Srinagar – Magic in the Dal Lake.
We all know, over the years Srinagar has developed to become a suburb. There has been a huge influx of tourists for the last couple of decades. I grew up listening to the stories about the beauty of Srinagar. It’s where my grandparents went for their honeymoon and then my parents. A place which has been a favourite spot for bollywood movies since the 70’s. Any romantic person would cherish a dream of sitting in a Shikara with his/her loved one and floating on the tranquility of Dal Lake. Whenever I heard of Kashmir and the hype surrounding it, I refused to believe the beauty that they would talk about. How can a place which has developed so much over the years still behold that beauty that everybody talks about? It’s not possible. They might be true then, but now, after so many years of tourism, it’s bound to take its toll. That’s true for every place that I have ever been to.
And that’s the reason why I was reluctant to go to a place which is so popular among the tourists. The cliche houseboats and shikara rides of Dal Lake which have been the centre of all tourist attractions, since my grandparents’ time holds no significance for me. I was not happy about the idea of spending time in Srinagar, but it was inevitable. As we struggled to reach Dal Lake fighting the traffic through clouds of dust and smoke, I was already tired and wanted some place to retire where I can sleep peacefully and escape this madness. We took a Shikara and sailed under the scorching heat to our houseboat. The Shikara moved slowly, swiftly, gracefully and it had a healing effect on me. I could see myself and the others around me calm down and start to smile.
I couldn’t really comprehend this transformative fifteen-minute-journey from something gloomy to something almost euphoric. All I knew then was that I did not want to leave this Shikara any time soon.
We reached the houseboat and I was happy to see that it had five rooms, all with attached bathrooms, a dining room and a living room with balcony. It was a self sufficient little hotel in itself like most other houseboats. Looking at the vintage Kashmiri decor, the size of the rooms, we looked at each other and thought this is exactly what we needed. We had been travelling too far and felt that we had rightly earned a night’s sleep on a bed this big.
Our caretaker Sameer could foresee the trouble that he just invited onto his boat. Had he known that these ten hyper-energetic travellers were going to rock his boat out of harmony for the next few days and leave him sleepless, he wouldn’t have hosted us in the first place. Poor guy, didn’t have a choice anymore!
Sameer’s routine involved sleeping at ten in the night after locking the houseboat, making sure that no guests are outside, which never happened during the course of our stay on the houseboat.
While most of them slept, a few stepped out to see what’s outside the houseboat on a moonless night. What we saw before our eyes, left us startled! The lake which looks like a busy waterway for hustling Shikaras and floating markets metamorphosed into a canvas for an almost perfect reflection of the dramatic night sky, so much that you could even see the trail of a shooting star in the reflection, the silence was deafening. There wasn’t a single sound wave produced in the entire vicinity. The lake was as placid as it could get. Not a single ripple formed in the lake. Absolute silence and absolute stillness. Whereas the sky was totally different. Gazillion of stars scintillating in a rhythm, a distinct and faint milky way rising from one side of the sky, distant and quiet lightning in the clouds which projected an array of different colors; from green to blue to orange in the sky with no sound. Sameer, Udit, Altamash and I snuck the tiny boat out of the houseboat and quietly went for a short ride. Our hearts were overwhelmed by looking at what was surrounding us. The stars in the water, the colours of the sky, the sound of the oar breaking the silence of the lake. From 10 in the night to 5 in the morning, I stood there with 2 more night sky photographers watching the drama in sky till the wee hours of the morning.
I spent my next day in the market stocking up supplies and eating Mughlai food with my fellow Xplorians and just strolling around the streets to absorb some culture.
In the evening, I took my first Shikara ride into the Lake which is about 22 sq km in area. As my oarsman rode us into the deeper parts of the lake, I realised that not all of Dal Lake is crowded and there is a network of narrow canals which connects tiny village settlements & islands within the lake to the main Ghat. These canals are the epitome of unequivocal quiet, so much so that the only thing audible to the ears was the sound of the oar splitting the water as we rowed deeper. My oarsman’s name was Waseem who is a very humble man and had me entertained by either maintaining the silence or by telling me old Kashmiri folklore and legends that surround the lake. We rowed till the sunset and I was back home feeling enriched and enchanted.
After coming back, I sat with Sameer and told him about my first experience in the lake. Talking to him made me realise that I wanted to go to the lake more often and learn rowing from him. He had a small boat which he used to run errands and well now to teach me to row! Next day, I didn’t let Sameer go anywhere without me. When he went to the market to buy groceries, I went with him. He had to go to deliver something to someone, I followed him. While he would finish his business, I would wait for him on the boat so that we could start practicing again.
By the evening, I had nearly perfected my rowing skills and took a couple of my fellow travellers on a ride through the lake, the canals, the villages, the weeds. Only a day before, when I was the one resting on the shikara seat, while someone else rowed for me, today I was the one on the other side of the boat with an oar in my hand. Yesterday, while I looked like a regular tourist and the hawkers would often approach me and wanted to sell souvenirs to me, today the very same people looked at me with much higher regard and smiled happily. Many a times they would alter their course to let me pass. I felt really strong that evening. We didn’t realise but it was already two hours rowing in the water, persistently; so we started heading back and to my surprise I could also park the boat back in it’s place effortlessly. I jumped out of the boat and ran to Sameer to tell him how I rowed across the lake and its canals like a pro! The proud and happy look on his face over my little achievement made a day already well spent, even more memorable.
I met a guy named Muzaffar at one of the grocery shops in the market from where I bought some mud for my sun burnt skin. We got talking about a lot of things, my journey, Srinagar, the Sufi music that was playing in his shop, about the Kashmiri embroidery on Salwar Kameez and what not! So he recommended me a few shops that sold very good embroided fabric at non touristy price. Unfortunately, we had to leave for Kargil the next morning. He promised to take me for a good day’s shopping whenever I’d come to Srinagar next.
That night, it rained a lot and all the Xplorians who weren’t on the houseboat, got stuck in the town in the rainstorm. None of them were prepared for this weather. No one was carrying rain jackets. The storm was scary and the rain heavy. The ones at the houseboat were worried about the safety of the rest. The houseboat was rocking and the power went out. No shikaras would ply during that time. The wind was too strong for the Shikara and it was only getting worse. We were told that they would have to spend the night in the town if the rain didn’t stop. We could foresee the fate of our journey.With the weather, it seemed like we would’ve been stuck there. After about three hours of mayhem, the storm subsided and the Shikara men got our friends back safely. They were all drenched and freezing. I was so relieved to see them and hugged each of them giving whatever little warmth I could give them. Sameer served them hot khewa while they dried themselves and sat in a circle on the kaleen, happy to be back, still shivering inside the blankets, with just a candle burning, waiting for the rain to stop. After all the fate of our journey to Zanskar valley depended on rains and just rains!
The next day, we couldn’t leave Srinagar because of the aftermath of the rains. There were several roadblocks and landslides on the Kargil highway caused by a cloudburst in Bhatkal. There was uncertainty in the continuity of the journey to the high passes. However, for me, my wish was being granted. I got another day in Srinagar.
I called up Muzzafar to check if he can take me to the market today. He told me that there’s been some firing in old Srinagar because of which the market in the old town is shut. But, his uncle is also in the fabric business and that I could probably find something to buy from him. After having lunch with my friends, I left to see Muzaffar. We went to his uncle’s house where the family greeted me with curiosity in their hearts and smile on their faces. I met Muzaffar’s father, brother, sister-in-law and their kids. Like in any Kashmiri house, we all sat on the Kaleen and started talking. They wanted to know why I was travelling without a husband. They were surprised when I told them that we were a group of five girls and five guys travelling together. Of course they were surprised, reminding me of the huge cultural gap between where I come from and where I was! Muzzafar’s father was very quiet all throughout. He brought in his collection of shawls and fabric and still kept quiet, carefully listening and contemplating on the conversation. Muzzafar’s sister-in-law left to get the kids from school while his brother served us tea and kashmiri bread and bakery. Finally when I started shuffling between the shawls and fabric, the humble old man broke his silence. He started talking to me, telling his travel stories across India, about his deceased wife, about his children when they were little, how he made sure that they got proper education. We started discussing our political views, current affairs, about how much I liked Srinagar, about my family, education, etc. It went on for about an hour and he insisted that I stay for one more cup of tea. Sure, why not! How often do you get a chance to have a conversation with such a wise and knowledgeable man? I was thinking about my father and thinking how much he would’ve loved it here and that’s when the family invited me & my family to stay with them the next time I come to Srinagar. I picked a shawl which was worth one thousand rupees and opened my wallet to pay for it. The old man stopped me and said “You’re my daughter, you don’t have to pay”. I was overwhelmed by the love that I felt at that very moment. I thanked him and promised them to return soon with my family. They arranged a family cab driver to drop me back safely to the ghat. I went back wrapped in warmth of the shawl, a belly full of food but most importantly, a heart filled with content.
My three days in Srinagar were magical. Things I did, the time I spent in the water, experiences I had, beautiful people I met, friends I made, it’s like serendipity always has a way to find it’s way to me. With each day passing, I’m left longing for more.