The jewel of Kashmir is Dal Lake, Srinagar’s principle lake. It shimmers under the sun, even on cloudy days it has a soft magical light. The lake is a vast expanse of water, surprisingly clean given what can be put into it. In summer there are large tracts of lotus with perfectly formed pink flowers. Crops of tomatoes, watermelons, aubergines and cucumbers grow on the floating gardens. The water lilies are harvested for cattle feed.
These small, gaily painted gondola-like boats are passports to a half or even full day of indolence. Lie back on soft cushions and observe the lake and its inhabitants as your boatman paddles you around. Listen to your boatman as he weaves his tales of Kashmir.
Every day at dawn a flotilla of shikaras paddles into one of the backwaters. They come to buy and sell vegetables and flowers at a floating market. A beautiful sunrise adds to the colour of the occasion.
Afterwards you can return to your houseboat for a leisurely breakfast and when ready be paddled off to Shalimar Gardens. The emperor Jahangir commissioned these for his wife Nur Jahan and were completed in 1619. Shalimar in Sanskrit means ‘abode of love’. They cover an expanse of 12.5 hectares (31 acres) over a hillside converted into three terraces. Water channels divide the garden further into sections and supply fountains. Each terrace has a small pavilion. On the first terrace was the Diwan-i-Am or hall of public audience where the public could see the emperor. The second terrace had the Diwan-i-Khas or private audience hall for favoured visitors. Last and farthest back was used by the ladies of the court as part of their zenana or harem.
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You will have to leave your shikara and take a taxi to visit Shankaracharya Hill. Overlooking Srinagar and Dal Lake this hill is also known as Takht-i-Sulaiman or throne of Solomon. The Hindu temple here dates from the second century BC. Since then it has been repaired and modified several times. Legends claim that Jesus spent a period of his life in Kashmir, either before he was 30 or after if he survived crucifixion. This temple claims to be one of the places he visited.
On the steps leading to the shrine are four Persian inscriptions that state
‘The mason of this pillar is Bihishti Zargar (artisan under Sandiman), year fifty and four.
Khwaja Rukun son of Murjan erected this pillar.
At this time Yuz Asaf proclaimed his prophethood. Year fifty and four (78AD).
He is Jesus, prophet of the children of Israel.’
Then try and spot your houseboat way down on the lake below before you return to your taxi. A further stop can be to visit the Jama Masjid in Srinagar town. This mosque, originally built in 1385 by Sultan Sikander, has suffered three fires It is notable for the 300-plus tree trunks used as pillars to support the roof. Friday will not be the best day for a visit, as it will be crowded out with worshippers.
Both your boatman and taxi driver will have vested interests in taking you shopping so that they can earn a commission. They can be quite insistent that you should go shopping for carpets, shawls and papier-mache work, some of the crafts of Kashmir. You will have to be very firm to deny their inducements if you don’t want to shop.