|Shikaras on Dal Lake|
The car slowly drove out of Srinagar airport. We drove past soldiers, bunkers, loops of barbed wire, armoured vehicles, school children both boys and girls stand waiting for school bus, and pedestrians walking slowly as if time has come to a standstill. There is an air of suspicion on the street. Suspicion and Kashmir go hand in hand. Kashmir is India’s most suspicious state. Big Urdu hoardings and signboards instantly create an impression that one is in Pakistan! Shahrukh Khan smiles from a Dish TV ad beautifully done in Urdu. Tata sheets and Airtel ads are every where in Urdu. Kashmir is India’s only state where Urdu has become the language of commerce.
The new city – which lies very close to the airport – is an architectural wonder. On both sides of a long artery, red brick houses covered with tin-sheets sit squarely. This part of the city is known as ‘new city’ but it resembles like British countryside! The other two portions of the city are called ‘Old city’ and ‘Civil Lines’.
After half an hour’s drive, we reached our destination Dal Lake where accommodation is on a houseboat. Houseboats are peculiar to Srinagar and offer the most memorable accommodation. At least there are 1000 houseboats moored on the banks of river Jehlum, Dal and Nagin lakes. Boulevard road runs next to the Dal Lake. The road in many ways is Kashmir’s marine drive or far better than that. It starts at Tourist Chowk and makes a circular angle leading to Hazratbal mosque.
A Shikara ride over Dal Lake is the most spectacular adventure in Srinagar. Away from the clutter and clang of city life, we step onto a beautifully decorated Shikara for a smooth 2-hour ride over the still waters of the Dal. A thick layer of silence engulfs the Dal. The depth of silence can acquire frightening proportions for the weak-hearted. Dal is the place where one is with oneself. One can converse with nature without uttering a word! Silence is the only form of communication over a tranquil Dal lake. Floating flowers and plants on Dal are called floating garden. The shimmer of floating garden against the Lake water creates an aura of gratification and eternal bliss. The lake is 6 km long and 3km wide. In winter, Dal is frozen and children play cricket on it! In the middle of the lake there is an island. There are four princely chinar trees on the island; it’s popularly known as char chinar. There is a beautiful garden under the shadow of four chinar trees.
Srinagar is also famous for Mughal gardens which were beautifully built and maintained by Mughal emperors. Nishat Bagh is the biggest Mughal garden and lies at the east side of Boulevard road overlooking Dal lake. One can see the citadel of Emperor Akbar known as Hari Parvat on the west side of the Dal Lake. It is in ruins now and under the control of Army. Nishat is constructed stepwise and divided in 10 parts. The water channel flows from centre of the garden. There are so many fountains, fruits of garden and flowers. Chinar, cypris and lush green grass creates a soothing atmosphere.
Shalimar Bagh lies on north side of Nishat. It was constructed in 1616 by Emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jahan. The garden served as a meeting point for the two. The garden has four terraces, rising one above the other. A canal runs through in the middle of the garden. There is a small hut-like palace in the middle of the garden where Emperor Jahangir used to sit with Noor Jahan.
Chashme-Shahi is a small tastefully-laid garden with terraces. A cold water spring runs through in the centre. The water of spring is said to cure many diseases. One will forget the taste of mineral water after drinking the spring water. A road upside leads to Pari Mahal. Pari Mahal is situated on a hillock overlooking the beautiful Dal lake. The terraced arched garden was built by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in mid-seventeenth century. In the upper most terrace, there are ruins of two structures resembling a baradari and a reservoir. In the middle of second terrace is a large tank. The façade of the retaining wall is ornamented with a series of twenty one arches built in descending order. The third terrace has the main entrance. On either side of it are a series of specious rooms. The fourth terrace has the remains of the tank. The fifth terrace has an archade retaining wall with pigeon holes. The sixth terrace has a rectangular tank in the middle and octagonal bastions at its ends. Fragments of earthen water pipes are still to be seen in the structure.
Pari Mahal and Chasme-Shahi are located in highly sensitive and VIP area. It was by sheer chance that I spotted Omar Abdullah descending from a helicopter with his family. As I zoomed the lens of my camera on the helicopter from the top terrace of Pari Mahal, a gun-trotting CRPF jawan stood next to me making sure that young Abdullah family is safe. Omar came out of the helicopter with his Sikh wife Payal and son Zahir. It seemed that Omar was returning from a holiday as Kashmir was in turmoil.
A memorable meeting with legendary journalist M.J. Akbar in Lalit Grand Palace, former Palace of Raja Gulab Singh, will always be etched in memory. M.J. Akbar argued that two irreligious men Nehru and Jinnah were responsible for partition of India while two deeply religious leaders Gandhi and Maulana Azad never accepted partition and therefore were sidelined after 1947. In the lawn of the Palace, there is a 110-year old historical chinar tree under which Gandhi sat with Maharaja Gulab Singh in June 1947, just two months before the partition.
Shankaracharya temple was built in 220 BC on a hillock overlooking Dal Lake. It offers the panoramic view of Dal Lake and Srinagar. The legend has it that the temple was built on Takhte-Sulemani. Archeological Survey of India confirms it! My driver insists that there existed a mosque before the temple.
On the left bank of Dal Lake, the imposing dome of Hazratbal Mosque makes its presence felt. It may not be as grand as the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem but it can certainly be viewed from a distance. The mosque is considered holiest shrine as it preserves Moi-e-Muqqadas (the sacred hair) of Prophet Muhammad. The history of holy relic requires another article but suffice it to note that it was Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who helped to restore it. There is a huge hand-written Qur’an from Aurangzeb era inside the mosque.
In a narrow lane outside the Hazratbal Shrine, Gulzar Ahmed sells sweets. A poster of Pakistani cricket team adorns the filthy wall behind him. Kashmiri patriotism has changed in the last six decades. The deep sense of alienation and betrayal has resulted in pictorial protest and patriotism. Not far from Gulzar Ahmed’s sweet shop, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the lion of Kashmir, rests on the banks of a tranquil Dal. A lone gun man guards the empty and deserted marble mausoleum of Kashmir’s greatest contemporary leader. Sheikh Abdullah was betrayed by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru but he did not lose hope. Gulzar Ahmed needs to visit the grave of Sheikh Abdullah to understand his message.