Nestled by the curling Jhelum River, the capital city of Srinagar is surrounded by snow clad mountains, emerald green valleys, sky skimming chinar trees and the Dal and Nagin lakes which enhance its picturesque setting. Srinagar’s stunning beauty had once inspired Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, to exclaim: "Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto” or If there is a heaven on earth, it's here, it's here, it's here.
Currently a sore point between India and Pakistan due to the fact that it is the capital of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, Srinagar is not as peaceful and prosperous as it used to be in ancient times. It did exceedingly well under the great Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC. In the 6th century, it flourished under King Vikramaditya, the ruler of Ujjain. When the Mughals took over the city during the medieval period the city was further enhanced with artistically laid out landscaped gardens. Several centuries later, the British took it over and left their influence in its art and architecture.
When India and Pakistan were being partitioned, Srinagar became the target of Pakistan’s fury after Independence, Kashmir was merged with India by the royal family but being dominated by Muslims, Pakistan felt Kashmir should have been rightfully given to them and the decision should have been left on the people. Pakistan allegedly began sending spies and financing militants and terrorists to create havoc in Kashmir. This fight for independence has lasted several years, the bombings and killings have ravaged the state and its people making any chance of peaceful existence impossible for the people of the valley. Several wars have been fought, numerous treaties signed and many cultural exchanges made between the two countries but Kashmir is still torn between the two countries.
Life in Srinagar centers around the Dal Lake, from floating vegetable markets to children being sent to school, the lake is indispensable to the Kashmiris. Popularly called Srinagar’s pride Dal Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes of India and the second largest in the state. Surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains and sprawling lush green gardens and orchards, the lake offers a postcard perfect view of this winter wonderland. The Dal Lake is famous for the hundreds of houseboats, which offer an opportunity to tourists to reside on the lake while observing the traditions and lifestyles of Kashmiris. The lake is not just a water body, but a complete city in itself. The houseboat and shikara owners have permanent homes on the lake, complete with floating vegetable markets and lotus gardens. Doctors, tailors, bakers, and grocers dot the edges of the lake in compact wooden cabins. The Dal Lake stretches over 5 km and is split into Gagri Dal, Lokut Dal and Bod Dal by a series of causeways. The causeways are a convenient route for walkers and bicyclists to get to their destination without having to worry about traffic or shikaras.
The Dal Lake leads into a quieter, smaller lake- The Nagin Lake. The deep-blue waters reflect the reflections of the magnificent trees of willow and poplar which border the lake-shores offering all the privacy and calm that you could ask for. A similar market like the one on Dal Lake can be seen with salesmen paddling from boat to boat, selling snacks and knick knacks such as cold drinks, fruit, nuts, fresh flowers, film, baked goods, papier-mâché boxes, woolen shawls, silk carpets, leather goods, money-changing services. You can choose to either rent boats from the camping site here to enjoy sight seeing the lake or live in a houseboat. The waters of the lakes are pleasantly cool from mid-May to mid-September.
Kashmir is famed for the beauty of its landscape. However, the cultural and religious aspects of Kashmir are equally striking. There are various places of interest that tell the story of its varied past.
The Mughal emperors have left their paradise with a lasting gift of the exquisitely laid out mughal gardens. Stepped terraces, gurgling watercourses, stone pavilions, and rows of neat shrubs and flowering plants…the Mughal garden, which earned Kashmir the title of "Heaven on Earth", has to be seen to be believed. This was truly a vision for the Garden of Heaven. Sprawled along the lake the world famous Mughal Gardens produce some of the most relished fruit delicacies like jams and jellies in the world. The sky-skimming chinars are a recurring motif of these gardens. If not pruned, these can grow to a height of 100 ft. With its brown five-lobed leaves and flowers on double stalks, the tree is a symbol of Kashmiri culture. Interestingly, the large hollow trunks of the chinar have served as meditating spots for spiritual gurus and philosophers over the ages.
Shalimar Bagh was built as a tribute of love from Emperor Jehangir to his wife Nur Jahan, it is popularly known as the Garden of Love. This was supposedly built for the emperor and his queen to enjoy moments of solitude. Located at a distance of 4km from the lake, the entire garden is structured around four terraces with an ancient but still operable system of water channels passing through them. These are surrounded by ornamental pools which can be reached by using stepping stones. There are three pavilions. There is a pavilion made of black stone in the middle of a tank, supported by black marble fluted pillars. This was used as a banquet hall. The two lower pavilions has two Halls for private (Diwan-i-Khas) and public audience (Diwan-i-Am). A sound and light show is put on here every evening during the May to October tourist season.
The gardens of Pari Mahal were initially built by Dara Shikoh for his Sufi teacher, Mullah Shah, and fitted with several springs that have dried up since then, the Pari Mahal gardens are now proudly maintained by the state government now. Pari Mahal is also called the Palace of the Fairies is just a stone’s throw away from the Chasma Shahi Garden. Graceful arched terraces are its striking feature. Built around a small spring, they house exotic flowering plants laid out in terraces cowed by the crumbling arches of a once magnificent building. Pari Mahal is illuminated at night, and can be seen from most places in Srinagar. This too has a sound and light show every evening between May and October.
Asaf Khan, Nur Jahan`s brother, constructed Nishat Bagh in 1633. These are the largest and the most magnificent of the Mughal gardens. Its twelve terraces are supposed to represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, which descend gradually and seem to almost merge into the Dal Lake. Its flowerbeds, trees, fountains, pavilions and gazebos make it the grandest and the most frequented of the all the gardens.
The delicately laid out Cheshma Shahi gardens or the Royal Spring were laid by Shah Jahan in 1632 A.D. The smallest of Srinagar's Mughal gardens, it has only three terraces, in addition to a natural spring enclosed in a stone pavilion. The waters of the spring are believed to have medicinal properties. Jawaharlal Nehru ensured he drank only this water, as the water makes anything else taste bitter compared to its sweetness.
Hazratbal Mosque is one of the holiest shrines in Kashmir and its known for the Moi-e-Muqaddas or the Sacred Hair of the Prophet. Pristine white, it is one of the touchstones of Islamic faith, because a hair of Prophet Mohammed is said to be preserved here. This is displayed to the public on days of religious significance. Hazratbal is unique for another reason too. It is the only domed mosque in Srinagar, in contrast to the regular mosques with pagoda-like roofs. Friday prayers see a huge throng of faithful gathering at the mosque. The mosque is a preeminent example of Kashmiri architecture, an indigenous, entirely original hybrid of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist styles distinguished by its tall spires and its use of wood and stone alongside marble. Most Fridays, thousands of people still flock to the Masjid.
Paradise not only for its stunning locales but also for the rich variety of handicrafts and textile it offers, Kashmir is full of likely souvenirs to take back home. Kashmiri handicraft is famous the world over, dating back to the time when Srinagar was an important city on the trade route of the ancient trans-Himalayan route. Kashmiri shawls have been renowned since several centuries and were once the pride of the French queen, Marie Antoinette. The most famous of these is the Jameawar shawl, made of soft pashmina wool and covered with fine and lacy embroidery. So soft is the Shahtush shawl, that it can be passed through a ring.
Equally well known is the art of carpet making with its exquisite Persian motifs hand knotted in subdued, but warm colors, on wool and silk. Kashmiri Carpets, which are hand knotted are available in pure wool and mixed with cotton or silk. The patterns tend to the traditional, the Persian and Bukhara styles being common, though figurative designs such as the tree of Life are becoming increasingly popular. Floor coverings also include namdas, gabbas and chain-stitch rugs made of thick wool and felted in the form of a rug. Paper Mache handicrafts from Kashmir make excellent souvenirs. Light in weight, yet colorful, and very artistic, these are interpreted lay artisans in the form of wall hangings, boxes, bowls, vases and lamps. Floral motifs occupy the surface of all paper Mache handicrafts. Equally intricate is the carving on Kashmiri woodwork and furniture, chiefly walnut, but also in teak and rosewood. Patterned into heavy furniture, or into trays, boxes, tables and cigarette-cases, they make use of the chinar motif in the carving, just as the shawl-maker and the carpet-weaver. Other Kashmiri handicrafts include silverware and jewelry, as well as silk fabrics, and woolen fabrics, chiefly patto (tweed) and Patti (milled blankets). Head for the Kashmir Government Art Emporium is reasonably priced and you don’t need to haggle endlessly.
Kashmiri cuisine is renowned for its subtle, refined flavors, the food reflecting many influences - Persian, Central Asian, Afghan and Punjabi. Overpoweringly meat-based, it’s most famous preparations Rista and Gushtaba take many hours to be cooked on slow fire. Every meal is round off with green, spiced tea called Kahwa, served from gleaming samovars. For some traditional fare as well as snacks like patties, pastries and delectable kebabs, Ahdoos on Shervani Road is a legend in itself. Ruby on Lambert Lane is popular for authentic Kashmiri food especially their meat preparations. Glocken Bakery for the sinful plum cakes comes highly recommended.
Srinagar is also famous for its luxurious golf course known as The Royal Springs Golf Course. Spread over an area of 300 acres near the famous Chashma Shahi, the course is open to all. Incidentally, the course has been designed and constructed by the world renowned golf architect, Robert Trent Jones Jr. II. Spend an afternoon playing golf to perfect the art of living well.
Tourists can enjoy the pleasure of fishing in the streams and lakes of Kashmir. Pahalgam is one of Kashmir's fishing retreats. Mahaseer fish is found in the river Jhelum near Sumbal, Sopore, and Baramulla Bridge. Trout fish is found in Harvan Hatchery and Achhabal Hatchery. Common carp is found in the river Jhelum and its tributaries. The Wullar Lake, the Dal Lake, the Manasabal Lake and the Anchar Lake are other fishing spots. Fishing in the Lidder is charming. Famous for its brown trout, the best haul is made between April and September. Permits are issued, for a maximum of three days at a time, on a first-come first-served basis Though one requires a permit to go fishing, the experience can be a once in a lifetime experience. However one is not allowed to catch more than six fishes in a day and live baits and spinning are not allowed.
Srinagar offers tourists the world. Book yourself into a houseboat and get pampered by the in house staff or stay in luxury houseboats complete with breakfast in bed and sipping champagne on the deck while watching the sunset on the beautiful Dal Lake in Srinagar. The adventurous type can go skiing in Gulmarg and Patnitop, view the majestic Himalayan peaks, see Chinar trees turn a deep orange in autumn while fishing at Pahalgam. Kashmir is splendid and unspoilt and rightly titled Paradise on Earth.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Srinagar is during summers, between April and June. The weather is pleasant at 23oC or chilly and windy at 6oC. This is the season when Srinagar experiences rains, but the showers are brief. December to March is the peak winter season when the temperature dips below zero. August is the warmest month as the mercury can touch 30oC. January is best avoided especially if you have an aversion to slush.
How to Reach.
Srinagar airport is 14 km from the city. There are daily direct flights to Delhi, Mumbai and Jammu. Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (J&KSRTC) operates special coach services between the airport and the city.
The nearest rail head is at Jammu, which is about 300 km away. Trains connect the city to Delhi, Kolkata, Pune, Mumbai, Kanyakumari and Ahmedabad.
Srinagar is well connected by road to Chandigarh (630 km), Delhi (876 km), and Jammu (298 km). J&KSRTC operates express coaches between Jammu and Srinagar and the journey takes approximately 8 hours.