Kashmir - Paradise on Earth: An Insider’s Guide
By Cosmo Brockway
We are currently enjoying national treasure Joanna Lumley’s television journey through India on ITV. Lumley’s love for the subcontinent stems largely from the fact that she was born in the northern state of Kashmir. She calls her birthplace ‘Paradise on Earth’, and we wholeheartedly agree. Kashmir is the ideal off-the-beaten-track destination with dramatic scenery; meadows carpeted in wild lavender nestled amongst jagged peaks, hospitable locals and a rich craft culture. The best time to come is May to September, with the purple crocus fields in bloom at the end of the season.
The main city Srinagar boasts more than a million, largely Muslim, residents. It has an old-fashioned charm; gaily-painted houseboats line the tranquil Dal and Nageen Lakes and wandering through the souks, or markets, is to step back to a slower age. The shimmering waters are surrounded by green mountains and experiencing a sunset here lingers long in the memory, with the call to prayer rising like incense from wooden mosques and the flutter of nesting birds. Sample the local delicacy, a feast worthy of royalty, called ‘wazwan’, traditionally comprising of 36 mouth-watering courses. Kashmiris are renowned for the art of entertaining. From the very first welcome with ‘kahwa’, a traditional almond-laced tea, guests are treated with great honour.
Further up the Vale of Kashmir, 56km from Srinagar, lies the scenic town of Gulmarg. Reminiscent of an alpine resort, the spot has a romantic history. Originally named Gaurimarg ‘the fair one’ by wandering shepherds for Hindu goddess Parvati, Gulmarg was given its present name meaning ‘meadow of flowers’ by a 16th-century Sultan. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir wrote of collecting 21 varieties of wild flora here for his pleasure gardens. In the 19th century, this area was frequented as a summer retreat by the British Raj. The colonials adored the vaguely Scottish scenery and fresh air, hunting and playing golf. They left behind the highest green course in the world at an altitude of 2,650 metres (8,690 ft). Gulmarg is popular with honeymooning Indians and ski lovers. The arrival of the sumptuous Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa in recent years has upped the luxury quotient. Gulmarg offers a retreat with a uniquely Indo-European flavour.
The Chinar at The Lalit Grand Palace
Named after the resident Chinar trees, this outdoor restaurant at the elegant Lalit Grand Palace, just outside town, has long been a social fixture. Sit in the lush rose gardens of the former Maharaja’s palace overlooking the serene lake and order a well-mixed G&T or Nimbu Pani - a refreshing concoction of lime and soda. We love the subtly-spiced Himalayan Trout and ‘Haq Saag’ or Kashmiri spinach. Weddings and events are aplenty in this sylvan setting so the people watching here is a splendid bonus.
www.thelalit.com | Tel: 0194 250 1001
Daawat at The Welcome Hotel
A cosily-decorated dining room overlooking the pool of this pleasant hotel on the shores of Dal Lake. Try the fluffy local bread with wild honey and fruit-infused pulao. Service is very friendly with a typical Kashmiri smile greeting you at the door.
Boulevard Road, Opposite Ghat No. 7, Srinagar 190001 | Tel: 072984 37186
Delhi de Rasoi
Strung along the lakefront are several ‘dhabas’ or traditional open air eateries. The food in most of them is generally good, if fiery. Delhi de Rasoi serves up authentic earthy vegetarian fare. There is a convivial atmosphere in the evenings as tourists from all over India descend on the lakefront to wander along in the cool dusk with children and ice-creams.
Residency Road, Srinagar, 190001
A hit amongst visiting and resident foodies - this traditional restaurant is THE place to come, besides a local home, to sample a regal Wazwan experience. Let the waiters flamboyantly unveil dish after dish of carnivorous wonder and step back to the days of the sultans with each melting mouthful. Leave lots of room for dining here - Kashmiris do not do light eating!
Residency Road, Srinagar, 190001 Tel: 0194-2476998
A gentle drive along Dal Lake, Shaw Brothers is a true Aladdin’s cave of rugs, jewels and textiles (check out the embroidered cushions with leaf motifs). Known as the ‘Harrods of Srinagar’, Shaw Brothers is a wonderful place to indulge in the finest gossamer-thin pashminas. Don’t be afraid to haggle even here - it is woven into the local culture and the gentle tussle is greeted with relish.
Mughal Garden Road, Srinagar 19001 | www.shawbrothersonline.com
Wander down the markets off Boulevard Road to find stalls heaped with colourful spices. Pick up the famed Kashmiri red chillies. Kashmir is also one of the few places in the world that grows saffron. Enjoy the memorable experience of visiting a saffron farm at Pampore Fields, a few miles out of town. Buy the precious spice from third-generation roadside shop Noor Mohammed Bhatt (Tel: 0193 3246529)
The locals of Srinagar adore dried fruit and this family-owned store is the place to go. Stock up on Kashmiri green tea leaves, morel mushrooms from the nearby valley, smoked almonds, walnuts and dried cranberries. Enjoy a visit with gentle proprietor Noor-ul-Amin who takes delight in showing off his fascinating wares.
ABK House, 1/A Polo View, Srinagar 19000 | www.abk.co.in
The owner of this memorably named store, Mohammad Sadiq Wani, is descended from Persian artists who arrived in Kashmir with Sufi mystic Shāh-e-Hamadān. Find an array of exquisite papier-mâché products alongside needlepoint rugs and cushions. Ask to see Wani’s other gallery which houses some vintage treasures. If you are very lucky, the charismatic Wani may invite you home to view his antique collection and cherry orchard.
The Bund Road, Munshi Bagh, Srinagar,190001
Kashmir Government Arts Emporium
A well-curated chain of emporiums that empower artisans by ensuring they receive a fair share of profits. Come here for textiles, embroidered shawls in a rainbow of colours, handmade silk rugs and walnut carved furniture. There are a number of branches, including Residency Road, housed in a century-old half-timbered colonial building. Purchases can be shipped all over the world.
This tailor in the old town, a favourite of the city’s cognoscenti, is run by the three sons of founder Noor Mohammed. Originally patronised by British visitors for its well-cut polo breeches and tailcoats, toddle to Tailor Tom for Indian cotton shirts in jaunty colours and bespoke suits in Kashmiri wool. Allow 24 hours for a shirt and four days for a suit fit for the smartest event.
Residency Road, Srinagar, 19001 | Tel: 0194 247 5835
The collaboration of Jenny Housego, a textile historian from the Victoria & Albert Museum and local residents Hamid, Zahid and Asaf Ali, Kashmir Loom is dedicated to the art of the Kashmir shawl. We covet the collections in soft cashmere, silk and cotton. Visit by appointment.
Dal & Nageen lakes
Twin oasis’s of peace, Nageen being the quieter of the two - the lakes are populated by houseboats, water taxis or ‘shikaras’ and floating lotus plants. Interestingly both the lakes are largely owned by private families, the waters divided into plots. A sunset shikara ride is a highlight here – don’t be inveigled into buying from the many peddlers who will approach you. Instead, plump for the emporiums in town for genuine products and fair prices. There is also a chance to fish with locals which is great fun.
The Old City
See the intriguing old city in the care of a knowledgeable specialist with Srinagar Walks (Tel: 08803425501). The guide, Gulzar Hussain, a chatty ethnographer and writer is passionate about the local craftspeople. Soak up the atmosphere of artisans working in their own homes and take almond tea with the families whilst being tempted by the creations. Make sure to visit the imposing Hazratbal Mosque on the lakeshore which claims to house a lock of Prophet Mohammad’s hair. The surrounding street stalls produce a delicious delicacy called ‘Halwa Paratha’, a crisp flatbread wrapped around melting, golden halwa infused with cardamom.
Nedou’s Dining room
Discover a fascinating family history over a whisky peg at the renowned Nedou’s hotel. Founded by a Croatian patriarch in 1888, the Nedou family converted to Islam and intermarried with leading local families. Sit in the animal trophy adorned dining room with a view of the snowy peaks and enjoy delicious home-made fare served by old school retainers. Regarded with great affection amongst generations of Indian visitors, Nedou’s is a slice of Kashmir’s heritage to treasure.
www.nedoushotelgulmarg.com | Tel: 0194 247 3301
Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa
You will remember your first taste of the superb cuisine at this sophisticated resort hotel. The food here is as good as anything found in St. Moritz or Aspen. The chefs are amongst the best in India and conjure up delicious European as well as Indian dishes. Choose from three options, we love the buffet lunch at Cloves or sit under the covered deck at Nouf breathing in the pine-scented air. The spa by L’Occitane is also excellent with a cathedral-like glass-panelled indoor swimming pool.
www.khyberhotels.com | Tel: 099066 03272
St. Mary’s Church
The diminutive Anglo-Catholic St. Mary’s church, a very Victorian delight, is visible from most parts of Gulmarg. Nestled in the central golf course, St. Mary’s is utterly picturesque with its grey stone walls and green tiled roof. Walk across the rolling surroundings and knock on the door of the benevolent (Muslim) guardian who will unlock this secret place for visitors. The church celebrates Christmas with a romantic mass every year.
For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to India please contact us:
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