For an impossible tangle of dhows laden high with produce that smells of wet earth and mornings, business at Srinagar’s floating vegetable market is carried out with surprising ease. Bargains are struck. Weather and well-being discussed. And moist paper bills exchanged with such gentility, it would make the May Queens blush purple. The scruffy zamindars (loosely used for farmers and landowners in Kashmir) in oversize grey and dust-coloured phirans trade courtesies and heads of large-leaved karam saag with gnarled bottoms, mint, coriander, squat pink bulbs of radish and fibrous tubes of pallid white nadru (lotus stems), bobbing up and down on rippled gold. Yet, absurdly, I spend the better part of that charmed, recommended-by-every-guidebook-on-the-planet hour, pushing, shoving and ducking murderous bows of busy boats.
The romance of such a buoyant farmer’s market should by rights have sunk in at first light. But it’s not until the curtain call, just before the timbered knot unfastens and the oars point homewards, that I get a taste of the bazaar’s best ware — breaking bread with shy, curious, chatty men whose day winds down at 6.30 every morning. Dipping a baked roti with holes that let my little finger (and on occasion, a stubby ring finger) through into kahwa or nunchai is a goose-pimpled affair. A feeling last stirred by the muezzins’ drawn out, almost synchronised calls from Hazrat Bal and scores of local masjids, just before daybreak. Echoes that drown the Valley in thrumming, palpable faith and a beauty that stings.
Twenty years after the insurgency first spun out of control, the scars run deep in the Valley. But change has come, as it always does. Peddlers of silver trinkets and saffron, glow-in-the-dark yoyos and Nehru jackets, after years of living on the crumbs of PWD construction projects, are only too glad to not have to look over their shoulders. Besides, the apple trees are in full bloom and wild flowers run amok. Tulips in scarlets, yellows and whites colour large swathes, and fields of gilded mustard patchwork the countryside. It’s springtime in Kashmir.
Rowing away from what minutes ago was a snarl as twisted as on city roads where rain turns the traffic lights fickle, the gluup-gluup-gluup of the oars striking the waters grows louder. A reassuring sound, it becomes our companion for the next two days spent coursing the lakes and waterways of Srinagar. Farooq, the shikarawala, though, can’t see why the canals cutting through the old quarters of Rainawari shouldn’t wait until we’ve paid homage to the Mughal Gardens first.
So homage we pay. First to Char Chinar — not a garden at all, but a quartet of chinars, broad enough to wrap a jogging track around each. A natural pause on the way to Nishat Bagh, I was glad we got there before the restaurant (on a ‘houseboat’ next to the islet) had served its first customer and mothballed brocade robes had been pulled out of the tin trunk for the day’s worth of ‘Photo in Kashmiri dress, Rs 50 only’.
Nishat Bagh, just a 15-minute boat ride away on the lakeshore, was a grander affair. Wide open terraces — a motif that runs through all the gardens in Srinagar — once cascaded right down to the lake. A colourspill of pansies, poppies, hydrangeas, roses and clouds of wild flowers under stately chinars, Nishat, built by Jahangir’s brother-in-law Asaf Khan in the 17th century, is framed by sweeping views of the mountains on one side and the Dal on the other. Ruins of an old stone kadal (bridge) in the fluid foreground of the lake only add to the illusion of timelessness. But this sense is marred by the recently ‘restored’ sections of the grounds (including the gate), smarting from a fresh coat of peach and green, and from a busload of Gujaratis with a pocket full of (nicked) posies.
Poring over a map of blue-veined Srinagar, I was beginning to wonder whether trying to take it all in on a shikara that glides at a pace best described as indulgent was such a good idea. But moments of panic — a travel writer’s fellow traveller — were easily soothed by the unvarying hum of the oar and the gentle breeze at noon. It was like floating on an aquarium. Weeds — tall sinewy ones that sway, green carbuncled goop and fuzzy cloudy bales that look like someone had stirred mango jelly with a fork underwater — covered the floor of the lake. It must exasperate the men who deweed the Dal every morning — rolling their staff to coax the weeds out of the lake bed and then carrying their load to sell as manure to kitchen gardens day after day. Look closely and you’ll also see the fish flitting about, even as kingfishers and egrets sun themselves on the floating gardens and swallows skim the lotus ponds. The symphony finally hits the high note when flower sellers with their cargo of calendula and iris, tulips and narcissus come by to greet our shikara.
Paddling on, we head to Shalimar Bagh, the only other garden accessible by boat apart from Nishat Bagh. Further down the lakeshore, an unremarkable canal veers off towards Jahangir and Nur Jahan’s ‘abode of love’. But giddy ideas of retracing a watercourse that the royal couple perhaps skimmed stones over soon drown in the filth that the canal bears up. Even the half-baked attempts to deweed and clean the Dal and Nagin lakes don’t trickle down to the city’s canals. So we leave the shikara by the lake and amble down this entirely walkable stretch instead.
Chashme Shahi and the splendid Pari Mahal are some of the other gardens that come alive by end-March (reached by three-wheelers or taxis). But it’s the three-season-old Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, tucked in the gentle folds of the Zabarwan Mountains, that has droves of tourists shelling out Rs 50 to immerse themselves for a while in this scene from a hundred Yash Chopra films. Neat files of wine reds, cadmium yellows, delicate peaches, pinks and faultless whites (over 70 varieties) colonise this 30-acre property between end-March and end-April. Pity one can’t row right up to its gates though.
Later that afternoon, Farooq sculls us across to Hazrat Bal on the opposite bank, just in time for the two o’clock namaaz. Rows of rubber chappals, upturned sandals and tiny slippers with Hello Kitty prints carpet the marbled steps of the shrine. The faithful pour in. And the golden spire piercing the sky catches the glint of the sun, even as ranks of skullcaps and tightly wound hijabs bow their heads in supplication. Outside, beyond the gates of the mosque, it’s pure theatre. The bustle of the jumma bazaar fills the curling alleys and backlanes with smells and sounds as rich as the bright yellow halwa and the enormous leathery paratha with blisters and hot oil bubbling beneath its skin. An old, wiry hand swirls the deep-fried bread like a flying disc over his shoulders and slaps it on a round wooden plank, immersing it with finality in a torrid cauldron of oil that crisps its bobbing edges. Spiced kidney beans and candles, wooden ladles and copper samovars, bras and bars of soap cover every inch of the dusty asphalt. Tailors and bakers — with sooty shops selling baqerkhanis, krip and other breads dusted with almonds and poppy seeds — get busy, while bone-setters and blood cleansers, who plant leeches on bare backs and cringing faces, crouch in a well of eager relatives fingering rosaries and prayers. But I head to the one cart that clogs an entire stretch of the road on a sun-battered afternoon. Carrying a precious load of ruby red watermelons from the plains of Punjab, they do well to feed the average Kashmiri’s curiosity. Like selling snow cones to a Masai. Or litchis to the Kiwis.
When I finally drag myself away from the stalls, packed so closely one would imagine the walls would give under the slightest provocation, the shikara is just as restive as I am. It’s the part I had waited all day for — a visit to the old quarters of Rainawari, once the home of the Kashmiri Pandits. Entering the canal, past floating farms, ducks and coots, a fishermen’s village on stilts and a rundown cantilevered wooden bridge, the air is thick with regret, allegations, bruised memories and the stench of a grubby green liquid that I can’t begin to describe. But the abandoned brick and timber homes stand unmoved. The shutters of their intricately carved wooden balconies sealed by years of inclement political weather. There was also the odd window pried open by the wind or a rusty hinge that exposed the leached bones of a house, where the laundry has not been hung out to dry for years. Rainawari is a beautiful song in a melancholic key.
But that’s the thing about Srinagar. Brooding about its bloody history, a cloth banner stops you in your tracks: “Welcome to the heavenest place. Kashmir is most enjoyable,” it reads — and you can only agree. Frisked twice and checking in my baggage for the third time at the armed fortress known as Srinagar airport, my thoughts turn to Insha, a girl I had met at the shrine of Dastgir Sahib. Barely eight, she had wanted to know where I lived, how many children I had and if children in Delhi had big schools and final exams too. She had stretched out her little palm to share her prized piece of tabarooq (a tea cake meant as an offering) and said, tongue firmly in cheek, “Insha Allah, we’ll meet again.” And we will.
On the way to Dal Gate from Dastgir Sahib, the road forks at Khyam Chowk. An unremarkable row of ramshackle shops and restaurants during the day, the street smoulders every evening as tikkas, shish and seekh kebabs, their juices dripping into the bed of hot coal, take over a short stretch; the kebab and naan are just as toothsome as one expects them to be. But it’s the atmosphere that’s electric. Peshawari Sher Khan from Pakistan — via Bombay — is the star vendor. A man clearly surprised we hadn’t read about him in the papers or seen him on TV. But Imran Café, with a packed house of young Kashmiri boys knocking back plates of kebabs with innocuous bottles of Coke, gets our vote.
Getting there: Most major airlines including Air India, Go-Air, Indigo and Jet Airways operate direct/one-stop flights to Srinagar from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Jammu, among others.
Where to stay: The city has a range of accommodation, including a clutch of luxury hotels. But if you plan to explore the lakes and waterways like we did, houseboats are a charming alternative. There are over 600 houseboats on the Dal, 180 odd on Nagin lake, about 150 on the banks of the Jhelum and 60-70 at Chinar Bagh. Contact the Houseboat Owners Association (0194-2450326, 01942478280, www.houseboatowners.org) or enquire at the J&K Tourism booths at the airport’s arrival lounge.
Or book into the Welcom-Heritage Gurkha Houseboats (0194-2421001, 011-46035500, www.welcomheritagehotels.com). With a fleet of six, Gurkha Houseboats traces its moorings back to 1887, when the tariff was a princely sum of Rs 2. Situated on the banks of the Nagin — a lake with a reputation of being quieter than the Dal — every inch of the boat is covered in embroidered Kashmiri upholstery, expensive carpets and rugs, and intricate woodwork. There’s a common dining area and a sitting room flanked by a cushioned balcony to watch the drollery of ducks, coots, swallows and egrets. But it’s the service that harks back to the times when the British, who when denied the chance to buy land in the valley, arrived every summer on a flotilla of houseboats. Unlike their liveried battery of staff though, Salaama, our caretaker-concierge-butler was like an elderly aunt, who remembered to hand us a flask of kahwa, some rotis and chamooras (a variety of Kashmiri apples that keep all year) when we headed out for a daytrip. Gushtaba, Kashmiri aloo dum, haak and kanthi (a dry chicken, onion and tomato dish) are the house specials here. The owners, the Wangnoo brothers, have a number of exclusive carpet showrooms in Delhi. If you’re staying at the Gurkha, visit their retail area, a five-minute walk away. Saboor Wangnoo even gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the carpet industry.
On the Dal, New Gulistan Palace (9419007805) is a good bet. An old OT favourite, the delightful Guru Mohammed and his Man Friday, the burly, amiable Bashir, run New Gulistan admirably. And despite the reasonable tariff, the rooms are well appointed and tastefully done with khatambandh ceilings and embroidered linen. With an unhindered view of the lake, it’s among the handful of houseboats on the Dal that don’t appear cramped. The food is excellent too.
What to see & do: In Srinagar At every bend in the old quarters of Srinagar, one stumbles upon remnants of history, spanning centuries. Counted among the most impressive shrines are Jami Masjid, thrice reduced to ashes, since it was first built by Sikandar Butshikan in 1402, Khanqah of Shah Hamdan on the banks of the Jhelum, Pathar Masjid, Dastgir Sahib and the much smaller Rozabal Shrine, with the dubious distinction of being believed to be the tomb of Jesus. A walk from Maharaj Gunj to Ali Kadal lined with charming examples of Kashmiri architecture is also recommended. Also, pay a visit to Iftikar Jalali’s well-preserved old house in Zadi Bal (0194-2424064). If you like, visit the Shankaracharya temple for a bird’s eye view of the city. Then take a whirlwind tour of the Mughal Gardens, pausing awhile at Pari Mahal, arguably the most beautiful one of the lot. Drop by later at the Shri Pratap Singh Museum (10am-5pm, barring Wednesdays).
Around Srinagar: There are several excursions easily done once you’ve found a taxi to ferry you around. Taxi stands line the main boulevard and usually offer a tariff card. But most hotels and houseboats are happy to arrange taxis for their patrons as well.
Among the places to see, the trio of Gulmarg (60km), Sonamarg (82km) and the Wular Lake (60km) figure first. The village of Pahalgam (95km) is another popular haunt. The Buddhist ruins in Parihaspora en route to Gulmarg and the megaliths at Burzahom, just a few kilometres northeast of Srinagar, are the notable others. Kargil (200km), I was told, had also gained ground as a tourist hotspot (especially Tiger Hill) over the last few years. But be prepared for a night halt.