How dangerous 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."

Two Indian soldiers guard a mosque in Srinagar, unshod and with assault rifles

I 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.

If weddings 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.

"I shall 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 days.

A Shikara by night or a Shikara by day, what's the better experience?

When Jehangir 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?

But, Kashmir is not all lakes and bliss - it has an intoxicating amalgam of tension beauty and throbbing life that cuts through the air and caresses your senses.

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.

Pahalagam and 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 violence.

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