February 22, 2024

Paradise rediscovered: a weekend in Srinagar

I muttered harshly to myself as I walked half asleep into Srinagar’s cool air at 5 am. The shikara was waiting at the pier when we reached, ready to take us to the floating market on Dal Lake. As we glided on the lake, the silence broken only by the rhythmic swish-swish of the wooden oars beating water, the soft pinks and purples of dawn slowly gave way to brighter yellows and oranges.

After nearly an hour of rowing through narrow channels lined by souvenir shops, we finally arrived at the market. A couple dozen boats were already doing brisk business there, selling fresh produce grown right on those wetlands. Cucumbers and turnips, spinach and local saag – everything was green, sparkling green. Everyone seemed to know everyone else there, vendors friends with other vendors as well as customers. And all the haggling seemed to take place with a sense of familiarity and fondness.

On the pier later, our friendly boatmen treated us to nun chai, and we stood by the edge of the lake, savouring the unusual salty taste of the tea and looking out for cerulean kingfishers swoop in and out of the water. Back at our homestay Almond Villa, bang opposite the lake, we hurried over breakfast, eager to get out and explore.

Our day was dedicated to Srinagar’s famous Mughal gardens: Pari Mahal overlooking the city, Nishat Bagh with its layered terraces and views of the Dal Lake as well as the Pir Panjal mountain range, and finally the most exquisite of them all, Shalimar Bagh. The gardens were a riot of yellows, oranges and pinks, with local families picnicking under tall Ashoka trees, the gurgling water fountains and chirping birdcall louder than the noise of kids playing.

Later that evening, we moved across town to what would be our floating home for the next couple of days, a Welcomgroup Gurkha houseboat. Our houseboat was a thing of beauty, anchored in a peaceful corner of Nigeen Lake, a complete contrast to the crowds and chaos of the more famous Dal. It came with multiple living and sleeping spaces, extravagant wooden carvings and a square patch of garden on the water alongside.

We spent that evening watching dusk fall around us, the excursions of the day a distant memory in front of the utter stillness here. When we stepped on to the front deck the next morning, we were greeted by the sight of boats filled with colourful flowers and kitschy trinkets, vendors climbing up our houseboat in the hope of enticing us to buy these as souvenirs.

It was tough to refuse them all but we finally managed to make our way out, getting into the smaller shikaras to get rowed ashore. It was time to head to the narrow lanes of old Srinagar. First stop, the sombre Jamia Masjid against the background of the ruins of Akbar’s fort high up on a hill, and the shops around it selling a variety of nuts, spices and local masala mixes.

And then a visit to the imposing Shah-e-Hamdan mosque, also known as Khanqah Masjid, a hundred pigeons on the outside porch fluttering at the sound of our voices. Dedicated to a powerful 14th century Sufi saint, this wooden mosque with its colourful exteriors was easily one of Srinagar’s most beautiful and impressive spaces (only Muslim men are allowed inside).

Most travellers use Srinagar as a short stopover before rushing off to the more popular places like Pahalgam and Gulmarg. This city deserves much more than that.

(This story was published on the Mint website on Sept 09, 2018)

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