N overcast sky ushered us into the day we chose for a tour of Srinagar city, the heart of Kashmir.
We began the day-long city tour with a stop at the famous Shankaracharya Temple that dates back to 200 BC.
The Shankaracharya Hill on the Zabarwan mountain range, on which the temple is situated, is under the Army’s security cover. Every vehicle is thoroughly checked by Army personnel and every single tourist is required to pass through metal detectors before one can get back on the vehicle for onward journey.
To climb to the temple premise, we conquered 243 stairs and then another 10-12 stairs to reach the temple top. It is quite tiring for the aged and children, but taking a break in between makes it easier.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is said to be visited by Adi Shankaracharya and Swami Vivekananda. The lingam at the temple was placed in the 19th century. The entire temple has beautiful carvings on stone depicting animals, flowers, plants, human figures, etc.
The Hill gives a breath taking view of the entire Srinagar city and swirling Jhelum river, standstill Dal Lake, Nigar Lake and other city landmarks. The view it provides cannot be missed.
Our next stop was the one and only Tulip Garden, the prime reason for our visit to Kashmir in spring. It is Asia’s largest tulip garden spread on 12 hectares of land at 5,600 feet above the mid sea level. Visitors have to buy tickets at the entry gate.
Every year in the second and third week of April, a tulip festival is organised and this attracts lakhs of tourists from world over.
The moment we stepped in, we found ourselves lost in a rainbow land. Because of the lane wise separation, the colourful tulips in full bloom all around seemed more disciplined even than the Army soldiers. There were some 60-odd varieties of tulips in the garden.
“Dekha ek khawab to ye silsiley hue dur tak nigahon mein hain gul khiley hue”, I could not resist humming the lines of famous song picturised on Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in Silsila and took as many photos of the vibrant tulips as I could.
Srinagar has a number of flower gardens and each of them is unique in characteristics. As many as three gardens namely Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh and Chasme Sahi garden are built on the Mughal architect. All of them are on the eastern part of Dal Lake.
Built in 1619 by Mughal Emperor Jehangir for his wife Nur Jehan, Shalimar Bagh is the largest among the three. The layout had been adapted from Persian garden. It has three levels with as many as 410 fountains.
The architecture is very different and there are some rest rooms for the emperors and their begums built in between. The garden has several chinar trees some of them as old as 320-360 years.
Continuing with the exploration of gardens, next we stopped by Nishat Bagh. It provides the best view of the Dal Lake. The garden was designed and built by Asif Khan elder brother of Nur Jehan in 1633.
The garden is divided into 12 levels based on 12 zodiac signs. Each of them has some plain areas with fountains and water laden path in the middle and trees and plants on the sides. As we moved to the higher levels climbing the stairs, the view got better and better.
After some light refreshment at a nearby shop, we went to the Botanical Garden. It hosts a large variety of rare tropical plants and ornamental plants. Some of the trees we saw here were very unusual and their branches and leaves looked like fountains. The garden has a lake in the middle with boating facility for visitors.
Chasme Sahi garden, our last garden stop, is known for its royal spring. There is a belief that its water has medicinal values and hence used to be transported in containers to Delhi for India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
All visitors here either drink or carry the spring water in a bottle; we also drink from the spring and fulfilled our thirst. One mustn’t forget to catch a glimpse of the Governor’s house from the garden.
As the dusk arrived by, we took a shikara ride on the Dal Lake for one last time in this trip. After this we visited the Lal Chowk in the city, which has witnessed several terror strikes in the past few years. It is a high security zone with army men guarding at short gaps.
Driver Mudassar who has been taking us around all these days, cautioned us to be careful. Shops in Lal Chowk area sells local artefacts, handicrafts, shawls etc and we bought some gifts from here for friends and relatives back home.
They say that a visit to Kashmir is incomplete if one did not try wazwan, an indigenous cuisine made of varieties of meats. We went to the Mughal Darbar, famous for authentic wazwan in Srinagar.
And really, the wazwan they served was unbelievable; I never saw that many variations of meat in a single dish. The quantity they serve is quite a volume and it is next to impossible for a person to even eat half of it alone.
Done with wazwan, we drove back to the hotel. We took a flight to Delhi the next morning.
An useful info to remember, report to the airport at least three hours in advance as the security check at Srinagar airport takes a longer time, especially if it’s a peak season.
(Debapriya Bhattacharjee is an assistant editor at Newsmen. To read her previous articles click here All photographs by author and Newsmen Bureau.)