This is a travelogue & the idea is to share our experience during travel & provide information on what we saw / heard / gathered from our experiences & conversations. This is not an authoritative research paper on the Political, social & economic situation in kashmir.
In a nutshell:
A 1000+ km road trip (including village roads, mountains, small connecting roads etc.) in Kashmir. We met I guess more than hundred people cumulatively (for the first ever time ever) – at markets, gardens, tea shops eateries etc. We were pleasantly shocked with the endless warmth & hospitality & the fact that all of the people we came across, were always ready to talk to a stranger, often ready to offer tea / bread & even invite to their homes!!
Kids playing in gardens, families enjoying picnics in public parks, crowded & celebratory crowds in many street food markets that we went to (achabal, Hazratbal etc) …… few other markets that we went in Srinagar (regular daily use products, non-touristy), said that they are having a dull business though.
Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels / travel companies reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com does not have even one featured / sponsored reviews. YUMMRAJ believes in going to a restaurant in anonymity, as a normal guest, experience everything & give a honest account of the same to you.
Cost of the trip paid was paid by YUMMRAJ to Vana Safaris by UPI payment transfer. From that, Vana Safaris have paid all the expenses of the trip.
Each section of this post has headers, so that you can skip a section if that does not interest you. Here is a jist of all the sections:
1. Our feelings & observations during & after the trip
2. Vana Safaris – the company which gave us the idea of this trip & did the execution as well
3. Places we visited –
• Wazapura – A hub of wazwan in Srinagar
• Pashmina – making thread from the wool – live class
• Plain pashmina hand weaving –
• Kaani weaving master artist’s home
• Sozni embroidery on pashmina – master artist’s workshop
• Papier Mache master artist’s home
• Khatambandh – concept, making & installation
• Shikara making factory
• Copper carving workshop
• Copper Heaters workshop
• Tin plating on Copper vessels – Kalai workshop
• Walnut carving master artist’s home cum workshop
• Wicker making workshop
• Floating Market on Dal lake
• Shikara ride
• Normal Markets
• Jama Masjid
• Khanqa e maula
• Tomb of Zain ul Abedin’s mother, Badshah
• Mata Kheer Bhawani Jee temple
4. Where we stayed
• Dar es Salam
1. Our feelings & observations during & after the trip
What we saw & experienced at multiple locations of the valley makes us feel it is a peaceful & safe place. While some people took to violence (which of course cannot be supported) decades back (some continue even now), people in general seemed to be hospitable and warm.
I feel like saying ‘take a break from news channels. Many tele anchors in India make a monster out of nothing. As a result of this constant ‘sansani’, ‘ breaking news’ culture, half of my friends & family would feel terrorised to go to Kashmir – when we were planning this trip, people gave us advice as if we were about to do something suicidal. Even after I returned, I heard ‘oh you are brave to have taken this risk’.
Well, if you are eager to be surer & not just believe in our anecdotal observations, check out the macro data published by NCRB (national crime records board) – Kashmir stands at the bottom of the list of ‘crime against tourists’ – click here.
However the few things that we felt uncomfortable about, are:
• It’s not nice to live in an environment where there is constant political turmoil (for decades) & average / slack business & hence low incomes, lack of organized private sector jobs for the youth etc.
• Felt uneasy to see armed forces everywhere, at every street corner. Interestingly, many locals said they had got used to it & do not feel intimidated.
• Not a good feeling to travel from one part of the same state to other & be stopped multiple times at check-posts to document details.
• Heard from strangers in random conversations that some of the men live in constant fear of being picked up/detained by administration for questioning, if someone they know has done something wrong.
• I am not a national security expert to comment on whether this is needed or not, but it’s just a strange feeling that I am sharing.
It was often refreshing talking to the gentlemen from the armed forces, at different check posts while our driver Jahan would go to get the documentation done. Those would be a normal human to human conversation, after the official questions were over. I felt that the gentlemen from Rajasthan & Haryana felt like talking to someone from their area when I said I stay in Gurgaon.
We were surprised to see quite a few people begging. In delhi & large cities, mostly beggars are from certain organized begging gangs. In Kashmir, some of the people who came to ask for money seemed genuinely in a bad state & they were not like that before. One old man was in tears when asking for money.
In most non- streetfood markets, people consistently said business was low. One said his business was as low as 30% of 2019. Not just tourism dependent shops, but others too. It seems tourism being low, the money is not trickling down. Else how can one explain spice seller / ice cream wallah seeing severe fall of business.
Common man seems to be having a bad financial time. Common man did not seem happy from deep inside. Yet they were smiling, talking & welcoming guests. On the surface seems ok. When one became comfortable, then they shared their feelings from deep inside.
People were in general very warm, chatty, frustrated & financially challenged. Even the two people who called us Indians & themselves Kashmiris, were also very nice to us.
We met someone at a bakery. In 5 minutes he invited us home when we got talking
We do not want our trips to turn into a human safari. So you will not see any picture of anyone without asking for permission (exception being a random street shot etc.)
To sum it up, I would say – Go to Kashmir. There are few places in India as beautiful, topped by the fact that people are so welcoming.
2. Vana Safaris:
So happy that Avijit Sarkhel, Founder of Vana safaris, suggested this trip as an option & then arranged it for us as well. Without Avijit, we would not have been able to put this trip together on our own. Read about our earlier trip with Vana Safaris here – Sunderbans, tribal regions of Odisha
This was the sequence of events –
· We did a call with Avijit last year to discuss interesting but unusual places in India – He suggested Odisha tribal areas, unusual places in Kashmir & some places in Himalayas. We zeroed down on Odisha for a trip in January & we decided to do Kashmir in June this year.
· Avijit emailed a detailed itenerary.
· After reading the email, we had a discussion with Avijit, requested for a few more things (shikara factory, wazwan making) & we finalized the trip.
· Avijit sent a final itinerary by email with details of each & every, smallest of things. The email also included suggestions about clothing, footwear, things to carry with us etc. In short, he ‘set expectations’ very well.
We were fortunate to have Usman bhai (usman bin Haider), founder of Kashmir walks, himself leading our two day trip in Srinagar. It was super fun to interact with Usman & also to get insights from his very deep knowledge on the subject.
Jahan drove us around the entire week. Great guy. Super fun, 24 year old boy, owner of a scorpio taxi, excellent road skills. We loved our interactions with him thruout the journey & will surely call him whenever we do a trip to Kashmir (+919596122962).
Avijit kept in touch constantly with Usman bhai, to check if everything was Ok. He also was constantly suggesting interesting new things to do, in addition to his email plan shared earlier.
It was a fabulous trip from planning stage to final, on-the-ground execution. ‘Seamless’ in one word.
3. Places we visited –
Wazapura – A hub of wazwan in Srinagar
Bulbul shah was the first Sufi Islamic preacher from Suhrawardi order, who converted the then king Rinchan to Islam. Thereafter many people from the kingdom were also converted. The King commissioned a Shrine for subjects to meet the sufi saints. They used to run large scale lankars (langars) to feed the poor, with cooks from Persia. This, we heard, was the beginning of the tradition of wazwan.
For the uninitiated, Wazwan is a multi course meal prepared from different parts of an animal.
In the Kashmiri language, waz means ‘cook’ or ‘cooking’ and wan means ‘shop’. Most of the 36 items on wazwan are meat based dishes & the rest are vegetarian. The meal was traditionally cooked in a series of wood fire stoves (built from mud), under the supervision of a master chef called a wouste waza.
Guests are seated in groups of four and share the meal out of a large copper plate called the traem. Before a meal begins & after a meal is over, a ritual washing of hands is done in a portable basin called the Tash-t-naer, which is taken around by attendants.
In Srinagar, there is an area named Wazapura. As the name suggests, many wazas (head chefs of wazwan) operate out of here. They have workshops in which they make wazwan. The Men who are working with the Waza are often from different places. The Waza in most cases is running a family business & has heirloom recipes & knowledge.
We stayed at this kitchen / workshop for about 30 minutes. The whole air was full of flavours of the food. We closely watched each process of making the wazwan. There was so much work that looked very difficult but they were doing it effortlessly.
The boys were singing songs at tunes to get rid of the boredom of doing long hours of repetitive work.
We realized after this visit that most kababs sold in Srinagar are not made fresh in the restaurant but are sourced from workshops like this. .Then they are sautéed before serving.
We also realized that the guys are masters of meats. They know it really well.
The scale of operations was mind-blowing.
Pashmina – making thread from the wool – live class
We went to meet a gentleman Hakim Jan Mohammad shah, who deals in Pashmina. He works on the entire supply chain.
We got to know the following, which will give an insight into why real pashmina is expensive –
• Colder the place, the more warmth per wool of the animal – else the animal will not be able to bear the weight.
• Shearing of Pashmina goats is done once a year, during summer.
• Pashmina standard for GI testing is 10-15 microns diameter. Anything above that does not qualify.
• A simple test for pashmina is to burn a thread – if it smells like burnt human hair, it is genuine. Else it’s not.
• Cloth is also made from fur of a Tibetan antelope – it’s called Shahtoosh. Hunting of Tibetan antelope is now banned & hence Shahtoosh is not easily available.
• A Pashmina Goat produces 400 gram of fur in a year. 1 kg of fur yields 300-400 grams of thread.
• We saw the process of converting fur to thread. First was Combing the fur.
• After that it is kept in rice atta, so that the fur balls do not stick to each other
• Then the fur is spun into thread by a traditional charkha. In a day, a lady can spin 3-4 grams of thread only. 1 shawl needs about 200 grams of thread.
For cloth with designs patterns, different yarns are dyed & they are woven together. For monocolored cloth, the weaving is done first & then the cloth is coloured.
Plain pashmina hand weaving –
• We went to see plain pashmina weaving or simple linear patterns being made. The loom was on the top floor of a residential house. Two brothers had a loom each, in the same room. The process here was fast as compared to the kaani weaving & the loom was semi mechanized (non-electrical).
• Jhelum ‘ka behta pani’ (flowing water of river Jhelum) is where pashmina shawls are washed. In case any color bleeding happens, it will flow away with the flowing water. Will not be case if it is washed in a tub with tap water. One bleeding color might discolour the other colour.
• We saw washing of colored pashmina in front of budh masjid (earlier this was a Buddhist monastery. Rinchin shah, the Ladakhi monarch (also ruled over rest of Kashmir) converted to islam & converted this Buddhist temple to a mosque.
Kaani weaving master artist’s home
• Kaani weaving has complex floral & other designs where each line has multiple colours.
• The sequence of knots (after how many threads) is written in persian for each traditional design.
• The artist reads that & maintains his count.
• 3 cm kaani shawl can be woven in a day by one person working 8-9 hours.
• The bobbins in which the thread is wrapped for weaving are called kaani in Kashmiri. Hence the name – kaani shawl.
• We also got to know that rich Arabs order Towel hand woven with pashmina.
Sozni embroidery on pashmina – master artist’s workshop
We went to meet renowned, national awardee, Ghulam Mohammad Beigh sahib at his residence cum workshop. He explained how this art was about hours of practice from an early age, how colour combinations need to be imagined, how the hand-feel of the cloth after embroidery is to be retained soft & so on.
They still are in the same location for about 250 years, spanning many generations (this has been a traditional family occupation).
The one we went is a relatively new building on the old premises.
Beigh sahib showed us an heirloom 200 year old pashmina that his ancestors had made.
We got to know that Kaarigars go to the karkhana (workshop) in summer & work from home at winters when the area is under snow.
• Max 500 hand-embroidery stitches are done in 1 cm
• Sometimes it takes one person 12-18 months to make an all-over embroidered shawl.
• We had seen many good hand embroidered shawls before but never seen anything this intricate.
• Embroidery is done with cotton thread / mulberry silk thread
• Begh sahab told us that masterpieces are imagined & made by them. These run into Rs. 6-10 lacs price per shawl. Masterpieces are not made on ‘bandish’ (request by customer for a certain kind of design) & it is also made with no price limit. Masterpieces are free flowing, he said & these always find customers (from across the world).
• Terminology – Jamawar shawls are of large width & have Full body work.
• Jaali shawls are elaborate designs but not full body.
• Bootedaar shawls are the ones that have only booti
• Care instructions told by the master artist – Wash pashmina with cold water, with hands.
Papier Mache master artist’s home
This gentleman was a bit shy as compared to Begh sahib. So we heard less stories but he did explain his art very well.
• Papier mache is a 15th century art that came to India from Europe
• Old, unused paper is first compressed to a shape (jewellery box, piggy bank, coasters etc).
• Once it dries, a layer of Chak (particular kind of clay) clay is applied.
• The final product is then dried.
• Then the painting starts first with a sketch & then applying the paint with very thin brush.
• Once the paint has dried, the final product is varnished (glazed).
• What was new to us was that the gentleman has started doing this form of paintings on wood as well – dressing table, ladies cross-body bag etc.
An artform called Khatambandh – concept, making & installation
• It’s a process of having multiple small, inter-lockable wood carved pieces fixed to the ceiling of a room or the wall, without any nails / screws.
• Budulu wood is used for making khatambandh.
• 4 people work together to set it up.
• The price is ₹250 to ₹650 per sq ft, depending on the level of intricacy of the wood work.
• Once the carving is complete, the artist sends experts to install it in customer’s home. He said that many people in Europe have installed this & he has sent experts from Kashmir, by flight, to install the khatambandhs.
• The Wastage generated while carving wood, is used as firewood
• Only chisel is used on Soft wood. No use of hammer.
Shikara making factory
• This looked like a large carpenter’s workshop. The boats were being assembled in the shed inside. The painting was also done inside. Painted components of the boat was kept outside for drying.
Copper carving workshop
Copper vessels & utensils are made from copper sheets, using wooden hammer to shape the vessel, chisels of different kind to do the 3D designs on the body.
We got a beautiful water container from them. We did not get a tin plating done as we want to have the waer directly from copper container. We got a brass tap fitted.
Copper Heaters workshop
Copper heaters are a necessity in Kashmir in the winters. The entire heating vessel is made from copper, manually. The copper sheets are bought from factories directly. We saw the whole process – design, cut into shape, weld, finish.
Tin plating on Copper vessels – Kalai workshop
• Copper reacts with sour food items & also gets corroded (green colored patches appear). So there is a process of applying a tin layer on top of the copper (kalai on storage containers last about 10 years, after regular use).
• First the copper vessel is heated. Then a white colored Chemical powder called nausadan is applied.
• Then a tin Patti is applied & the molten tin is immediately spread into the whole vessel.
Walnut carving master artist’s home cum workshop
• We met national awardee Gulam nabi sahab & he showed us his work on carving wood.
• Most were Walnut wood.
• We were amazed to see his work – it was better than the best we had seen so far in any market.
• His workshop is in his house. So there was a point when his grandson came to play with him.
• We loved the conversations with Gulam nabi sahab.
• We are in the process of getting this 3D carving from him – it’s in ‘almost finished’ state with him for last 25 years.
Baskets made of wicker
• We went to a wicker making workshop
• The gentleman did not want to get photographed.
• He however explained the whole process & nuances of how wicker product is made completely by hand.
Floating Market on Dal lake
Floating market on Dal lake initially started with people coming in shikaras with their produce & doing barter transactions with other people.
This tradition still continues.
However, the floating market is now also a tourist interest area.
So there are people who have started getting touristy things to sell – an elaborate kehwa with 16 ingredients, shawls, hand embroidered bags etc.
The boat ride to the market is thru narrow water channels in between floating vegetation on dal lake.
There is a floating market as well – houseboats are used as floating shops.
We loved our shikara ride to the floating market at dal lake & also our ride in the vast open expanses of the Nigeen lake, with the Hari Parvat fort on a hittop as the background.
It’s just the sound of water, sounds of chirping birds & probably an occasional Kashmiri tune/song played by the boatman on his phone youtube.
We also saw floating shops & a floating post office
Walk in the Local Markets
Walk in the local market near the Jamia masjid was both nice as well as slightly depressing. It was really nice to talk to shop keepers & just chit chat. We saw spice shops, dry fruit shops, fruit shops etc. Slightly depressing was the fact that most of them had bad business in the last 3 years – 1st year due to lockdowns related to article 370 & later two years related to Covid. However, inspite of being financially distressed, the guys were having fun & telling stories.
• We saw a shop selling Losa gasa – new mom & the baby is given a traditional bath after 40 days of childbirth. Losa gasa are many kinds of herbs which are boiled in water & baby & mom bathes in that water.
• We bought Ziristh – a local berry.
• We also got some Rose berry that was fab to taste.
Where else to buy our year’s dose of cockscomb flower & kashmiri red chillies
We also saw many kinds of dried vegetables. In earlier days it was a tradition to fry vegetables in summer & have them in winter when everything would be covered by snow.
We were also amazed to see this shop where ‘to be brides’ give cloth of their choice & the gentlemen embroider the same with gold / silver thread
A visit to Jama Masjid
• As the name suggests, Jama Masjid was built to conduct mass prayers every Friday (jumma day).
• Sultan Sikandar shah Kashmiri, ruler of Kashmir, commissioned this mosque in late 1300s, on recommendation of Sufi saint Mir Muhammad Hamdani
• This was the first mosque in kashmir. A total of 33,333 people can read Namaz at a time. 1/3rd of mosque is reserved for women – from the beginning till now.
• Architect from Persia, Sadruddin khusani was brought in to design the mosque
• Before coming up with the final design, met local people who were earlier Buddhist & Hindu & had now converted to Islam.
• The final design he came up with, had a strong Buddhist influence & had major elements from Perisa. The most interesting fact is that the mosque does not have any bulb shaped dome. Maybe because of this design language, the later mosques also look very different than most mosques we have seen elsewhere.
• The mosque foundation is made with locally available grey limestone. The flooring is made with burnt clay bricks. Binding of the bricks was sone with surkhi (powdered brick), lime & egg shells.
• The walls are 4 ft wide.
• The mosque has triangular sloping roofs.
• There are 4 entrances to the single storeyed mosque.
• Deodar pine Wooden pillars carved from single trunk of a tree have been holding the roof for 700years!!!
• In a year, pine tree grows 6 inches. Imagine how many years old the tress were, when used here. Also, it is said that all these pillars were made from dead wood.
• Initially the roof of the mosque was wooden
• Later, a ruler got the wood on the roof replaced by copper sheet
• Outside the mosque is a garden in char bagh formation. This was done by the architect appointed by Mughal emperor Jehangir.
• The mosque was heavily destroyed three times by fire – one very soon after the mosque was constructed, once during Emperor jehangir’ rule & once again during his grandson Aurangzeb’s rule. The person in charge during Aurangzeb’s rule, studied the reason for repeated fire & concluded that the markets next to the mosque was responsible for this. So the authorities got the markets moved.
• In 1800s, Kashmiri Hindu King Gulab singh did the last renovation , after the British resident intervened. Gulab Singh had initially refised to pay money for repair of mosque. Around the same time, the muslim queen of Bhopal said she will not renovate heritage temple in bhopal. The British got involved & convinced each ruler to spend on the repair.
Khanqua e maula Shrine
This khanqae (mosque dedicated to a specific sufi saint) was commissioned by Sultan Sikandar, in memory of Sufi saint Mir Muhammad Hamdani.
The Khanqae again has a similar architectural look as the Jamia Masjid but the detailing is very different. The papier mache kind of paintin on ceilings, niches & arches, the green façade color, the painting on wooden wall on the sides & the heavy use of wood at the rear end of the mosque all stand out.
Hazratbal Shrine was initially established by Inayat Begum, the daughter of Khwaja Nur-ud-Din Eshai and the custodian of the holy relic (hair of the prophet Hazrat Muhammad). During Shah Jehan’s reign, a large mosque was commissioned (with wood, similar concept as the Jama Masjid). In 1968, the old wooden mosque was dismantled & the new modern building was erected.
We saw huge crowds at this shrine & thriving food stalls outside the shrine.
Tomb of Zain ul Abedin’s mother, Badshah
Kashmiri ruler Zain ul Abedin commissioned this building as a tomb of his mother. The 4 small domes in the corners & the large central dome stand out. The building is Octagonal in shape. The domes remind of the ones in Central Asia (Samarkand) style buildings. In Samarkand, they cover the walls with aqua blue tiles. Here blue terracotta tiles had been used.
Mata Kheer Bhawani Jee temple
We got to know from our Kashmiri friends that this is the most revered temple of Kashmiri pandits. The current temple is a century old but the original temple that stood here was more than a millennia old..
The prasad of this temple is kheer (reduced milk & rice). A Sikh gentleman was in charge of the prasad counter. The rule was to eat the prasad & clean one’s utensils & return it back to the counter. At this temple complex we met few Muslim employees.
Outside the temple complex there were shops selling Pooja samagri – owned by hindus as well as Muslims.
The places that we stayed at:
From both the places we stayed at, we could see Hari parvat fort, built on a hilltop. There is a Devi Sharika temple on one side of the hill, a mosque & also a Sikh Gurudwara.
The fort has 3 gates & is visible from different parts of Srinagar city.
Dar es salaam is a beautiful century old building of an erstwhile Royal family. It is now a boutique luxury hotel. The striking memory of the hotel is a two storeyed retro building at the end of a perfectly maintained lush green lawn, with the Nigeen lake on one side.
We got to stay in a room on the ground floor – full wooden walls & ceilings
The furniture at the lobby area & the other common areas are exquisite.
The best part of the hotel is not its physical infrastructure but its highly efficient yet warm staff who make the guests feel at home immediately. This was my second stay at this place & I am sure I will be back here again in future.
Food is great – always a buffet with half the dishes from Kashmir. Read about food at this hotel & a detailed review here – Dar es salaam
We had heard a lot about Kashmir houseboats, seen pictures & videos of the same but never stayed in one. We got to know that anyone just can’t buy a houseboat. To buy, one needs to be from a Fisherman family who has been allocated water space by the government.
I was surprised to know that it takes Rs. 3-4 cr to make a new house boat. There are specialized dockyards where houseboats are made. Most of the walls in a houseboat are hand-carved on wood. In our houseboat, the ceiling had Khatambandh work.
Houseboat as a concept started with Europeans unable to buy land, as per local rules of that time. So they started to make boats & live in it. Tourism houseboats started later, from dal lake
The one in which we stayed, was extreme beautiful & very well maintained. The hand made carvings were all over. The boy who looked after us got us some fab home cooked dinner
General random notes (unrelated, not in any particular order):
• Kashmiri language is a combination of Sanskrit & Persian, Script is Urdu
• Major occupation in urban areas of Kashmir are – Government employee, Tourism & support services, Airlines, Small businesses. Large organized modern private sector office jobs almost not there. Overall unemployment rate is as high as 25%.
• UNESCO has picked Srinagar among 49 cities in the world as part of creative city network, under the crafts & folk arts category.
• Over the centuries, different rulers commissioned bridges to cross the river Jhelum. Currently there are 7 bridges to cross Jhelum.
• Few years back, a Floating cinema was launched on dal lake. This set up screened Movies that had been shot on dal lake.
• We got to know from young people that there is not much in terms of night life. People sleep off by 10. Markets close early – 8 pm onwards. Currently there are no movie halls & no modern shopping malls. We heard that a Modern Mall is coming up, Business currently happens from high street markets, Kashmiri movies not made nowadays. Earlier, few movies were made in Kashmiri once in a while.
• Shop keepers of local shops go home to eat & rest in afternoon like in kolkata
• Auto rickshaws have doors
The luggage belt at Srinagar airport looks like a shikara