Jaan bhai’s decorated shikara cruised at a soothingly slow pace in the still waters of Nigeen lake in Srinagar. In pin drop silence, the blue heart-shaped oars lashed against the waters at regular intervals, being the sole source of sound.
At 4.30 am, it was pitch dark with barely a few lights glittering in the distance and I sat huddled comfortably in this ‘plush’ shikara waiting for the drama to unfold. This is my first visit to Srinagar and in fact, first to Kashmir and I was curious to know why it was grand-dad’s favourite summer destination.
Maybe the reason was the abundance of Chinar (maple) trees, there was something so mesmerising about them, I had thought when I sat under one, looking up at its thick foliage and perfectly manicured leaves.
Or maybe it was because of the rolling meadows, intersected with bubbling tributaries of Indus and Jhelum rivers, their banks spruced up with flowers of every hue.
I was going to know the reason pretty soon.
Lotuses and lilies and a floating market at Dal Lake:
My thoughts had wandered in the dark and I was jolted back with twilight setting in, spreading itself over the scenery of the lake. The moss cover was visible now and so were the thick clusters of lilies, barely open (as if clearly not ready to welcome the day as yet!).
But the lotuses were early risers, blooming in full glory for onlookers who passed them. A sight for sore eyes.
Countless pink lotuses on either side as our shikara waded through mossy waters. It felt like a dream, watching them bloom without fear, oblivious of what has happened in the past, nonchalant of the future.
Besides lotuses and lilies, we had yet another company on our route, intermittently. A flower laden shikara waded alongside and soon I was offered a lotus, welcoming me to what actually felt like paradise. “Yeh mere taraf se hain,” (These are a gift from my side ), the flower man said with a toothy grin, enough to make hearts melt.
I am headed to the floating market held in the wee hours of each morning at Dal lake. The flower man is headed there too and so is the man who rowed past with the juiciest red tomatoes.
So this is life on lakes in Srinagar, I wonder. With locals paddling to and fro with their wares, hills looming in the distance, skies reflecting in the still waters and maple trees dotting the horizon of Srinagar in the background.
The calm of the journey reaches its chaotic destination: the floating market.
All around me are vendors in their respective shikaras, selling vegetables, flowers, Kahwa (Kashmiri tea), baked cookies, saffron and more.
They glide in and out in their long and narrow shikaras, sitting precariously at the edge. The market place bustling with conversations, bargaining, negotiations and banter.
It is like any other market, yet different. There was a sweet, sophisticated chaos. The banter was anything but cacophony. As an onlooker, I could hardly make out the fast and seemingly fierce conversations while trading gourds and cabbage, but even that sounded mellifluous.
That is life on a Kashmir lakes for you: dulcet despite the din, calm despite the chaos.
On our return, I saw women wading past with flowers, haystacks, heading to a women only floating market.
The lazy lilies hadn’t woken up till now and dew drops danced on lotus leaves swirling in the lake. Moorhens and ducks paddled and frolicked in the waters and that is the only company I had till I reached my floating luxury: the Wangnoo houseboats, my home for two days.
Floating luxuries: A palatial houseboat stay:
Wedged at a far end of Nigeen lake, enveloped in serenity are the Wangnoo group of houseboats. Managed by Mr. Ibrahim, Mr. Javed and Mr. Jaan, these houseboats give travellers a sneak peek into Kashmiri hospitality. My first reaction when I toured the houseboat was a jaw dropping ‘Plush!’
Intricate wood carvings, gorgeous furniture made of walnut tree wood, stained glass windows, elaborately woven Kashmiri curtains and carpets welcomed me as I walked through this palatial houseboat, with four bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining area with wall units full of crockery, a lavish living room and a balcony with a view of the Nigeen lake.
Every minute detail is taken care of, even in the bedrooms. There is a small dressing area shielded with Kashmiri curtains and the bathrooms have woodwork too!
I am fed with Kashmiri delicacies, cooked by the ladies of the house and sit under Mr. Jaan’s apple and pear trees (which he very very carefully guards).
While others make plans to tour Srinagar, I don’t wish to step out. It is so unimaginably quiet that if a bird flutters its wings, you can hear it loud and clear. All I feel like doing is plonking myself on the sofa in the balcony to watch the placid waters of the lake, relishing a steaming cup of Kahwa and savouring the calm, sip by sip.
So this is exactly what I ended up doing.
In the evening, I stood in the balcony of the houseboat overlooking the Nigeen lake, watching the colours of the sky akin to a painting and the surreal mirror reflections.
As a colourful shikara traverses through this ethereal landscape, it creates ripples in the calm waters of the lake, but just for a while. I know this by now: lakes in Srinagar get back to their usual self in minutes. Like nothing happened. Pretty much like Kashmir, which battles so many ripples and then returns to its quintessential serene self.
And here, as I watch the world go by on the lake, from my houseboat, I realise that I am struck by Srinagar’s calm before it’s beauty. A calm that refuses to be rattled by gunshots. A calm that is both haunting and comforting at the same time.
That is Kashmir for you: composed no matter the circumstances, tranquil despite the violence that unruffled it time and again.
As the ripples dispersed and all visuals dissolved like a blur, it seemed like a dream that lasted for a flicker of a second.
This is when I got my answer.
Why this place was grand dad’s favourite holiday always and why it is called paradise.
Contact details for Wangnoo houseboat bookings:
Please get in touch with Mr. Javed / Mr. Ibrahim on +91 9796358555/ +91 7006789791 and Mr. Jaan on +91 9906519855