Bitter can be sweet and sweet poison.
It’s a question of what your tongue wants.
It’s hard work to tell what it wants,
but keep going:
The city you’re dreaming of,
it’s at the end of this road.
(Lal Ded, 14th century. Translated from Kashmiri by Ranjit Hoskote)
It was Kashimiri poetry that sparked the idea of a family summer holiday in Srinagar. I encountered Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla—The Poems of Lal Ded in 2011, and was instantly hooked by the power packed in the four-line vakhs. Lal Ded, an unusual 14th-century female Kashmiri mystic and poet, inhabited a “Hindu-Buddhist universe of meaning,” as Hoskote puts it, while simultaneously drawing on Persian, Arabic, and Sufi philosophy. Similarly, deeply rooted syncretism is part of my Goan heritage, and Lal Ded’s poems touched a personal chord. Before long, I became obsessed with the idea of an extended visit to Kashmir to learn more about the cultural roots that yielded this intriguing poetry.
When my wife, three young sons, and I finally arrived in Srinagar the following summer, we discovered Lal Ded’s poems are truly the bedrock to Kashmir’s many-layered identity. Favourite vakhs were recited to us proudly by schoolchildren and kebab-sellers; by the gate-keeper who ushered us through the wood-and-brick shrine dedicated to Naqshband Sahib, a 17th century mystic who came to Kashmir from Bukhara; and also by the young man with wildly curly hair who piloted us through Dal Lake’s floating tomato plantations.
The heartfelt verses of Lal Ded are an important part of Kashmir’s living regional tradition, where Shaivism flows into Sufism through the unique “Muslim Rishis”. We found this richly confluent identity—Kashmiriyat—shining brightly on our very first night in Srinagar, when we attended a moonlit bhand pather performance as part of the Dara Shikoh festival hosted at Almond Villa, on the shores of Dal Lake. Directed by one of India’s best-known theatre directors, M.K. Raina, the folk troupe poked exuberant fun at the hypocrisies of religion. The audience was stacked with dignitaries and their attendants: Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus (and several Sikhs). No differences were visible, as everyone roared with laughter to the point of tears.
Almond Villa was one of the most unusual homestays I’ve been to. Owner Jyotsna Singh’s grandfather was Hari Singh, the last monarch of Kashmir. Guests have the run of impressive orchards that meander up the mountain behind the main building, while Dal Lake gleams just beyond the front gate. There is a weekly farmers market on the premises, selling home-grown strawberries, home-made quince jam, Kashmiri gouda cheese, and delicious local greens. My children ran wild and happy, and spotted more than 30 species of birds in the time we stayed there.
Though Almond Villa was one-of-a-kind, nothing we’ve done as an eager travelling family quite compares to the three weeks we spent on a houseboat in the furthest, quietest reaches of Nagin Lake. Below our comfy front verandah, the lake shimmered exquisite. All around us, a flower garden bursting with outsized blossoms drew an unending stream of songbirds and butterflies. The first time we commandeered a naav, a simple wooden canoe, to explore the lake, we were promptly stopped and interrogated by the neighbourhood’s fishermen. Learning we were keen kayakers from Goa, they greeted us as part of their community, with handshakes, smiles, and the present of a lotus bloom to my wife.
When I ask my sons what they liked best about our month in Srinagar, all three say they most savoured the daily boat rides and waking up in their floating bedroom.
Our stay on the lake settled into a routine of day trips into the city and evenings on the water. While the sunset azan sounded from Hazratbal Mosque, and the fading light glowed dazzling pink and gold against the surrounding mountains, we took slow rides on our naav. Several times a week, we called for a friendly boatman to bring his shikara, gloriously named The Titanic, to pick us up before dawn for more extended excursions. Both children and adults enjoyed the convivial whirl of the floating vegetable market, and probing the brick-lined canals with crumbling mansions crowding down to the waterline. Then, there were excursions further afield: trout fishing on the Lidder River in the paradisiacal Aru Valley, and wandering high above the treeline in the alpine meadows of Dachigam National Park. There were many days when no one felt like leaving our temporary home on the water, and so we spent long mornings reading, painting, and listening to music, always accompanied by the hypnotic percussion of little waves lapping against the prow.
When we ventured out into the city from this idyll, my sons and I found barbed-wire looped everywhere, piercing heedlessly through even the “Abode of the Fairies”, Dara Shikoh’s heartstoppingly ethereal Pari Mahal on a mountainside high above Dal Lake. In Hoskote’s introduction to the Lal Ded translations, he points out that even amidst the beauty and grandeur of Kashmir, it is impossible to avoid a recurrent stab to the soul, impossible to forget the stark divisions that have been erected on Kashmir’s external and internal landscape. He writes, “wherever there were settlements, we found a spiky creeper. It grew along the walls that surround schools, mosques, abandoned temples, half-asleep hotels. Concertina wire is the most widespread form of vegetation in Kashmir today. It grows everywhere, even in the mind.” Ignoring or avoiding the military occupation of Srinagar is out of the question. Heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous on the main roads, and countless barricades reinforce a persistent feeling of unease, of being under siege.
Some of that fades away when you step away from the tourist track to join the stream of everyday life in Srinagar. An odd paradox governs tourism in Kashmir. Though world-famous for its extraordinary setting and omnipresent Dal Lake, almost every visitor remains confined to a narrow itinerary. Led by the nose on a loop through the mosque at Hazratbal and the temple of Shankaracharya, they head to the overrated Mughal Gardens and then make short excursions to trample snow near Gulmarg or Pahalgam. A longer stay usually adds on one night on a houseboat in the busiest part of Dal Lake, a couple of shikara rides, and lots of souvenir shopping. In the end, almost everything really special about the place is left out.
So we broke all the rules on our trip. Warned repeatedly that three or four days would be more than enough, we lingered a full month. Cautioned sternly to stay away from “Downtown”, the oldest part of the city, this 1,000-year-old precinct is precisely where we found the warmest welcomes and the most unexpected delights. In no other place in the world have we found both guides and guidebooks so useless, so consistently wrong in their recommendations of what to do, and especially what not to do. During our stay my family walked, rowed, and explored freely in all directions. And every day Srinagar revealed itself to us a little more, like a treasure chest with countless hidden compartments.
This riparian city’s remarkable liveliness spreads deep into a maze of waterways and ancient mohallas that are beguilingly dense with history. We consistently met with spontaneous hospitality, and happened upon hidden-away, utterly charming neighbourhoods brimming with civic pride. Venturing just a few steps off the beaten track in Srinagar, it took but a smile for courtyard doors to be unbolted in welcome, for cupfuls of fragrant kahwa to be placed in our hands, for poetry to spring from the lips of strangers. Almost every day, we found rich encounters lurking behind deceptive appearances. On our first trip walking up the imposing Hari Parbat hill to the shrine dedicated to 16th-century Sufi mystic, Makhdoom Sahib (typically, a famous Shakti Temple and Gurudwara are also nearby), we found our path barred midway by a gruff man-mountain who stretched his arms wide to stop us. It turned out he only wanted to carry our four-year-old up the rest of the way on his own shoulders.
Another evening, as we craned our necks to peer into the magnificent interior of the Khanqah of Shah Hamdan mosque, perhaps Srinagar’s most striking space, a bearded cleric rushed up to us, seemingly in anger, flashing a fierce “Who are you?” On learning we were from Goa, he broke into a crinkle-eyed smile. “My favourite place,” he said, leading us on a once-in-a-lifetime insider tour of his cherished shrine (clearly marked “No Visitors”), which is dedicated to a 14th-century Persian Sufi saint whose followers seeded Kashmir with shawl-weaving, carpet-making, and other arts and crafts traditions that have sustained countless livelihoods in the valley through the centuries.
The boys were exhilarated by the colourful street life of the old neighbourhoods. We shopped delightedly for all kinds of jaunty sewn caps at Hilal Cap Shop near Jama Masjid, and wolfed skewers of addictive tujj, coal-roasted mutton kebabs served with a range of spicy-cool chutneys, in the lane opposite Khyber Cinema. Every few days we returned like homing pigeons, to stroll the Bund up to the venerable Ahdoo’s Hotel, for elaborate meals of wazwaan specialities, and mouth-watering walnut macaroons. My youngest son became a big fan of Lal Chowk’s appropriately named restaurant Mummy Please, but the eldest preferred sit-down dinners at the charming boutique Hotel Dar es Salaam.
Nightlife is mostly absent in Srinagar and the cinema houses remain shuttered, but we came across some of the best independent bookstores in the subcontinent, with carefully curated collections from around the world. Among the stacks of the stellar Gulshan’s Book Shop, I discovered a comprehensive range of books on Kashmir, from colonial reprints to Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s The Meadow, a searing investigative report set during Kashmir’s worst period, the 1990s, when the Pandit population fled en masse from the valley.
After reading that, I was surprised to find many Kashmiri Pandits still resident in Srinagar. Writer Neerja Mattoo (also a translator of Lal Ded) and her husband invited us to their distinguished home in Gogji Bagh, a century-old repository of their beloved valley culture. A few days later, we took a launch up the Jhelum with Jyotsna Singh from Almond Villa and the Mattoos, the elderly couple animatedly identifying grand old buildings once occupied by friends and family. While cruising past Khanqah of Shah Hamdan, a call from within the shrine seemed to arrest them. The Mattoos asked if we could stop. Wordlessly, they rushed up the riverbank to bow their heads in respect to the Sufi saint. It was deeply moving to witness this flicker of Kashmiriyat, still alive in their hearts.
One of the brightest highlights of our trip was something we stumbled upon. Like most of the best experiences we had in Srinagar, the 200-year-old Sufi shrine of Dastgir Sahib didn’t appear in any guidebook, and no one recommended it. Passing by in speeding rickshaws, we simply caught a glimpse of slanting sunrays lighting up ornate pillars, which enticed us to return for a visit.
We finally made it there on one of the last days of our trip, and were spellbound. Plush carpets stretched across cool interiors, dappled by light from stained-glass French windows set high above the busy street outside. Antique crystal chandeliers—evidence of Kashmir’s long connections to Europe via the luxury shawl trade—were set in a splendidly gilded ceiling, with layers of intricate papier mâché in every imaginable colour winding down the pillars and walls right down to where we sat. We were overwhelmed, elated. It was as if we were deep inside a priceless jewel box, which had somehow been hidden in plain sight. That is Srinagar.
Follow your instincts and your tastebuds around Srinagar.
Very few visitors to Srinagar ever experience the full diversity of the water-borne way of life that extends from the Dal into four lake basins, all studded with islands. The best easy way to glimpse this world is by visiting the floating vegetable market—an open patch of water in the middle of a scrum of houseboats, where skiffs converge at dawn, each one laden with vegetables and fruit bartered or sold at high volume (Open, 4-11 a.m.every morning except Friday).
Of all the distinct architectural masterpieces in Sringar, this is the most impressive. Solemn brick and wood exteriors give way to an extraordinarily lavish and colourful papier-mâché-clad interior that is dimly lit by crystal chandeliers. Note: the main chamber is nominally closed to non-Muslim visitors, but there is another entrance at the back (Open daily from dawn until dusk; token donation required).
A city landmark since the colonial era. For decades this was the most well regarded hotel in Srinagar. Today, Ahdoo’s is most famous for its restaurant’s extensive menu of wazwaan delicacies, including the cricket-ball-sized goshtaba meatballs and incredibly delicious kashmiri greens (haak). The attached bakery is also outstanding(www.ahdooshotel.com; lavish meal for four approximately ₹1,500).
Just 20 minutes drive from Srinagar, Dachigam is one of the most beautiful and accessible national parks in India. It was the preserve of the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, and remains an utterly pristine alpine wonderland of pastures, meadows, and deep gullies gushing with clear, cold mountain streams (Open daily except Friday; 5.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.; entry free).
Enjoy superb views of Srinagar in all directions, from this landmark hill. It also hosts a famous Shakti temple on one slope, and the highly venerated Kashmiri Sufi shrines of Hamza Makhdoom and Badakhshi on another. Just below is Srinagar’s main gurudwara, which commemorates the visit of Guru Har Gobind (All shrines open daily dawn to dusk; visit early in the morning, as the climb can get hot and crowded later in the day).
A real gem of a boutique property, this hotel is situated flush on the bank of Nagin Lake. Once a private home, it is an oasis of calm and quiet, with rolling lawns shaded by a marvellous old chinar tree. A great place to stay, or have a sit-down lunch, or just visit by shikara for a stately cuppa (www.hoteldaressalam.com, doubles from ₹6,500).
Of all the day trips from Srinagar, the 100-km-drive to Aru Valley, high above Pahalgam, is not to be missed. Snow-capped peaks, spectacular waterfalls, and the rapids of the fast-flowing Lidder River lead up to a truly paradisiacal mountain valley, where you can fish for trout or wander up grassy slopes upto the tree line (taxi for day trip from Sringar costs around ₹3,500).
Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and founder and co-curator of the annual Goa Arts + Literary Festival. He lives next to Miramar beach in Goa, with his wife and three sons.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Seeking Kashmiriyat”.
is a writer and photographer, and founder and co-curator of the annual Goa Arts + Literary Festival. He lives next to Miramar Beach in Goa, with his wife and three sons.
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