The snowswept mountains, whiter than a pashmina goat, swung out of view, and a lattice of green fields appeared. The mustard crop was flowering and, in the midday sun, seemed to be on fire. The plane banked sharply to the right, and the tin-topped roofs of tiny hamlets winked back. We let out a collective gasp as we landed in Srinagar.
But we should have saved our breath for the sights to follow. Spring had come early to the valley, and almond and cherry trees were blossoming all over town. The tulips too, in our honour, had crawled out of their buds two weeks ahead of schedule. In that tentative moment before the arrival of spring proper and the final retreat of winter, the streets seemed hushed. While everyone waited for the seasons to get on with their stuff, the city seemed monochromatic and soothing. There was a proper nip in the air. I don’t think any Dilliwala can honestly say we had a winter this time, so this counted as a treat. The incessant rain of the past few days had stopped all of a sudden (in our honour?), and the sun was out.
From our commanding perch at the RK Sarovar Portico, in Srinagar’s Sonawar neighbourhood, we could see the mountains shimmering on the horizon. But it was difficult to pay attnetion to what was outside when a veritable feast was being laid out before us. As we discovered, Chef Abbas has magic fingers and he rustled up a small but nevertheless sumptuous sample of the Wazwan, the Kashmiri feast I’d so far only heard about. At the Takht-E-Suliaman–as the restaurant is called–that afternoon, I had my first, proper roghan josh. And loved it. The kababs were stunning, as was the nadru yakhni. The humble haaq had pride of place as did the rajma-chawal, the best I’ve ever had. Methimas, entrails cooked in a spicy gravy, were a delicious revelation. And to round it off, a warm firni.
Previously the City Forest Resort and owned by the Royal Khazir Group (hence, the RK in the name), the Portico is a comfortable mid-range option in Srinagar, just a short distance from the Dal Lake and other key attractions. It was therefore but natural that we would set out on a grand tour of Srinagar shortly, not least to work off that massive meal. And what better person to show us around than Marifan Gul, the hotel’s sales and marketing manager, who himself grew up in the Old City.
Tourism in Srinagar remains comfortingly of the traditional variety, the city’s tremulous beauty revealing itself through its gardens, shrines and viewpoints. First stop, the stunning Khan Khayi Maula or Shah Hamdan shrine. Set on the banks of the Jhelum, this centuries-old shrine is a largely wooden structure and the final resting place of the Persian scholar Shah Hamdan, who preached Islam in Kashmir. It’s a truly beautiful building, its guardians friendly and welcoming (a voluntary donation helps). Worshippers throng the shrine as they have for centuries, the little fabric knots they tie outside privy to the many mannats that the Maula must have gazed benignly on.
The Indo-Saracenic Jamia Masjid is equally old (although way grander) but its clean, beautiful lines make it seem almost modern. The markets around the mosque were bursting with traditional merchandise, the sort you’d pick for a wedding trousseau. And street food, which we promptly sampled: massive rounds of fried flatbread, fritters of lotus root, potato, chilli and fish in a distinctively spicy Kashmiri batter.
We next paid homage to the startlingly all-white Hazratbal on the banks of the Dal, the shrine which is said to hold a hair of the Prophet.
The sun was dipping closer to the horizon and we were all shrined out. So we took a stroll in Nishat Bagh, one of several terraced gardens the Mughals built in Srinagar. Tourists, all decked up in Kashmiri finery, were busy making memories with Kashmiri photographers.
Then it was time for a sunset shikara ride on the Dal. It was fun but by no means conducive to contemplation. We were accosted by merchants of every description, who plied us with everything from saffron to souvenirs, kebabs to tea, cigarettes and photographs. There was an entire town on the lake, and we slipped between shops and houses, as well as houseboats.
All this hectic sightseeing had made us ravenous. Marifan said he knew a place. And that’s how we encountered Srinagar’s barbecue street, off Khayyam Chowk. We were so hungry we would have dived into the first dive but Marifan was insistent that we go only to the best. The kababs, as you can imagine, were divine. They arrived steaming, still on their skewers, and we used little parcels of roti to tease them off the burnished metal.
Next morning, our pursuit of paradise continued atop the forested Shankaracharya hill, where an ancient temple, which could only be approached on foot via 250 steep steps, stood. Worth every step, for here was a 360-degree view of the snow-clad peaks that encircle Sri-nagar. Also on view was the Jhelum river in all its majesty, winding a serpentine route through Srinagar’s giddy sprawl.
We had saved the best for last: a visit to the just-opened Tulip Garden. Even with a mere 30 per cent of the 10 lakh tulip bulbs in bloom, it was a sight to behold. Later that morning, at the Chashme¬shahi garden, I heard a Bengali matron admonish her bargain-obsessed brood with these words: “You’ll get the money again, but will you get this chance again?” A costumed photo-op followed. I took her advice to heart and, like any self-respecting visitor to Srinagar, picked up a few kilos of almonds and pine nuts. This was woefully inadequate according to a travelling companion who convinced me to pick up a few kilos of dehydrated vegetables as well. Apart from hospitality, the Royal Khazir Group also has interests in handicrafts, carpets and shawls. At their factory showroom, I nearly bought a carpet. They had just demonstrated that all Kashmiri carpets are hand-knotted, with 464 individual knots in every square inch, so bargaining would have been petulant. But at the last moment, I desisted. Next time, I told myself.
A number of domestic airlines connect Srinagar with major Indian metros and with Jammu and Leh. If you’re flying in the morning, ask for a window seat on the left side on your way in, for the best views of the snow-capped ranges. The flight from Delhi is short and pleasant.
Where To Stay
The RK Sarovar Portico (from â‚¹10,900 per night excluding taxes and fees; sarovarhotels.com) is a convenient option in the heart of Srinagar, right next to the UN Base and just 12km from the airport. It has over 50 heated rooms (although some are under renovation at the moment), a superlative restaurant, swimming pool and free wi-fi. There is a small boutique on the premises. They have a nice new al fresco sheesha bar as well. An infinity pool and luxury Turkish spa are in the offing. Do stay a night or two in a houseboat (the Ajanta comes highly recommended). Sarovar can arrange this for you.
What To See & Do
Srinagar is noted for its many historic gardens, including Nishat Bagh, Shalimar, Chashmeshahi and the gorgeous garden-with-a-view-to-die-for that is Pari Mahal. Modern verdure includes the Botanical Garden (which I–boohoo–couldn’t visit this time) and the adjacent and seasonal Tulip Garden (April is the season, so go now!). Srinagar’s hallowed shrines include the Shah Hamdan shrine and Hazratbal. Don’t miss the imposing Jamia Masjid. Take a shikara ride on the Dal or Nigeen lakes. Golfers will want to head to the Royal Springs Golf Course (royalspringsgolfcourse.in).
There is so much excellent shopping in Srinagar, you might want to devote an entire trip to it. Enticements include dry fruits and saffron, carpets and pashminas, copper utensils, dried veggies, Kashmiri chillies and spice pastes. And, if you’re unhinged like me, buy a few morels at â‚¹27,000 a kilo.