“Kaisa laaga Srinagar?” [What do you think about Srinagar?], asked the man as he handed over a bowl of chilled sewainya. Fascinated as we were seeing sewainya or vermicelli pudding available as street food and engrossed in our own animated discussions about the same, none of us payed heed to the question.
Isn’t sewainya or seviyaan a quintessential Eid festival food! Have you ever seen sewainya sold by the roadside back in Bangalore or Hyderabad! The afternoon sun glared at us as the excited discussions continued and the chilled and deliciously rich sewainya did good to calm us down.
“Toh kaisa laaga Srinagar?”, the man repeated his question. As we answered, he went on, “Kiya socha tha aane se pehle?” [What was your opinion before you came here?]; “Aise hi log Srinagar ko badnaam karte hain, tourist ko koi kuch nehi karta” [People paint a wrong picture of Srinagar, tourists are safe here]; and so on and so forth. This was not the first time we were answering such questions. Every second person we interacted with asked us similar questions. [All of these stemming from the ongoing volatile political situation in Jammu and Kashmir].
We had a day to spend in Srinagar on our way back from Kashmir Great Lakes trek. While some people decided to explore Gulmarg, others thought of walking the streets of Srinagar to get a feel of the capital city of Jammu and Kashmir. The latter appealed to me and I decided to join them, which did not turn out to be a great idea as I soon discovered.
This group landed up spending most of their time shopping, which is something that hardly interests me. Though I do enjoy exploring local markets and indulging in a little bit of shopping too but spending the better part of the day just buying stuff does not appeal to me at all. Perhaps, going off on my own and visiting places like Mughal Gardens and Adi Shankarachaya temple would have been a better deal. Anyway, when in a group, you do what the group does.
Eventually I had to satisfy myself with only Lal Chowk and Chasme Shahi.
Lal Chowk, literally translates as Red Square, is the city center of Srinagar located in the heart of the city. Traditionally, it has been a place for political meetings and was named by left wing activists who fought Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
Lined with a variety of shops, Lal Chowk is the oldest and most popular shopping destination in Srinagar. A place called Kokar Bazar at Lal Chowk was recommended to us for buying authentic Kashmiri dry fruits, nuts, and saffron. It being Sunday, most of Kokar Bazar was closed but the couple of shops that were open served our purpose well.
We strolled around the busy pavements of Lal Chowk absorbing the essence of Srinagar through the colourful embroidered pherans, apples at just Rs. 25 a Kilo, the prominent clock tower standing tall, the eye-catching but nearly hidden green mosque, and not to miss the unnerving presence of Army personnel at every nook and corner.
While I bought Pashminas and Kashmiri embroidered shawls for folks at home, others bought sarees and Kashmiri embroidered kurtas.
Built around a natural spring against the backdrop of magnificent mountains, Chashma Shahi is a Mughal Garden characterized by manicured lawns, symmetrical hedges, landscaped terraces, sculpted fountains, and colourful flowers. Chashma Shahi literally translates as Royal Spring and was built in 1632 AD by Ali Mardan Khan, who was the governor of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The garden was a gift from the Emperor to his son Dara Shikoh.
The garden is split into three terraces and water flows from the uppermost level to the lowermost level through a series of pools and aqueducts, called chadars.
The water from the natural spring at Chashme Shahi is believed to have medicinal properties, which draws locals and tourists alike. It was a Sunday and hence the place was even more crowded with more locals than tourists. There is nothing much to do at Chasme Shahi, however, drinking the cool spring water did give us a dose of instant gratification.
We passed by Dal Lake a couple of times during the day. Dal lake is huge and the vast sheet of water against the backdrop the Pir Panjal mountains with floating Shikaras (houseboats) look beautiful. However, Dal Lake in its urbanism appeared a little pale to us having just experienced the pristine and untouched beauty of other alpine lakes in higher altitudes.
It was early evening when we found some time to spend beside the lake as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive from Gulmarg. With the setting sun in the background, the Shikaras mooring on the lake tempted me to take a ride but the rest of gang were too hungry and could not think beyond food. Reluctantly, I gave in and proceeded towards a restaurant instead.
When it comes to food, Kashmir is synonymous with Kahwa and Wazwaan. Being the tea person that I am, Kahwa was a must-have and I had my first taste high up in the mountains when it was served during the trek. Kahwa, the Kashmiri tea, flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron was perfect and easily surpassed its already fabulous reputation. Sipping Kahwa in the chilly wilderness definitely made it all the more delightful.
I am not a foodie but some of Kashmir’s signature dishes was on my list and most prominent among those was Wazwan. Wazwan is a lavish multicourse lamb-based meal that is intricately associated with Kashmiri pride, culture and identity. I learned that Wazwan is a 36-course wedding feast and no Kashmiri marriage is complete without this grand meal. Wazwan was a delight in both appearance as well as taste. I had never seen such huge spread of a single dish before – kababs, meat balls, rogan josh, ribs, korma, rice, pulao, and what not.
However, I could eat Wazwan just once and that too could not go beyond one-fourth of what was served. I struggled with the overdose of mutton even though I am a non-vegetarian and Wazwan was uniquely delicious. For subsequent meals, I found myself away from the non-vegetarian section altogether and seated with my vegetarian counterparts. A very unusual me!
The vegetarian dishes were a delight too, especially the Kashmiri Saag, Dum aloo, and Kashmiri Pulao. We did check out some great restaurants including Mughal Durbar, Shamyana, and Mummy Please.
Kashmir, my visit remains incomplete and I know I will go back to explore more of you….