected. These houses were built before the conflict when domestic travel to Kashmir was booming. Currently most of these homes are empty, being squatted in or have been usurped for military use.
Driving through the main city- which was yet to kick out the early morning slumber- passing by a rather narrow stream of river Jhelum, the car entered the Boulevard Street. The panoramic view of the huge mountains encompassing the magnificent Dal Lake seemed to be straightaway taken out of the picture-books. And with this, started a fleet of houseboats that ran almost the entire length of the lake. Each one of them safely anchored to their wooden posts. The car stopped by what seemed like a pretty small ghat where a ‘Deluxe Taxi Shikara’ waited for us to be transported to the houseboat.
Having travelled to this part of the earth, it is a ‘must’ to spend at least a day in these houseboats. There are plenty of them and are available in pretty affordable rates. Houseboats date back to the pre-independence era. The houseboats were introduced after the Indian Civil servants were not permitted to build permanent residences in the city while they vacationed here. The houseboats are nothing but floating lodges/hotels -often run by a family- moored to the edges of the lake. The manager is usually the head of the family, the staff (usually one or two) hired from the nearby villages, and the cook being the housewife. There are thousands of houseboats in Srinagar; each one of them in different shapes, sizes, with wacky names and often with an intricate wooden panelling in an attempt to outrun its rivals; to attract more tourists. In the one we were housed, the panelling was typically Kashmiri with leaves of chinar (maple) trees being the recurrent motif. Inside, it was a potpourri of cultures. The Mughalese arches at the doorway, the baroque furniture and the mirrors, a Spanish guitar that was gifted as a memoir by fellow European trampers, the typically Kashmiri handicrafts and the upholstery and not to forget the spick and span cleanliness, leaves you in a jaw dropping awe. And as soon as you interact with the staff, the manager, the people here, a sense of ‘being at home’ relieves you. Kashmiri’s with their unbelievably hospitable nature make sure that you are not merely a tourist, but one of their family guests, one of them.
After the early afternoon brunch, we set out to explore Srinagar. ‘Srinagar is renowned for its gardens, its beautiful flowers and the lakes’ says Farooq on the way to one of the many gardens. The Chashmshahi, the Nishat Bagh, the Shalimar Bagh, the Pari Mahal and many more. But what stands out is the spectacular view you enjoy from each one of them. The breath-taking sight from the top of Pari Mahal, for instance is worth a mention. The mountains draped in the green velvet, the crystal clear lake water mirroring the endless sky above, the lush green lawns, the tall alpine trees; and everything seemed like a huge life-like painting. I go into a retrospect, about how my art teacher used to make us draw those beautiful sceneries of the mountains, the rivers, and the greenery. The sceneries, I felt nowhere existed. As I sat there, dangling my feet and staring at the infinite beauty the valley possessed, I had now known, I was a kid and I was naive to have thought that.
If all these heavy dosage of nature weren’t enough, one might just want to run away to the older part of the city. Old Srinagar is a place away from the calm, serene, picturesque beauty one sees in the lakes and the gardens of the city. By the time we reached there, it was already dusk. And the old city was bustling with commotion and hustling through its activities. Also located here, amidst the raucous chit-chatter is the holy shrine of Hazratbal and the Jama Masjid.
Kashmir for me is the mutton capital of India. For a carnivore, it’s a delight beyond any imagination. Kashmiris’ imperial touch is even evident in their rich spicy recipes. Kashmiris are a huge fan of mutton/lamb which invariably is the most notable ingredient of any delicacy. Once you are here, it would be no less than a crime to have left this place without trying the Kashmiri mutton delicacies- Rogan Gosht, Yakhni, Gushtaba, Rishtae, Matzgand and many more. The Wazwan, 36-course meal is a rarity to find in the entire city, until you gate-crash a wedding. I wasn’t that lucky. And for all those veggies reading this, I am quite sorry to say the grass isn’t much green on the other side.
Kahwah is the staple drink here. People start their days with this great Kashmiri green tea and naan (bread). Prepared with a mix of spices, cardamom, saffron, almonds, walnuts, etc, it is a perfect way to fight the chilly mornings, as u while away time sitting on the houseboat’s veranda, overlooking the Dal.
Known for its handicrafts, shawls, carpets, you can indeed shop till you drop. This place for a keen shopper is a bargaining heaven. Do not be wary about hassling at even half the mentioned rate. There are plenty of Govt owned as well as private shops selling the famous pashmina and shatoos shawls. Though, with the entire tourism boom, there are a lot of fakes in the market priced much lower than the original ones.
Shikaras are unique to this part of the world and it’s almost blasphemous amongst the locals if one refers them merely as boats. The rides are best enjoyed late in the evening, as the sun turns amber. But if you are crazy enough to brave the cold early in the morning, it isn’t much of a dampener. I decided to do the latter to see the floating vegetable market. Wading through a narrow and a rather complex system of channels, the giant floating lotus leaves straddling on the either sides of the shikara and amidst a flurry of houseboats, it took as almost an hour to reach the place. The market looks simple to a layman but functions in a complex manner. The floating market is even a spectacular sight where one can see the craftsmen carving wood into masterpieces and women weaving shawls.
If you are staying here for long, you would definitely want to go for ‘one-day-getaways’ to Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Wular and Manasbal lake. But there is no way one could be done with Kashmir without having gone to arid and cold desert of Laddakh. I hadn’t been that fortunate but I believe I will make it someday. And as I have always said before leaving every single place I have ever travelled to, ‘I will be back soon.’
As I pass by the same board on my way to the airport, my first words were that of Jehangir’s-
‘agar firdaus bar rue zamin ast hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast!’
(If there be a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!)