Window on Kashmir

Did you know? Ali Baba is alive and well and lives in Kashmir

His treasure cave is at the top of two steep flights of dimly lit stairs, and he leads us there so he can spread his store of jewels – pale green emeralds, glowing rubies, topaz as big as eyeballs, and amethysts – before us. 

The rings, pendants, bracelets and anklets in intricate settings are crafted by other members of Grandfather (Gaffara) and Sons, his family business. He extracts them carefully from folded white paper packets that stuff his briefcase, then reverently lays them out before us on a knee-high table. It's as if a maharaja's jewellery box has been swiftly opened for our approval.

Around us, in the shadows, hang other treasures. Dangling silver necklaces, dulled by decades of disuse, line the walls. He demonstrates how to wear earrings that do not pierce the ears; instead they are suspended on intricately woven chains worn over the head, possibly to be hidden by a headscarf.

“These are for a young girl,” he says of one with tiny metal tassels. Another has huge hoops, wrapped with wire, and we imagine the strong angular bones of the face of the woman who would wear those, her shining black hair pulled taut to display them better. 

Like many parts of the subcontinent, Kashmir has had a mixed history. While the British colonialists were here, the locals refused them land in the town on which to build their homes. Instead, they settled for creating ornate Victorian-era houseboats and moored them at the edge of Lake Dal or Lake Nagin. Fretted woodwork was added to give a certain stylish grandeur, and inside the windows were hung with heavy velvet drapes, the floors carpeted with rich rugs, and the best crystal and porcelain was laid out by the servants for each meal. There is a faded glory about them now, an eccentric link to another slower and more dignified age.

To cross the lake, small gondola-like boats, shikhara, are used. No doubt the early British residents felt this place was like Venice, only with a snowy backdrop. In fact Srinagar is sometimes referred to as the 'Venice of the East'.

We arrived in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, in mid-April. It was too soon. Winter left late this year and instead of drifts of delicate apple blossom we found drizzling rain and mud. That's the luck of travel: we've learned that you can't always manage sunshine and blue skies. It was disappointing at first, but in reality we discovered something even better.

When you see 'mutton' on a menu in most parts of India, it usually means goat, or kid. In Kashmir, it will mostly mean what it says, and these cute youngsters are being raised to become the main ingredient in some braised lamb dish or spicy Kashmiri curry.

The Mughal Empire in Kashmir dates from the 1600s. Those warlike hordes, claiming to be descendents of Genghis Khan, poured south from central Asia and ultimately conquered and controlled most of the Indian subcontinent. Small markers survive, such as the lakeside Nishat gardens watered by melting snows from the mountains, and the Shalimar Gardens (above) established in 1619 by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame).

It is said Shah Jahan established 999 gardens in Kashmir where he spent his summers in the relative cool of the mountains. This area is still a popular place for many Indian families' summer vacations, particularly in the past few years since the earlier political and military tensions have eased.

Sadly the weather and our short time In Kashmir meant we missed visiting Gulmarg, Kashmir's winter ski resort, also home to the world's highest golf course. But there were compensations, such as time to wander Srinagar's public market where we wandered for an hour, following the crowds – and our noses. A wide range of breads is found throughout the city. Some are massive and they are folded up and wrapped loosely by the baker, making ideal little 'snacking parcels' as you walk around. 

Perhaps Kashmir's relative isolation is some of its charm. While the weather was chilly, the warmth of the people, not yet weary of tourists, more than compensated for the low temperatures. 

This brightly coloured halva probably owes it colour more to carrots than the hugely expensive saffron that is grown in this region. You can buy a small amount, or ask for a sample. It is rich and sweet and buttery and quite delicious.

Srinagar (pop. 1.2million) is a snacker's paradise. Little fried pastry strips, crisp fried chickpeas, dried fruit, nuts (and that halva!) – there's no end to the tastes you can enjoy in your progressive meal as you wander.

These small breads are baked on the inside walls of a tall tandoor oven. The baker needs care and courage to repeatedly reach in and remove them when they are ready. Watch the video to see what we mean.

If only we could hyperlink aromas on a web-page! This place was gloriously redolent of sugar and baking pastry and spices, and the baker justly proud of his tiny shop, crammed with his handmade goodies. 

 To one side of the market, near the gate of a major tomb, people were throwing wheat for the pigeons. Apparently word had reached the city's sheep population and they too were having a free feast.

Kashmir is an excellent place to shop for souvenirs. While colourful and beautifully embroidered and woven pashminas are the best to be found anywhere (do be certain, though, that you are buying the real thing and not rayon!) also look out for leather bags, saffron, papier maché ornaments, wood carvings and screens, carpets, silks and embroidery, as well as cane baskets and other nick-nacks.

The faces of Kashmir vary. While the population is said to be about 60 percent Muslim, there are traces of many other races that have filtered through these parts over the centuries. 

As we wandered through the old city, always there was someone sitting at a shop's open door, immediately ready to make a sale. The heavy blanket-like cloak this man is wearing is called a phiren, pronounced 'ferren'.

One day with our guide and driver, who have been with us for the entire time - essential when few people speak English, and road signs are either missing or unreadable - we travel out of town, through the sprawling metropolis towards the beautiful and richly agricultural Valley of Kashmir.

Once we reached the countryside, willow trees dipped over every stream we passed, and it was inevitable that, given this, and India's great and abiding love for cricket, we would eventually come across a factory producing cricket bats. The sawing and shaping took place in a small dim and dusty workshop just metres away, but look at all the brands they produce! And all the available space on the nearby roofs was crowded with cricket bats, drying out in the sun.

Indian buses should never be underestimated. They are noisy, usually filled to overflowing with passengers and their luggage, and enthusiastically and riotously decorated. They determinedly take up a lot of space on the road. So it's understandable that, depending on the region, they also tend to invoke protection from whichever god they feel is most appropriate and powerful.

A roadside comfort stop allowed us glimpses of the foothills of the Himalayas. During much of our visit they had been modestly hidden by clouds and fog, but here for a short time, they peeped out long enough for a photograph or two.

We had come long before the flowering of the saffron plants in October, which have purple blooms anyway, so this is mustard (or rape, or canola as it is called in many places) that is used for flavouring and as an oil for cooking.

Like many countries, India has nomadic people and in Kashmir, they are Gujars from Afghanistan. This man was tending his roadside fruit stall with his wife, and he gently and courteously allowed us to photograph him.

And always – even three quarters of the way to the Pakistan border – there are always breads. These are half a metre wide, crisp and delicious.

The altitude in this area, a couple of hours from Srinagar, at the far end of the valley, is around 2100 metres, and here icy waters are channelled from the melting snows of the mountain behind. 

High up and far from Srinagar is Pahalgan, a small village, the jumping off point for white-water rafting, pony trekking, hiking, and of course skiing in season. Inside there were tartan tablecloths and a glass door with WELCOME etched into it. If we needed more proof of British connections, we had it. A couple from Birmingham were lunching at a corner table.

In sunshine, this would have been cheerier, but we loved the sign on one building nearby that promised 'crap sarees and dresses'. They meant 'crepe' of course.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Himalayan Cheese company, owned by Hassan Ghlum, where the cheese maker graciously invited us in to see his cheeses made from cow and buffalo milk. There was a cheddar and kalari, a cheese made like haloumi, as well as cumin, black pepper, chilli and walnut cheeses. This was a very impressive range considering the location, halfway down a mountain and several kilometres from anywhere, along a narrow, slippery unpaved road.

Kashmir was a place full of surprises, and here is something we found perhaps the most fascinating. It seemed at the beginning that most of the men we saw had only one arm and appeared heavily 'pregnant'. What we discovered as the days passed, was that under their phirens, they were carrying a kangri to keep them warm. A kangri is a ceramic fire pot filled with coals that is carried in a wicker basket, held under the phiren. In a cold place like this, it makes a lot of sense.

Back to Lake Dal, and surely the most unusual cafe you could find......

... and sleepy late afternoon views from our houseboat as the watercraft take a final group of visitors for a tour of the lake, or ferry the stragglers back home from the city.

So what was it that made up for Kashmir's abysmal weather, the potholed slippery roads, the cold? It was the people, we decided. Kashmiris are fun. They smile, they laugh, they look you in the eye, and there is a warmth and hospitality that transcends the language barrier – and the weather.

As our aircraft took off the next morning, looping around to head for Delhi, we crossed our fingers, wishing we'd return sometime soon - with one small alteration

. Next time, we vow, following the example of Shah Jahan, we're going in summer!

For information about tours in Kashmir....

 


 
Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Kashmir, assisted by a guide and driver organised by Shikhar Tours
 
Words and images: ©Sally Hammond
 
Video:  ©Gordon Hammond (and pic of 'Ali Baba')
 

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