“When I was your age son, the water in the lake used to so clean that you could drink it” said an elderly Nishat Ahmed, who was sitting by the Dal Lake, teaching me the very basics of fishing. “And the lake was filled with fishes as huge as this.”
“This big?! Wow!”
“Yes dear. This big” he said, keeping his hands apart so that a baby dolphin could easily fit in them. And I listened to him for the whole evening, with an expression of awe on my face.
Though I failed to catch a fish that day, I pretty much learned a lot about Srinagar and its history. I learnt that once upon a time, the whole Srinagar valley was filled with water but slowly the water receded to what is the Dal Lake nowadays. I learnt about the remarkable cuisine and culture of Kashmir and how the locals sun-dry and store food for the winters. And also that fishing is a pretty addictive sport, once it grips you, there’s no turning back!
Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a gorgeous valley city, bestowed with a gigantic water body. The Dal Lake, situated right in the heart of the city is rather the soul of the valley. The whole city is situated around the lake, and half of it even on the lake! Oh yes, the Dal Lake also homes the innumerable stationary houseboats, for the city is famous. These houseboats are basically floating hotels with 2-5 rooms each. Even some locals use them as their permanent homes. They come with a dining room, a sitting room, balcony, terrace and a kitchen. The one in which I stayed was anchored in the Nageen Lake, the west portion of the Dal Lake, and came with its own chef. And on the upside, it even had a mini library!
The Nageen Lake is much quieter and cleaner than the Dal Lake and the view offered, so much better. The Hari Parbat fort overlooks the Nageen and turns into a beautiful spectacle in the night. Even the snow clad mountains of Gulmarg could be seen from the roof of my houseboat, being reflected in the deep blue waters of the lake. Now, one of the best benefits of living in a houseboat was that I didn’t need to go to the market; the shops always came to me! Right from six in the morning, shikaras (traditional boats) started lining up outside my balcony and shopkeepers started showing their wares. Florists and jewelers and local shawl sellers and what not! Though their rates were slightly higher than those of the shops in the market, I couldn’t resist making a deal with the florist.
It would not be entirely correct to give all the credit to Dal Lake for making Srinagar famous. The city’s other main attraction is the large number of incredibly crafted and designed gardens, most of which overlook the lake, giving a beautiful contrast between the green and the blue. And they are spread all over the city; in some of the most unheard and beautiful corners of Srinagar, I had found gardens blooming with some of the loveliest flowers and birdlife I had ever seen. Though I visited almost all the major gardens, I did not get the opportunity to go to the Tulip Garden, as it was off-season. Nevertheless, I was able to cherish the a walk in the Nishat Gardens, breathe in the cool air under a Chinar tree, enjoy the panoramic view of the city from Pari Mahal and dip in my feet in the ice cold water of Harwan Gardens.
If you’re in Srinagar then you can’t afford to miss two things: a shikara ride in the Dal Lake and a visit to the Shankaracharya Hill Temple. The temple is situated in one of the highest hills surrounding the lake and gives a mind-blowing 360 degree view of the valley. It’s only once I got to the top of the temple that I understood how vast the city actually was; the view offered shot back the massive expanse of the lake to the red-roofed houses that marked the end of the city and beginning of paddy fields. To reach the temple though, I had to climb a total of 275 steps and had to leave my camera and cell phone behind, as the temple is maintained by the army. But in the end, the mesmerizing view was worth all the pain.
Having safely left the temple at 17:30, its closing time, I went for a shikara ride in the Dal. And suddenly, as I descended the hill, it started to drizzle, which make boating in the Dal even more fun. Refreshing drops of water fell on my face as I waded through the now darkish waters of the Dal. With almost every floating shop targeting my shikara, I made it to a small café situated right in the middle of the Dal! Having taken a kahwa, traditional saffron tea, I took off again to complete a round around the Dal. My shikara rower said that much of the lake’s attractions had been damaged by the floods of 2014. The floating vegetable market had been destroyed, many fishes and flowers had been killed and even some wooden bridges over the Jhelum had vanished. He added that had I come to visit a few years back, I would have found the lake filled with lotuses, pink and white all over.
What followed was some shopping at the Boulevard and yet another round of it at the Residency Road. The best part of it were the cherries; sweet, juicy, wonderful deliciousness right in the middle of off season winter! Well, finally I reached my last destination, the Jamia Masjid, at nine in the evening. The mosque is famous for its architecture and history. As it goes, it had been burnt down thrice, and rebuilt every time with increased grandeur. It was last rebuilt by Aurangzeb in 1674, and still stands with its splendid construction and chinars.
The one thing that I realised from visiting Srinagar is that no matter where you go or whom you meet, people will treat you the way you treat them. Respect will give way to respect; and understanding to understanding. Though Kashmir has been an unstable and insecure for decades now, I don’t feel the people bare any hatred. And though there are areas in here where one should never go unprotected, I firmly believe that if you pass a stranger a smile, he will return it back. And I feel this is why Kashmir is known as paradise.