Sunday, 24 June 2012

Srinagar - The Eternal City

Srinagar is a popular hill destination in India famed for its lakes, waterways, centuries old gardens, and a town that is still rooted in rich heritage and where traditional crafts flourish. Once a favorite destination, Srinagar went through 2 decades of political unrest which led to this becoming a minefield of terrorism in the 80's and 90's. It is only now that the normalcy seem to have returned to this valley. The People here are welcoming and extend warmth to the visitors and extend the old world courtesies to one who cares to visit this ancient land.

The romance with Srinagar starts from the moment your plane hovers over the snow peaked mountains and green valley. The sight from the plane window brings wide smile and twinkle in the eyes of the traveler. The clean and renovated Sher-e-Kashmir International airport replicates the chaotic air facilities available in India.   Yet, no one seem to minds long wait for the luggage to arrive. For they know beyond the chaos of airport lies salubrious  weather, glorious sunshine and rounds of ride on the placid lake water on the Dal, numerous rounds of savoring 'Kehwa' (Kashmiri saffron tea) sitting on the patio of the Houseboat on the Dal Lake.

The flower sellers on Dal Lake are a charming lot, they would be seen rowing their flower laden boat moving from one houseboat to another in search of a customer for their beautiful flowers. Their call to prospective customers "Phool lena.. phool ka beej lena" (take flowers, take seeds) rings in the air every morning. These beautiful flowers tempt one in buying a bunch of them. Curiously, every flower boat is name - Mr Wonderful Flowerman. 

The serenity of the morning on Dal Lake is one of the best that I have experienced. The morning cal, mist covered lake, mist floating over the nearby Zabarwan hills, boats languidly moving on the water, kingfishers watching over the water attentively for its catch and water hen diving deep into the water to catch its meal. The sparrows creating ruckus in the bushes. flower-seller calling out to the tourists and menfolks rowing to the nearby market for the morning buy of fresh bread.   

Viewed from top the city presents a great vista of a medieval town with tin roofed brick and wood houses spread all over the ground dotted with trees and tall minarets of its mosques and khanqah (mausoleums), river Jhelum meandering through the city and several bridges spanning over it.

Lotus is a much sought after flower in Srinagar and Kashmir. It is cultivated not only for offering to the deity during the puja (prayer) by Hindus but also it is consumed extensively by the Kashmiris. Lotus roots called 'Nadru' is a Kashmiri delicacy. One can see lotus being commercially cultivated on the Dal lake. Three varieties of lotus is cultivated here - yellow, white and pink.

Srinagar is dotted with several mausoleums of the Muslim saints. Mausoleums dedicated to them are ornately decorated with the designs and embellishments in form of papiermache, miniature painting and khatambund woodcraft, the traditional craft of Kashmir. The Khanqah-e-Maula near Zainakadal bridge (above) flanked by traditional brick and wood houses on river Jhelum is a must visit. This mausoleum is dedicated to Shah Hamadan, the Persian saint who is said to have introduced and propagated Islam in India.

A tribe of Kashmiri fishermen live on the boat in all seasons. The tiny boat is their home as well as important to their trade of fishing. The family usually a husband and wife live on the boat - fish, eat and sleep. They spread the net in the evening and collect their catch early in the morning. The female member then carries the catch to Fatehkadal in Downtown to sell the fish, only to return before the evening to spread the net for another night and for another catch.    

Kashmiri spices are known for its flavour and robust colour. Kashmiri Red Chillies are much in demand in India for its deep red colour which comes out very vividly in any cuisine. The fennel, cocks-comb flower add that local flavour to the Kashmiri cuisine. Saffron however, tops the list as the most prized Kashmiri spice. These spice-sellers in Zainakadal spice market are bunch of happy locals whose favorite pass-time is smoking (through the hooqah) and reminiscing about the "good old days" and worrying about the "Indian occupation of their land". But they are hopeful about the future and yearn for peace and normalcy. They have witnessed enough bloodshed in the last two decades.
Taking the sight of the lake aboard gaily painted Shikaras (water taxi-boats) on the Dal lake is a must do thing when in Srinagar. The sight of happy families enjoying that calming ride on the water spreads most joy and I begin to wonder, what went wrong in Kashmir that its men, women and children  had to face so much of hardship due to militancy. This also tells me that it took almost 20 years for a whole new generation of Indians to savor the experience called - Kashmir.

Placid waters of Dal lake is not only home to hundreds of Houseboats, shikaras but also it is home to thousands of families who have not known another home. This is their home, trade centre and their farm. The floating vegetable farms on the Dal produces some of the freshest vegetables. Every morning a temporary floating vegetable market springs up around the sun-rise, witnesses quick deals and offloading of sold vegetables onto the empty boats of buyers and make way towards the boulevard for onward transporting to the downtown Srinagar. This farmer is heading back home after selling off his stock.

The Fisherman collecting his catch early in the morning

The tranquility of misty morning
Shikaras moored by the boulevard. These boat-taxis have funny names, one of these is named '- Facebook Deluxe

One of my favourite shikara. 

Top 10 Must Do's at Srinagar

Stay on the Houseboat

Spend a night or two in Houseboat on the Dal Lake or for those who prefer to be away from the hustle and bustle may opt to stay in houseboat on Nagin Lake. Each houseboat is self contained, spacious and well furnished with most of the requirements for a comfortable stay available on board. A typical houseboat has three bedrooms with an en suite bathroom, a spacious Living room, a dining room, pantry and a front lounge. Some houseboats have adjoining small garden or a on the water deck, where one can sun bathe or just relax.   The houseboats are richly furnished with carpets, kashmiri handicrafts and ornate woodwork designs on the ceiling and walls of any houseboat is a must. Houseboats are classified from Super Deluxe to D Category depending on the amenities available on board. Pickup a houseboat moored after the Nehru Park for atmosphere, scene and tranquility. These houseboats are closer to Char Chinar, Dal Market, Floating vegetable market, lotus farms, Kabutarkhana and Nishat and Shalimar Gardens.

Where to stay:

Tunda Palace            Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Ghulam Ahmed Tunda  9622427780
Prince of Vale           Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Salim Tunda
HB Teheran              Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     
HB Bostan                Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17
Cheerful Charlie       Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Aslam Donglu

On Nagin Lake one can choose to stay at Gurkha Houseboats  run by Welcome  Group  of Hotels.
Shikara ride on the Dal Lake

Take a tour of the Dal lake and Nagin lake on a Shikara. See the Kabutarkhana (pigeon house of former Maharaja of Kashmir, Char Chinar (4 Chinar trees) on a tiny island, Dal floating market behind Nehru Park, Floating vegetable market, visit Papier Mache factory and watch process of papier mache crafts, lotus farms, or visit Shalimar and Nishat Gardens. The Shikara wallah would also show you HB Cheerful Charlie, where the famous song 'Bhumro, bhumro.." of hindi film Mission Kashmir was picturised on Preity Zinta and Hritik Roshan. Must do on shikara is a trip of the backwaters of Dal where you see the villages and the non-touristy Dal Lake. Contact Ashique (9419011042), the owner of shikara 'Facebook Deluxe'at Ghat # 16 for an enjoyable ride.

Floating Vegetable Market

Early morning visit to the floating vegetable market must be on top of your agenda even if you are not staying on a houseboat on Dal lake. The market settles down around sunrise on a vast patch of clear water in the backyards of the lake where farmers from lake carry freshly picked vegetables. Buyers from downtown Srinagar pick up these boat loads of vegetables and clear away by 8 am.

Boat ride on Jhelum River

The river Jhelum was once lifeline of Kashmir before advent of vehicles and mechanized transport, hence the city of Srinagar also settled on the two banks of the river. Century old brick and wood houses still stand tall on both flanks. Recently started speedboat ride is a good way to see the stretch of river from GPO Park upto Zainakadal. On the way one sees the old wooden bridge of Zainakadal which is unique in form, the khanqah-e-maula, the raghunath temple are some of the important buildings that you would come across during this journey. It takes about 70 minutes for a round trip and cost approx 960/- for the full boat which  takes 8 persons. One can pick up the speed boat from Grindlays Ghat or the covered boat from Pirzoo Garden across the GPO on Bund.
Caution - These speedboats do not have life jackets or life saving equipments.

Mausoleum Visit

Srinagar is home to the mausoleums of famous muslim saints - Shah Hamadan, Peer Dastageer and Makhdoom Saheb. These mausoleums are magnificent examples of Kashmiri architecture and craftsmanship. Ornately decorated interiors would mesmerize any visitor.

Hazratbal Mosque

The white marble Hazratbal mosque glistens in the daylight across the Dal Lake beyond the backwaters. Apart from being a magnificent structure, it houses the sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammed (saw) which is displayed to the devotees only on select few dates during the year. Green lawn sprawled up to the edge of the Lake with large Chinar trees standing tall is a great place to relax and contemplate about life and its meaning.

Mughal Gardens

No visit is complete without visit to the Mughal Gardens - Chashma-e-Shahi, Nishat and Shalimar and Pari Mahal nestled on the foothills of Zabarwan Hills flanking the eastern shore of the lake. Pari Mahal was a Buddhist structure, before it was converted into a Madrasah by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. The tiered palace provides a panoramic view of the Dal Lake.
Chashma-e-Shahi (Royal fountain pavilion) houses a natural spring which cascades down from the hills. The adjoining garden also provides good view of the Dal Lake.
Nishat Garden is a magnificent garden laid out in the charbagh style of mughal architecture, with cascading fountains and waterways flowing right into the lake in the olden days. Green lawns are well tended which reflects in many varieties of flowers in full bloom. JK Tourism has recently started a coffee shop on the lawns of Nishat. One can savour Kehwa with Kashmiri naan while resting on reed-mat with gaily covered bolsters to rest ones tired body.
Shalimar Garden is the most beautiful of all. The tiered garden with flowers in full bloom all across, cascading fountains and tall shadowy chinar trees is a feast for nature lovers.

Ariel view of the Dal Lake, houseboats can be seen moored in neat rows with Hari Parbat (Hari Fort in the distance).

Shopping in Downtown

Srinagar is a shoppers paradise for traditional crafts of Kashmir. Unfortunately, Kashmiri crafts are more female centric with very few options for men. One can pick Pashmina, Jamawar and Kani Shawls, stoles and mufflers, Embroidered dress, papiermache products, carpets, crewel and chain-stitch upholstery fabrics and dress materials; floor wares - namdas and gabas; wall hangings; copper-ware samovars and traditional bowls, glasses and pots; wicker baskets and lamps, walnut wood carved desks, tables, jewellery boxes; dry fruits, Saffron and spices.     

Visit Maharaj bazaar and market near Habbakadal bridge, Lal Chowk for dry fruits and saffron. Zainakadal for spices and copper ware; For carpet, chain stitch wall hangings and floor wear visit one of the outlets on Boulevard near Nishat and Shalimar Gardens. Ghulam Mohammed Joo at the crossing of Residency Road near Bund is an excellent option for quality carpets. Tiny little shops at Nauhatta are great bargain places for crewel stitch fabrics, namdas and gabbas. The shops at Residency Road have touristy rates which are much on the higher side. Go to shops where local residents shop for clothes. G M Shah on Residency at the intersection of Polo View is a treasure trove of Kashmiri embroidered dress and dress materials, furnishing fabrics, shawls and upholstery. Lanes near Hazratbal mosque are great to pickup some of the finest wicker ware baskets, lamps and wicker decorative items. Persian Dowry on Dal Lake behind Nehru Park is a treasure trove of famous papiermache craft. 

Dinner at Ahdoos  

Visit to Srinagar is incomplete without enjoy feast of Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine. Though the full wazwan feast consist of more than 30 courses which can only be had at a Kashmiri wedding. One can sample some of the wazwan dishes at the Ahdoos, a landmark hotel and restaurant on Bund. You can savour the red gravy Rista (mutton ball curry) or Gushtaba (mutton ball curry in white gravy), Tabak Maaz (lamp ribs deep fried), Kabab (seekh and boti), Nadru (lotus stem curry), Chemen (Paneer curry). These go well with the plain rice or dry-fruit rich Kashmiri Pulao. Round it off with Phirni followed by hot and invigorating cup of saffron kehwa. 

Alka Salka, few blocks away from Ahdoos is another good option for wazwan. The much touted Mughal Darbar near GPO is a disappointment though. For foodies who do not care much about the ambience but want to gorge on kebabs then Khayam chowk is the kebab paradise in Srinagar. About a dozen small eateries serve kebab, rista, gushtaba with rice or roti late into the night. All very reasonable priced.
Coffee and Pasta, Pizza at Cafe Arabica

Post militancy, the first Cafe to spring up to cater to the needs of much aware Kashmiri youths is Cafe Arabica housed on Polo view located at Hotel Broadway. This excellent cafe serves among others, pastas, pizzas, Chinese, Arab and American dining cuisine. This atmospheric cafe is a hangout of Kashmiri youths who live with the times - informed, enlightened and tech-savvy. Open all day, till 10 pm on Polo View Road.

Stream on the boulevard near Dal gate is a newly opened restaurant is a good option in the Dal area for Lunch and dinners. There is also a Cafe Coffee Day in the Hotel Malik Place compound on boulevard, but beware of the snacks. I was served stale sandwiches!

Useful Information

Places to stay - Hotels

Vivanta by Taj                Zabarwan Hills, Boulevard                 Vivanta by Taj Srinagar
The Lalit Grand Palace    Boulevard                                         Lalit Grand Palace
Broadway Hotel              Polo View, Maulana Azad Road       Hotel Broadway
Ahdoos                           Maulana Azad Road                          Ahdoos
Green Acres                    Rajbagh                                            Green acres
Malik Palace                   Boulevard
Grand Mumtaz                Polo View, Maulana Azad Road       Grand Mumtaz
Shahenshah Palace          Boulevard
Centaur Lake View         Boulevard                                        Centaur Lake View
Hotel Heemal                  Boulevard
Hotel Madhuban             Boulevard                                         Hotel Madhuban     
Hotel Shah Abbas           Boulevard
Hotel Zabarvan               Zabarvan Hills
Almond Villa Mahindra Homestay                                           Almond Villa        
Hillscape Inn                  Nishat                                               Hillscape Inn
Mahatta Homestay          Rajbagh

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1 comment:

sofiaspace said...

Wonderfully written, describes the Kshmir I know so well!!

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