Steeped in tradition and set in one of the most dramatic locations in India, with majestic mountains pressing in on three sides, SRINAGAR is the summer administrative capital of J&K. All too often associated with strife in recent times, this city of almost a million inhabitants is most famous with tourists for the houseboats that line the fringes of Dal Lake and Nageen Lake, as well as the central section of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus. The town has some other splendid attractions, which in recent years have once again been open to visitors after long periods of being off-limits. Chief among these are two of the most venerated mosques, Jami Masjid, deep in the heart of the atmospheric Old City, and the lakeside Hazratbal. Another important Islamic place of worship is the Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, halfway up to the inaccessible fort.
Srinagar, like the rest of Kashmir, is predominantly Muslim, even more so since the advent of serious trouble in 1990, when almost all the Hindu Pandits were driven out – though this region was known for centuries for its religious tolerance, where adherents of all the major eastern faiths lived side by side. The most important Hindu temple is the Shankaracharya Mandir, atop a hill overlooking Dal Lake.
Of the city’s secular sights, options include the engaging Sri Pratap Singh Museum and the Mughal pleasure gardens that surround the lake, such as Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh.
The lakes and gardens
The lakes and gardens
Srinagar would be a major draw on the strength of its Himalayan scenery alone but it is the city’s serene lakes and grand gardens that make it irresistable. There are actually several large bodies of water dividing the urban sprawl into its constituent neighbourhoods but by far the largest is Dal Lake, with a surface area of approximately twenty-one square kilometres. The lake is usually as flat as a mirror and incredibly photogenic, with the surrounding peaks reflected in the greenish blue waters. Apart from the houseboats that cover its southern end, nearest the town centre, the lake is famous for its floating gardens, as well as the floating flower and vegetable market, best visited in the early morning. The nearby island of Nehru Park has pontoons for swimming and even water-skiing facilities. The best way to tour the lake is on a shikara. Depending on your bargaining skills, these cost around Rs100 per hour to hire.
The perimeter of Dal Lake is punctuated by lavishly ornamental gardens, a legacy of the seventeenth-century Mughal period. These collections of fountains, terraced lawns and flowerbeds reach their zenith in Nishat Bagh, halfway along the eastern shore, and Shalimar Bagh, set a little way back from the northeastern corner. Towards the northern end of the western shore stands Hazratbal mosque, whose huge white marble dome towers above its spacious courtyard. It is considered to be Kashmir’s holiest shrine, as its plain but vast interior houses a single hair of the prophet Mohammed, purportedly brought from Medina centuries ago. The scene of heavy fighting during the worst of the insurgency, it is once more a tranquil spot that welcomes outsiders along with the constant stream of worshippers.
Tucked between the spit of land behind Hazratbal and the Old City, much smaller Nageen Lake does not have any particular sights but is more peaceful for that very reason and quite a popular choice for houseboaters.
The lullaby of lapping lakes
The lullaby of lapping lakes
Few experiences are as romantic as lounging on an exquisitely carved houseboat, watching kingfishers diving for their dinner between the floating lilies or gazing at the moon reflected on the darkened waters. These floating hotels of one to four rooms have existed for generations and many originated at the peak of the British Raj, when Victorian families would spend the entire hot season here. They originally chose boats to get round laws that forbade them from owning land.
Srinagar has no fewer than 1200 houseboats lining the shores of the two main lakes, Dal and Nageen, and the banks of the Jhelum River. And that’s just the official ones. Consequently, it can seem like a bewildering business to know where to start looking. The golden rule is to fend off touts in town (or further afield) who try to get you to commit yourself with all sorts of promises. Some establishments are also infamous for poor service and rip-offs – anybody connected with the name Baktoo, in particular, should be given a wide berth.
One approach is to organise your stay through the Houseboat Owners Association (t0194/245 0326, wwww.houseboatowners.org), whose office is opposite the Tourist Reception Centre on Residency Road. They produce a clear price list of the different categories of boat from Deluxe Class (Rs4500 for a double with full board) down to D Class (Rs1100 for the same). They will also help you negotiate moderate discounts on these prices at slack times such as late summer and off-season.
Undoubtedly the best way to find a houseboat, however, is to hole up in a town hotel for the first night and then hire a shikara, a colourful flat-bottomed water taxi that is steered with a heart-shaped paddle, to embark on a scouting mission. This way you can stop and look at a number of boats to compare prices, amenities and location. Once you’ve chosen your vessel, be sure to agree exactly what is included in the price, such as the number of meals, drinks or whether a daily shikara ride to the shore is part of the deal. It is also wise to make it clear if you do not want to be pestered by floating salesmen and that there should be no deterioration in service if you do turn them away. Note that some houseboats on the far side of Dal Gate and most on Nageen are accessible by road or footpath. Those on Nageen are generally a little cheaper. It is also worth noting that there is a potential threat to the very existence of houseboats after a 2009 government mandate that they should install expensive sewage treatment units in order to prevent further water pollution.