There’s nothing quite like the old-fashioned romance of staying on a traditional houseboat – and the Kashmiris have this down to an art form. They’ve been doing it for several generations now: capturing the essence of the 1930s Raj era when the colonial English made this type of holiday popular.
Since the Brits were not allowed to own land in India, they got around this in Srinagar by building houseboats on Dal Lake, fitting them out with exquisitely carved walnut or cedar panels, decorative khatamband ceilings, locally made Kashmiri carpets and glitzy chandeliers – mooring them together in small neighbourhoods like clusters of holiday houses.
But it was Beatle George Harrison’s retreat here in 1966 – when he learnt to play the sitar from maestro Ravi Shankar while staying on a houseboat on Dal Lake – that started the huge influx of backpackers in the 60s and 70s. His stay on Dal Lake was the inspiration for the song Within You Without You on the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Holidaying on such houseboats is still the biggest draw-card for visitors to this far northwest Indian state that is surrounded on three sides by layers of majestic snow-capped peaks.
This peaceful pocket belies the turmoil the Kashmiris have grown to live with since partition in 1947. Long at the centre of disputes, the region was closed to visitors for 15 years from 1989 to 2004 due to unrest; today, there remains an overt military presence.
However, in recent years, the region has started opening up again to tourists with Britain’s Foreign Office changing its warning to travellers from No-Go to Proceed with Caution; the Australian Government advising to Reconsider Your Need to Travel, which is one up from its direst warning: Do Not Travel.
And the tourism sector is quietly gearing up in readiness. Houseboats that had completely shut up shop and stored their furniture for 15 years are being spruced up, luxury hotels are opening such as the chic five-star Vivanta by Taj overlooking Dal Lake and the luxury Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, a member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World, in India’s premier skifields at Gulmarg, 90 minutes away.
But it’s to the houseboats that visitors flock to stay – with their gorgeous fretwork, ubiquitous rugs, surfeit of incongruous chandeliers and smiling, attentive houseboys serving endless cups of fragrant Kahva (Kashmiri green tea with cardamom, saffron and cinnamon) from gilt-rimmed tea-sets from a bygone era.
You can choose from hundreds of traditional houseboats from funky to fabulous with quirky names such as Cheerful Charlay, Cherry Ripe, Fair Heaven, Pigeon and even Rolls Royce. Highly recommended are the group of well-positioned Royal Houseboats on Dal Lake, the welcoming Gurkha Houseboats on nearby Nageen Lake and the stunning eco-luxury Sukoon which has had a major refit and facelift to offer air-conditioned luxury accommodation with modern western-style bathrooms, silk furnishings and a rooftop lounge and dining area under market umbrellas.
Most houseboats offer from three to five ensuite bedrooms with shared living room, dining room and cushioned deck; enough friends travelling together can take over the whole houseboat. On traditional houseboats, guests dine en famille around one large dining room table with other guests – like going to a private dinner party every night and making new friends. The food served is simple, honest, and often home-cooked Kashmiri chicken or lamb dishes. However, plush Sukoon is more like a small boutique hotel where guests have their own table – resident chef Deepak Kumar Rai serving elegant traditional Kashmiri cuisine with an innovative twist.
Life on Dal Lake is all about the water with floating shops, workshops, mosques, schools – even floating gardens where vegetables thrive and are sold at a bustling pre-dawn floating produce market. In this sea of tranquility, painted shikaras or water taxis glide silently by, the only movement being the gentle ripple of the shikara walla’s oar in the cool lake water.
Elsewhere in Srinagar, the Old Town seems to emanate from the beautiful and historic Khanqah Shah-i-Hamadan mosque that honors the Persian sultan who brought Islam to the region and is also credited with introducing the Persian art of carpetmaking in the 14th century. Today, local artisans create exquisite woven carpets, finest pashminas, beautiful papier-mâché work, appealing crewel embroideries and lacy wooden fretwork mainly for houseboats.
But back in the comfort of your well-cushioned houseboat deck, you can literally watch the world go by: children rowing home from school, floating shops selling sweet treats, merchants hawking their wares, men harvesting weed from the lake for floating gardens while listening to the muezzin call to prayer as the sun sets over Haribarbat Fort way beyond the lake. It’s hard to imagine a more romantic, serene or exotic holiday.
As an inscription by Mughal Emperor Johangir on a pavilion wall in the Shalimar Mughal gardens suggests: If there is a paradise on the earth, it is this; it is this; it is this.
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Couples will love
Relaxing with a refreshing drink or two on the front deck of the houseboat while watching the sun set over Dal Lake. Consider bringing your own duty free alcohol as Kashmir is virtually a ‘dry’ state with little beer to be found and poor quality wine, or enjoy cocktails at the Taj while watching the sun set over the lake.
Visiting Shalimar Bagh, the Mughal Gardens with cascading terraces and water features, also known as ‘The Garden of Love’. They were built by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife, Nur Jahan, in 1630. It was his dream to please his queen.The gardens later became a pleasure place for Pathan and Sikh governors.
When you've had your fill...
Stroll around the Old City with its spice and dried fruit markets and check out the beautiful papier-maché façade of historic Khanqah Shah-i-Hamadan mosque.
For a special souvenir
Buy the finest pashmina shawls, beautiful papier-maché boxes and excellent Kashmiri saffron from Pampore.
Singapore Airlines operates 122 flights per week from Australian capital cities to Singapore, with convenient onward double daily connection to Delhi – one being an A380, the first such service to India. Phone 13 10 11 or visit Singapore Air.
Holidays in India offer an eight-night package to Kashmir that includes two nights in Delhi, return domestic flights between Delhi and Srinagar, a night on a Royal Houseboat, one in Pahalgam, another in Gulmarg and two nights on eco-luxury Sukoon houseboat from GBP789 (AU$1424).
The writer was hosted by Holidays in India.
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