is Srinagar for a man from Colombo?
(..[belated] reflections on a tour of Kashmir)
By Rajpal Abeynayake
Though all the Shikara's and weddings on boats in Srinagar
would suggest that it is one of the most enchanting places on earth,
Srinagar is in fact one of the most dangerous. Lonely Planet ( the
popular traveller guide) for instance says in a special highlighted
warning, that 'travel to Jammu and Kashmi ( of which Srinagar is
the capital) is strongly advised against.' It says "while the
Indian government has not placed restrictions on visitors, it is
foolhardy to go there."
Indian soldiers guard a mosque in Srinagar, unshod and with
guess foolhardy was what I was, even though my trip to Kashimr was
a while back , more or less an year, not more though. Srinagar was
known for violence then, and is known for violence now.
on houseboats were dangerous, to me Srinagar would have been forbidding.
But the most dangerous aspect of these weddings is to the goats
around the houseboat. Usually, when a boy weds girl in Srinagar,
there are 17 types of mutton preparations on the burner. "Burner"
usually means cauldrons, bigger cauldrons and more cauldrons, watched
over by men eternally smoking the 'hookah.' (aka the hubbly-bubbly.)
To take a Shikara
(decorated Kahmiri boat) ride on Dal Lake, from one houseboat in
which you live (we stayed in a particularly ornately decorated one
called the Lal Ruk) to the houseboat on which the wedding ceremony
takes place, you need to first call up the Shikara. This is nothing
like hailing a taxi. It is dark and starry, these nights on which
wedding visitors are expected to drop by. One wedding goes on for
something like five days to a week.
When the Shikara
man draws close to your houseboat, you bargain, and he resists,
and if that ritual is not complete, it is as if you have been terribly
rude and not greeted him at all.
This is Kashmir.
not cheat my Muslim brother," declares Shafi Bhai deadpan,
to four of us, of which only my friend Farouk from South Africa
is a Muslim. Shafi owns the Lal Ruk, our home on Dal lake for eight
A Shikara by
night or a Shikara by day, what's the better experience?
the powerful Mughal ruler died en route to the 'happy valley' his
request was simple. He said: "Only Kashmir." The Mughals
never allowed the British to own land in Kashmir. The British wanted
to use the valley as a retreat as badly as the Mughals did. So they
built houseboats, and lived in them. Since the British left, hundreds
of these houseboats were converted into floating restaurants and
hotels which did a roaring tourist trade until Kahimir became a
dangerous place after the fighting broke out, and it became 'foolhardy'
for people to go there. The boat owners still ply the hospitality
trade, but there isn't much custom.
I would say
a Shikara ride by day along the intricate waterways of Dal Lake
narrowly beats a Shikara ride along the same route by night. You
will find Nagin Bagh Lake, Bod Dal (big Dal) and Lokut Dal (small
Dal) along which lie the Mogul gardens, which are somewhat beyond
description - you have to see them to believe them. The gardens
earned Srinagar the sobriquet 'heaven on earth.' They said it was
foolhardy to try to get here?
is not all lakes and bliss - it has an intoxicating amalgam of tension
beauty and throbbing life that cuts through the air and caresses
If the Shikara
man drops you by the ancient Mosque that lies along Dal Lake, you'd
see why Srinagnar is so dangerously enchanting. At the entrance
to the mosque are two Indian army soldiers, feet unshod in deference,
but toting their assault rifles all the same. Mosques have been
rebel cells and guarding them is like religion for the Indian government.
Gulmarg are picturesque trekking and hiking locations, and locations
for epic Hindi movies which need a snow-capped winter background.
"There is serious threat of kidnapping in Pahalgam since the
Kashmiri conflict began," says Lonely Planet, but no abductors
seemed to be around when our group took some of those gondola rides
in sight of the glacier.
Life goes on
in Kahmir, even though Banks, buses and about every place in the
MUST VISIT Srinagar town is guarded. Is that strange or dangerous
to anyone who has lived in Colombo- you'd think not? But, no foreigner
needs to feel intimidated. If the presence of Indian army soldiers
gets to you at some point, retire to the Suffering Moses restaurant
by the Jammu and Kahmir Bank, or better still, take a Shikara ride
to the 'Young Ceylon' houseboat where the food is Kashmiri, and
the hospitality is fine ( they had a way with names, particularly
during the post colonial period.)
It is uncanny,
this dysjuncture between expectation and reality in Kahmir. You
may expect the whiff of cordite and the report of bombs, and the
sounds you hear are of women tapping their feet against the wooden
floor of a houseboat dancing to the tune of a Dogri song. You see
the most beautiful women on earth (with chiselled features, if they
are not wearing the Purdah, and fortunately most aren't). Kashimir
is known for beauty in its people and in its spectacular surroundings.
Now, I would say that ever-present tension and anxiety in the air
is the icing on the cake, even though it might be ghoulish or at
least insensitive to say this about a place that has seen so much