A weekend guide to Srinagar. It is safe for visitors and now beckons Gulf tourists with the first direct flights launched this year.
At peace in a state of conflict
"If there be paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this," Jehangir said of Kashmir. Though it sounds better in the original Persian, one could hardly blame the Mughal emperor for being reduced to a stutter by the beauty of Kashmir, where the scent of roses rises from the hillsides and lakes glisten with the reflection of icy Himalayan peaks. In Srinagar, flat-bottomed skiffs called shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola, glide across Dal Lake to and from the city's distinctive houseboats.
The capital of the Indian portion of the divided region, Srinagar sits at the northern end of the Vale of Kashmir, a plain hemmed in on all sides by the protective walls of the Pir Punjal and Great Himalaya mountain ranges, as though nature wanted to keep this fertile patch of ground a secret. Sadly, the secret got out long ago, and neighbouring Pakistan and India have been fighting over majority-Muslim Kashmir since the partition of the two countries in 1947. Though the conflict remains unresolved, the insurgency of the 1990s has petered out in the past five years. Srinagar is safe for visitors and now beckons Gulf tourists with the first direct flights launched this year.
The struggle is one of history's cruel ironies, for the faiths have long mixed happily in Kashmir itself. In 1592, when the emperor Akbar visited during Diwali, the Muslim ruler took the lead in celebrating the Hindu festival, illuminating the rooftops and boats along the river Jhelum. Today's visitors will be struck by the indomitable spirit called Kashmiriyat - a native culture of religious harmony and independence, neither Indian nor Pakistani, but of its own.
The city's famous Mughal gardens slope upwards from the eastern shore of Dal Lake. To get the lay of the land, hike up to Pari Mahal, or fairies' abode, a structure resembling a mediaeval fort that encloses no fewer than six garden terraces, built in the 17th century for no other purpose than to enjoy the commanding view of Dal Lake. At nearby Chasma Shahi ("royal spring"), the spring that waters the surrounding rose gardens is enclosed by a Mughal pavilion built by Shah Jehan, the man responsible for the Taj Mahal.
Harwan, a secluded reservoir just out of town, offers a respite from the crowds at more popular gardens, such as Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh. Nagarjuna, the most influential philosopher of Mahayana Buddhism, is said to have dwelt here, and the place retains a meditative atmosphere. Don't be surprised to find a bearded old man resembling a character from Tolkien wandering around repeating a haunting melody on a recorder.
Srinagar's mosques are built in a distinctive Himalayan style, rarely with minarets, but with a steeple-like central spire above tiered pagodas, and most are open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It's hard not to be moved by worshippers sobbing in the presence of the Dastgir Saheb shrine, the final resting place of a beloved Sufi saint in the heart of the Khanyar district. Unmarked on most tourist maps is one of Srinagar's most mysterious shrines, Roza Bal, the tomb of a pre-Islamic holy man named Yuz Asaf. The Ahmadiyya Muslims believe him to be none other than Jesus Christ, who they say survived the crucifixion, travelled to India and ministered into old age before dying in Srinagar.
Srinagar makes an excellent base for outdoor adventures, with local hotels and travel agencies arranging hiking, fishing, rafting, waterskiing, camping and boat trips. Finally, no trip to Srinagar is complete without an early-morning shikara ride on Dal Lake. Rise with the call to prayer, when the surface of the water reflects the darkened sky like mercury. The painted hulls and latticework railings of Srinagar's houseboats turn from black and white to vibrant colour as the sun emerges from behind the Himalayas. Be sure to bring a blanket, a camera and a pot of Kashmiri green tea.
Budget A houseboat stay is an essential part of the Srinagar experience, and visitors have a surfeit of choice. At Yellow Submarine, US$13 (Dh47) per person includes two meals per day, internet access and a central location. Owner Rashid Pala and his sons make you feel like you're part of the furniture. Yellow Submarine, near Dal Gate (firstname.lastname@example.org; 00 91 9906 462 576 ). Mid-range Prices quickly escalate for larger houseboats. You'll find faded charm beneath the chandeliers of Butt's Clermont Houseboats, where guests have included George Harrison (who practised sitar here with Ravi Shankar), US vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, and Monty Python's Michael Palin. A boat costs $97 (Dh355) per couple, including three meals per day. Butt's Clermont Houseboats, Hazratbal, Naseem Bagh (www.buttsclermonthouseboats.com; 00 91 19 4242 0325). Luxury Built in 1910 as the palace of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, the Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar is a sprawling estate with 115 suites, including 10 self-contained cottages. Doubles start from $300 (Dh1,103). Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar, Gupkar Road, Srinagar (www.thelalit.com; 0091 94 2501 1001).
Breakfast Pop into any of the numerous bakeries in the Dal Gate area to sample the unique Kashmiri breads, including sheermal, a sweetened flatbread. Hotel Broadway in the city's centre offers a buffet breakfast for $7.80 (Dh29). If a caffeine boost will suffice, the hotel's Coffea Arabica, a western-style coffee house, is a gathering point for Srinagar's chattering classes.
Lunch Follow the locals, who tend to lunch at Shamyana on the Dal Lake boulevard and Mughal Darbar on Residency Road. Both offer unpretentious but tasty Kashmiri favourites, such as haaq saag (curried spinach leaves) and rogan josh (lamb with spicey tomato gravy) in an informal setting akin to an Italian trattoria. Main dishes with rice cost about $4 (Dh15). Dinner The wazwan is a Muslim Kashmiri multi-course meat feast treated with near religious sanctity. Unless you're invited to a local wedding, it might be difficult to experience a proper one, but for large groups that book a day in advance, Adhoo's Hotel offers no fewer than 17 dishes for $10.50 (Dh39) per head. You can also order à la carte wazwan dishes, such as gushtaba - meatballs in yogurt gravy.
Air India Express (www.airindiaexpress.in) launched the first international service to Srinagar in February, offering return flights from Dubai from $309 (Dh1,137), including taxes.
A paean to Kashmiriyat, MJ Akbar's Kashmir: Behind the Vale (2002) tells the story of the troubled paradise from the earliest times to 1991, while offering the Indian journalist's own view on the roots of the current conflict. Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night (2008) paints a harrowing portrait of Kashmir at war under the insurgency that began in 1989. Holger Kersten's Jesus Lived in India (1981) advances the unusual theory that Jesus is buried in Srinagar.