Shikara and sunrise

To visit Kashmir had been my dream of many years. Needless to say, I was thrilled beyond measure when the coveted Kashmiri sojourn finally materialised this year. The beautiful Dal lake, idyllic meadows, tallest pine and chinar trees, countless hidden lakes, majestic mountains, charming houses, handsome horses, raging rivers and the most hospitable people – I was finally going to be witnessing heaven on earth!

A good beginning sets the tempo for the rest of the trip. Hence, while more posts detailing my adventures in the valley are pretty much in order, I would like to recount my experiences at my first touch-point in Kashmir – Srinagar.
For most, Srinagar is symbolic of the alluring Dal lake. The many interesting stories of the Dal that I heard from friends and read over various blogs had left me curious to know how this seemingly ordinary body of water had left everyone enticed. So I excitedly decided to stay at a houseboat to experience the Dal in its truest form.

Lalarukh houseboat, one of the many houseboats that dotted the circumference of the lake, was my chosen place of stay. The enormity of the Dal lake was such, that various entry-points or ghats had been marked at regular intervals as landmarks and indicators. I was slightly confused initially, when my host informed me that I would have to come to the houseboat via ghat number 9. However, the mystery finally unfolded itself once I reached the ghat and I was left in awe of the modus operandi to get to the houseboat – Each houseboat had dedicated shikaras (traditional small Kashmiri boats) to ferry passengers from the ghat to the accommodation. I settled myself in the shikara, absolutely delighted by the fact that I was having my own Venetian experience right in the middle of Kashmir! I was joined in the shikara by a fellow trekker (Kashmir is quite popular among trekkers, so one is sure to find them aplenty) and as the driver rowed us into the interiors, away from the shikara-swamped ghats, our hands automatically reached for our cameras to captured the unhindered beauty of the Dal.

Introduction to Dal

Introduction to Dal – first impression

The enormity of the lake was surreal and its glimmering waters were bordered by innumerable colourful houseboats, and opened into the endless blue sky overlooking the glorious Zabarwan range. My enthusiastic shikara driver – Dhoni ji, as he was fondly called – ferried me to the houseboat where I relaxed for some time before finally dashing out to the ghat again. I was to be joined here by a couple of fellow trekkers who I had met at the airport earlier in the day. During the wait for my new-found friends, Dhoni ji promptly filled me in with anecdotes about his family and life in Kashmir – how he had worked in Goa for nearly half his life, his travels across most of Europe and Australia, his brother’s fancy job in Switzerland, playing football over a frozen Dal lake in the winters, the ever increasing pollution of the lake, how unquestionably safe Srinagar was for women – I had heard it all. I tried to get his opinion on what would be the best time to go for a shikara ride across the lake – morning or evening. But he nonchalantly proclaimed that he would take me to the best of places, irrespective of what time of the day it was. However, as my fellow travellers slowly appeared in sight, Dhoni ji quietly divulged that a floating market was set up every morning in a particular part of the lake. In that moment, I made up my mind to go rowing across the Dal early next morning!

I was soon joined by my fellow trek-mates and we decided to spend the evening in being touristy and visiting the Nishat garden and Shankaracharya Hill. The lazy Sunday afternoon resulted in the extensive garden being thronged by school children who were busy enjoying themselves on picnic. Flocks of school kids were savouring their day out, running across the colourful landscape, idling in the shade of trees and merrily diving into the canal that ran through the middle of the garden. We spent some time at the garden, envisioning what the 7 days ahead had in store for us and then quickly got on our way to the Shankaracharya Hill (the entry to which would close at 5.30pm). Once we reached the hill, our driver informed us that vehicles would not be allowed beyond a point and we’d have to do a short hike up to the temple. He also suggested that we left our electronic gadgets, mobile phones and all food items in the car since these were not allowed within the temple premises. We quickly hiked up to the temple and paid obeisance to the giant shivalinga that stood in the middle of the shrine, as a number of devotees sang their prayers to the deity. Once we made our way out of the shrine, we sat in silence basking in magnetic vibes of the temple, relishing the glorious aerial view of the city from atop the hill.

A splash here and a splash there

A splash here and a splash there – school kids at Nishat garden

As we descended from the hill, we were once again by the side of the Dal lake, the waters of which were now being used by the rays of the setting sun as a backdrop for its goodbye dance. We collectively decided to spend some time at an empty spot on the promenade to witness this captivating vista. The enchanting view of countless shikaras drifting across the shimmering waters of the Dal, flocks of birds flying back to their sacred abode and the cinnamon sky bidding the sun goodbye – made for a picture-perfect spectacle. Truly overwhelmed by the beauty of nature that we had just witnessed, we made our way to dinner and treated ourselves to a sumptuous meal of authentic Kashmiri pulao and shorba. As we reached Ghat number 9 to head back to our respective houseboats, we confirmed our shikara ride with Dhoni ji for the next morning (we negotiated a deal with him at INR 500 for an hour). I was now truly looking forward to the 5am shikara ride, ready to witness the tranquil waters of the Dal at daybreak!

Sunset shades

Sunset shades

I was awoken by the chanting of morning prayers reverberating through the cool waters of the lake. It was past 4.30, and I walked up to the window to observe a couple of flickering lights here and there, on an otherwise dark and desolate lake. Quickly dressing up, I whizzed out of my room – waiting for Dhoni ji, all set to start my shikara ride. I wandered around the houseboat in my waiting time, illuminating the dark corridors with torchlight. The houseboat appeared to be huge in size and seemed to be connected with the others from the back. Before I could continue with my pointless adventure, I was distracted by the sound of water lapping against the boat and rushed to the front porch again. Except for the prayers (which were still in continuance), it was so quiet that even the creaking sound I made while walking up and down the gallery could have woken half the neighbourhood up.

Breaking dawn

Breaking dawn

I was joined on this 5am escapade by my three newly found trekker friends. As we kick-started our morning tour of the Dal, we couldn’t help but immerse ourselves in the serene setting. Ours was a solitary shikara across the lake, which gave us ample time and space to blissfully soak in all of nature’s activities around us – the endless chirping of the birds, the first rays of the sun slipping through the clouds and crowning them in gold, the cool morning breeze and the sound of water lapping against the boat. We continued to cruise along various water-alleys across lily-swamped corridors and an isolated Meena Bazaar for another 30 minutes. Vegetable vendors with elongated shikaras suddenly started to emerge around us as we began to approach the market place. As we continued our journey towards the market place and scores of other vendors started appearing in sight, Dhoni ji pointed at the vegetables and began to tell us how and where these were grown. We soon reached the market place which was packed with all sorts of vendors – vegetable and fruit sellers, craftsmen, sellers of flowers and seeds, kahwa traders, handloom and souvenir merchants. Dhoni ji further enlightened us on how the locals cultivated water-growing vegetables and herbs in the lake. He also mentioned that the floating market was a highlight of the Dal lake, which was visited primarily by tourists. The locals apparently made their own daily purchases from the common Srinagar bazaars.

The floating market

The floating market

After spending another 20 minutes in the market indulging in sundry shopping, we embarked on our journey back to the base. The return was filled a more clear view of the houses that were perched across the lake and Dhoni ji was now showing us lettuce and onion plantations in the water. Now that the sun was out and it was bright and clear, we noticed how quaint the route was and took turns to sit at the front of the shikara to enjoy the divinity of the Dal. A myriad trees gracefully posing on the edges of the meandering lake making crystal clear reflections along the gleaming waters, young children squinting out of their windows and gushing at the site of the young travellers visiting their homeland, the cool morning breeze caressing our hair – all made for the most picturesque return sail. As we crossed a still sleepy Meena Bazaar yet again, Dhoni ji probably sensed my disappointment at seeing the closed shops and presented us with yet another piece of trivia – Each of the seemingly closed shops had a salesman sleeping inside to cater to potentially interested tourists wanting to purchase local products after the shikara ride. We were running out of time and halfheartedly decided to continue our journey back. Our glorious shikara ride soon came to an end (we were out for almost an hour and a half) and we thanked Dhoni ji, exchanged good byes and headed back to our respective houseboats.

Postcard views from the front

I sat myself at the porch of the houseboat, sipping on the delicious kahwa that my host had prepared for me and silently revelling in the experience of my first ever shikara ride. It had indeed been an extraordinarily beautiful morning!
The idiosyncrasies of life at the Dal lake were unfolding before me, as I sat there still ruminating over all the gratifying events from my stay in Srinagar – a multitude of hawkers hopping in and out of houseboats and calling from their shikaras to present their products, countless birds flitting in and out of the cool waters of the Dal, the lake embracing the glimmering sunrays like a necklace of its own, and a host of locals heading towards the ghats on their way to work.
In that moment, I felt a stillness and calm inside me like never before. I felt like I had been placed in the middle of the most perfect postcard and experienced a sense of absolute joy. Taking the final few sips of what was left of my kahwa, I wondered why people said that peace was hard to find in this beautiful place.