A jewel of a destination, Kashmir is one of the most amazing holiday destinations in India. Srinagar, the state’s winter capital, is the first stop for most travellers to Kashmir; and with its great lake and meandering river, its exquisite pleasure gardens and romantic shikara rides, the old-world charm of its houseboats and the ageless grace of its architecture, the city is a fitting introduction to the many enchantments of the valley. The vast Dal lake is, of course, Srinagar’s emblematic feature, and its deep waters carry the most popular of Srinagar’s attractions: houseboats and shikaras.
Many visitors are content to spend a great part of their holiday aboard these waterborne hotels, watching the lake’s traffic float by from cushioned balconies, venturing into the houseboat’s walnut-wood interiors for delicious, fragrant Kashmiri cuisine. If at all one can bring oneself to leave the boat, it is to step into another – the dainty, canopied shikaras. Fitted with generously cushioned seats and footrests, these elongated little boats constitute one of the great luxuries of the world, and have long been the very epitome of romance.
On the shores of the Dal are the great Mughal Gardens, glimpses into an earthly heaven of many-hued flowers, carpets of grass and playful fountains. On the two great hills that overlook the city and the lake – Hari Parbat (Kohi-e-Maran) and Shankracharaya (Takht-e-Sulaiman) are reminders of the city’s eclectic past: graced with ancient temples and medieval mosques, imposing fortress walls and simple, quiet shrines.
The sacred is equally pervasive in the old city, lined along both sides of the Jhelum river. Here are the wooden Islamic shrines with pagoda-like roofs that are so distinctive of Kashmir, and here too are the spires of old temples built amidst winding lanes of wooden houses with their delicately carved balconies, centuries’ old bridges and bustling markets.
The markets of Srinagar offer a vast variety of the most refined crafts – from pashmina shawls, as light and soft as the breeze that blows across the Dal, to intricately handwoven carpets, delicately carved woodwork and glittering copperware. Epicureans will delight in the rich Kashmir cuisine: from melt-in-the-mouth gushtabas to irresistible walnut tarts, or even a handful of warm, roasted chestnuts cracked open in the sun. For those who wish to squeeze a little more of Kashmir into their stay, Srinagar is within comfortable driving distance of several popular sites. Horse-riding though the meadows of Gulmarg, angling in the cold waters of the Lidder river at Pahalgam, the spellbinding beauty of Sonamarg and the architectural treasures of Pandrethan and Parihaspura, these can all be experienced as day-trips from Srinagar.
Whether you spend your time in Srinagar exploring its many facets or simply unwinding by the lake, you will find yourself carrying home memories of a gentle, refined beauty that braces the senses and unclutters the mind.