KASHMIR is the stuff of legend. The region lies at the foot of the Himalayas and borders India, Pakistan and China. A majestic area of mountains, lakes and verdant flowers, it was known as “Paradise on Earth”. Then India and Pakistan split, and the deadly arguments between the two new countries began about which of them owned this piece of heaven.
We flew into the capital, Srinigar, to be faced with massive security. The downside of this otherwise wonderland is the ever-present soldiers, sandbags and razor wire, as it’s still a high security area. But that’s where the downside ends.
Srinigar is a place of spectacular lakes and lotus lilies as far as the eye can see, set against the snowy Himalayan peaks. There are breathtaking Mughal gardens, and aromatic food accompanied by traditional kehwa (a sort of green tea served with cinnamon, saffron and nuts).
At 1 530m above sea level, the ancient city of Srinigar is the summer hub of Jammu and Kashmir, enhanced by the urban Dal and Nagin lakes.
Lake Dal is unique for the communities – from fishermen to houseboat owners – who have made it their home.
We stayed on traditional houseboats on Lake Dal for four days of floating bliss.
Part of Kashmir’s culture, heritage and history, the thousand or so houseboats moored along Lake Dal and Lake Nagin have been there since the 1800s. They were originally the response by British colonials to the intolerable summer heat of the plains – and the maharajah’s ban on foreigners owning land.
More barges than houseboats, their design and furnishings reflect the social and cultural aspirations of 19th century India’s British colonialists, while their craftsmanship and beautiful decor are a tribute to the skill of their Kashmiri builders.
Moored on the western shores of Dal Lake, Butt’s Houseboats lie beside an old Mughal garden called the Naseem Bagh (Garden of the Morning Breeze).
The formal Mughal gardens along the lake have terraced lawns, cascading fountains and bright flowerbeds.
The best way to explore the lake with its fields of lotus and marigold blossoms and floating gardens is by shikara boat, complete with awning, recliner cushions and paddler and guide wielding a single, heart-shaped paddle.
Lake Dal is also famous for its ancient floating vegetable market, where vegetables grown on the lakeside are sold less than two hours after being picked. But vegetables are not all that is sold on Lake Dal. It is a shoppers’ floating paradise.
Our days were spent being ferried through the lily pads by my well-wisher for eternal happiness, Llasa, with his green eyes, his green heart-shaped paddle, and English that made one look around for the nearest Eton graduate, although he had not been to school. “Mem’sahib, may you be happy for ever!”