For a valley so associated with water, Kashmir’s name surprises you with its meaning: ‘Kashmir’ means ‘desiccated’.
For a valley so associated with water, Kashmir’s name surprises you with its meaning: ‘Kashmir’ means ‘desiccated’.Till you realise that according to mythology, Kashyapa Muni had drained a huge lake to bring forth this land. He didn’t drain it entirely, of course, so Srinagar in the heart of the Vale of Kashmir is blessed with a river and several lakes cradled by the Zabarwan hills.
Srinagar, the beautiful city. Shehr-i-Khas, the special city. Even today, after years of insurgency, army occupation and then three seasons of frenetic tourism, Srinagar lives up to these names. It shows off the natural beauty that had generations of Indians, from Mughal emperors to audiences of Kashmir ki Kali sighing. It foregrounds that rather indefinable Central Asian air and resplendent wooden architecture that is a product of the coming together of Islamic art and older Kashmiri influences since the 14th century. To the outsider, already drunk on pherans, yakhnis, shikaras and chinars, it continues to feel, in some ways, like a medieval city by the Jhelum. An ordinary conversation with, say, your houseboat owners’ family, can feel like an exquisite education in hospitality, etiquette, language and culture.
Even in the time of the Mughals, Srinagar was a favoured summer retreat for those royal tourists, and they left behind sumptuous gardens to prove this. Then came the British and, not allowed to buy land, adapted local boats into the now legendary Srinagar houseboats. The city was the summer capital for the Jammu kingdom and continues to be so for the modern state of J&K. Last summer, it received so many visitors that a few, not getting hotel rooms, had to sleep in their cars.
Hills, gardens and lakes; the best of food and delicate crafts; staying in houseboats, going water skiing or speed boating, and now even a breathtaking balloon ride… Srinagar is reinventing itself as a satisfying package for the family. And we haven’t even mentioned the superlative cuisine and umatched products of the Vale of Kashmir for which Srinagar is the showcase. As Shammi Kapoor sang to Sharmila Tagore — but he had an eye on the Dal too — “taareef karoon kya uski, jisne tumhe banaya?”
Distances to all destinations in J&K from Srinagar in this guide book are measured from the GPO on Residency Road. But the heart of Srinagar is Lal Chowk, a kilometre east of the GPO between Residency and the parallel MA roads. The Tourist Reception Centre and taxi stand is a large complex at the eastern end of Residency Road, just ahead of the Polo Ground and Dal Gate. Dal Gate is the start of Boulevard Road that runs all along the southern shore of Dal Lake, passing Shankaracharya Hill, golf links, Botanical, Nishat and Shalimar gardens.
To get to Srinagar’s old Nowhatta-Khanyar-Rainawari areas, follow MA Road east from Lal Chowk and turn left on either the Munnawar Link Road or the Hazratbal Road (Srinagar-Leh Highway) to Khanyar and on to the Jama Masjid in Nowhatta. North of these is Rainawari and north from there, Hari Parbat Fort, Nigeen Lake and Hazratbal.
Walking west from Lal Chowk towards Batmaloo, cross the Jhelum on Budshah Bridge. Beyond lie the state secretariat, Sir Iqbal Park and Batmaloo Bus Stand. The 9 old wooden pedestrian-only bridges or kadals on the Jhelum are among Srinagar’s key landmarks, lending their name to the contiguous areas. Walks in these areas reveal the old homes and havelis of Srinagar, such as the walk from Maharaj Ganj to Ali Kadal.
National highways 1A (Jalandhar-Jammu-Srinagar) and 1D (Srinagar-Leh) serve Srinagar. NH1A bypasses the city to the south-west. NH1D begins on NH1A next to the Bypass Bus Stand. Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport is at the south-east of the city, linked to Batmaloo and Lal Chowk by the 11-km Aerodrome Road. Srinagar Railway Station (currently connected only to stations within the Kashmir valley is in Nowgam, off the NH1A Bypass in south Srinagar. JK Tourism counters are at both the airport (Tel: 2303635) and station (Tel: 255164).
The most convenient way to get around Srinagar is in one of the innumerable Sumos at the taxi stands at the TRC and at Tang Bagh on Boulevard Road, which have rate charts. In the city, autos are easily available, the rates negotiable beforehand. Most trips cost between ₹50 and 200. A few water taxis operate on limited routes.
TIP Years of ferrying customers, many of them journalists, has armed the reticent but reliable Mushtaq (Mobile: 096970 79980) with formidable skills. He knows every inch of the Kashmir countryside and every imaginable shortcut too. Also try Snowcabs (Tel: 0194-2432432; Website: snowcabs.com), Srinagar’s first radio taxi service
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The Dal Lake-Boulevard stretch from Dal Gate to Nehru Park is the centre of touristy action in Srinagar. This is where most houseboats and shikaras congregate. The Dal is less hectic further ahead. The leisure gardens of the Mughals are unmissable, as is the Botanical Garden and shikara ride to Char Chinar. The hilltop Shankaracharya Temple overlooks the Dal. Nigeen Lake offers a peaceful environ for those looking for solitude.
Heritage Srinagar has enough to place Kashmir in a historical and cultural context — visit the shrines of Hazratbal, Jama Masjid and the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan. Around a channel of the Dal is Rainawari. Once a heavily populated Kashmiri Pandit area, Rainawari still houses a number of ageing homes. The Buddhist site of neighbouring Harwan and the megaliths at Burzahom are Srinagar’s other pitstops of history.
The houseboats spread their empire on the vast Dal, its waters covering some 21 sq km. Houseboats, shikaras, floating gardens, lily pads, lotuses, kingfishers, fish, water birds, islands given over to tourism… all get their place in this particular waterscape. Along the Dal, a long and cheery Boulevard lines the waters on one side, and a series of tourist interest spots on the other — the Shankaracharya Hill, an entertainment park, the Mughal gardens, numerous shops, restaurants and hotels.
The colourful shikaras, mostly ferrying tourists between the road and the houseboats attract you like a bird in mating season, with bright yellow canopies and dark maroon carpets. They advertise “full spring seats” — and in one case “smiling owner”! A short ride around the lake costs ₹400 per hour. A shikara ride to Char Chinar and back costs Rs 800-1,000 for four adults and two children. These rides are like floating on an aquarium. Look closely and you’ll see the fish flitting about, even as kingfishers and egrets sun themselves on the islands and swallows skim the lotus ponds. Take a moment to bow in the memory of Shammi Kapoor, who did more than most to popularise the Dal, having shot Kashmir ki Kali, Junglee and Jaanwar here. His ashes were immersed in the lake after his death in August 2011.
You could also take an extended excursion on a shikara. Pay ₹2,000-2,500 for a circuit from Nehru Park past Hazratbal, Nigeen Lake, Rainawari and back. Also try an early morning shikara ride on the Jhelum from Zero Bridge to the Chattabal Veer in west Srinagar for a view of the surviving riverfront mansions and the historic wooden kadals (bridges). When at Nigeen Lake, visit the Imambara and Iftikar Jalali’s (Tel: 2424064) wellpreserved old house in the Zadibal area on the south-eastern shore.
Or take up the offer of a 2-day houseboat expedition to Ganderbal. Ask for Ghulam Mohammad of Lubroo Palace Houseboats (Mobile: 09906862822). There’s also the option of a 2- to 4-day river safari on the Jhelum. Call Yaseen Tuman at Mascot Travels (Tel: 2462211/811, Mobile: 09419005714, Website: mascottravels.com). JKTDC (Tel: 0194-2457927/ 30) offers 6-8 day packages covering many destinations in the valley.
On Nehru Park and Nigeen Lake
This touristy island on the Dal has been converted to a park by the tourism department and hosts a café. Speed boats (₹500-1,000), water skiing (₹300 per person per round) and water surfing (₹250 per person per round) are on offer here in summer by private operators. Water sports activities also operate on Nigeen Lake, opposite Nigeen Club. Contact Ark Royal (Mobile: 09419384459). Rates are the same as at Nehru Park.
Entry fee ₹ 10
Zabarwan Park and Balloon Ride
Walking down the Boulevard you come across a huge balloon gently inviting you to the skies. This ‘aeroballoon’ can carry five people at a time and goes up about a 100 metres, yielding wonderful aerial views of Dal Lake (₹500 per head for 12 minutes). You can also go bungee jumping (₹100, 3 minutes). Zabarwan Park also keeps the kids busy with video games, toy guns, video car races, and 3-D ‘shark show’ (₹40 per game).
The small museum next door has old photos of Kashmir, mannequins with Kashmiri clothes, musical instruments like the rabaab and sarangi, traditional cooking utensils and other tools.
Location Boulevard Entry fee ₹10 Timings 9 am-7.30 pm, Mondays closed
Floating Post Office and Museum
A real charmer, this post-office-cumphilately-museum fits itself into a largish boat and is moored right on the Boulevard. You can step into it for free and drink in the lovely magnified representations of Indian stamps through the decades. Guru Dutt, MS Subbulakshmi, APJ Abdul Kalam, Mukesh, Gandhiji… its guaranteed to make you say “oh look” at least three times. Pick up picture postcards ( ₹100 for a set of 10) or saffron (₹200 per gm).
Location Dal Lake, near Nehru Park Timings 10 am-6 pm, Sundays closed
Reached via a winding wooded road from the Boulevard that yields ever lovelier views of the Dal and the city below, the peak of Shankaracharya Hill is a good 1,000 ft above the lake. You need to climb hundreds of steps to reach the temple on top. This Shiva temple is associated with Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 AD), who is said to have meditated here. This hill was originally called the Takht-i-Suleiman (Throne of Solomon). Later, when Adi Shankaracharya stayed here in the course of his travels, the hill came to be known after him. The temple is believed to be a 6th century Jyeshtheshvara temple built by a King Gopaditya, though many renovations have been done since. The old grey stones of the temple, the panoramic views, the fresh wind, all manage to transcend the noisy modern devotional music that goes on here all day. There is also a winding and scenic 40-min trek up to Shankaracharya Hill, starting from behind Burn Hall School.
TIP You must leave phones and cameras behind in your vehicles
In the heart of the old city, in the crowded traffic-ridden centre of Nowhatta, the sudden first sight of the Jama Masjid’s gracious expanse, its pale stones and tall spires can take your breath away. Originally built by the infamous Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in 1394, and much enhanced by his son, the popular Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, the Jama Masjid was damaged by fire thrice, each time being rebuilt by the reigning local sovereign. It was reduced to ashes again in 1620, and rebuilt by Jehangir and Shah Jehan, only to burn again in 1674. They say when the news reached Aurangzeb, he declared that the mosque could always be rebuilt, but displayed a tender concern about the aged chinars in the vicinity. Aurangzeb then built the monument you see now.
The most remarkable feature of the masjid are the 378 pillars of deodar wood that hold up the wooden ceiling, beautiful in their uncarved simplicity. The courtyard is a pleasant space constituted by a fountain, lawns, chinar trees and a backdrop of the Hari Parbat hill.
Location Nowhatta Entry Free Camera fee ₹10
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan
The most beautiful of Srinagar’s old buildings, the Khanqah perches on the right bank of the Jhelum. The much venerated 14th-century Sufi saint Mir Sayyad Ali Hamadani left his native Iran to avoid Timur’s oppressive reign and visited Kashmir thrice. He was such an energetic proselytiser that many credit him with the spread of Islam in Kashmir. It is said that he converted 37,000 locals in a few days. Many miracles are attributed to him as well. This spot commemorates his first visit to Srinagar in 1372.
The building you see is a wonderful melange of wood carving, colourful green-and-yellow painting on the walls and a dominant spire on top. Non-Muslims (and women) cannot enter the main hall but can walk up to the door and look in from a window at the ornate painted interiors.
Location Fateh Kadal Entry Free Camera fee ₹10
Pathar Masjid and Zaina Kadal
For the most photogenic views of old Srinagar, walk over to the new Zaina Kadal bridge at sunset and capture the Jhelum as it winds past the old domes and wooden structures, under the old wooden bridge, and past the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan. Close to the Zaina Kadal is Noor Jehan’s Pathar Masjid. Rare for Srinagar’s monuments, this one was built using limestone. Its patroness then managed to get the mosque bad press by saying that it had hardly cost more than her jewelled shoes. The scandal was so great that the horrified local clergy boycotted it and the mosque has suffered many indignities over the years, the least of which are a few bullet holes from an ‘encounter’. It is nonetheless an impressive building with a pleasing garden.
Location Opp Khanqah of Shah Hamadan, Zaina Kadal Camera fee ₹10
Tomb of Zain-ul-Abidin’s mother
Back across the Zaina Kadal Bridge and further downriver lies one final jewel: the 15th century tomb of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin’s mother. You approach it through the meandering bustle of Sri Ranbir Ganj in the old city, and it is exhilarating to step through the narrow entrance into the compound of this unusual building. The tomb reminds one of both a Byzantine church and the terracotta temples of Bengal. It does in fact follow the plan of an earlier temple from whose foundations it rises. Within a small enclosure to the north of the tomb are the graves of many notable figures, including Babur’s cousin Mirza Haidar, who ruled Kashmir in Humayun’s name from 1541 to 1551. Though the grave of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin himself is reputed to lie here too, the entire compound of this fine monument has been neglected. Which is no excuse not to visit.
From Jehangir to Joy Mukherjee, our multifarious and varied heritage has cavorted in these gardens. Shalimar, the royal one, built by an emperor, and Nishat, the aristocratic one, built by his brother-in-law. Commissioned by Jehangir for Noor Jehan in 1619, Shalimar Bagh is a four-terraced fiesta of chinars and water courses with an exquisite hill as its immediate backdrop. An October visit among the flaming autumnal chinars is perhaps even more desirable than the floral riot in spring. All year round though, the most lovely thing in Shalimar is a baradari, a summer house, which is today a fading gracious structure, with black marble pillars from Pampore and gorgeous painted ceilings.
Jehangir had named his garden Farah Baksh (delightful); he loved Kashmir so much that he and Noor Jehan visited Srinagar at least 13 times. Shah Jahan had the garden extended, the Pathan and Sikh rulers of Kashmir used it too, and under Ranjit Singh it hosted European visitors. Under the Dogras, Shalimar played host to royal banquets and an eyewitness account goes: “The weird scene on such occasions, where the glitter of myriads of lamps illuminated the brilliant dresses and fair faces, and the splash of fountains, mingled with the songs of the dancers, will live long in one’s memory.”
Entry fee Adult ₹20, child ₹10 Timings April-October 9 am-sunset; November-March 10 am-sunset
Combine a visit to Shalimar Gardens with Burzahom, barely 5 km away via Batapora. Burzahom was the first archaeological site in J&K where systematic excavations were conducted. Three megaliths are splayed on a plateau here alongside excavated Neolithic pit dwellings. A later phase of excavation uncovered Megalithic remains, with further digs yielding artefacts from the early historical period. The artefacts recovered include crude forms of household goods and tools like bone scrapers, antlers, polished axes, adzes, borers and chisels.
Nishat Bagh is carved out of a hill side, built over 12 terraced levels, rich with magnificent old chinars and cypresses and unabashed flowers, with the Mughal central water channel punctuated by fountains. Seen from the top, the way the garden cascades down and reaches out to the Dal is a delight. The topmost terrace is the zenana garden.
Nishat was commissioned by Noor Jehan’s brother Asif Khan in 1633. Legend says that Shah Jehan, Jehangir’s son, was so taken by the garden that he expressed his appreciation three times to Asif Khan in hope of getting it as a gift. To no avail. This led to a minor falling out between the two; for a while Shah Jehan turned off the water supply for Nishat, which came through his Shalimar!
Entry fee Adult ₹20, child ₹10 Timings April-October 9 am-sunset; November-March 10 am-sunset
TIP Come early for some meaningful moments at the two gardens, else the crowds can be overwhelming
Chashma Shahi and Pari Mahal
A quieter spot is the felicitously located, smaller Chashma Shahi, built by Shah Jehan’s governor Ali Mardan Khan in 1642. Located high above the Dal, on Zabarwan Hill, the garden shows off the lake in its bowl-like setting among the hills to great advantage. Aldous Huxley found it “the most charming of the gardens near Srinagar”. Close by are the Pari Mahal gardens built by Dara Shikoh as a retreat for Sufi scholars, with more panoramic views.
Entry fee Adult ₹20, child ₹10
Timings Same as Nishat and Shalimar
Reachable both by road and, preferably by a long shikara ride, Hazratbal Mosque is located on the far side of the Dal, its white marble reflecting gracefully in the waters of the lake. It is the only domed mosque in the Srinagar area.
Hazratbal is a very important shrine. It holds a sacred relic — a hair — of Prophet Muhammad, referred to as the Moi-e-Muqqadas. Note that ‘bal’ has nothing to do with ‘baal’ or hair; it’s a common suffix added to place names in Kashmir. The legend goes that the hair was brought to Bijapur in Karnataka by a descendant of the prophet; these descendants, who had fallen on hard times, sold it to a Kashmiri businessman, Nurud-Din Eshai; Aurangzeb then seized it but later restored it to Eshai. The Moi-e-Muqqadas reached Kashmir in 1699 where Eshai’s daughter, Inayat Begum, built this shrine to house it.
TIP Try the bazaar around the mosque for Kashmiri street food like puris
Hari Parbat and Rainawari
The hill of Hari Parbat is crowned by the 16th-century fort of the same name. Historians are generally dismissive of this structure as ‘commonplace’, ‘poor’ and ‘mean’. But seen from the intended perspective — that of the cringing subject — it is extremely impressive. The Afghan ruler Shuja Shah Durrani who built it knew what he was doing, and the fort dominates the city from almost any angle, an omniscient symbol of power. This has not been lost on the Government of India, which preserves the heights of Hari Parbat as a panopticon for the security forces.
Local tradition also acknowledges the hill as a site of power for more ancient and occult reasons. It is said that back in the mists of time the entire valley used to be a massive lake, inhabited by the malicious demon Jalod-bhava, until the goddess Sati in the form of a mynah dropped a pebble on his head. The demon was crushed when the stone expanded into a mountain: Hari Parbat. Not surprisingly, this legendary spot is the focus of many sacred shrines, including the Ziarat of Makhdum Sahib. Just below this shrine lies a more neglected structure of great beauty, the Masjid of Akhund Mullah Shah — a tribute from Shah Jehan’s son Dara Shikoh to his teacher. This limestone mosque bears an inscription dating it to 1649. The lower slopes of the hill are densely populated today but remnants of a rampart built by Akbar remain, notably two gateways, the Sangeen Darwaza and the Kathi Darwaza. There is also a famous gurudwara at the base of the wall. It’s located in the old quarter of Rainawari, once the home of the Kashmiri Pandits, today a Shia area replete with syncretic architecture. A particularly nice way to visit Rainawari is to float in on a shikara, past ducks and coots, a fishermen’s village on stilts and a rundown cantilevered wooden bridge.
Shrines of Khanyar
Returning to the city through the Kathi Darwaza, pass by the shrine of Pir Dastgir Sahib in Khanyar, which caught fire in 2012 and is currently being rebuilt. Two minutes’ walk from here is the small Rozabal Shrine, which has acquired an unwarranted reputation as the tomb of Jesus. Continuing along to the northwest, you will pass the compound of the impressive Khanqah of Khwaja Moinuddin Naqshbandi on your left. This simple but elegant structure was the first home of the sacred hair of the Prophet, the Moi-e-Muqqadas, upon its arrival in Kashmir in 1699, but the relic was moved to the more spacious location at Hazratbal after a fatal stampede.
The Nigeen Lake boats are blissfully quiet, but a bit too quiet. You miss out on that feeling of enjoying local life you get on Dal Lake: watching kids being rowed across for school, colourful shikaras floating up to houseboats with edibles and knick knacks for tourists, women rowing themselves across. On the Jhelum you can find actual houseboats — homes with full-time residents who let out rooms. Basic and cheap but more authentic, these houseboats don’t budge and have slimmer proportions than the original colonial boats, which were mobile.
Among the top-end houseboats, names that stand out are: Welcom-Heritage Gurkha Houseboats (Tel: 0194-2421001, 2425229; Tariff: ₹ 8,000-12,000), that float peacefully on Nigeen Lake with some charming carving and elegant rooms; and Butts Clermont Houseboats (Tel: 2430325, 2427220, Mob : 09419056761; Tariff: ₹5,500, with all meals) in Naseem Bagh at the Hazratbal end of the Dal Lake, far from the crowds. You’ll be in illustrious company for Butt’s houseboats have played host to the likes of George Harrison of Beatles fame, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin and US Senator John McCain.
Sukoon (Gurgaon Tel: 0124-2367088; 09910025022; Tariff: ₹7,500-9,600, with two meals) marries ecological concerns with luxury — no waste discharged into the Dal, no plastic on board, local and organic products sourced, and some stunning interiors. They offer packages like a 2N/ 3D weekend package costing ₹16,000 which includes stay in a double room, breakfast and dinner, shikara ride and airport transfers.
The 10-roomed New Gulistan Palace (Tel: 245198, 2420292; Tariff: ₹ 4,500, with two meals) is moored further from the shore than the Dal Gate fleet, which makes for a more peaceful stay. The bathrooms have a bathtub too.
For a good middle level houseboat you can try the pleasant Badyari Palace, (Tel: 2453662, Mob: 09419005207; Tariff: ₹ 4,500, with two meals), run efficiently and hospitably. Accessible from the Boulevard’s Ghat 9, it is well located in the heart of the ‘action’. Since action on Dal Lake mostly means lots of shikaras floating past you, this is quite welcome.
On Nigeen Lake is the elegant Ibrahim Houseboats (Mob: 099065 12933, 09596623300; Tariff: ₹ 4,500, with two meals), who have played host to the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, before he became President. They can arrange treks, angling and shikara rides for you. Access to the houseboat is from the road as well.
Shri Pratap Singh Museum
Clothes, weaponry, crafts… It all comes together in this museum, a collaborative effort by UNESCO and Intach. The metal crafts section has some beautiful exhibits of copper jugs, samovars and handwashing vessels. See examples from the dying exquisite art of turquoise inlay work. The archaeology section exhibits sculptures from the sites of the Pandrethan, Parihaspora and Avantipora temples. The museum also has a collection of Kashmir’s rich kani shawls in the textiles section, and much more.
Location Lal Mandi Entry fee Adults ₹10, children ₹5 Camera fee Professional ₹3,000 per gallery Timings 10 am-4.30 pm, Mondays closed Tel 0194-2312859 Website spsmuseum.org
Lal Ded Memorial Cultural Centre
In the dun-coloured lanes of Ganpatyar in the Old City, where the road ends and the Jhelum begins, the new Lal Ded Memorial Cultural Centre rises in red brick on the waterfront. Home to an official in the Dogra regime, a large part of the building, originally featuring marked classical Western European influences, was pulled down in 2008 to build yet another unsightly mall. Had J&K Tourism and INTACH not intervened, food courts would have been crawling, where now there are displays of Numdah and Ari work, Jamawar shawls and Khanyari tiles. Pay particular attention to the section on key elements of the Kashmiri architectural styles, such as dub, pinjara-kari and khatambandh.
Timings 10 am-4 pm, Sundays closed
The Harwan Gardens are not Mughal at all but a modern imitation, dignified only by the presence of a few chinars. But at the top of the garden lies the reservoir that feeds the authentic gardens. Before you leave, take the path immediately on the left as you exit Harwan Gardens and ask anyone you meet along the way for directions to the khandar, or to Harichandroz. It’s worth it. A short walk along an irrigation channel and past apple orchards, and you will find yourself at the historic ruins of the 4th-5th century Harwan Vihara. The terracotta treasures unearthed at this Buddhist site have been shifted to the Sri Pratap Singh Museum but the foundations of the structures have survived along with sections of pebble walls. The great Nagarjuna was here in the 2nd century. Kanishka may have been here too, hosting the Fourth Buddhist Council of circa 100 CE (though some accounts hold that the summit was held at Jalandhar).
Entry ₹10-20 Timings Apr-Oct 9 amsunset; Nov-March 10 am-sunset
The best-preserved example of Kashmiri temple architecture, albeit on a much smaller scale than at Martand or Avantipora, is the temple at Pandrethan, 5 km south from the GPO. This small structure is one of the few intact exemplars of the distinctive Kashmiri form. The temple is identified as the Shiva Rilhaneshvara temple, built by Rilhana, minister of Jayasimha, in about 1135 AD. However, Pandrethan is itself a much older site. The name is in fact a contraction of ‘Puranadhistana’, which means ‘Old Capital’ and this was the site of the original Ashokan capital of Srinagar. The area has now been absorbed into a military base and civilian access is difficult, to say the least. The security procedures here can be frustrating.
Carpets, shawls, papier mache, walnut carvings, saffron… Kashmir’s legendary offerings have for so long justifiably dominated the popular imagination and Srinagar is indeed a shopper’s paradise. It’d be a pity if you were to miss the popular shopping areas — the main market at Lal Chowk, Polo View Road, Budshah Chowk, Residency Road and the bazaars on the banks of the Jhelum. Good bargaining skills will come in handy.
Agents or owners of Kashmiri crafts and jewellery shops will visit you in your houseboats and hotels, and offer to take you to their factories to see authentic products being made. Many of these workshops are in the old Pandit quarter of Rainawari, and it can be an interesting experience to visit them, but you can hardly get out of buying something. Or play it safe and opt for the J&K Government Arts Emporium on the Boulevard (Tel: 0194-2501266), Lal Chowk (Tel: 2479703) and on Residency Road (Tel: 2479825). Polo View is a well-known shopping lane on Residency Road. Shaw Brothers (Tel: 2481899) have a reputation for authentic shawls. Many rely on Cottage Arts Emporium (Tel: 2500838), Boulevard. Kashmir Shawl Museum is a craftspersons’ cooperative where they show you a variety of pashminas.
TIP If you can’t find time to shop, you can always pick up something from the outlets at Srinagar Airport
Suffering Moses (Lambert Lane, The Bund), started in 1840 by the present owner’s great-grandfather, is like a museum of fine crafts. The quaint name comes from the title the British gave the original Mr Wani, since he laboured so hard on his art. Here’s where you find authentic pashmina, exquisite silverware, hand-painted items, papier mache and glazed bowls… but it’s definitely more expensive than the average.
Saffron makes a small, packable gift item, from ₹200-220/ gm. You can pick it up from shikaras that come hawking to your houseboat, from Lal Chowk area or from roadside outlets at the saffronproducing fields of Lethpora, Pampore. The Lal Chowk area, especially Kukar Bazaar, has plenty of dry fruits. Another place to shop for food gifts is Shehjaar Bazaar in Rajbagh, run by local NGO Help Foundation (Tel: 2310256; Website: jkhf.in). Their clothes with Kashmiri embroidery, bed covers and sheets, quilt covers, cushion covers, handbags and wallets, spices, jams and chutneys are all made at the Shehjaar Women Empowerment Centre in Inderhama. If interested in traditional embroidery, save an afternoon for the Craft Development Institute (Website: cdisgr.org) in Nowshera.
Kashmir Haat across the river from Lal Chowk sees exhibitions and fairs from May to November. There is also a Crafts Museum (Tel: 2472065) here.
WHERE TO STAY
Undeniably the most charming of Srinagar’s staying options, these moored floating beauties have very decent ‘deluxe rooms’ (albeit with thinnish partitions), pleasantly carved wooden furniture, attached loos, running hot water, decent breakfast and dinner, and a common balcony and TV lounge. They are moored to the lakeside away from the Boulevard (the owners usually live behind on the mainland behind the boat), and you can come and go to the Boulevard using the free shikara rides they provide. Rates are fixed by the Houseboat Owners’ Association and usually range between ₹690-3,700 (room only) and ₹1,320-5,400, with meals. The owners try their best to cater to your tastes. Check the bathroom fixings before you commit to a room!
The most alluring, and expensive, of Srinagar’s hotels would be the Lalit Grand Palace and Vivanta by Taj’s Dal View. The Lalit Grand Palace (Tel: 2501001-02; Tariff: ₹15,000-1,50,000) was once the Gulab Bhavan Palace, built by Dogra ruler Pratap Singh in 1910. Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten once stayed here. It became a hotel in the 1950s, and all its extensive restorations since have been done in a style faithful to the original architecture, which is a low lying series of buildings with sloping roofs amid extensive gardens. A wonderful place if you can afford it.
Vivanta Dal View Srinagar by Taj (Tel: 2461111; Tariff: ₹ 19,000-22,000) enjoys a superb location slightly above the Dal on a hill, and its grounds and sitouts yield beautiful views of the lake.
Despite its slightly stodgy air, the Centaur Lake View (Tel: 2501236-38; Tariff: ₹ 6,050-16,500) is a popular if old-fashioned hotel on a quiet end of the Dal, on a bit of land protruding into the lake. The suites, though more expensive, are definitely cheerier.
The long lakeside Boulevard has a plethora of lake-facing hotels that are roughly of a similar nature — clean, well located and with functional infrastructure. One of the better options among these is Imperial Lake View (Tel: 2452805, 2500046; Tariff: ₹ 5,500) opposite Nehru Park. They have their own restaurant. JKTDC’s ‘Hutments’ (Tel: 2401601; Tariff: ₹ 3,500-8,000) enjoy a prime location next to the Chashma-i-Shahi gardens.
The centrally located, but not on the lake, Hotel Broadway (Tel: 2459001; Tariff: ₹ 11,900-14,500) is an old and respected name, and has of late added some snazzy restaurants, including the popular Coffea Arabica.
In town, The Residency (Tel: 2473702, 2472008; Tariff: ₹ 7,000-9,000, with breakfast) on Residency Road is a popular business hotel, with an in-house restaurant, heating, wi-fi, tea makers, and room service in place.
Rooms at the Nigeen Club Resort (Tel: 2452690-01; Tariff: ₹ 2,500) are hard to come by — club members and guests of the state get first dibs here. But do try, for the chinar-shaded lawns command some of the best views of the lake.
Over the years, Srinagar’s toniest and leafiest neighbourhood, Rajbagh, has gradually let tourism into its homes. Within easy distance of Dal Lake and the busy Boulevard, this quiet residential area is lined with bungalows hidden from view by gardens overladen with apples, peaches, cherries and plums. Heritage House (Mob: 09419177900, 098100 35145; Tariff: ₹ 3,000, with breakfast) is just such a place. A quaint six-room homestay, it’s run by the lovely Narboo family which also owns the iconic Shambhala hotel in Leh.
Hidden behind a flourishing garden, it’s easy to miss the Green Acre Guest House (Tel: 2313848, 2135521/ 23; Tariff: ₹ 4,500-35,000) in Rajbagh, another very popular option with rooms available in both the old house and the new wing. It has beautiful lawns, a great staff and good food. It is run by the hospitable Vivek Wazir and his family. Very highly recommended.
The oldest homestay in Rajbagh is the Mahatta Homestay (Mob: 094190 79747, 08713025657; Tariff: ₹ 2,500-3,000), run by the very enterprising Mrs Anita Mehta which offers affordable options for both short and long term stays. Zulfikar and Yasmeen Hussain offer a charming Rajbagh bungalow Travellers Inn (Mob: 09906505354; Tariff: ₹ 6,500, with breakfast). Both floors have two bedrooms and bathrooms, a living area and a kitchenette.
Almond Villa (Mob: 09971924583; Tariff: ₹ 5,500-8,000 is another charming homestay, close to the Dal, in a 1920s building set among fruit orchards in the estate of the erstwhile Dogra rulers.
Recently revived by the Hussain family, Hotel Dar-es-Salam (Tel: 2427803/ 359, Mobile: 09906609096; Tariff: ₹ 7,650), bang on Nigeen Lake, has 14 charming rooms.
WHERE TO EAT
For committed non-vegetarians, the prospect of coming to Srinagar raises mouth-watering visions of the Kashmiri wazwan. The famous dishes you will find on Srinagar menus include tabak maaz (lamb ribs), rista (meat balls in red gravy), gushtaba (meat balls in yoghurt), aab gosht (lamb in milky curry), rogan josh, kebabs and the like. While the fabled wazwan does not really cater to non-carnivores, it’s a myth that vegetables get short shrift in Srinagar. Vegetarians will also enjoy Kashmiri dum aloo (potatoes in yoghurt gravy), the local green haaq saag, nadru (lotus stem), lotus seed, spinach dishes and chaman (paneer) dishes. Street food here is all about vegetables fried in chickpea flour: monj, nadru, aloo, peas, til karra (chillies), and various sizes of spiced rajma, all of it perfectly delicious. Nadru, lotus seed and potatoes fried in an atomic red batter are found on street stalls throughout the city.
The renowned name for Kashmiri non-veg is Ahdoo’s, on Residency Road. This is rogan josh central, and a paradise of Kashmiri kebabs. Ask a waiter to guide you through the menu and sit back amidst the old world, ghazal-style ambience and plan your walk by the nearby Jhelum after the meal. Right below Ahdoo’s is their bakery, which does a decent walnut pie. Both Ahdoo’s and Grand Hotel on Residency Road do single-person wazwan with unlimited rice. Tucked into a scruffy lane, off Residency Road (signboard can be seen from the main road), Kareema Restaurant serves a truncated (but still large) wazwan — tabaq maaz, seekh, methi korma, rista, rogan josh and gushtaba. Open from 1-3.30 pm for lunch only.
Tourists looking for a Kashmiri meal in Srinagar are also often led to the Mughal Durbar on Residency Road, or to Ruby on Lambert Lane, Residency Road and Juniper in Lal Chowk. But the low-profile Mehfil nearby does just as good a job. Patronised by the locals, their rista is light and toothsome. Also on Residency Road itself, you get freshly caught and grilled trout at Tao Café. Make sure to come in the evening before to pre-order it though. Your houseboat will also serve fresh fish (trout or carp) if you ask for it.
Street-food devotees should make their way to Lal Chowk’s Food Street. Many officegoers swear by its mutton-rice for ₹ 50. Also, on the way to Dal Gate from Dastgir Sahib, the road forks at Khayyam Chowk. An unremarkable row of ramshackle shops and restaurants during the day, the street smoulders every evening as tikkas and seekh kebabs, their juices dripping into beds of hot coals, take over a short stretch. At ₹ 50 a plate, 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 Kashmiris knocking back plates of kebabs with innocuous bottles of Coke, gets our vote. Also look for Garib Nawaz for excellent botis with roti and chutney.
And when your stomach tires of Kashmiri, go Punjabi at Krishna Vaishno Dhaba on Durgnath Temple Road, near Gupkar Road: excellent daals, rajma and more. Don’t miss the kheer. The Dal Gate-Kohna Khan area and the beginning of the Boulevard have a slew of restaurants and dhabas that offer your usual north Indian daal, paneer dishes and non-veg items. For a standard Mughlai experience, filling if greasy, you can try Kareem’s on the Boulevard not far from Nehru Park, and opt for Dal Peshawari, murgh handi, or ‘ishtews’. A beautiful place to sit, with soothing lake views and breezes, is the Nun Kun Restaurant at Dal Lake on the Boulevard. Satisfying Chinese meals round it all up. Favoured by the locals, perhaps the best Chinese and Tibetan food restaurant is Lhasa on Dal Gate.
Another place you must stop at is Hotel Broadway’s Coffea Arabica, which is a like a snazzy laidback food court, offering Italian, Lebanese, momos, shakes, coffee and much more. There’s also a Café Coffee Day near the Dal Gate and a Nathu’s Sweets on Boulevard Road, near Nehru Park.
TIP Excellent tujji and seekh kababs along with three kinds of chutney and lavas are grilled in small stalls along the latter half of Dal Gate in the evening
Don’t miss Kashmiri bread baked throughout the day in Srinagar’s many local bakeries. Each bread coincides with a different meal — gird (or round bread) and tsot often dipped in nun chai for breakfast. Lunch and kebabs are accompanied by lavas or thin naan and afternoon is for the bagel-like tsochvoru.
TIP Have a meal at the open air restaurants at the Lalit Grand Palace or Taj Vivanta off Boulevard for a taste of the heritage elegance in the former and lakeside beauty at the latter
Avantipora (26 km)
The Avantipora ruins stand right on the Srinagar-Jammu NH1A. Built by King Avantivarman, the first ruler of the Utpala dynasty of Kashmir in the 9th century, the Avantisvami Temple to Vishnu has some recognisable sculptures and carved stones. A guide takes you through the deities to be recognised and shows you the very important spot where the death scenes in Dev Anand’s Guide were shot (though he is wrong).
Doodhpathri (46 km)
On the drive south from Srinagar Airport via Budgam, Ichgam, Kramsher and Khan Sahib to Budgam District’s Doodhpathri (pronounced Dwadhpathri locally), the wildflower-spangled, intensely green meadows come rolling at you suddenly, without warning. Barely contained by the mossy green hills, the grasslands give way to more grasslands. Alpine wildflowers beget more wild-flowers. And packs of handsome wild horses graze fixedly, unruffled by two groups of local tourists. The tourists are transfixed by the nomadic Gujjars, though. The meadows eventually wind up at a riverbed. Doodhpathri is one of the most beautiful meadows you can visit and no better setting for a picnic. JKTDC maintains a small tourist guest house complex here. It’s possible to trek from here to Yusmarg, where there’s another JKTDC rest house. Ask J&K Tourism to organise the trek for you. A taxi from Srinagar charges ₹ 2,000 (return).
Further west from Doodpathri through the Budgam Woods are the sprawling meadows of Tosa Maidan. This stunning meadow is the battleground where Maharaja Ranjit Singh was defeated by Mohammad Azim Khan in 1814. The Army uses parts of the meadow for artillery practice, but many tourists come here so it’s quite safe.
Inputs by Kai Friese, Prerna Sud and Soity Banerjee
When to go Kashmir is lovely in any season. But there’s no season more quintessentially Kashmiri than harud (autumn), between September and early November, when the chinars are aflame. With temperatures around 20°C in the day and rarely dipping below 10°C at night, the weather in Srinagar is never better. A relief from the warmer days (often touching the 36-37°C mark), this is also when there’s a dip in visitors. JK Tourism’s 15-day Kashmir Festival in May is also a good time to visit. Venues include popular destinations across the state and see activities like rafting, paragliding, water sports at Nigeen Lake, angling competitions, horse riding and of course, food and handicrafts stalls
TIP When planning your holiday, keep time spare for unannounced bandhs
J&K Tourism, Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar, Tel: 0194-2452691, 2479548
Director Tourism (Kashmir), TRC, Srinagar; Tel: 2472449, Website: jktourism.org
JKTDC, TRC, Srinagar; Tel: 2472644, 2457930, Website: jktdc.co.in, STD code 0194
TIP Only postpaid mobile connections work in J&K state
Location The summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir lies in the heart of the Vale of Kashmir between the Pir Panjal and Great Himalayan ranges. Srinagar is bisected by the Jhelum River and graced by the Dal, Nigeen and Anchar lakes against the backdrop of the Zabarwan and Shankaracharya hills
Distances 298 km N of Jammu, 424 km W of Leh, 881 km N of Delhi
Route from Delhi and Jammu NH1 to Jalandhar via Panipat, Karnal, Ambala, Sirhind, Ludhiana and Phagwara; NH1A to Srinagar via Dasua, Pathankot, Kathua, Samba, Jammu, Domel, Udhampur, Patnitop, Batote, Ramban, Banihal, Jawahar Tunnel, Qazigund, Khanabal, Avantipora and Pampore
Route from Leh NH1D to Srinagar via Spituk, Nimmu, Saspol, Nyurla, Khaltse, Lamayuru, Fotu La, Bodh Kharbu, Mulbekh, Kargil, Thasgam, Drass, Matayan, Zoji La, Baltal, Sonamarg, Mamer, Kangan and Ganderbal
Air Srinagar’s Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport (Tel: 0194-2303000/ 31, 2303635) is connected by direct flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu by Air India, SpiceJet, Indigo and Go Air. Pre-paid taxis are easily available at the airport; a taxi to the TRC on Residency Road costs ₹500. JKSRTC also runs shuttle buses between the airport and TRC (₹65)
TIP On your way out of Srinagar, allow about an hour extra to get to the airport as security checks can keep you waiting in a seriously long queue of cars. You can’t use a smartphone screen and must show a printed ticket to enter the airport. You must identify luggage before boarding. Laptops and cameras are examined separately
Rail The 345-km long Kashmir Railway — officially the Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar- Baramulla Railway Link — is slated to connect Jammu Tawi Station with Baramulla at the edge of the Kashmir Valley, and is partially open. When the 148 km-long Banihal-Katra section of the railway line is completed by 2017-18, you will be able to travel all the way from Baramulla and Srinagar to Jammu and the rest of India by train. For now, Srinagar Station is currently connected only to Banihal, Qazigund, Khanabal, Panzgam, Anantnag, Avantipora, Pampore, Sopore and Baramulla stations. For the rest of India, the nearest railhead for Srinagar remains Jammu Tawi (298 km/9 hrs). The taxi stand outside Jammu’s Tourist Reception Centre (Tel: 0191-2546266) has taxis to Srinagar for approx ₹4,500. Shared taxi is ₹600 per seat. JKSRTC (Jammu Tel: 0191-2576562, 2470062, Jammu General Bus Stand Tel: 2577475; Srinagar Tel: 0194-2455107) runs semi-deluxe (₹265), deluxe (₹363), super deluxe (₹448), and luxury buses (₹500) in the morning (6 am, 7 am) and evening (6.30 pm and 7.30 pm) up to Srinagar everyday. JKSRTC Delhi (Tel: 011-23864581, 23934232) also runs a sleeper coach (seater ₹1,408, sleeper ₹1,574) to Srinagar from its depot at Tis Hazari at 1 pm daily, reaching Srinagar at 3 pm the next day
Road Srinagar is connected to Jammu and Jalandhar by NH1A, and thereon to Delhi by NH1. The drive up to Srinagar on NH1A from Jammu goes via Nagrota, Domel, Udhampur, Chenani, Patnitop, Batote, Ramban and Banihal to Shaitan Nala (prone to winds and avalanches in winter), then cuts through the Pir Panjal mountains via Jawahar Tunnel, and on to Qazigund, Khanabal, Bijbehara, Avantipora, Lethpora, Pampore and finally Pantha Chowk, 5 km from Srinagar’s GPO on Residency Road. Srinagar is also linked to Kargil and Leh by NH1D
TIP When travelling from Jammu to Srinagar, it is best to leave early (6-7 am) to allow for delays due to traffic jams. Drive carefully along NH1A during the rainy seasons (April, July and August), as the route through the hills, especially around Banihal, is prone to landslides. Both Indians and foreign nationals should carry identity proof as you will be stopped for a security check at Nagrota’s Army Base and possibly at one or two other places as well
In the late 19th century, Srinagar’s boat-dwelling Hanji community started building floating homes or houseboats for English residents, who were not allowed to own land in Kashmir. But some trace Srinagar’s house-boat phenomenon to the 1880s. When his shop burnt down, one Pt Naraindas moved his inventory to a small boat used by the Hanjis and moored it. With some improvements, his became the first proper ‘houseboat’. Naraindas sold his boat to a European, realised the potential in the idea, and started commissioning boats. He became locally famous as ‘Naav Narain’ and his first houseboat was named Kashmir Princess.
Today, the vast waterscape of the Dal Lake has more than a thousand houseboats. The Nigeen, on the other hand, is relatively far off. It has less than 200 houseboats and is frequented by those who prefer ‘the quiet’.
The typical houseboat has two to five rooms with attached bathrooms, a balcony and usually a terrace in front. The wood is rarely plain; intricate carving is common on the walls and roof, Kashmiri carpets and rugs adorn most floors, and a dining room and sitting room are customary. The houseboats are run by joint families. Though Kashmiri houseboats are water-worthy, they usually are not moved and remain moored to the land.
The floating gardens, or ‘rad’, on the Dal are a mix of matted vegetation and earth, and produce some superb vegetables. The dawn-time floating vegetable market on the Dal is an excellent photogenic visit with colourful produce being hawked on equally colourful shikaras, and gives you a look into at a relatively recent tradition. This is not a retail market. Vegetable growers come with shikaras laden with leafy greens, turnips, cabbages, water chestnuts, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and more, to sell to agents of the shops on land. Given tourist interest in this, the market now also has a plethora of shikaras selling flowers, saffron, wood carvings, handicrafts, et al. To experience it, you need to the reach the Dal by about 6 am. It’s all over by 7-7.30 am.
Passionately committed to, and informed about, Kashmiri culture, architecture and tradition, R&A Design, a venture of Renuka Savasere and Abeer Gupta (Mobile: 09906573224; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) offers walks and craft tours in Srinagar.
Srinagar Walks conducts 4 walks in the city: The Shehr-e-khas Walk covers the centre of the old town, its historical markets and some monuments, including the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan, Zaina Kadal, the tomb complex of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin’s mother, Maharajganj market complex and the Hindu temples on the Jhelum. The Pilgrim’s Walk covers Pir Dastgir Saheb, Rozabal, Ranger Mohalla, lanes of vernacular architecture in Ringshawlpora and Baghdadi Mohalla, Khwaja Naqshbandi Saheb and finally the Jama Masjid. This walk focuses on the advent and settlement of the various Sufi traditions of Kashmir. The focus of the Mughal Walk is on development of the city during the Mughal and Sikh periods. It covers the Gurudwara Chatti Padshahi, Kathi Darwaza and parts of the walled city built by Akbar, Hari Parbat and the Afghan fort, Akhund Mullah Shah’s Mosque and Hamam built by prince Dara Shikoh, Badam Veer, which is a delight in spring for its profuse almond blossoms and the Tibetan Colony near Sangeen Darwaza. The Colonial Walk begins at Lal Chowk and goes past Koker Bazaar, the Hanuman Temple on the Jhelum, Shergari Palace, Hari Singh High Street, the Bund, Christian cemetery and Shri Pratap Singh Museum.
The expert-led walks cost ₹2,500 per person and guide-led walks ₹800 per person. The duration is 2½ hours and the cost includes tea and snacks.
The Crafts Tour which discovers Kashmir though its rich handicrafts costs ₹2,500 per person and includes tea and snacks and interactions with the artisans. R&A Design is also a great place to pick up authentic Kashmiri crafts items.