Monday 13 July 2020

K is for Kashmir

Emerging from the Jawarhar tunnel, the road into the Kashmir Valley descends swiftly onto the flat alluvial plain. Srinagar, the capital, lies some 90 km further north. The land is fertile and cultivated, divided up into a patchwork of small fields by low walls. Huge silver birches and broad elm-like trees stand at intervals, decked out in their autumnal Cotswold colours.

The houses and shops in the villages along the way are built sturdily to withstand the heavy snow and ice of the winters. A basic timber frame is filled out with rough dark bricks; the effect is pure Tudor. As dusk falls and the air chills suddenly, fires are lit in the open shops; the red light spills out onto the road, and faces are caught in its glare like figures in some painted tavern scene. The Kashmiris wear long, smock-like panchuls, perfect bucolics in a perfect Dutch landscape,

Srinagar itself is Venice. Its gondolas are the shikaras, which ply Dal Lake. Like gondolas, they can be sleek and graceful, bearing passengers on down cushions amidst velvet curtains and gold tassels; or they can be functional transports, carrying impossible quantities of precariously balanced vegetables to market. Some are little more than punts, which are used in the endless task of carting away the choking bright-green weed their oarsmen tear out from the lake's bed.

Shikaras are the only way to get to the hundreds of houseboats moored on the lake. A typically British solution to a Maharajah's ban on foreigners buying land in Kashmir, they look like long wooden summer houses carried off by floods and mysteriously brought together. Although each is unique in the details of its carving and ornamentation, the basic design remains the same; passing along between ranks of them brings to mind the same diversity in unity found among the palazzi of the Grand Canal.

Venice, like its palaces, is founded on mud. Behind the houseboats lies the mud of Srinagar. Some of these outcrops are used as floating gardens where massive lilies flourish, and vegetables grow lushly. Others have trees and houses, chickens, dogs and children - the Kashmiri equivalent of Venice's Torcello.

The best place to grasp the myriad elements of Srinagar is a shikara in the middle of Dal lake towards the end of the day. At sunrise – which comes late, as the sun must climb over the Himalayas, and fight its way through the morning haze - the lake boils with a low swirling mist which hovers inches above its surface. Shikaras glide like ghosts, and are not of this world. In the heat and stillness of noon, they hang on the lake's mirror like glistening water insects. At the distant water's edge, the perfect lines of shimmering silver birches look like Normandy in September. In front of them, Friesan cows wander along placidly, indifferent to the green double-decker buses which rumble by.

As the sun begins to sink towards Afghanistan, the haze finally clears, and the full circle of mountains can be seen, just as their snow-capped peaks turn soft pink. Srinagar is Venice, set amidst Switzerland.

A Partial India A to Z

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