Kashmir is one of the most fascinating parts of India. With great scenic beauty, Kashmir is a region of beautiful lakes, romantic houseboats, forests, streams, and mountains. Located on the border with Pakistan, China, and Tibet, the region of Kashmir is situated about 1000 km north of Delhi and is the largest valley of Himalaya. The lakes on whose warm waters are reflected the snowy peaks of the Himalaya are a major scenery of this fascinating region.
In the period between the 1960s and 70s, the houseboat in Srinagar lived a moment of great notoriety when it was learned that one of the Beatles stars George Harrison learned to play the sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar. Kashmir then became ideal for those in search of exotic paradises.
I was lucky enough to travel to the region which is now called Jammu and Kashmir. The best way to arrive in Kashmir is certainly to get to Delhi by flight and then take another domestic flight to Srinagar.
Along the road that leads from Delhi to Srinagar, we cross the north Indian plains with vast expanses burned brown by the summer sun, and the rich cultivated lands of Punjab, where vegetation does not wither even under the scorching sun. The highest mountains are sighted for the first time after the Banihal pass, where it passes into what is perhaps the only existing road tunnel in India.
The landscape changes dramatically immediately after the pass, unfolding like a huge green carpet and gold in a regular checkerboard of fields. The meadows are divided by a sparkling network of ditches and waterways as we enter the valley of Kashmir. The valley is part of the rearing large terraces on the Indian plains of Jammu and Kashmir that includes mountains, valleys, and plateaus.
To the south, at the foothills lies Jammu. Towards the northeast are the peaks of the great Himalayas, that preserve the wild beauty of Ladakh. For most people, Kashmir coincides with a homonymous valley, circumscribed by a magnificent amphitheater of mountains.
Placed right in the center of the Kashmir valley, on the banks of the Jhelum River, a trip to Kashmir can only start from Srinagar. It is very impressive with its beautiful landscape scenery dominated by Dal Lake and in the background are the Himalayan mountains. Srinagar amazes us with the beauty of its landscapes. In Dal Lake, we enjoy water sports of all kinds such as boating, fishing, surfing, and swimming.
Srinagar for centuries has been one of the main cultural and philosophical centers of Asia. The mountain passes were used for the purpose of trade. From the high mountain passes came not only silk and spices but also new ideas. Srinagar stood at the crossroads of major trading routes between India, Central Asia, and China, opening Kashmir to the Greek, Persian, Tibetan and Chinese influences, as well as from the Indian subcontinent. The result is what made Kashmir unique.
But there is much more. Starting with the landscape of a lush valley crossed by rivers and dotted with lakes, the foot of wooded regions are in turn encased by ice-capped mountains. There are unusual varieties of trees, flowers, and fruits from the Himalayan Cedar to Bow to the Poplar. The pale pink color of the almond blossoms in the spring. The lotus flowers bloom in the warmth of the late summer. Cherries, like precious stones, shine in purple wooden crates.
The saffron fields of Pampore, in autumn, stretch as far as the eye can see. And then there are the wealth of handicrafts, that can evoke delicate tactile sensations. From the feeling of softness of the famous Tush wool pashmina shawls that slips through your fingers like butter, the waxy smoothness of walnut boards, artifacts of paper, that is rough to the touch but wonderful to behold and the violent contrast between the rough texture of numdah and the softness of a rug in dense knots.
The food ranges from lotus stems curry, spicy vegetables and Karam sag, fried lamb chops, mutton cooked in a sauce of yogurt and spices, finely minced meat balls cooked in a creamy sauce of cardamom, milk, and broth. All served with hot cups of Kahwa, the spiced tea with cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron.
And finally, the people. The mixing of races and religions from the Aryans to the Scythians to the Mongols have given birth to the diaspora of Kashmir. With an abundance of historical evidence, the sober majesty of the sun temple at Martand, the formal elegance of Mughal gardens, they are the main attractions of Kashmir. There are other places that have some, but only in Kashmir are all these wires woven in the experience of traveling through the valley.
There are in this regard the Gujar community probably related to the Huns. They speak Guari and live in low mountains of Siwaliks, north of Jammu. They raise cattle and sheep and grow corn. The tribes are divided into hundreds of clans, in patriarchal families and the legacy is handed down from father to son. Marriages are arranged and in the dowry brides pay cash and animals.
The Changpa, however, are semi-nomadic herders of Tibetan Mongolian strain. They live on Rebo in tents made of yak and goat hair. The Balti could be descendants of the Celts. They raise sheep and goats and greatly benefit from the milk, wool, and meat. Many tribe members make and sell handicrafts.
The Bakarwal are the nomadic shepherds' par excellence. Their name in Sanskrit means those who take care of the goats. Moving to the pastures, men can be distinguished from the long shirt they wear, topped by a woolen cloak.
The myths of Kashmir is wrapped in an aura of fantasy and mystery and is described as a legend. At one time, the valley was a vast lake, as deep as the sky and the pitch for the gods. But it was targeted by an intruder that destroyed and looted the people who inhabited the shores. In desperation, the people appealed to the ruler to save them. The ruler created a gorge in the west that emptied the lake from its waters. The demon was killed and the valley was called Kashmir, in honor of its savior.
Water is at the heart of the valley of Kashmir, almost as important as a faith. We hear the sound everywhere, given the abundance of springs, rivers, and lakes. The word nag means snake. In ancient times, in fact, the serpent cult was practiced in the vicinity of the sources.
Kashmiris are a water people in a mountainous country. The waterways offer ways easier access to traffic and communications. The main river is the Jhelum, the waters of which were, in turn, bearers of prosperity or ruinous floods.
One of the sources of Jhelum is the enchanting Verinag in the southeast of the valley. The Mughal emperor, Jahangir, built a garden all around the upper end, beyond the Chinar avenues. From a deep octagonal basin originates the river that bends in a meandering arc from the southeast to the northwest. The Jhelum is navigable for almost 160 kilometers, starting from the eastern end of Anantnag, beyond the saffron fields of Pampore.
The course winds its way right in the heart of Srinagar, spilling into the Wular Lake and beyond, to the western end located just before Baramula. The river, its tributaries, and canals can be crossed by boats of Hanjis, who boasts a descent from Noah itself. Given their skills in building boats, this claim may well be true.
Local crafts include Bahatch, a barge from the raised bow capable of carrying heavy loads. Doonga is smaller Bahatch, a sort of aquatic dwelling made of woven reeds. The shikhara is a boat that looks like a gondola and is known for its use as a floating car across the Dal Lake. But the boat best known of all is the houseboat, which serves as a hotel for most tourists visiting Srinagar.
A trip to Kashmir remains forever in the memory and heart, also for the wonderful houseboats built with inlaid wood and invented by the British. These still add to the already evocative landscape of Kashmir that touch of romance and charm. The houseboat was the British response to an edict of the governor of Dogra that no foreigner could own property in Kashmir. Built of weathered cedar wood, the first houseboat was small and very mobile. They used to escape the summer heat of Srinagar being towed down the river to the Wular lake at the shade of chinar trees.
The hunting season begins in bright autumn days. It lasts throughout the winter for duck hunting in the reeds of Wular and Manasbal lakes. The houseboat is docked from Shadipur up to Bandipur, from which starts the mountain forests for the bear hunt.
The modern shikara is too large to permit ease of movement. They are visible along the banks of the Dal and Nagin lakes, moored in a long irregular line. Usually, at the stern, there is a large carved wooden porch, a real entrance to the houseboat. A verandah protrudes aft above the broad square keel and leads into a living room embellished with pieces of furniture of inlaid walnut and fabulous Kashmiri carpets.
Then you have a small room. It is used to set the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and finally, there is a small hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom. These traditional boats have a roof garlanded with lotus flowers. The Large modern houseboat was specially built to accommodate the tourists who come to stay in this part of India.
Going beyond is the dining room, and still, later, a corridor leading to the bedrooms. At a certain distance, there is the Kitchen boat, used by the cook to prepare various meals of the day. The luxury houseboat is used to show off large quantities of wool embroidery, tapestry, and richly carved furniture. Paradoxically, the style does not affect the warmth and there is no experience comparable to staying in a houseboat.
Staying in one of the legendary houseboats on the lake is a unique experience. The part of the magic lies in the simple fact of being on the water and the resulting views of the lake and mountains. The elevated aft is the best place to taste the delicate Kahwa and see the changing dawn and the bright shades of the sunset while admiring the birds glide on the water surface. Here the atmosphere is romantic, that welcomes us to the ancient splendor of past glories, far from the noise of civilization.
The Dal lake is divided into four basins that are called Gagribal, Lokut Dal, Bod Dal and Nagin. The two islands Sona Lank or Char Chinar and Rup Lank joining the gardens and orchards that surround them, add an extra touch of charm to this lake. Entire communities live here for centuries aboard houseboats, without the need to ever go to the land, because the whole life takes place on the water.
The houseboat that hosted us can be considered as a real garden with access to a large ornate floating garden of beautiful flowers that serve as a reception. The waters of the lake and canals are so transparent, that sometimes have the color similar to jade. It is covered with water lilies, lotus and floating gardens made by twisting stems of aquatic plants.
In the early morning, on a shikhara that moves lazily on the still waters of the lake, we look at the impressive and unique vegetable market, in the middle of the lake. Along the many canals filled with water lilies and adorned with shady willow trees, we see mud and brick houses that apparently seem uninhabited and in ruins. We see the many bridges on Jhelum and also admire the skill with which the locals build and cultivate their gardens and floating gardens.
During the winter the temperature drops below zero and the lake freezes completely. The incredible greenery surrounding it gets cloaked in white. I think back to Kashmir as a dream from which you would not want to wake up. It may be for the magical atmosphere of the lakes of Srinagar, in which are reflected the blue profiles of the snow-capped mountains.
Staying in one of the houseboats of Dal Lake, which in spring is covered with floating mats of water lily was a unique experience. In my sensory memory, it is still linked to the fresh, resinous scent of cedar wood of the Himalayas, the essence of which make these romantic floating dwellings.
A paradise for shopaholics, the famous local handicrafts is a source of continual temptations. There are the beautiful carpets, the objects in papier-mache, jewelry, fine wooden sculptures and especially the fabulous and inimitable shawls. Precious and famous all over the world, these shawls are woven from the wool of the Hircus goat and a wild ibex living at an altitude of 4,500 meters.
For this very hot and soft tissue, in the past real trade wars were fought. The most valuable wool is the Shahtoosh with which is weaved a shawl, also called ring shawl. It has no equal as regards lightness, softness, and warmth and despite its size passes through the wedding ring. The wool is produced from a rock goat, which survives in the winter at a temperature of -40 ° C, which then in the spring loses the fleece while rubbing against rocks. It is woven in its natural brown or white colors.
The best way to see Srinagar is getting on a shikhara and follow the path through the heart of the city, through the canals ornamented by shady willow trees, even under the old bridges on Jhelum. At first glance, the interior of the city has a ghostly appearance. The houses of mud, brick, and wood protrude on the banks and some have such a sagging appearance that seems will crumble at any moment. Others are actually dotted with chunks of wooden pillars, cracked and covered with moss.
Throngs of boats are moored to poles, emerging from the water. The women sit in the bow, grinding grain. As any major highway, at regular intervals, the river is dotted with staircases giving access to a maze of narrow alleys connected to the streets behind.
If space on the lakefront is the privilege of a few, it is not so at the Moghul gardens of Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh, and Chashma Shahi. Here is all the splendor of the royal Srinagar. The imperial passion for creating gardens is enhanced by the beautiful views offered by the lake and mountains in the background. The Shalimar Garden is surrounded by an aura of peace and tranquility.
The regular rows of fountains and trees seem to recede into the backwaters snowy mountains. On Sundays, the children play with the water. The focal point of the garden is the airy Black Pavilion, located in the back of the highest of the three terraces, whose graceful lines were conceived for the delectation of the ladies of the court.
If Shalimar is regal, Nishat Garden is theatrical, with its flower gardens, old trees, iridescent fountains from the foaming waters in the carved gargoyles. The twelve zodiac signs that represent as many terraces in a gradual descent seem to merge with the lake. The first was created in 1633 by Asif Khan, brother of queen Nur Jahan.
Located on the shore of the lake, it occupies the Zabarwan hill. From here you can have a magnificent view of the waters of the Dal Lake. The second was created by the Moghul Emperor Jahangir in honor of his wife, Queen Noor Mahal. The garden consists of four large terraces and the presence of many channels and fountains results in the beautiful water features.
The bridges on Jhelum constitute a point of view of Srinagar, along with the Shankaracharya hill, also called Takhi-I-Solaiman, the throne of Sulaiman. After breakfast, we walk on the Shankaracharya hill to visit the temple of Shiva, built by Raja Gopadatya in 371 AD. Situated on top of a hill, about 300 meters above the Dal Lake we see the magnificent panorama of the valley. Here, we embrace with our eyes the Jhelum valley and the winding course.
In the distance, the snows of the Pir Panjal range shine in immaculate white against the blue sky. In the southeast, we admire the hill above Anantnag. Further downstream stretches Srinagar nestled between Lake Dal and Nagin. There are the sanctuaries including the so-called Tomb of Christ and the ancient mosques.
The view from the Throne of Sulaiman recalls that the Kashmiri landscape is dominated by valleys, lakes, and mountains. Hidden from view are the waters of Wular, the Manasbal and Ganderbal lakes. We continue our visit to Srinagar to Jami Masjid, the main mosque in the city. Of impressive proportions, the original building was built by Sultan Sikander in 1398. It is a typical example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The mosque supported by 370 wooden pillars was built around a courtyard, which holds thousands of faithful.
Later it was destroyed three times by fire and rebuilt each time. The building that we admire today was finally rebuilt during the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh. Of great value is also the mosque in two floors in the square of Shah Hamadan. It is located on the banks of the Jhelum River, between the third and fourth bridge, and is the first mosque built in Srinagar.
His full name was Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, which stemmed from the Persian name of the city of Hamadan. Its structure is made of wood. Its main features are the beautiful carvings of the frames and the bells hanging from the ceiling. The interior is richly carved, along with paintings and antique chandeliers that give the building an air of great opulence. Of great interest is also the star-shaped mausoleum of the mother of Zain ud-Abidin, built in the fifteenth century.
We also travel to the Dachigam National Park, which is just 20 kilometers from the city. In this beautiful park, we admire the Himalayan black bears, leopards, the Hangul, a rare species of deer and many species of birds.
Far away across the wide valley is the valley of Lidar, where stands the mountain resort of Pahalgam. It is the starting point of a long and difficult path that leads to the shrine of Amarnath. This Amarnath Yatra attracts thousands of devotees every year.
We visit Awantipura and Martand Sun Temple. These impressive sanctuaries stand serenely amid the green valleys and scenic gorges of Pahalgam. The temple was built by Emperor Avantivarman, during his reign in Jammu and Kashmir in ninth century AD. He was a great devotee of Shiva and Vishnu and then built two main shrines to these deities. In fact, he was the founder of this ancient town.
Based on the traditional curiosity, the temple testifies to the footprints of the aristocracy of Jammu and Kashmir spanning over almost 1100 years. The original layout of the complex shows that the temple was built in the central part of a large oblong courtyard and four small shrines in every corner. The temple is decorated with beautiful carvings and structures that reveal the skillful architecture and art of that time.
Another road leads to the peak of Kolahoi with its pointed shape needle and the vast glacier below. To the northwest, there is the valley of Lolab. It is a crescent plain populated by forests of cedars and pines.
The Sindh Valley is on the road in Ladakh and wooded areas are similar to those that once was in the Alps. We also visit the villages of Gujjar and Baisaran. The valley is nestled in a picturesque pine forest. In the evening we get back to Srinagar with a dinner of fine Kashmiri Biriyani, Dum Aloo, and the spicy Rogan Josh.
Next day we have an excursion to the Gulmarg mountains, a ski resort at 3000 meters. Gulmarg boasts the longest runway in the world, attracting ski enthusiasts from all over the Asian continent and beyond. Climbing up the sides of the valley are the mountain pastures and vast expanses of blooming meadows. A few kilometers beyond, through meadows, forests, and ridges, it reaches the snowy slopes of Khilanmarg.
On a clear day, the views from the meadows of Gulmarg are superb. The hills merge with the bottom of the valley, to the rice fields and walnut groves and bushes of wild blackberries. In the distance, the sun shines on the zinc roofs of Srinagar. With a little luck, to the north, the view sweeps over the great mountains of the Himalayas up to the high peak of Nanga Parbat. It stands free and clear through the entire length of the valley spreading more than a hundred kilometers.
The days in Srinagar passed away very quickly and now an off-road vehicle takes us after about 440 km to Leh, the capital of Ladakh at 3,500 mt. The departure is early, and we go in the day about 210 km that separate us from the small town of Kargil, located at the confluence of the rivers Drass and Suru, where we spend the night.
Gradually we climb altitude leaving behind the verdant Kashmir Valley and stop for a quick meal at Sonamarg near the point where the Sindh river plunges headlong into a ravine. It is an excellent base for hiking. Sonmarg, located about 85 kilometers away from Srinagar is a very nice little valley with its flowery meadows. Dominated by the early Himalayan foothills, it was a strategic point on the legendary Silk Road.
Sonamarg is a narrow grassy and flat strip enriched with edelweiss and surrounded by large spikes on which the sides shine hanging glaciers. The sides of the mountains are covered with large forests of silver fir, sycamore and birch are one of the last outposts of unspoiled nature and magnificent. From here we admire the beauty of the Thajiwas glacier, the biggest local attraction during the short summer season.
After lunch, we take a real travel trail that winds its way up steep switchbacks that take us to the famous Zoji La Pass at 3529 meters. It is a real natural watershed between the lush Kashmir and arid valleys of Ladakh. Due to the significant amount of snow that had accumulated, we ascertained that the pitch was only passable for a few days before our departure from Srinagar.
Alternatively, there is a flight to Leh, but it was certainly not the same thing. We leave behind Sonamarg. We go up in altitude by tackling the steep curves of a road from the narrow-track that ripped the mountain. A fund crumbles winter ice and the summer heat then turns into dust. Our jeep in an easy manner addresses the pitfalls of this tormented path, unlike the buses and trucks overflowing with goods, which continuously give the impression that they can do it.
We were only a few kilometers away from the line of actual control, the fictitious border between India and Pakistan. The arrival at the checkpoint of the Zoji La Pass, the dividing line between Kashmir and Ladakh causes a certain emotion. it was also due to the fact that on the sides of the path there are two high snow walls over 4 meters.
Beyond the pass, the topography of the area changes dramatically. The lush conifer forests of the Kashmir valley give way to a barren landscape, almost completely devoid of vegetation. Towards the late afternoon, we arrive in Kargil, a small town with medieval characteristics. Located at an altitude of 2730 meters by the river Suru, it is the starting point for all excursions to the valley of Zanskar, Ladakh and Leh.
In the past, the city was an important trading center of the caravans carrying silk, ivory, precious stones and carpets from India, China, the Central Asian regions and the distant Turkey. The name of Kargil derives from two words "Gar" and "Khil". "Gar" in the local language means "everywhere" and "Khil" means "the center of the place where people want to stay."
This theory is supported by the fact that Kargil is equidistant from the cities of Srinagar, Leh, Skardu, and Padum. In Kargil, we see some fine architectural examples of Turkish origin. We walk through the bazaar and do find some nice local crafts for daily use, such as teapots and brass hookah.
We have an early morning departure for the next day of the transfer through the first spectacular mountain landscapes of Ladakh along the river valley, beyond which lies a completely different world. But this is another trip.
Kashmir Travel Tips
The best time to visit Kashmir is from October to April when the weather is dry and also at high altitude the temperatures are pleasant.
The valley of Kashmir, according to geologists was the collision point between the tectonic plate of the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian plate. Although it may seem strange, Paleontologists discovered fossils of corals and other marine animals.
Kashmir was inhabited as early as 2,500 BC. During the Maurya empire it was introduced to Buddhism, but later Hinduism prevailed and had its heyday in the eighth century AD during the reign of Lalitaditya.
Many dynasties ruled the region but from the year 1003 was the Lohara, who exercised power and kept it until 1346 when the land came under Islamic control. Finally, it was annexed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the year 1586.