They would say the pink and yellow lotuses of the Dal now wore shades of red. The blooms weren’t blushing. They were merely reflecting the colour running riot in its waters and over the land.
We chose Dreamboat. The name seemed just so apt. We had after all come to relive a dream story. His story, with beginnings here. For long years he had courted grandma, at times braving miles on horseback from the North West Frontier Province to meet her wherever she be. Serenading her in a shikara on the Dal made it seem all worth it.
When they tied the knot, with his shy bride beside him Srinagar felt double paradise. Theirs were days of perfect bliss. Long walks on rustling chinar leaves, romping through strawberry fields, hot cups of kahva, fresh lotus-badam, spotless blue skies and nights under golden stars at touching distance.
Kashmir remained their favourite haunt. On many a work trip to the town sans her, grandpa would recollect times spent here. And dream of her? But of course, he would tell us, continuing on with his bedtime tales unmindful of our bashful giggles. At some point of time we would drift into our own world of dreams. He always knew when and the next night the tale would carry on from where it left off. Somehow it always found a route back to 1937 and the song of the shikara.
Come 1947, and Srinagar became a place of refuge. Paradise got blemished. Earthly misgiving couldn’t, however, destroy a mould so perfect and soon once again it was back to heavenly tenor. But somewhere something had cracked in those gory times. It had left its scar which deepened over the years. Paradise actually began to seem of another realm. Out of bounds. Beyond dreams. Blue skies domed bleakness. They would say the pink and yellow lotuses of the Dal now wore shades of red. The blooms weren’t blushing. They were merely reflecting the colour running riot in its waters and over the land.
Guns and Roses
We had been cautioned against the trip. But preferred throwing caution to the winds. Having grown up in cantonments, olive green was all over our landscape and the colour always instilled a sense of security. At first instance, Srinagar seemed an extension of that terrain. Stray conversations peeled the veneer and then eeriness gripped. That’s when Nabi Rasool lead us away from trepidations, as soon as we stepped on to his houseboat.
A genial boatman who had seen generations go by, he cut through the layers of fear taking us to the core. To the heart of real Kashmiryat—of poetry and passion, of lyrical voices, of cuisine that’s as ceremonious in preparing as it’s in partaking, of long starry nights spent listening to strains of the soulful rabab. It was Paradise! Maybe not the way grandpa had viewed it. The refractions were different but the prism had its band of colours intact. The bullet couldn’t kill that.
On the Dal
The Dal is definitely Srinagar’s main attraction. Hugged by snow-capped peaks of the Outer Himalayan range and fringed by graceful chinars, poplars and sprays of happy daises, its mirror-like waters look pristine. Activities are played out on it at all times: honeymooners enjoying a ride, fishing nets being cast, cruises through floating vegetable gardens and past villages with wooden houses, shikaras brimming with multihued flowers on sale. You needn’t move. Life moves around you.
The dawn-dusk luminosity makes it even more hauntingly beautiful; the mellow glow adding an ethereal dimension to the stunning landscape. As night sets in, the waters reflect Srinagar twinkling at different heights. If you are trigger-happy (camera, of course) and even if you are not trigger-happy, it’s advisable to keep few rolls of film handy or an extra GB card. Each moment is so spectacularly perfect, chances are you’ll run out of those extras too.
The finest way to get a feel of the Dal is by booking a houseboat—legacy of the British who weren’t allowed to buy property here. You can’t have gone to Srinagar and not stayed on a houseboat. It’s an affair one lives to tell. The stationary floats, with fanciful names, Anarkali, Jaan-e-mun, Noor-e-Jehan… are dressed in traditional aesthetics, replete with carved wooden panels and furniture, Kashmiri carpets and namdas (rugs), gold-painted papier-mâché embellishments… it’s luxury at every step. Like hotels, houseboats are available in all categories from luxe to budget and during season prior booking is necessary. Generally the boatman’s clan resides in one room and treats guests as part of the family, taking care of all needs—from arranging shikara rides to cooking dishes of the wazwan (banquet prepared by waza or cook). It’s a captivating slice of local existence and it’s as close as you can get of living and observing the Kashmiri way of life. We experienced it through Nabi saheb on Dreamboat.
Gardens and Gushtaba
Srinagar stands on the Dal and on both banks of river Jhelum over which are built seven cantilever bridges. The waters do have their share of dirt and grouse floating around but it’s best to overlook it. I guess being a few-day resident let’s you do that more easily.
The town has mixed inheritance, having been governed by diverse forces, from the Afghans and Mughals to Dogras and British. Its unique character is visible in the structures that dot it. Like the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan, who arrived here from Persia in the 13th century to spread Islam. Said to be the first mosque built in Srinagar, it’s a sort-of pagoda style wooden structure. Various edifices portray Kashmir’s secular ethos, that comes to the fore on Hari Parbat, which has a fort and several places of worship like Sharika Devi temple, Makhdoom Sahib dargah and Chatti Padshahi gurdwara dedicated to the sixth Sikh guru.
Besides architectural beauty, Srinagar has beautifully landscaped gardens overlooking the lakes, a bequest of whom else but the Mughals. Shalimar Bagh is definitely the pick among the three terraced gardens, the others being Chesma Shahi and Nishat. They also created Char Chinari, an island in the Dal with four chinar trees now reduced to three. Shikaras row you there to enjoy another panoramic view.
The road lining Dal, the Boulevard as it’s referred to, is where touristy activity is frenzy paced. The best hotels are on this stretch; scores of Bollywood shootings have taken place around here and local guides point out various spots associated with various films. There are also rows of shops selling exquisite handicraft: papier-mâché, pashmina shawls, hand-woven carpets, baskets, stone jewellery. Every original has a duplicate and only a discerning eye can pick the best. Negotiations are in order. Sometimes the reference to “aapka India” as another country can bother; it’s wise to ignore such talk.
Traditional tastes are best savoured at restaurants like Mughal Darbar, Anarkali (popular name here) and Adoos, which serves excellent gushtaba—meatballs in yogurt—with aromatic sticky white rice. There are a number of bakeries offering a variety of Kashmiri breads rarely seen outside the state, like sheermal, baqerkhani—akin to a puff pastry, tsot and tsochvoru that are buns topped with poppy and sesame seeds.
Local transport of all shapes and sizes, from flashy auto-rickshaws to packed mini buses ferry you around town. Were you to ask me, I’ll say the best way to see Srinagar is by shikara. It needs time and comes at a price. But what’s a little price for paradise. Thanks, grandpa.
Published in Jetwings