As the monochrome winter gives way to spring, Kashmir&rsquos hills and meadows begin to turn into a riot of colours. The ground thaws and tiny colourful flowers raise their heads among the soft, green grass of the meadows, their stalks swaying merrily in the breeze. Overhead, the sky turns into a shining blue. The snow-peaks etched against the horizon dazzle in their white raiment.
The Mughal gardens of Srinagar break out into a profusion of blooms. The countryside is awash with white and pink flowers of almond, peach and cherry blossoms, the air fragrant with their mild scents. The mustard fields join the show with their bright-yellow blooms. Twinkling among the meadows or covering the hill-sides are crocuses, hyacinths, snowdrops, narcissus or daffodils, forsythia, and countless other blooms. The beauty of nature silently echoing the famous saying agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast (if there be paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this).
Drawn by the natural exuberance and the pleasant weather, the people of Kashmir pack their picnic baskets and set off for flower-viewing and a merry outing with family and friends, a practice that has been in place for ages. Now you know why such beautiful wicker picnic baskets are sold in the traditional basket-weaving shops of Srinagar.
So if you too want to enjoy this kaleidoscopic play of colours, a visit to Kashmir in spring is a must. Pack in some of the must-see destinations as you explore the flower-bedecked valley.
One of the best places to begin your trip is from Srinagar. Easily reached by air and road (and soon by rail), the capital of the newly formed Union Territory, Srinagar is a tourist haven. From staying in houseboats, taking a shikara ride on the lakes, sightseeing, shopping at floating markets or exploring the shops along the boulevard, drinking noon chai to breaking bread at some of the quaint bakeries, you will be spoilt for choice. The Dal Lake, tucked between the Shankaracharya Hill and Hari Parvat (Koh-e-Maran), is largely the hub of all activities. The shore extends a little over 15 kilometres with the boulevard lined with Mughal-era gardens, parks, hotels and restaurant, and shops.
While staying on the shore of the Dal Lake is convenient for travelling to and fro, spend at least a night in any of the houseboats on the lake. There are various price categories to suit every pocket and style. Check with the tourism department&rsquos information centres to get a list of the government-approved houseboats. The shikaras (traditional row-boats) ferry boarders to and from the shore, take them on short cruises across the lake, and even ply as floating shops. During spring, the dainty shikaras, piled high with seasonal flowers and fruits, appear like wee floating gardens among the waters of the Dal Lake. Visitors can buy seeds, bulbs and flowers from them.
Kashmir was a favourite holiday destination of the Mughals, especially Emperor Jahangir. The gardens, such as the Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh and Chashma Shahi, speak volumes about their patronage. Built in steps or terraced fashion, filled with fountains and channels, these pleasure gardens are known for their seasonal flowers. Spring is one of the best times to enjoy the profusion of blooms.
During March/April, Kashmir holds its globally acclaimed tulip festival. Organised by the J&K tourism department, it is organised at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, located in Siraj Bagh, in Srinagar. The Zabarwan Mountains overlook the garden. The flowers bloom within a short span of time, usually from the last week of March to the middle of April. So you have to plan accordingly.
Spread over 30 hectares, the garden rises gradually through seven terraced fields. It is home to about 60 varieties of tulips, which are segregated into early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties. Expect to see over 15 lakh flowers bloom this year. Along with tulips, you are likely to see other varieties of flowers too, such as hyacinths, daffodils and some species from the ranunculus genus. Usually, J&K's tourism department arranges for a spring festival during this time to acquaint visitors with the culture, craft and food of the region. Budget sometime to explore the various stalls set up during this time.
It is said that the almond blossoms are the first to herald the arrival of spring. Located about seven kilometres away from Srinagar&rsquos Lal Chowk, Badamwari is one of the best places to see the almond blossoms. Enjoy the pale pink flowers and their fragrance as you stroll through the Badamwari garden in Shahr-e-Khaas. Expect to find local people visiting the area, their picnic hampers filled with tea, bread and other foods. Kashmiris are extremely hospitable people and do not be surprised if you are invited to participate in their feasting.
A trip to Charar-e-Sharief (an ancient shrine, about 40 kilometres from Srinagar) will also reward you with sightings of almond blossoms. Yusmarg, further south from here, is also known for spectacular flowering of almond trees.
The pear blossoms can be identified by their thick cluster of flowers. Apricot blossom are white in colour, often tinged with a pink or reddish hue, and have a pleasant scent.
Fret not if you have not been able to enjoy the cherry blossom viewing or Hanami (flower viewing) Festival of Japan. Take your picnic basket and travel to Harwan Garden (19 kilometres from Srinagar), watered by a canal bordered with chinar trees. Here you will find a profusion of cherry trees, their branches smothered in pink and white blossoms. Tailbal (about 13 kilometres from Srinagar) and Dara are also known for their cherry orchards. Kashmir is one of the major growers of cherry in India. The fruit is grown in many areas of Kashmir, such as Tangmarg (in Baramulla), Lar (in Gandarbal), Shopian, etc.
As you travel through the countryside, especially across Pampore towards the end of the season, the bright yellow of the mustard fields appear in sharp contrast to the more subdued hues of the cherry and peach trees. The Pampore plateau is also known for its wild tulips and poppy.
Pampore, about 12 kilometres by road from Srinagar, is popularly known for its saffron production. But if you are here in spring, you will find an abundance of peach trees in bloom, clouds of light pink and purple flowers covering the branches.
Spring is also the time when apples, apricot and pear trees too flower. Srinagar, Badgam, Pulwama, Anantnag, Baramulla are known for their apple orchards.
Complement your feast for the eyes with a gastronomic exploration. Kashmir has an amazing range of breads. There are some excellent bakeries in Srinagar (and a few of the smaller towns too) which still bake breads in the traditional way. These are mostly reminiscent of the region&rsquos connection with Central Asia of yore. Many of them are family-run and use traditional wood-fired clay ovens. Some of the breads worth trying are tchot (a flatbread), lawasa (an unleavened thin flatbread) and chochwor (a soft, round bread sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds). There are also bakeries who specialise in recipes preserved from the British era. Srinagar is also known for its street food.
Keep a packet of nadir monji&ndashlotus stem coated in rice flour or chickpea flour&ndashhandy as you explore the many tourist attractions. Or maybe try a monji gaade (a snack made of fish). If you are feeling peckish, you may try the masala tchot (hummus-style channa and radish chutney wrapped in a lawasa). Another popular dish is the smoked Kashmiri barbecue, tuj je. And if you are thirsty, there is a range of teas to choose from, such as the noon chai or sheer chai, the many varieties of kahwa, etc. If you are looking for some grand fare, there is modur pulao, shab deg, gushtaba, etc.
A trip to Kashmir is not complete without a shopping spree. It is interesting to find many of the hand-painted designs and embroideries drawing inspiration from the regional flora. Some of the popular products you may buy are hand-knotted carpets, walnut wood carvings, papier mache products, chain stitch, crewel fabrics and utility products (curtains, cushion covers, bed spreads, etc.), and pashmina shawls. Although available in Srinagar, you may also buy saffron if you are visiting Pampore.
For more details on Kashmir, you may contact the officials of Department of Tourism Kashmir via the website, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook accounts, or over the phone by dialling 0194-2502279.