"The Seductive Reflections of Kashmir"
Article & photos by: Brad Carlile Sept 2004
All Rights Reserved - Copyright Brad Carlile 2004
"You are CRAZY!", I hear. I ask quietly, "...have you ever been there?" The reply, "no... but, you don't understand." In the US and India, similar exchanges occurred. Each time reinforced my desire to find out for myself.
Kashmir, even the name provokes an image of the exotic and the unknown. Yes, it is a land with a troubled history but things are beginning to heal.
Despite ongoing travel advisories to avoid the region, this past summer has seen a surge in tourism. With most tourists coming from other parts of India and interestingly, Israel.
Soon I'm relaxing on an ornate patio overlooking the quiet still of Kashmir's Dal Lake, in one of the most beautiful regions in India. It has been a paradise lost, but it being rediscovered as hope returns.
Over the weeks of travel, I will come to learn many things about Kashmir culture, history, cuisine, and even their wedding ceremonies. But those surprises await me, for now I settle back to enjoy a flavorful spiced tea on a houseboat patio and watch the world float by.
Dal Lake is awe inspiring, simply put, breathtaking. It rests in the heart of the summer capital of Srinagar, surrounded by graceful sweeping hills.
The lake is spectacular and is where most tourists rightly choose to stay. Resident to the blue waters are wonderfully carved and ornately painted houseboats, some over 400 years old.
Shikaras, which are paddled water taxis, ferry visitors, residents and goods around the lake. Most are brightly painted in vivid yellows, with reds and blues. They are the ideal way to explore the lake's many houseboats, islands, birds, and floating flora.
Amongst the houseboats and canals float many lily and lotus plants. Even in the fall, a few flowers are still in bloom. When Gollam, the owner of houseboat on which I'm staying, describes the view when all of the plants are full bloom, his face lights up and his heart just glows.
Gollam is the patriarch of the family and his sons work in various parts of the family business. His family has owned guest houseboats and has been organizing regional treks for three generations. He proudly shares traveler's letters to his family, dating back almost a hundred years.
Kashmiris are kind and gracious in so many ways. The renowned hospitality of the Kashmiris can be embarrassing to westerners. We really have no concept of hospitality. This is especially amazing given the turmoil Kashmir has seen in the last decade.
When traveling I relish in cultural differences, but I'm also strongly reminded of our overwhelming similarities.
A Special Kashmiri Wedding Invite...
One day, an unexpected invitation led to my being the only foreigner in the last day of a Kashmiri wedding celebration. Kashmiri weddings are amazing three day affairs! The first day is the ceremony and party, the second day is a feast for around 200 people, and the final day a special meal is prepared for the family's closest relatives and friends.
An hour before going to our feast, I was a guest at the groom's family home. Except for differences in language and wedding garb, it could have been a scene from any of the weddings that I have attended in the states. The men watched sports on TV, children laughed and played, while the ladies chatted as they finished getting ready.
A few of the striking cultural differences that I observed were cricket instead of our tradition of football on the TV, the third day celebration dinner substituted for the western rehearsal dinner, and the launching sky rockets instead of throwing rice.
To arrive in style, the groom's family hired a party boat to take forty of us to meet the bride's family -- this is Dal Lake equivalent of hiring a limo. As our boat navigated the narrow canals, those on shore craned their necks to admire all of the incredibly-dressed woman with their intricate gold jewelry on the way to the dinner celebration.
Kashmiri Foods & Wazwan
Kashmiri food has an pleasing variety of wonderful flavors and aromas. This was exemplified by the special meal called a Wazwan. Kashmiri Wazwans are amazing meals of 10 or more courses.
The traditional way to eat at a Wazwan is to sit on the floor in groups of 4 to 6 around communal plates, called trami. As each course is finished, the waiters serve the next course over the communal rice.
Just as my hosts suggested to the waiters that I be given utensils and a separate plate, I dove my right hand into the food on the trami and ate Kashmiri style. When others at the party caught my eye, they smile and nod in approval of eating style. Kashmiris believe that food tastes best when eaten by hand to enabling the full experience of the food.
Lassi (a tasty yogurt drink), water, and Coca Cola accompanied the meal. No, the coke wasn't done for my sake. When my friend offered to pour me a glass of coke and I thought why would I spoil this great traditional Kashmiri meal with a coke, so I declined. He looked at the bottle of coke and then looked at me with a confused expression and said, "What? This is your food?
Being open to possibilities, can foster even more enriching life experiences...
Moghul gardens and Shankaracharya Hill
The official driver for the houseboat car was helping with a different wedding and Kooka, the 36 year old son, had only one week of driving experience. So that day they offered me the chance to drive to see some local sights.
Loose shift. Funky clutch. Weak engine. First gear, tricky. Soon I'm heading to an Indian military checkpoint in one of the most heavily patrolled parts of Kashmir. At least I have the tendency to walk along the wrong side of a sidewalk at home so that should help me with the English-side driving.
After killing the engine for the fifth time just getting out of first gear, my embarrassment subsided, the gear grinding ended and we were off. As we head down the road, humorously I am reminding myself; don't hit anything and don't run any military checkpoints.
The first stop this afternoon was at the Moghul gardens. These gardens are a favorite for family weekend picnics. The gardens are beautiful with vibrant red and yellow flowers.
The water course sparkles as it cascades along the six terraces of lush green lawns. The sweet scent of the flowers and the burbling fountains offer a spectacular compliment to the late afternoon's sun rays.
The final stop was Shankaracharya Hill that overlooks the city. It has a commanding view of the houseboats below in picturesque Dal Lake. The setting sun slowly nestled into the hills to end the day.
The next days keep me very busy in Srinagar's many historical sites, markets, scenery and shopping.
Local crafts in Kashmir include wonderfully hand-stitched silk shawls, papier-mache, wood carvings, and the luxurious Kashmir carpets. For over 600 years, Kashmiri silk carpets have been highly prized for both their quality and craftsmanship.
While westerners are typically concerned about a carpet's design and colors, the fineness and thereby cost of a rug is judged from the quality of the yarn and number of knots per inch. There are two main varieties, those with cotton warp which can have 850 knots per inch or silk warp which can have up to 2,500 knots per inch. These are all handmade and each thread is knotted with a figure-8 knot, and never tufted.
Srinagar is also a great center allowing many side trips to other scenic destinations.
Gulmarg, Aru, and Pahalgam
Twenty-five miles from Srinagar is Gulmarg, a large ski resort in Kashmir, that has over 5,000 vertical feet of skiing. Gulmarg also has the highest green 18 hole golf course in the world at 8,900 feet of elevation. My friends enjoyed a round of golf. While, I'm not sure the physics really support their claims, they believed that their drives went further in this rarefied air.
Encircling the resort is the "English road", a trail which offers views of the Karkakorum mountain range that includes a view of K2. The hikes in this area remind me of hikes in the American pacific northwest forests.
Other popular destinations in the mountains to the south are Pahalgam and the mountain village of Aru. Meandering alongside the road is the Lidder river, which offers plentiful trout fishing under the shade of the bountiful walnut trees.
Aru village was one of my favorites. After a picnic lunch next to the beautiful milky-blue glacier-fed Lidder river, I hiked up to visit with the shepherds to enjoy a fantastic view of the mountains, nearby waterfalls, and the village below.
Aru is also the start of a popular multi-day trek. It starts high in the forests and then ventures high into glaciered mountains. Treks with ponies to carry supplies are easy to arrange in Aru or Srinagar.
My last day in Srinagar started early in the morning in the canals of Dal Lake's floating vegetable market. The buyers and sellers sit on their haunches on the very bow of their long shikaras.
The shikaras come together in clusters of half a dozen boats, seemingly forming the petals of flowers. After busy exchanges, the buyers and sellers then regroup to find the next deal.
Kashmir is a beautiful region. It is a land of friendly people who share their extensive hospitality with everyone, strangers included. They take great enjoyment from life, family, music, great food, and laughter. Go to Kashmir and you too will be seduced by the reflections in Dal Lake.