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
Srinagar in Kashmir, home to Lal Ded, can be ethereal, gloomy, disheartening and uncertain, but what it fails to be is unwelcoming. Kashmiriyat, as many have heard, is still alive in the heart of Kashmir and we had the overwhelming experience of the hospitality of the land. Had our flight to Srinagar been late by a few hours, we would have been the addition to the 70% of the people who cancelled their vacation to Kashmir following the incidents that happened on 14th February 2019.
We were a group of 8 people who landed in Srinagar, our prebooked traveller bus was waiting for us at Srinagar airport, that took us to our houseboats. Approximately 45 minutes later we reached our drop point, where two shikaras were waiting to row us to our houseboat. A ten-minute ride later we dropped our luggage onto swaying, creaking wooden homes and checked into our floating stay for the night. While others were unwinding, I hastily and curiously peeked around the boat and our respective rooms, the windows had carvings on them, floors and corridors were covered by colourful rugs with ornate designs. Leisurely swaying I walked out to the porch where the owner of the houseboat and our host for the night was being introduced. He was a middle age guy with a square frame and a square face, who reminded me of Carl Fredricksen from UP (Pixar movie), same physical characteristics but less cranky and more welcoming. An hour later with the customary introductions done, we called in for the shikara to take us to our bus so we could head out for late lunch.
That’s me waiting to be rowed to the famous Kashmiri palate.
We headed to Stream restaurant, hoping to relish wazwan, a Kashmiri cuisine. Wazwan wasn’t on the menu for the day, the national highway connecting Kashmir to rest of the country had been shut due to snowfall that created a shortage of raw materials and food supply. Nevertheless, we ordered some other Kashmiri dishes, and they were all delectable. It was around 4 in the evening when our cell phones started buzzing. There had been a terrorist attack, just 15kms from where we were. The cell services were patchy, worried we asked the hotel staff – “have you heard about the attack”? The staff was as clueless as we were, they scrambled to get more information but were sure on one thing, everyone assured us with the same sentiment “You are safe here, tourists will never be touched”. We skipped going to Lal Chowk and headed back to our houseboats, the casualty numbers were still trickling in, it was 1 CRPF soldier martyred when we left Stream, by the time we reached our houseboat, it was 27, the scale of the horrendous attack sunk in when the media outlets screamed 40 CRPF soldiers were martyred. Our dejected host at the houseboat told us it was the deadliest attack in years, the senseless act not only snuffed out lives, but it also killed the seasons’ livelihood and put Kashmir back by years again.
We spent the entire night in uncertainty, of whether to stay or cancel the entire trip, if it’s going to be safe, what if there was another attack? There were endless discussions, anxious calls from families back home, arguments with no clear decisions. and all this while, both our host and our point of contact from the tour and travel agency echoed the same message “You are safe here, tourists will never be touched”.
Still unsure whether it was the right decision we decided to stay back and put our trust on the confidence of the Kashmiri people.
While a stroll down the market was not advised, we went for an hour long Shikara ride. Blankets were spread on the shikara, and we were rowed through the lake, through the lanes of the floating market. Our shikara rower manoeuvred in the muddy water and other rowers selling kesar, shilajeet, kebabs and kahwa kept popping up, convincing us to try their goods quite resiliently. Everyone went about doing their business, sustaining a life of its own in the fluid periphery trying to make the best of the situation, knowing the days ahead are going to be uncertain.
Dal lake witnesses a water-borne way of life, locals in shikaras on spotting tourists in a houseboat slowly start spilling over hoping to sell some trinkets and Kashmiri jewellery. The shikara ride is a soothing experience, in some fleeting moments all you hear is the row hitting the water, and a vast body of water lined by willow trees for a view. The rower is also the guide who unfailingly points out the landmarks even the water dwellers personal floating vegetable garden.
Shikaras selling Kesar will frequently slide up, if you do want to buy Kesar, it is highly advisable to buy from Pompore.
Willow trees line the banks of the lake, one can only imagine the beauty of the valley in Spring.
What lies ahead?
Spring shall bring back the colours
Colours of the Dal lake change every season, the colours of the shikaras are the constants.
Waiting for livelihood
An endless wait
Not far from our houseboat, in the main city is Jan Bakery, whose coconut cookies we all devoured.
We retired early in the evening, back to our houseboat, an air of grief had engulfed the town. The temperature dipped to zero, and with no central heating system available in the houseboat, the night seemed to be long and anxious. In the excited furore we missed noticing the heating system that was sticking out like a sore thumb, all the houseboats had the same heating system our homestays had in Spiti and Bhutan.
The tandoor was present only in the main room that we all used as our dining room, the picture below shows the metal frame running across the room – that was the tandoor. The houseboat was also lined with plush carpet from corner to corner and on walls. Our rooms had electric blankets that were quite comfortable, the only time I realized I was sleeping in a houseboat was when the boat swayed in water current or when wooden flooring creaked under pressure.
There are many places in and around Srinagar that can be visited if you plan to stay for a couple of days – floating vegetable market, an open patch of water where vegetables and fruits are bartered, Tulip garden, Mughal garden, Shankaracharya hill, Hazratbal mosque and Hari Parbat hill that gives a view of Srinagar from all sides.
Not knowing whether to stay back in Kashmir at that time was a reasonable decision or not, we all agreed on it and decided to go ahead. Imran our travel organiser from VTravelz addressed all our concerns and assured us it was safe. A city-wide shutdown had been called the next day, the entire city was on edge, we were advised to head out for Pahalgam as early as possible and we followed heed. Apart from the assurance of the locals, the unavailability of network and the further lack of the media narrative also helped us to continue our journey in Kashmir and experience the warmest of welcomes, freezing minus 8 degrees, the repeated slips and falls in Gulmarg and the fragrance of Kahwa. The next seven days we witnessed an unfaltering Kashmiri hospitality in times of despair, anger and helplessness that the entire country was witnessing. We all were guilty of forming a perspective about Kashmir through a borrowed lens of media and Bollywood, a view that painted the land as the grail of violent insurgency and stone throwers. We stayed in Kashmir amongst Kashmiris in one of the most anxious times the state witnessed, even when Kashmiris outside the state were targeted we were welcomed everywhere with an endearing generosity. Kashmir is rich in culture and heritage, vast meadows run through valleys, lakes lined by the willow trees makes Kashmir strikingly beautiful.
Amir Khusrau’s couplet in Farsi aptly defines the beauty of the land, the couplet was recited by Jahangir centuries later when he saw the beauty of Kashmir – Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast….
“If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this”.
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