The Dark Frozen Beauty Of Srinagar In Winter

When history glimmers beneath a lattice of timber and snow, it is easy to imagine how beautiful the city must once have been
Nishat Bagh Mughal Garden in winter
Nishat Bagh Mughal Garden in winter shutterstock

In January, you have to work hard to find beauty in Srinagar. All the usual coordinates are scrambled. The Mughal gardens -- Shalimar, Nishat, Chashma-e-Shahi, the names alone tributes to the voluptuaries who conceived them -- are ravaged. The partially frozen Dal Lake is as black and sludgy as an oil slick. There is no queue at the shikara stand, only a boatman who worries the ice with his paddle, creating islands of shards and the mist obscures the mountains. When we land in Srinagar, the sky, the snow and the pigeons are all the same dirty, dispiriting grey. The bus we board is creakily resigned to its disrepair, no longer making the effort to suck the stomach in, to carefully conceal the bald spot, and we trundle towards Lal Chowk, passing checkpoints and barbed wire accessorised with icy stalactites.

Srinagar, like every Indian city, appears to take a perverse pride in the ugliness of its shopping malls, the absence of town planning, its ambivalence towards its inheritance and its unwavering resolve to leave as much of its garbage as possible on its streets. Jitender and I arrive on the Friday of the Eid-ul-Adha holidays, and after checking in at the redoubtable Ahdoos, a transplant from a paperback Cold War thriller, we make downtown for the Jama Masjid. Few people are out on the gelid streets. Apart that is, of course, from the soldiers, who still cover this city like lichen on a rock, huddled together in moss-green knots or peering out from their sandbag-and-tarpaulin shelters.

Jama Masjid

The dun-coloured Jama Masjid is the pre-eminent example of the Kashmiri mosque, an indigenous, entirely original hybrid of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist styles distinguished by its tall spires and its use of wood and bricks rather than marble. Inside, the masjid is unadorned (the frayed carpets, stone alcoves and windows have borne the brunt of the largesse shown to the local pigeons), though spectacle is provided by the 40-foot high wooden columns, well over 300 of them, that supports the roof. The history of the masjid, writes R.C. Kak in Ancient Monuments of Kashmir, is a singularly chequered one. Its original conception and erection are ascribed to Sikandar But-shikan... said to have laid its foundation in A.D. 1398. The mosque burnt down three times and was rebuilt most famously by Aurangzeb in 1674, who, Kak reports, when he heard that fire had gutted the mosque, first asked whether the chinars were safe. Even now there are chinars in the courtyard, though it is winter and they are twisted stumps, holding dollops of snow in their gnarled palms. I pad out in my socks to the courtyard -- it is beautiful and desolate, the trees bare, the paths empty, and framed against a window is the bobbing head of a lone worshipper.

Most Fridays, thousands of people still flock to the Jama Masjid. Nowhatta, where the mosque is located, thrums with commerce conducted in and around dilapidated examples of centuries-old Kashmiri architecture. Ali Mohammed, our experienced driver, tells me about the numerous times he has pulled one journalist or another into a nearby shop, out of the line of fire. He shows me the cards he has collected over the past decade. Half of the cards belong to reporters from Holland's Algemeen Dagblad, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Japanese television, Swedish magazines, and Iranian academic journals. The militancy, as everyone refers to it obliquely, matter-of-factly, is a catch-all euphemism, so inadequate as to confer greater poignancy on what is already unbearably poignant. Noor Mohammed too refers to the militancy as he gestures resignedly at the ugly building that has been hastily slapped together on what was once his garden. His family's house, in one of Nowhatta's tangled lanes, is a ghost of Srinagar's elegant past. We are taken to a dusty, freezing upper hall. Here, in the gloom are treasures the intricately wrought khatamband roof the glint of chandeliers, the name of their Belgian maker etched into the glass the mirror-work on the pillars and the papier-maché on the walls. In the summer and autumn, Noor Mohammed tells us, the hall is used for weddings and dinners for up to 350 people.

In winter, the partially frozen Dal Lake is as black and sludgy as an oil slick
In winter, the partially frozen Dal Lake is as black and sludgy as an oil slick

Walter Lawrence, in his indispensable study, 'The Valley of Kashmir', published in 1895, observes that the Shias chiefly reside in the Zadi-Bal ward of Srinagar. This continues to hold true, and it is in Zadi-Bal that we meet Syed Iftikhar Hussain Jalali, the former managing director of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation, and are shown his extraordinary house. Jalali, whose grownup children live in the United States, no longer lives in the 200-year-old house built by his ancestors, living instead across the snow-covered lawn in a modern house with a huge kitchen where his wife Sugra graciously accommodates my peculiar aversion to tea by offering me a Mirinda orange.

Gilded Over-Plush Decoration

Upstairs in Jalali Manzil, the old house, is a vast sitting room replete with cushions, papier-maché walls -- the Shias, Lawrence informs us, practically monopolize the papier-maché industry. While Jitender, having thrown open the windows to fill the room with weak winter light, takes pictures, Jalali leads me into another room with framed sepia portraits. He shows me pictures of Jinnah's 1936 visit to the now 105-year-old school his grandfather founded and pictures of his father, a member of India's first parliament he shows me a greeting card sent by former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed with a picture of Jalali Manzil's pinjara-kari, the hand-carved wooden lattice-work. On another, rundown floor, we see more pinjara work, khatamband, dubs (small alcoves or bay windows which project outwards towards the river or street, affording the house-owner a leisurely view), and stained glass windows popular in Iran. The Kashmiri Shia penchant for gilded, over-plush interior decoration owes much to Iranian taste (the garish publicity material for the Batman movies in Jalali Manzil we will attribute to San Jose).

Casual About Millennia-Old History

For obvious reasons, Srinagar has been unable to show off the full extent of its architectural heritage. Kashmir, so famous for its pastoral beauty, the ski trails of Gulmarg, its lakes and gardens, is casual about its millennia-old history, as if preservation were unnatural, a futile denial that life goes on. Even Lawrence complains that the "Pandits of the city care nothing for archaeological research". A representative of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), introduced to us by the architect Farrukh Naqushbandi, whose hospitality and biscuits we enjoyed one frigid Sunday evening, told us that INTACH has listed 825 buildings in Srinagar alone.

The Shah Hamadan mosque
The Shah Hamadan mosque

Walk from Maharaj Gunj to Ali Kadal, and every few feet is another crumbling relic of Srinagar's past. In once-grand buildings, the remorseless business of living carries on in the wreck of Mirwaiz Manzil, now the headquarters of the J&K Awami Action Committee. We meet the Secretary, Yaqub Vakil, who takes time out from supervising the unloading of sheepskins to tell us how his own centuries-old house was gutted in a fire. It is easy to imagine how beautiful the city must once have been. Take a shikara ride down the Jhelum and look for the ancient temples, for the Shah Hamadan mosque on one bank, the Pathar Masjid on another, the sloping tin roofs and spires of the ziarats and the brick-and-mud riverfront houses. The mosques of Shah Hamadan, Khwaja Naqshband and Dastgir Sahab, to name three of the most prominent, are built in the Kashmiri style. The beauty of these ziarats, and that of the Jamia Masjid, with their steeples and pagoda-style roofs, is an admonishment of Sheikh Abdullah's folly -- the alien white marble dome and minaret of Hazratbal, which houses a single hair from the Prophet. The banality of grandeur, as Hannah Arendt might have said. Of Srinagar's Mughal-style masjids, only the abandoned Pathar Masjid, with its glorious stone arches, and Dara Shikoh's masjid close to the Hari Parbat fort, remain. And there is Budshah's tomb, with its five domes and turquoise glazed bricks, a remnant of Zain-ul-Abidin's enlightened reign. The headstones in the graveyard date from pre-Mughal and contemporary times.

January is not the ideal time to visit Srinagar. I had to slush-plash my way through snow and black ice, the cold burrowing past my clothes with the efficiency of an electric drill, and few of Srinagar's pleasures, apart perhaps from the gushtaba and rista, can be genuinely enjoyed. Once, with delays, cancellations and ensuing chaos, I was finally able to get a flight out of Srinagar. I left without suffering the slightest pang. You, visiting in more clement weather, won't be so lucky.

Where To Stay

Srinagar has hotel rooms to suit most budgets. Ahdoos ( 0194-2472593) is wonderfully situated on Residency Road, close to absolutely everything. The hotel has great character, from its creaking floorboards to its attentive staff, who will put a hot water bottle in your bed every night. Ahdoos also runs a fine restaurant, with a nice line in Wazwan dishes. But if you go when the weather is good (and why wouldn't you), you have to stay in a houseboat. Srinagar's houseboats, there are more than a thousand of them, are moored at the Dal and Nagin Lakes and the Jhelum river. Rooms range from fantastically luxurious to basic. Like hotels, houseboats are rated from category A to category D. It's best to visit a number of houseboats and negotiate a price directly with the owner. See

What To See & Do

  • Ruins in Srinagar span millennia. There are the megaliths in Burzahom, about 16km from Srinagar, the Buddhist ruins in Parihaspora, on the road to Gulmarg, and in Harwan, also on the outskirts of the city. Parihaspora was King Lalitaditya's capital, and there was talk last year of moving the present government to the area. Excavations from Burzahom and Harwan can be seen at the Shri Pratap Singh Museum near Raj Bagh.

  • The Shankaracharya temple, atop the Takht-i-Sulaiman hills, with its views of the entire city, is dated at 220 BC. Historian R.C. Kak, more plausibly, dates it to the sixth century AD, about a century or so earlier than the Sun Temple in Martand. There are temples too in the Hari Parbat fort and in the Cantonment in the ancient village of Pandrethan, site of the early capital. But these are difficult to visit unless you get permission from the security forces. There are small, old temples near Haba Kadal and in Bar Bar Shah too that are worth brief visits.

  • Ziarats built in the Kashmiri style are unique, with their sloping roofs, elaborately carved cornices, eaves and steeples. Shah Hamdan's shrine, built in the late 14th century is perhaps the oldest example, the Jama Masjid, rebuilt under Aurangzeb, is the largest and the Naqshband shrine is arguably the most beautiful. Other significant examples of this style include the Dastgir Sahab mosque. The Pathar Masjid, with its stone arches, is an abandoned, but still surviving Mughal mosque. The only other one is Dara Shikoh's mosque near Hari Parbat. Zain-ul-Abidin's tomb, apparently actually built for his mother, in Zaina Kadal is also a distinctive monument, with its five domes and the tiny blue bricks that stud the exterior walls.

  • Mughal gardens, such as Shalimar, Nishat and Chashma-e-Shahi, are major tourist draws.

  • To see examples of Kashmiri architecture -- details such as dubs, pinjara-kari and khatambandh -- go to old houses such as Iftikhar Jalali's in Zadi-Bal, or Darial in Nowhatta. The walk from Maharaj Gunj to Ali Kadal is rich in architectural significance. Cluttering the narrow streets are dilapidated buildings made of small Kashmiri-style brick.

  • Srinagar is best enjoyed by shikara on the Jhelum.

  • Visit Iftikhar Jalali's beautifully preserved house in Zadi-Bal. Here you can see evidence of pinjara-kari work and on an upper floor a fine example of the craft of khatamband. See old Kashmiri carpets and faded, delicate paintings of flowers plastered on the walls.

Getting There

The Srinagar Airport is well-connected to major cities across the country. Upon arrival at the airport, visitors can easily hire taxis to reach various cities and towns within Kashmir.

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