Story and photographs by Lester V. Ledesma
Jun 23, 2021
THE PLACID WATERS OF DAL LAKE shimmer in the morning sun, its colorful shikara rowboats bobbing lazily by the shore. Behind it lies a spectacular horizon of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. These sights all add up to a mind-bogglingly beautiful sum. On the northernmost edge of India, Kashmir is the kind of place that is typically described with superlatives. Past visitors often gush about how they fell in love with this picturesque land and its friendly people. Most of them wish to return; many say they don’t ever want to leave.
Their reaction to this place isn’t new. Through the centuries, Kashmir has inspired pilgrimages, poetry, paintings, and of course conflict. The emperor Jahangir, back in the 1600s, called this land a paradise on Earth. So enamored were he and the rest of India’s Mughal rulers that they peppered the valley with elaborate pleasure gardens. The English felt likewise when they came in droves during India’s colonial period, their most visible legacy being the countless Victorian-style houseboats on Dal Lake.
Kashmir’s beauty was its burden in the years after Indian independence, when it became a bone of contention between neighboring countries. You may have last heard news of this place from the India-Pakistan border clashes of 2019 (greater Kashmir is currently divided between these two nations plus China, with India controlling the area’s southern half). Tensions have thankfully quieted down, and with a recent dip in Covid-19 cases, the area is now experiencing an uptick in local tourist numbers.
Though India remains closed to foreign visitors, it isn’t hard to imagine a peaceful and progressive Kashmir getting the positive attention it deserves. From our perspective, that can’t happen soon enough – and when it does, the world will once again discover its charms.
01 – A boatman paddles through Dal Lake with a bunch of freshly cut flowers for home. These colorful blooms are sold at markets or by traveling hawkers, and are a common sight throughout the lake area.
02 – Rows of Victorian houseboats line the shores of Dal Lake, within sight of an 18th-century Mughal fort, the Hari Parbat. These ornate floating B&Bs were invented during the British colonial era, as a loophole response to laws that prohibited foreigners from owning land or property in Kashmir.
03 – The Nishat Bagh is one of six pleasure gardens built by the Mughal rulers of Kashmir. On the eastern side of Dal Lake, this 16th-century retreat is known for its symmetrical layout and Persian artistic flourishes. The beautifully preserved garden is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
04 – The Mughal emperors treated Kashmir as their summer playground away from the sweltering Indian plains. The Pari Mahal, another 16th-century Mughal garden, served alternately as the residence of a Mughal prince, an observatory and library before becoming a favorite local hangout.
05 – While the capital Srinagar has its busy street markets and sundry shops, folks living in and around Dal Lake still rely on good old-fashioned floating markets for their everyday needs.
06 – Road traffic comes on four legs – not wheels – in the village of Aru, a riverside scenic area some 50 kilometers east of the capital Srinagar. The slopes surrounding Kashmir valley host alpine forests for trekking, and snow-covered peaks for skiing.
07 – A pair of Kashmiri women walk home with loads of firewood on their heads. With limited access to the internet, daily life in the deep countryside has changed little over the decades.
08 – This is pashmina country. Distinctly woven from fine wool of the undercoat of a Himalayan goat, Kashmiri shawls once adorned Mughal and Iranian nobility, and were highly sought-after by European royalty.
09 – Colorful shikara rowboats, with their plush recliner seats and friendly boatmen, are the preferred mode of transport for long, lazy cruises on Dal Lake.
10 – Ornate handcrafted patterns and verses in Urdu and Arabic adorn the main entrance to the Kanqah Mosque in downtown Srinagar. This six-centuries-old structure is the oldest Islamic place of worship in the city, and remains a focal point of religious life.
11 – Rolling hills give way to snow-capped mountain peaks in the riverside village of Pahalgam, a popular trekking base some 50 kilometers outside Srinagar.
12 – The walls of the Pari Mahal mughal garden offer sweeping views of Srinagar and the Dal Lake – and the Royal Springs Golf Course, said to be the most picturesque in Asia.