A Kashmiri doesn’t take things to heart as long as he gets to row his Shikara, herd his sheep, temper his willow bats, grow his apples and lit his Firepot (Kangri) during Chillai Kalan (Harsh 40 days of winter’s), that’s peaceful and merciful Kashmiriyat. It has been an illuminating first day in Kashmir. The flight from Delhi spelt its own episodes, but that’s another, rather insignificant story. A delay caused due to fog meant that I touched down at Sheikh ul-Alam International Airport, Srinagar an hour behind schedule and my short story began.
Since my childhood days I have learnt that Kashmir is a destination which everyone wants to visit at least once in their lifetime. Isn’t it? Reading about Kashmir in school magazines was like walking in the dream lane where you automatically get the visuals of the snow-capped mountains shining with diamond snow (sheen in Kashmiri) along the beryl touch, mystifying lakes and Tulip gardens. It was schooled in our thoughts since childhood that now whenever Kashmir is stroked in our minds, Srinagar (the Venice of Kashmir), like the crown on India tops the throne. Weaving the dream tapestry further you find yourself floating in beautifully embellished Shikaras in Dal Lake without which Valley seems incomplete. Sad part is cultural tourism has come down instead of growing owing to the heart-breaking activities in the erstwhile state. With normalcy in the newly formed Union Territory again, J&K Tourism authorities are trying to restore the grandeur by conducting various cultural festivals.
I had been planning a solo trip to Kashmir since 2016. But due to some reason or the other, it got pushed. Finally, In 2021 I had made up my mind and decided to book air tickets and headed to attend the Shikara Fest. On reaching Srinagar, I was taken to the picturesque Dal Lake to my first night accommodation in the house boat. I didn’t want to miss out on a single moment of splendour that has surrounded me. Next day I realised the drawbacks of being a Back-packer, I was pushed to share my first Shikara Ride with a young family of five members (a Kashmiri couple & their 3 kids). It was quiet evident from their faces that in this Shikara, I was the weed among the roses. The entire family was adorned in colourful Phirans fitting according to their body lengths. Kids were giggling and the serene sound of oars making the experience more enthralling. By and large, sailing in Shikara is not just any other boat ride, it includes different elements of joy which cannot be experienced in any part of the country. The most amazing part is seeing the mini floating shops selling all kinds of things from locally flavoured saffron, gulkand ice cream to barbequed fish, chicken and lamb meat overflowing with the taste and aroma of the local spices. Having these delicacies in Shikara has some distinguished effect over flavours. Now think of seeing the only floating post office in India & the floating farm of Vegetables which is rather called “Chori Ki Zameen”.
The first conversation broke with a cup of Kahwa when I greeted salaam to my sailing companion, Bilal, who hails from Kupwara. Kahwa has something magical which not only tantalises your taste buds but also makes one a garrulous person. Bilal was sitting next to me and the interaction started with a mutual nodding of the head followed by a brief moment of silence, perhaps he was trying to decipher something about me by eyeing me up and down. Bilal glanced admiringly at my shoes and swiftly shifted his gaze towards his children. Bilal was a tall and slender man, with dark skin and a narrow face.
“Where are you from?” He asked.
“Delhi” I replied, relieved that I was finally acknowledged.
As the ice broke between us I found myself asking him, hesitatingly enough, what did he do for a living. To my surprise he was more than comfortable in telling me that he runs a small business of Walnuts. Mid-conversation he introduced me to his family. His wife, dressed in a sober coloured Phiran with a black shawl wrapped tightly around her face against the breeze, she nervously bowed her head in salaam and quickly started tending to the infant in her arms. The other two kids, a boy and a girl, seemed to be having a blast-giggling, delighted at everything that caught their eyes. Their faces lit up in amusement everytime they looked at fellow children in the accompanying Shikaras. Although, I found them sniggering looking at me a couple of times, it was the innocence on their faces that made me smile in admiration. It was an insightful experience altogether and I don’t think I would’ve chosen it to be any other way. The conversation had resulted in a connection, not only with the family but with the Valley itself.
Next day I visited ‘Baramulla – The town of Mountains & Saints’; the best experience of my life and was like experiencing heaven on earth. Passing through the ancient town of ‘Pattan’ it was a soothing experience for my eyes to see the ‘Green Tunnel’ on the highway showing the perfect array of tall ‘Russian Poplar’ trees. I learnt about Kashmir’s intriguing cuisine that kept my taste buds wanting for more. On the same day, I indulged in some Kashmiri Wazwan. Kashmiri kebabs, Rista curry (meatball curry), Kashmiri Pulao and their famous Roganjosh are few delicacies one must try as part of their gastronomic adventure. The Kashmiris, unlike the political strife are very peaceful & best hosts, which is true testimony of ‘Kashmiriyat’.