Kashmir: The Rustle of Chinars

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY set foot in paradise to experience the slow life of Srinagar, its houseboats, shikaras, bakeries and market places, before heading out to the mountain tracts of Gulmarg 

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From the skies, Srinagar was painted in iridescent green with terraced paddies pleating the slopes in meandering waves. At the airport, cabbie Nissar Ahmed remarked how he had taken Vishal Bhardwaj around for the filming of Haider in the valley. Near Raj Bagh, we drove along the Jhelum River past a lovely bungalow with a gabled roof wistfully wishing for a similar home. Within a minute, we backtracked and realized it was actually Dak Hermitage, our chosen address for the night, making it a delightful coincidence.

After quaffing tea brought in by caretaker Arif, we walked to the iconic Ahdoo’s on Residency Road, the first hotel started in the valley in 1928. The Kashmiri lunch of tabak maz, rogan josh and goshtaba the size of ragi balls was served with rice, the local staple. The old bakery below displayed a wide collection of local bakes like kulcha, khaari biscuit, bakerkhani, sheermal, crunchy walnut cookies and breads dusted with sesame and poppy seeds. We strolled over to Lal Chowk, the historic city square where the Indian flag was first unfurled in 1948.

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Around the old clock tower, vendors hawked jackets, gloves, nadru (lotus stems) and water chestnuts, goading us to buy some. Marvelous heritage buildings with wooden beams akin to old Tudor homes peeked over lofty walls hiding government offices as bands of armed men stood on guard. Srinagar could have passed off for a little town in Europe, but for its Indian hygiene standards.

On a whim, we entered Gulshan Bookstore and were astounded by the sheer wealth of literature. From Kashmir’s mythological origins as the land of Sage Kashyapa to its reverence as Sharada Peeth, its ancient tribes, architectural marvels and glory as the seat of wisdom and learning, a land of poets and saints. We discovered the poetry of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon, the revered mystic ladies whose quotes roll off the lips of every Kashmiri.

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Rows of shops selling crewel embroidered shawls, pherans (traditional cloaks) and ponchos lured visitors with heavy discounts. But this was only the first day, we reasoned, and promised to return soon. The intriguing shop sign Suffering Moses caught our eye. It belonged to the Wanis, one of Srinagar’s most highly regarded handicraft families with a 600-year-old legacy. Like carpet making, papier-mâché, silver inlay, wazwan cuisine, kahwah and the chinar (Indian Maple), many traditions were brought to Kashmir from Persia.

The shop was established in 1840 as Safdar Hussain & Sons. On hearing the stories of the initial hostility by locals, the painstaking detail of the traditional arts and the lonely task of an artisan, a British viceroy remarked that they seemed to have ‘suffered as much as Moses’, a tag that was graciously accepted. The finesse of walnut carvings, lacquer ware, trinket boxes and lamps was tantalizing.

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Sadiq’s Handicrafts next door was like a little museum set in a sunken grove of trees. The genial old man lovingly displayed priceless pashminas, cashmere, jamavar shawls, kaftans, jackets and things marked ‘not for sale’ – exquisite heirlooms displaying needlework at its zenith that can never be replicated today. We continued down the Bund lined by a park overlooking the placid Jhelum, where houseboats and shikaras were moored. This riverside backlane was once the main road leading to the glass house. Elderly locals smoked and gossiped at sundown. The sky was ablaze as we walked back to Dak Hermitage. The lights twinkled over the hillock of Shankaracharya looming over town.

The evening turned out to be extra special as our host Danish decided to take us to an Uzbeki Food Festival at Hotel Broadway. Embellished with delicate vegetable carvings and soft Uzbeki music in the background, the annual fest had a fabulous spread – an unusual plov (pulav) with berries that imparted a distinct flavor, baby potatoes and tender lamb stewed in its own juices and succulent kebabs skewered over a barbecue. We had gone from idli sambar at Bangalore Airport to Kashmiri wazwan for lunch and an Uzbeki dinner, all in a day!

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In the morning, we drove past Nagin Lake where shikaras and canoes cleaved the lotus-riddled waters to Butts Clermont, one of the oldest colonial era houseboats in the region. Since a royal decree prevented the British from buying land in Kashmir, they circumvented local laws by building holiday homes on water, which is the origin of these houseboats. When India became independent, many sold off their properties and returned to England. Mr. R Forster, a shipping tycoon from Clermont Hall in Norfolk, gave his houseboats as a parting gift to Haji Ghulam Mohammed Butt saying he’d rather burn the boats than give it to someone else! And thus was born Butts Clermont…

Ghulam Nabi Butt, the epitome of all things gentlemanly and gracious greeted us with the effervescence of a long lost friend. ‘Subeh dar Bagh-i-Nishat, Sham dar Bagh-i-Nasim,’ he quoted a famous couplet. Spend the mornings at Nishat Bagh and evenings at Naseem Bagh. It’s easy to fall in love with this northern corner of the Dal Lake. In the Mughal garden swept by the breeze (nasim), hoopoes hopped in the lawn and a canopy of 400-year-old Chinar trees with starry leaves silhouetted against the skies. The office walls were lined with newspaper clippings, photographs and letters from heads of state, ambassadors and distinguished guests – from JK Galbraith, Rockefeller to George Harrison, who apparently learnt the sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar in a houseboat!

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Common kingfishers swooped down to stake their claim on the Dal’s wealth of fish as green-eyed herons patiently scanned the depths obscured by the frill of water lilies and duckweed fringing the boats. Flocks of little grebes glided on the still waters or played hide and seek. A pair of resident pied kingfishers would shriek and dart past us before hovering over the waters and plummeting like shooting stars to emerge with fish in their beaks. Paradise flycatchers twirled like ballerinas amidst the shrubs before sneaking into their nests somewhere in the dense foliage of chinar leaves.

The profusion of birds, flowers and chinars formed a recurrent theme in Kashmiri embroidery and woodcarving. We stepped into our plush walnut world of carved woodwork with hand-embroidered furnishings and curtains that lent a warm cozy ambience. The benign Ramzan kaka with his kind eyes and inexhaustible sense of hospitality would troop in with trays of kahwa and hot Kashmiri meals.

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In the distance, the dome of Hazratbal Dargah was outlined against the grey skies from where the azaan rose and quavered soulfully. That evening we strolled past the grave of Sheikh Abdullah, and the security personnel insisted that we go in and have a look. “Befikar ghoom sakte hain. Koi problem nahin, koi pareshani nahin. Yahan koi kuchh nahin karega.” We assured them that we had no fear. Having heard the same line at Lal Chowk the previous evening, we sensed there was an almost palpable need to reassure strangers and tourists.

At the market, bearded men sold heaps of unfamiliar snacks – batter fried fish and lotus stems, rainbow-coloured eats and puris as large as rugs. Handpatted on circular wooden tables, punctured and dunked into boiling oil, they were lifted out like royal fans and served with halwa. These were promptly packed and taken home by locals. A man with laughing eyes coaxed us to buy his bouquets of lotus flowers and buds as flocks of plump sheep with curling horns meandered in the lanes.

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A row of shops displayed carved bowls, plates and massive samovars as the tinkle of coppersmiths at work provided a constant soundtrack. A little man conversed with us in crisp propah English with a charming lilt. It turned out he was Lhasa, the boat guide recommended by Mr. Butt for our visit to the floating markets. “It will be a Happy Journey,” he said. A few paces later, we saw that the shikara was named so!

Local Kashmiri tea stalls and bakeries run by Sofis served traditional breads eaten with noon chai, a salty brew. We wheedled our way into the dark sooty chambers of a bakery run by gregarious Razia, who insisted on being called Rosie… The sunken choolahs or earthen stoves baked a variety of breads.

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The hallowed portal of Hazratbal was yards away. Taking off our shoes, we went our separate ways to pray at Kashmir’s holiest Muslim shrine where a hair of the Prophet is kept as a relic. Rosy-cheeked Kashmiri girls smiled shyly as others appraised us with various expressions of boredom, curiosity or suspicion.

Grey pigeons lined the rooftops like natural decorations and took wing with the suddenness of firecrackers. In the horizon, the clouds hung so low, they girdled the waist of the lofty bluish purple mountains where wild animals roamed in the forests of Dachigam. Back at the houseboat, a romantic meal of meat and rice in the mellow interiors awaited us and we read books about Kashmir, late into the night. The endless music of waves gently lapping against the boat soothed the night into slumber.

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With our morning boat ride rained out we drove to the famous skiing destination of Gulmarg instead and soon pulled into the steep driveway of The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa. Its handsome wooden architecture, gabled green roof garlanded with chinar leaf motifs, Moroccan style lamps and Kashmiri influences like sunken seating and papier-mâché wall panels, made the opulent Khyber the most preferred getaway. The scent of pine hit us instantly at the foyer as we headed towards Chaikash tea lounge for a refreshing welcome drink of kahwa.

Ushered into our plush rooms, we noticed embroidered throws and velvet duvets lining the settee, overflowing fruit bowls and decorative boxes laden with walnuts, cashew and raisins. The balcony opened to a stunning view of the snowy peaks of Apharwat. After burbling through apple-flavoured tobacco at the hookah lounge we finally settled down at Cloves restaurant for Trami – named after the platter on which an elaborate Kashmiri meal of rogan josh, rista, tabakmaaz, seekh kebab, paneer and haak is served with rice.

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The next day was spent on almond detoxifying massages and immortelle facials at Khyber’s L’Occitane spa. A rainy drive around the golf course and strawberry fields took us to meadows crawling with sheep. The occasional restless neigh of a horse broke the silence as we clicked pictures by a brook. Wild flowers growing by the side of St Mary’s Church added to its desolate beauty. We woke up the sleepy Muslim caretaker, who let us into the bare hall with a beautiful triad of stained glass windows above the altar. In the off season, the pastor lives in Srinagar and opens it on the odd Sunday.

We stopped at the Shiva temple perched on green slopes where Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz went crazy in ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’. Continuing the filmy trail we went to the fairytale Highland Parks Hotel lined with flowerbeds and bushes. After the obligatory pose at the famous ‘Bobby’ cottage, where Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia crooned ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein band hon’, it was time for some brandy toddy and spicy chicken snacks to beat the chill in a peacock green upholstered lounge. The evening wafted in with moonlit hues of grey and blue as the mist descended the mountains wrapping us with the softness of Cashmere…

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Fact File

Getting there: Srinagar has direct air connectivity with Delhi (1 hr 20 min) and Mumbai (2 hr 45 min). Pre-paid cabs are available at the airport and autos ply freely for local travel. From Srinagar, Gulmarg is 50 km by road, a 90 min drive.

Stay:

Dak Hermitage, Rajbagh, Srinagar Ph 0194-2313779 http://www.dakhermitage.com

Butts Clermont Houseboats, Naseem Bagh, Hazratbal Ph 0194- 2415325 http://www.buttsclermonthouseboat.com

The Khyber, Gulmarg Ph 9906603272 http://www.khyberhotels.com

Eat: Ahdoo’s Hotel, Residency Road, Srinagar Ph 0194 2472593 http://www.ahdooshotel.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 8 March 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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