What do I say about the amazing palette of colours that Kashmir is…the place is mesmerizing, with stunning vistas, the landscape changing from green to yellow to brown to white, simple and warm people and the omnipresent Kahwa. Hope my post expresses even one tenth of what I felt…
There are more talks about the conflict in Kashmir rather than the beauty the place is. But for me, the place is conflict free, atleast that’s what I would like to believe in my mind. Full of nice and warm people who only want to earn their livelihood, it is really unfair the place has to suffer so much negative publicity because of some people who believe in everything other than progress. The two times I have travelled there, I have found the place to be safe and very tourist friendly. Of course, as with every place, there are some pre cautions one has to take. Other than that, well, what do I say. I think the Mughal Emperor Jahangir expressed it best when he said “Agar Firdaws ba roy-i zamin ast, hamin ast-u hamin ast-u hamin ast.” Translated to English, it means “If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
So, it was a summer not so long back when we decided to go back to Kashmir and to the same places we had been to before. Travelling with two kids, one of them an infant (my daughter was six months old then), it would have been difficult to venture out to different places so we decided to just go back to the ones we had loved.
Sri Nagar is the capital of Kashmir and the base from where one can go to different places. There is no operational railway station in Sri Nagar. For us, we booked air tickets from Mumbai to Sri Nagar via Delhi. You can have a look at various options on Makemytrip , Cleartrip etc. We normally use cleartrip. For those who want a more budget friendly way to reach Sri Nagar, you can take a train till Jammu Tawi Station (train tickets can be booked on the website of IRCTC ) which is around 290 Kilometeres from Sri Nagar and then take a taxi or a bus which would take around 8-11 hours to reach this route. Time taken will depend on whether you wish to take the NH44 with tolls or the NH144A .
Now time to talk about the trip we took.
We reach Sri Nagar at around 1:00 PM. While flying into Sri Nagar is not a hassle, flying out is a different story and I will write about it a little bit later. Our face is hit by a wave of cold gusty wind. This place is a bit different. I may be exxagaturating a bit when I say that there are more military men than civilians but then I think I am close. Our driver is a pleasant faced man. He doesn’s speak much though. We also don’t probe much. We are taking in the views of the place which till now appears to be like any other place.
Lots of shops are closed and we see anti Indian slogans painted on the walls. We are a bit apprehensive about this trip now. Nevertheless, in a while we start enjoying the beautiful scenery. The Dal Lake is infront of our eyes, a vast expanse of a water with shimmerings so bright that our eyes are dazzled. The water reflects the snow covered peaks of the Pir Panjal range. The sun is smiling at us. We have decided to take the typical touristy path and hence have decided that our first day will be spent on a house boat.
We reach a particular point from where a Shikara (gondola like boat) takes people to their respective house boats. It is said that no trip to Kashmir is complete without staying in a house boat and doing a Shikara ride. Well, we get the pleasure of boarding a Shikara and the chatty Shikara driver starts telling us about a how a Shikara is an integral part of Sri Nagar and is used to ferry tourists, give them a joy ride, and transport school going kids. He also tells us that people sell their wares on Shikaras and that he will get us the best quality saffron from a trust worthy person he knows. We tell him that we will certainly tell him if we need. But he is very persistent. The trick here is to not give in and we don’t.
We reach our House Boat and the owner warmly welcomes us. The interiors surprise us. There are intricate woord carvings all over and the place gives out a very royal yet homely feel. We are treated to a hot cup of ‘Kahwa’ or the local tea in the cold weather and given some time to settle in. A delicious lunch of simple chicken curry, roti, rice, daal, sabzi, and phirni is waiting for us in the warm dining room. We enjoy the lovely meal and chat with our host. The gentleman gives us a lot of guidance about the things to do and the places to eat out. We retire to our room to rest a bit. Its evening now and we decide to take a Shikara ride on the Dal Lake. The day is still bright but its turning cold. The ride is uneventful and yet somehow makes me feel very calm. The husband feels romantic and we talk about the umpteen Bollywood movies which were shot when Kashmir was not what it is now. The son is very excited. Sensing that, a photographer on a Shikara follows us, first tempting us and then literally pressurizing us to get a photo clicked in the traditional Kashmiri attire. Well, the son does want to do this and the photographer’s cajoling works. The son looks very royal in the Kashmiri dress and is clicked with a promise that the pictures will be delivered to our house boat in the morning.
We pass a lot of house boats and are pestered by a lot of Shikara owners selling their wares, right from saffron to jewellery to fruits and flowers. It is actually a floating market.
The sun is beginning to set and the lake takes a different form in the evening. It looks very beautiful with the lights of the houseboats getting reflected in the calm waters of the lake.
The lake is actually supporting so many local people as well as their livelihood. It has a character of its own. It beckons the tourists and it provides accommodation to the locals and people even grow vegetables.
We enjoy the ride thoroughly and after paying a generous tip to the Shikara wala, we return to the House boat. After having a sumptuous dinner, we fall asleep and I am dreaming of mountains and valleys.
We get up late and load ourselves with the simple breakfast of toasted bread with jam and butter and light and fluffy omlettes. Needless to say, Kahwa has become an addiction by now.
We board a Shikara and cross the lake. Our driver has changed. This person is very warm and after welcoming us, takes us to the Hotel where we will stay till tomorrow. Hotel Mirage is a small hotel run by a charming manager by the name of Zulfi. Trip Advsior recommendations were good and hence we decide to stay there. After checking in, in the cosy little suite, we decide to tour the gardens of Sri Nagar which are famous.
Chashme Shahi or the royal spring, is one of the Mughal Gardens built in 1632 AD and is located near the Governor’s House or Raj Bhawan as it is known. It overlooks the Dal Lake. The garden is quite beautiful and well maintained. Since it is a holiday, lots of localites are also there apart from the tourists. It is nice to see the Kashmiri people enjoying a picnic under the cool shade of the trees.
Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Gardens
Some time spent at Chashme Shahi, we decide to visit the Tulip Gardens. Also known as the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Gandhi, named after the first lady Prime Minister of India, it was opened in the year 2007. Well, we are lucky. The flowers are in full bloom and look pretty against the back drop of the mountain range and lush green grass.
One can easily spend around 3 hours in the garden. It is beautiful and definitely till now seems like the highlight of our trip to Sri Nagar. The kids are super excited. The husband is again getting romantic. Kashmir does this to you. The colors are riveting. The colorful flowers arranged neatly give the impression of being nature’s bedsheet with no end.
Good to know : The Garden is located at Siraj Bagh Cheshmashahi, entry fee being Rs. 50 for adults and Rs. 25 for children (9:00 AM-7:00 PM). Remember that the flowers bloom for only about a month in year, sometimes lesser and the best time to visit would be between end of March and early April.
The Shankaracharya Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is also known as the Jyesteshwara temple and is situated right on top of the Shankaracharya Hill at a height of 1,000 feet.
Driver advises us to leave our camera and mobiles in the car itself since they are not allowed to be taken to the temple. It is heavily manned by the CRPF and there is a strigent security check. Nevertheless, I chose to wait since the kids are small and it is a steep climb of 243 steps. The husband goes and loves the view of Sri Nagar from the temple.
Hazrat Bal Shrine
Tired but wanting to make the most of our day, we decide to visit the Hazrat Bal Shrine. Now, the shrine is the most visited place in Sri Nagar and also one of the most important Islamic Shrines in India. However, the area where it is located is the old town and is not as clean as other parts of Sri Nagar though it is quite lively. It is believed that the shrine contains a relic, the Moi-e-Muqqadas, ,a hair of Muhammad. Hazrat means respected and bal means place. The name itself evokes respect for this holy place. The Shrine dates back to the 17th century and is located on left bank of the Dal Lake.
We enter the revered place. Thankfully, I have a jacket and am covered fully. I have a scarf and I cover my head. I already know that ladies are only allowed to enter the shrine after covering their heads. The place is calm and serene as only a holy place can be. We can see lots of pigeon flying. The Dal flows peacefully and we spend some time there. I cannot express it in words but something moves inside me. Some places, irrespective of one’s faith and religion, have that magnetic attraction, when they become a source of enlightenment.
We are tired but happy. The weather has changed and it has become cold. Thankfully, we are carrying warm clothes and therefore are also able to enjoy this cold weather. The baby is small though, and I am a bit worried. She of course, has no such worries. She is six month old and her cheeks have become red. We decide to skip the dinner at the hotel and go to “Ahdoo’s”for dinner, a restaurant which opened way back in 1918 and is famous for its Kashmiri Wazwan (read about Kashmiri Wazwan here). We try the Gushtaba (minced meat balls in yoghurt based gravy) and the Lahabi Kebab as recommended by our driver and are not disappointed. Food almost seems like an art, it not only statisfies the stomach but also the soul.
We are tired…but Pahalgam beckons us.
On our way to Pahalgam
We have decided to visit Pahalgam in the first leg of our journey. The journey starts on a pleasant note. I am chit chatting with Razzaq and he asks me whether I have a driver in Bombay and if yes, what do I pay him. I tell him that average salary of a driver in Bombay is between 12-15 thousands (in INR) for a month. He tells me that he gets half of that. I ask him if he is happy considering he works so hard and often has to travel to different places. This kind of driving does take a toll on the body. He says that he could not study much. Moreover, Kashmiris don’t venture much out of Kashmir for jobs and all and love the security of their own land. He rues the fact that living conditions are tough and terrorism has totally destroyed the state. We understand and I wonder when will the politicians realise that they should rise above petty politics and work towards the development of the state to make it the paradise it one was.
I look out of the window. Sheets and sheets of golden mutard fields beckon. It is heavenly, this beauty. It just fills up my soul with a strange feeling. I want to tell the time to stop. Instead, we stop the car and enjoy the scenery.
After again driving for some time, our driver stops at a shop which sells saffron and spices. We end up buying a a lot of dry fruits and saffron and are offered a complimetary hot steaming cup of Kahwa. Rested, we resume our drive. We pass Pampore which is famous for its saffron plantations. The flowers bloom only in November when the entire area is covered with purple saffron flowers. Well, this early April so we really cannot do much about this. We pass the Avantipura ruins since that is to be explored on our way back. We reach Pahalgam.
To be continued….