Kunzum Travel List #17: Srinagar – A city fit for royals

The Dal Lake in evening light
The Dal Lake in evening light

There is something royal about Srinagar. You can feel it in the air. And why not? If the Mughal emperors could make the long arduous journey centuries back to Srinagar for their pleasures, they must have had good reason to. In many ways, the city has lost a lot in the over two decades of political disturbances. Fortunately though, it still retains more than enough charm for the traveller.

A milestone indicating the distance to Srinagar
A milestone indicating the distance to Srinagar

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All afloat on the Dal Lake

A Shikara (centre) going through house boats in the Dal Lake
A Shikara (centre) going through house boats in the Dal Lake

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Srinagar lives around the Dal Lake. Much of the city’s attractions are dotted along its non-circular 26 kms (16 miles) circumference; you should drive all the way around it. The entire population seems to be here in the evenings. Some fish (wonder if it’s legal?), others take evening walks. Groups of young boys and men can be seen drinking in their cars parked along the lake – or even shaking a leg or two on the road to the music from their car stereos. Unfortunately, a few (exceptions only) get carried away leaving beer bottles strewn around or even passing lewd comments at women.

It may sound a clichéd to-do, but you have to hop on to a Shikara for a ride on the Dal Lake. I did – at first light and the last light too. A few times over. How do you maximize the joy? My tips:

* Go for a ride anytime.
* Go for a ride 45 minutes before sunset. See the colours and reflections change all around as dusk sets in.
* Discuss the route before you start off. Negotiate rates – but don’t be too harsh. Let these guys earn a bit. And chat up the Shikara owners – they have wonderful stories to share.
* Shop till you sink, I mean drop. Salesmen on Shikaras will float up to yours selling their wares – silver jewelry, paper mache gifts, fine pashmina shawls, dry fruits and more. Your Shikara guy can also take you to the ‘floating market’ – shops standing in the lake. Browse, negotiate, check the quality but buy something – this micro economy can do with some patronage.
* Hop on to houseboats and look around. Accept tea if offered. Some of them even throw late night parties, open to all.
* Head out at the earliest – and every – opportunity. Weather can turn unfavourable anytime.

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The Good, Bad and Ugly of the Dal Lake

* The Dal Lake is full of houseboats or floating accommodation, as far as the eye can see. How did these become popular? The Dogra rulers of Kashmir had banned – which continues till date – outsiders from buying property in the state. To beat the rule, the British (when they ruled India) got themselves houseboats as a summer house. Even I want one!
* The lake is shrinking – locals are landfilling pockets to literally manufacture land for homes and farms. Political appeasement allows them to get away with murder (of the lake).
* But the lake is said to be cleaner now than it has been for decades, thanks to money and effort going in.

Shopping for vegetables in the Dal Lake – at 5:00 am

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Aaarrrrrghh! Yes, this is the sound you will make when your alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. It is time to head out to the daily vegetable market in the Dal Lake. Once in the Shikara, you will be glad for it.

I got a surreal feeling as I approached the market, a half an hour ride away: there was a chill in the air, the first light was still trying to get through the shroud of darkness and all I could hear was the gentle splosh as my Shikara’s oars went into and out of the water.

And then they started appearing from behind the houseboats: buyers and sellers in their Shikaras, all looking like silhouettes. And at the crack of dawn, as if on cue, the area was full of them and chatter. Trading had started, like on a stock market floor.

Sellers were farmers or traders. And buyers included houseboat owners, shopkeepers in town, other traders and consumers. Mostly men, a handful of women. Trading in vegetables, fruits, flowers and seeds. How old is the market?

No one knows – seems to have been around forever. Volumes pick up as days get warmer and farm produce increases. I ended up with a Shikara full of veggies, flowers and seeds – purchases made out of courtesy from those who agreed to be interviewed. Buy some veggies yourself – the taste will linger in your mouth long after you have left Kashmir.

Travel Tip: The market starts at the crack of dawn – it is best to be there at that time itself. Trading does not last too long, perhaps just over an hour.

Tulips are blooming close to home

If it’s spring, it must be Srinagar. Specifically at the Tulip Garden, an uncharacteristically wonderful creation of the Government. The Tulip Garden comes alive for only 2-3 weeks with endless rows of tulips of many different hues. The dates naturally change a bit every year – stay alert with your bags packed to head out as soon as you hear news of their blooming. The Keukenhof Flower Gardens in Holland with their seven million bulbs may be the gold standard for tulip gazing, but I am not sure if they can match the setting in Srinagar: the Dal Lake on one side, and the mighty Himalayas in a crescent behind. A tulip in any other setting may not look as beautiful.

Who would not want to study in the palace of fairies ?

The Pari Mahal, or Palace of Fairies
The Pari Mahal, or Palace of Fairies

If fairies were for real (maybe they are), I cannot think of a better home for them than the Pari Mahal, or the Palace of Fairies.

It was built by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son and favoured successor to Shahjahan (who built the Taj Mahal), in the mid-17th century as a Sufi School. A unique design with six terraces, each with well manicured lawns, it came up around a small spring. Do look in the direction of the Pari Mahal when it is dark – it is lit up and stands out from far on the slopes.

Dara, an intellectual who patronized fine arts, music and dancing, was seen as a heretic in the eyes of his orthodox brother Aurangzeb. The latter eventually had him murdered, ascended the throne and is seen as largely responsible for the eventual downfall of the Mughal Empire. Had Dara lived, would history have been different? We will never know.

Just like we will never know if fairies actually live (or lived) here.

The Mughal Gardens : Fit for royalty

The royal spring at Chashmashahi, one of the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar
The royal spring at Chashmashahi, one of the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar

The Mughal Emperors must have been really fond of Kashmir – the terraced gardens they created in Srinagar are all a labour of love. Including the Shalimar, Nishat Bagh and Chashmashahi (meaning Royal Spring). The last was cherished for its refreshing sweet water and built by Shahjahan in 1632 A.D. – very popular with picnickers, and a place to get yourself clicked in traditional Kashmiri dresses. Having seen just some bits of Srinagar, I have only one expression for it: Show-off city!

Jama Masjid : Heavenly architecture

The Deodhar wood pillars supporting the ceiling in one of the halls of Jama Masjid – must have been quite an effort. Especially doing it thrice over – after every fire at the mosque
The Deodhar wood pillars supporting the ceiling in one of the halls of Jama Masjid – must have been quite an effort. Especially doing it thrice over – after every fire at the mosque

Most mosques in the country follow similar architectural models, but the Jama Masjid in Srinagar distinguishes itself as one not seen anywhere.

Also spelled Jami Masjid and Jamia Masjid on the sign boards – it is located in the Old City known for its labyrinth of streets with old houses and handicraft shops. The largest mosque in Kashmir Valley, it was designed around a central courtyard in the unique Indo-Saracenic (also known as Indo-Gothic or Mughal- Gothic) architectural style. Built in 1402 A.D. by Sikandar But-Shikoh, it holds an undesirable record of burning down thrice in its history. The last fire was in 1674 during Aurangzeb’s rule.

I noticed everyone was carrying their shoes in the mosque (you are not allowed to wear them inside) – I had left mine unattended at the gate. All through I was being nagged with thoughts of their safety – and replacements are tough to find for a size 11. But fortunately my fears did not come true.

All the time while I was at the mosque, I could not help visualizing the range of creative and technical talent available in times gone by. We cannot even imagine modern structures looking as striking as the one I was at. And what is left for us to see is probably just the tip of the iceberg – so much of what has been lost over time will never be known.

Jama Masjid in Figures

* Dimensions: 381 feet x 384 feet
* Built-up Area: 146,000 sq ft
* Number of Deodhar wood pillars supporting ceiling: 378 (346 pillars: 21 feet high, 5 feet girth; 32 pillars: 48 feet high, 6 feet girth)
* Capacity: 33,333 people

Hazratbal : Practising faith alongside the lake

Don’t try arguing the authenticity of this one: Hazratbal is the most sacred of Muslim shrines in Kashmir Valley – for it houses a single hair of Prophet Mohammed brought a thousand years ago from Medina. It is taken out for public display only on special occasions. While the streets leading to the mosque can be chaotic, the designers sure chose a pleasant site for the building. Dusks and dawns can be particularly enchanting, with light reflecting off the water of Dal Lake, and colourful skies above. Just the spot to connect with the Almighty.

The lawns had hundreds of people just sitting around – but I noticed two young veiled women in particular. And they must have noticed me too – their eyes seemed to be following my camera and me all over. Still wondering how they would have reacted had I gone up to them to strike a conversation – would give anything to see what they looked like. Will never know.

I saw signs at both Hazratbal and Jama Masjid soliciting donations – a true Muslim is supposed to offer a percentage of his income to charity. But donors were also being advised to do so against proper receipts. I saw pre-printed ones at Jama Masjid for Rs. 20 and Rs. 50. Also read a sign at Pari Mahal that read: “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field, and men, beasts and birds eat from it all of it is charity on his part – Islamic Faith.” Of course, contributions are welcome from people of all faiths.

Travel Tips
* Getting there: Srinagar is well connected by air to Delhi and other major cities in India. Trains are available till Jammu. There is no dearth of taxis and buses once you are in the state. Best to drive up yourself. For driving directions and distances, refer to Kunzum Travel List #15 – Route K11.
* Accommodation: There is no dearth of hotels and guest houses – from budget to super luxury.
* Best time to go: March to October. You can go in the winters too if you are fond of extreme cold.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Hey Ajay, super write-up. Some nice tips and the poignancy of what you witnessed really rubbed off on the writing too.

    Thanks for the detail, I’m leaving to Srinagar tomorrow morning and your suggestions were most helpful. Cheers.

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