“There is not so much violence or unrest in Srinagar as portrayed by the media. It is quite a beautiful place where tourists throng every year and what is shown on the television is propaganda”, said Mehaj, as he sipped his tea. I looked up from my aloo parantha at his face and nodded in reciprocation. He was quite right as I found many on my travel dissuading me from travelling to Kashmir and Srinagar. There can be a curfew or riot or protests without a cue and that could put a halt to my travel plans is what most people advised. However, during my five day stay in Srinagar I did not face any such issues. While speaking to a few locals they clarified that there are certain sections in Srinagar which frequently face such situations, but the tourist areas are devoid of them. My stay was a peaceful one and the gardens and lakes reaffirmed the fact that Srinagar is definitely a paradise on earth.
Located in Kashmir Valley or better known as ‘the valley’, Srinagar is the capital of Jammu and Kashmir and is a scenic city strewn with lakes and gardens. Though the valley has faced tensions over the years, the place is a gorgeous one which made Amir Khusru, the famous Persian poet say- “If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”. He is absolutely right as the snow capped mountains, spread out lakes and Mughal gardens of Srinagar would encapsulate any visitor with their charm.
I started my first day in Srinagar with a Shikara ride on Dal lake, which probably is the most touristy thing to do while in Srinagar. How much ever touristy you say, the ride on the lake is definitely a must, to experience the charm of the stunning lake and the life of the locals surviving and making a living out of it. Asif, my young boatman was quite a friendly fellow who asked me to relax in his ‘Heaven’ boat and take in the beauty of the surroundings as we rowed over the placid waters with fog hovering over it. Large Shikaras or house boats are stationed along the fringes of the lake which can be rented out and they come with all the modern facilities. There are about six to eight points of interest on this lake as mentioned by Asif. He also advised me against buying anything from the boats that approach us to sell a wide range of things from jewellery to saffron as they were mostly not genuine. However, I couldn’t resist having Gulbadhan (a sweet which resembles ice cream), from a vendor who pestered me for a while. The boats on the lake were a mix of tourists, vendors and locals who were plying from one shore to another. We rowed ahead as the lake slowly opened up in front of us along with the first point of interest, Open Dal lake. Golden lake was next, and it gets its name from the fact that numerous luxurious house boats are parked along that stretch. We were soon at Nehru Park located in the middle of the lake. It has a lovely garden and offers a panoramic view of Dal Lake. As the lake stretched before us, we delved deeper into the narrow water lanes of Thok bazaar (old market) and Meena bazaar. While Thok bazaar has numerous shops selling Kashmiri shawls, pashmina shawls and suits, Meena bazaar is known for its Kesar (saffron) and dry fruits. After hopping around for a while we headed back to Dal gate from where we had started two and half hours ago.
Nigeen lake is probably less popular, but is an equally serene one and is connected to Dal lake by a narrow starit. Surrounded by trees and located near Hari Parbat which is a hillock in Srinagar, the lake was starkly different from Dal lake with regard to visitors. I was the only soul who was roaming around amidst the stationed boats. A lone boatman persuaded me to go on a shikara ride, but I politely refused and walked ahead.
After relishing some rogan josh with rice and kahwa at Shah cafe, I took a detour off the lake road to Chashme Shahi gardens. Perched at a height and maintained by the horticulture department, the garden was built in 1632 CE during the rule of Shah Jahan for his son, Dara Shikoh. It’s a beautiful garden with a spread of flowers, fountains and a fresh spring.
Further ahead of Chashme Shahi is Pari Mahal (Fairies Palace) built in the 17th century by Dara Shikoh. This terraced structure has a well laid out garden, a few old crumbling walls, rooms, tanks and arches. The six terraced structure offers magnificent views of the Dal lake and I strolled around for while taking in the beautiful misty views.
Nishat garden which means the garden of gladness is probably the most beautiful Mughal garden in Srinagar. Built beside the Dal lake and overlooking it, it was built in 1634 CE by Asaf Jah, the brother of Nur Jahan and uncle of Shah Jahan. The garden once had twelve terraces stretching all the way to the lake along with cascades, water channels and large avenues with tall trees. This gorgeous landscape along with the lake and the mountains in the backdrop made the Mughals envision Nishat garden as paradise on earth. The garden over the years has suffered from vandalism during the attacks by various rulers and been rebuilt a few times. It has also undergone many changes over a period of time and the first terrace is presently replaced by the road that runs between the lake and the garden. It was late in the afternoon and I loved the stroll through this well spread out garden with vast open spaces, fountains and a wide range of colourful flowers strewn across it.
My next pit stop was Shalimar garden, which is highly likely to transport the visitors back to the Mughal era with its charm. Built in 17th century this terraced garden is laced with numerous fountains and a beautiful marble pavilion with carved pillars and art work on its walls. The place looked regal during the heydays when it had cascading waters, shady trees and large open spaces. This garden was built by Jehangir in 1619 CE and it is believed that Jehangir and Nur Jahan used to meet here often. As I strolled around the regal garden gazing at the beautiful tall trees, it was soothing hear some soulful old hindi songs from a few young locals who were playing the flute.
A stroll in the evening through the vibrant Lal Chowk ended with a delicious Mutton biriyani at Ruby hotel in Lambert lane. Lal chowk is an ideal place to buy dry fruits and Kashmiri fabrics.
Beyond the lakes and gardens, what attract visitors in Srinagar are its gorgeous mosques and Khanqahs. The next day began early with a visit to the Shrine of Dastigir Sahib, standing tall amidst the crowded Khanyar locality. Built in early 19th century, the shrine houses a holy relic belonging to the sufi poet Syed Abdul Qadir Jeelani apart from five graves. I walked in languorously gazing at the stunning work of art adorning the interiors. The colourful works on the walls, ceiling and pillars along with the beautiful glass panes and writings on them are absolutely remarkable. A few meters ahead is Rozabel shrine or Jesus shrine, which gets its name from the fact that it has writing mentioning about Jesus in Quran. On the way back from the shrine I chatted with two locals about Kashmir, people and politics in general. They were glad to see me visit the shrines and mosques, as most of the visitors restrict themselves to Dal lake and the gardens.
Further ahead on the road lies the most celebrated shrine of Srinagar- Khanqah of Shah Hamdan. A flight of pigeons flew out as I entered the premises of this gorgeous shrine. The pagoda like structure rises above the old town and is located by the Jhelum river. The kahnqah was built in late 14th century to commemorate the visit of Mir Sayyad Ali Hamdani, a legendary figure from Iran. What left me spellbound was the amazing work of intricate and colourful art on the walls and the ceiling inside. The hanging chandeliers further accentuate its beauty. The outer walls too are well decorated with mural art and verses from the Quran.
After gaping at the art works and chasing the pigeons, I headed to another popular shrine, Khanqah of Khwaja Moinuddin Naqshbandi. Though a bit reluctant initially, the authorities allowed me inside despite not being a follower of Islam. Even though it is not as glorious as the shrine of Hamdan, this Khanqah looks elegant with art work on its walls. This shrine was where the sacred hair of Prophet was kept before shifting it to Hazratbal mosque. The insides of the shrine too have numerous art works. Next to the khanqah is a huge mosque with nice woodwork.
The central mosque of Srinagar, Jami masjid is a grand one with spacious courtyards, tall structures and a small garden. While a couple of these structures have tall columns inside them, one structure acts as the main prayer hall. Built in 1677 CE by Sikandar Shah Kashmiri Shahmiri, it has both Persian and Buddhist pagoda influence in its architecture.
After a late lunch, I rode out to the Hazratbal mosque for the last visit of the day. The beautiful white structure with a large dome at one end of the Dal lake is a popular place of visit and is supposedly the holiest shrine for Muslims in Kashmir. The mosque houses a relic that is believed to be the hair of Prophet Mohammed.
With a day to spare in Srinagar I decided to ride up to Gulmarag, the popular getaway from the city. Gulmarg though a hill station is a large meadow with undulating slopes and surrounded by tall pines with mountains in the backdrop. The whole place gets blanketed by ten to fifteen feet of snow and is a gorgeous frame during winters. Gulmarg is quite popular with skiiers and the cable car ride up offers aerial views of the snow land. However, when I visited, winter was yet to set in and the place looked totally different from what google threw at me. Not being winters, I discarded the idea of taking the cable car ride and instead happily succumbed to the pressures of a horse ride. The two hour ride on ‘Raja’ took me along the inner ring road and my guide showed me places such Maharaja’s palace, view points, film shooting spots, 18 hole golf course, skating rink, St. Mary’s church, Maharani temple, mountaineering institute and children’s park. As I disembarked, my guide told that when winter sets, the foreign travellers ski here for weeks together and the non skiiers go up the cable car for the lovely all round vistas.
On my way from Srinagar to Jammu, I stopped by the dusty little town of Avantipur (40 Kms from Srinagar) known for its 9th century temples, Avantisvara temple and Avantisvami temple. Built by King Avantivarman, Avantisvara temple was dedicated to Shiva and Avantisvami temple was dedicated to Vishnu. Both the temples have an imposing gateway with a raised platform for the main shrine and an oblong courtyard. There are carvings on the gateways and there are numerous stones and pillars with sculptures, most of which are dilapidated. These temples are mostly neglected by the tourists and I was the only soul walking through the remains at the premises of both the temples at that time.
Srinagar is well connected to all other major cities in India by flights. The nearest railhead is at Jammu (270 Kms). Gulmarg is 54 Kms from Srinagar and is recommended to hire a taxi or have your own vehicle.
Try Kashmiri cuisine at any of the restaurants in Lal Chowk. Ruby hotel serves delicious biriyani. The other popular places are Ahdoos, Juniper etc. Shah cafe near Dal gate is another recommended place to have Kashmiri cuisine. Being a popular tourist destination, Srinagar has numerous accommodation options. One can stay at any of the house boats too. I stayed at German residency, a good mid range hotel.