Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Srinagar, Kashmir, India

Muslim Kashmir is the place to come to avoid the searing temperatures of summer, well into the 40's on the plains of Northern India. The British did it during colonial rule. It's cool air and alpine scenery is just part of the draw.

The scenery is stunning, the "Crown of India". Situated more in Central Asia, being surrounded by vast mountain ranges which cut it off from India to the south. Culturally is is also more part of Central Asia. It is bordered by China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tibet. The state is crossed by 6 mountain ranges, including the Himilayas and Karakoram and three great rivers, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Snow clad mountains, still lakes and lush green meadows and rushing chilly rivers.

I have been here five times before, this time it was not possible to go to Ladakh, as the mountain passes are still blocked by snow and will not be clear until June. I concentrated on the 125-mile long Kashmir Valley with Srinagar as it's capital. It is the bread basket of the state, with the glint of water from the terraced paddy fields in the early morning sun. Willows and poplars fringe it's winding roads, the former was introduced from England and is now used to make cricket bats and weave baskets and decorate rattan-like furniture. The valley is rimmed by a range of snow covered high mountains.

Srinagar is set at about 6,000 feet. It was founded by Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. Dal Lake is the big draw of the area, fringed by the old wooden sity of Srinagar, the city of mosques and crossed by seven bridges. There are beautiful gardens and pavilions, designed and developed in Mughal times by Shah Jahan, (Taj Mahal), these line the boulevard on one shore of the lake. The shores of the lake are linked by a network of channels, small islands, backwaters and floating gardens! 

The British inadvertantly established what is now the states major foreign exchange business. The maharajah forbade the Brits to own land, so they built lovely wooden houseboats and lived on them.

This trip has taken me the length of India and back to my starting point in Delhi. By saying longer in each base has enabled me to reach a deeper insight into the locality and it's inhabitants. Doing home stays when possible has been the best for this. Real cultural experience. Over 1,000 photographs have been taken, for closer examination on my return to England. 

Making postings has been particularly difficult with the regular power cuts, slow connections, which often resulted in the loss of my ramblings! 

Kashmir is quite different from the rest of India except politically. From my journeys in Western China, Afghanistan, Iran (Persia) and Pakistan it is culturally part of them. Blue and green eyes are not uncommon, indicating being part of the great waves of migration from the Middle Ages, as well as Alexander the Great, also to avoid persecution, as happened with Timullane, who is estimated to have killed 17 million (Google him). Their religion, Sufi Islam, emanate from Persia in the 14th century. Today that can be seen in Srinagar. It's wooden pagoda shaped roofs to its mosques and the unique architecture of its wooden houses. 

Today there is a huge Indian military presence here. 60 to 80,000 extra troops were deployed here for the recent Indian elections. Kashmiris voted "none of the above" with mass abstentions. As I see it, being non-political, it looks and feels like occupation. Tros all around taking up intimidating stances, wearing full body armour of face and body, waving guns around and carrying lathis (large batons), and using intimidating and bullying tactics was a frequent sight. 

Living on a large wooden and elaborately decorated house boat, furnished in Victorian heavy velvet and brocade-like surroundings puts one in a time warp. No noisy, passing, polluting traffic, except for the occasional splash from the heart-shaped paddle of a shikara, to break the silence. The sound of circling fish eagle caws and other lake bird life to observe. 

The Kashmiri family hosts has lived on the lake for generations. Their dunga, smaller house boat, is anchored behind. I had the use of a shikara for myself to paddle around in and a family member added heft, giving speed for longer trips to the city. About 5mph was a nice speed on the still waters, especially in the misty and cool early morning time. Breakfast was included in the cost of £6 per day. Extra meals could be taken at little extra cost. Remember this cost included availability of a servant. 

It has been particularly pleasant to explore the arts, crafts and culture more in depth than on previous visits, with the added help from my new friends within the family. It was central to the investigation, owing to their local contacts. 

Owing to the pressures from neighbouring China and globilasition these historical skills are being lost, probably never to return. Community is strong, but the young are leaving in droves. 

Following on from this are a number of photographs, including my venture into the snow-covered high mountains, with explanatory captions.

                                        Most posts have had a tropical blossom. Franjipani is
                                                 heavenly on the still night air

                                         Interior of my house boat lounge at Dal Lake, Kashmir

                                              Another view of the lounge

                             Balcony and exterior of the boat from i watch other boats, read, drink tea
                             and watch wild life from

The Kashmir Valley can only be seen when leaving or arriving by road

Decoration and detail of a shikara

Locally grown English willow is used to make the most expensive cricket bats: £8.50!

                               Young man, with amazing eyesight, is embroidering handwoven shatooch. It is               much thinner than a human hair and illegal, too, as the antelope is an endangered species

More embroidery of a shawl in traditional patterns

Shatooch embroidery revealed for my camera

The silk threads are hand woven and dyed

Another male only activity, 100% silk carpet weaving, before trimming and washing. Woollen
carpets may no longer be being made

Climbing out of the valley on the mountain road to Ladakh, through
mustard seed fields

A vegetable seller on a boat to boat round

Tools are used to bang down knot to give body and stiffness

The road to Sonamarg (Meadow of Gold) which has been clear of snow for five days

Alpine scenery greets one 

Snow is just stating to thaw

Locals offering sledge rides

The stark light at about 10,000 feet gives intense colour

Sledging and trekking slopes

An outdoor cafe for chai and omelettes. Helps keep out the cold 

A sight for sore eyes, an Indian woman in a sari on the slopes

Freezing cold ice melt in a torrent

The rushing water passes under snow drifts

Sledging slope in the middle distance

Locals sitting and touting for custom

Water can be seen running down the mountains in streams

In these harsh conditions women hunt for firewood

Travelling salesman

Hand painted papier-mâché in relief

Hand carved furniture is a speciality of Kashmir. Walnut is the favoured wood

A 48inch diameter hand carved dining table in walnut

Carver at work

A lady decorating a papier-mâché box

A carved walnut chair

Detail of a shikara's decoration

Old house in the city in the Kashmiri style of architecture

Willow is stripped and used to make furniture, covering the under wood

Hazratbal Mosque. This is a famous shrine which holds a har from the beard of Muhammad

Policeman with super sized roti, halva is spread on to sweeten

Display of basket work

Two Indian army soldiers trying to look fierce

Washing of dyed material to fix

Dal lake has weed clearance. Boats sit low close to sinking when full

Me posing as one of the faithful in pheran (the national dress) and a topi,
which enabled me to gain entry to certain places

The Govt Silk Factory. Detail of the weaving can be seen

Silk thread being worked

Ladies on loading silk bobbins

Antiquated German machines, over 100 years old, are still producing

Detail of a hand woven silk carpet

Central medallion of a silk carpet. This intense blue ia a local favourite

Display of carpets hoping that I would buy one

Small Qumran design of a small rug

Pashmina shawl embroidery

Rashid my host for four weeks

Carved wood deck of a houseboat

Army patrols continually threaten and intimidate

                                        A shikara. Used as a means of transport for tourists

A group of colourfully decorated shikaras

Unleavened flat bread on sale in the market

The chap with his barrow from whom I used to buy veg 

View from one of the formal Mughal Gardens looking across the lake

Display of crafts in a shop

Two boatmen on their way to the daily floating market

Buying and selling produce early morning at the Floating Market

Social and business at the communal floating market

The stillness and peace of an early morning on the lake

Baker baking flat bread

Snow clad mountains are always the backdrop on the Lake

Colourful character selling hand knitted topis

Men do the embroidery in Kashmir. These men are using silver threads

External view of 17c mosque made of  wood and brick. Unique to Srinagar.
Shah-e-Hamadan. Called the papier-mâché mosque

Richly coloured interior of the above mosque, with painted papier-mâché walls

Man at prayer

Very elaborate brass work

15c brick tomb. Looks more Bulgarian.  Brick was used extensively long before Europe did

Jama Masjid Mosque. Built1670. A truly huge place that can accommodate 30,000
Pagoda style minaret, another Srinagar uniqueness 

Part of one side of the four-sided construction, around a 
central courtyard. 370 carved one piece pillars support the roof

Looking across the central courtyard, with Hari Parbat Fort in the background

Light and fast shikaras for errands

Poplar trees rim the Boulevard on one of the shores

Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden. In memory of the assinated 
Prime minister. The tulip originally came from Persia. Opened 2007. Some 2 million plants over
40 acres in extent. With 102 varieties on show. The Dutch helped to develop it.

A very dark variety of tulip