postcards from srinagar

by Vivek Menezes

Nigeen Lake 27/05/2012

I am writing this lakeside in Srinagar, at the end of a month-long stay in this amazing, ancient city, along with my wife and three young sons (12, 8, 4). This is high season in Kashmir – the authorities expect as many as two million tourists by the time winter sets in. But with the exception of Dal Lake – certainly one of the great marvels of the subcontinent – we’ve found ourselves just about the only “outsiders” almost everywhere we’ve gone. It has been quite a strange phenomenon, I think largely explained by the reluctance of most travel agents and tour operators to venture off a narrow beaten track that takes in Dal, the (vastly over-rated) Mughal Gardens, and day trips to trample snow in Gulmarg, etc. There needs to be more and better information about Srinagar made available for travellers, and over some time I hope to contribute some.

But right now, because connectivity is deeply intermittent here, I am going to quickly post a few images, and scribble comments postcard-style

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Our first few days in Kashmir couldn’t have been more eye-opening. This is because we became immediately immersed in the fourth annual festival hosted by the Dara-e-Shikoh Centre. The initiative of Jyotsna Singh, grand-daughter of the last monarch of Jammu and Kashmir, the event was mostly held outdoors, and had a terrifically positive energy. There were art, writing and puppetry workshops, training sessions for teachers and counsellors, and terrific interactions between the overwhelmingly young audience and visiting resource people, most notably Gopal Gandhi – grandson of the Mahatma, senior bureaucrat and diplomat, and author of several books, including a play about Dara, the Sufi Prince. It was a remarkably inclusive event, with every possible viewpoint freely exchanged with an unusual spirit of acceptance. Here at the Dara Shikoh Centre, I realized that this is actually a bedrock Kashmiri virtue. This was particularly underlined during a spellbinding performance by one of the last surviving Bhand Pather (folk entertainers) groups of Kashmir, directed by M. K. Raina. It turned out that most of the almost entirely Kashmiri audience had never seen such a performance – big-shots, students, security guards, drivers, all screamed with delight together all through the show. No translations needed for my kids either, they laughed along with everyone else.

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Everyone knows about the elaborate meat dishes of the wazawan, the multi-course food so beloved of the Kashmiris. Barring a wedding invitation, the best place for that is the venerable Ahdoo’s. But Srinagar’s extraordinary variety of breads is strangely unsung – it easily rivals that of my native Goa, and in fact there may be more types of bread easily available than back home: flat breads, sweet breads, flaky croissant-like breads, and these little rounds that are near-identical to bagels. Then, from Pahalgam – but available in many places in the city – comes the best European-style cheese I’ve ever eaten in India, truly excellent goudas made from impeccably sourced milk (see http://www.himalayancheese.com) – just perfect with those bagels! But most addictive of all is ‘tujj’ or ‘barbecue’, what locals call coal-roasted skewers of mutton that are served with several different chutneys (actually spicy pickles and cooling raitas). Everyone seems to think the stands proliferating opposite Khyber cinema are the best, but I vote for the slightly more expensive version at the oddly-named ‘Mummy Please’ in Lal Chowk.

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Travelling with three kids in Srinagar has been much less challenging than we expected. They’ve found plenty to get excited about: shikhara rides, magnificent countryside, ever-present birdlife. My sons loved being fitted for caps at Hilal Cap Shop near Jamia Masjid, fishing for trout in the Aru Valley, and love their houseboat so much that it is going to be hard to take them away next week.

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We’ve come to Srinagar in what everyone says is a lull, so I really can’t comment much about what it is like at other times. But for me and the kids alike, the great highlight of this city has been its beguiling, multi-layed, ancient old city. We’ve walked into the dense mohallas at least a dozen times over the past few weeks, and each time we’ve been made to feel completely welcome, and glimpsed an extraordinary living culture that is simultaneously medieval and contemporary. There are too many highlights to list here on this crappy connection, as the wind off the lake grows increasingly inhospitable – but let me just say that ‘downtown’ Srinagar is one of the great wonders of the subcontinent.

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Venice is the Srinagar of the West. That’s not a joke – this city is home to a waterborne, riparian culture that is fully contained and self-sustaining: floating vegetable gardens, a unique boat-borne economic eco-system. Every sector of this city’s society and business culture seems connected to the water, and to boats. These children power themselves around on fragile skiffs like yours might aspire to manoeuvre on skateboards – girls, women, old men, they ‘re all extraordinarily adept. It took only a few days before I commandeered a little ‘naav’ myself, and immediately the entire lakeside accepted me as one of their own. Each evening at sunset, I position myself for the best view of the surrounding peaks and listen to the azaan resound across the rippling surface. There is no place on earth like Srinagar. Hope you visit soon.

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