Srinagar (Kashmir) - the paradise lost and found
Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, is also the crowning glory of Kashmir Valley. The Valley has been celebrated since ancient times for its magnificent setting in the Himalayan Mountains. The snow-covered peaks overlook the lovely lakes, their surfaces spangled with the exotic blooms of lotuses and water lilies. There are several small towns and tourist resorts near Srinagar, like Pehalgam and Gulmarg, that attract thousands of tourists every year for vacationing. They find the feeling of tranquility that pervades the romantic places nested between the towering Himalayan summits. Tourists are the backbone of Srinagar and the surrounding towns. Apart from being tourist attractions, these places are the outlets for purchase of Kashmir's crafts, especially shawls and carpets, which are admired all over the world. Amirakadal, Srinagar's main market street, is seen bustling with big crowd of shoppers during the season, most of them tourists from abroad and other parts of the country. The shopkeepers at Amirakadal are super smart salesmen and sell their stuff to tourists at exorbitant prices. Foreign tourists especially are often tipped by the guides at the hotels they stay, not to pay more than half the asking price for the items they would want to purchase. In winter they work indoor, creating their crafts, with 'kangri' – the earthen pot containing burning charcoal – in front to warm themselves, and samovar on their side to sip cups of freshly brewing tea. The 'hukka' – their favorite smoke – keeps passing around for enjoyable puffs, as they are engrossed in weaving and knitting for the next season.
Srinagar's biggest tourist attraction is the sightseeing trip to the famous Mogul Gardens – Nishat, Naseem and Shalimar – built by the Mogul Emperors three centuries ago as their summer resort. Beautifully decorated and luxuriously furnished shikaras are hired for the day long trip to the gardens through gorgeous Dal Lake. On the way to gardens, a break in the journey for lunch is a must at the mystical Chashma Shahi, the royal spring, the name given to the crystal spring by Emperor Shahjehan, who created this oasis around the spring. It impresses the visitors as the ultimate sanctuary, making it the most popular picnic spot near Srinagar. There is a magical quality in the spring water: whatever and how much you may eat, you will digest it instantly after drinking the spring water. After a couple of hours ride from Chashma Shahi on the Dal lake, enjoying the most magnificent views of the snow-peaked mountains and the waterfalls emerging out of them, you reach the royal Mogul Gardens. Built hundreds of years ago, the gardens have maintained their grandeur and glory under different dynasties that ruled Kashmir. Filled with flowers, terraced waterfalls, fountains, and great shade trees, chenars (sycamores) and evergreens, these are amongst the world's best preserved gardens. Another great place of tourist interest in Srinagar is Shankaracharya Temple on top of a hill. It is a hard climb but once you reach the top, the panoramic view of the city and heavenly peace at the temple fascinate you.
The breath taking view of the Valley made a Mogul Emperor exclaim in awe, “If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here!” Unfortunately, this paradise has been twice on the verge of being lost for the tourists, who throng in thousands every year to enjoy its scenic splendor. First time when the tribals aided by Pakistan army invaded Kashmir, shortly after India attained independence in 1947. I can never forget being an eye witness to the brave and proud saga of Srinagar. The ordinary citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs, bound together to build a human barrier that kept the invaders at bay till the Indian forces arrived to chase them away. The second time, when in early nineties the terrorists from across the border intruded into Kashmir and turned this paradise into one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit, even to live for an important section of its own citizens, Kashmiri Pandits. Thanks to succeeding secular governments in Kashmir and steps taken by the central government, terrorists are on the run and the tourists have once again found their lost paradise back. Srinagar is again full of life with thousands of tourists traveling to this awesome city in the season. It is my greatest wish and hope that Kashmiri Pandits, the colorful community, will also find their lost paradise and return from Jammu, where they have taken refuge, to live safely and happily in their homeland, Srinagar.