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Srinagar and Dal Lake - A view from our expert author
One of the highlights of Dal Lake in Srinagar is a stay aboard the stunning cedarwood houseboats that dot the waterside © Maximum Exposure Productions 2013
If J&K is the crown of India, then Srinagar is the jewel in that crown. Breathtakingly beautiful as it rises from the mist that hovers in the early morning across the surface of the water in the lakes, the summer capital of J&K is a city rich in history and where history is worn lightly on the sleeve. Artistic traditions, from carpet making to woodcarving, are still practised in backstreet workshops; architectural masterpieces displaying an array of influences dot the skyline; and the houseboats, where British memsahibs played games of bridge, hippies smoked and the Beatles strummed away the hours under the watchful eye of Ravi Shankar, still float timelessly upon the water.
Srinagar is not trapped in the past, however: it is moving forward apace. Swiftly putting the militancy period behind it, tourism is not only reviving but also pushing into areas it has never been before. December 2013 saw the opening of the city’s first cable car, transporting visitors to the Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, the new JKTDC Boat House is enabling people to try their hand at a variety of watersports, including sailing and kayaking, and the hill atop which the Hari Parbat fort is perched has been turned into an eco-reserve, a haven for local wildlife in an otherwise busy city.
Relax for hours on one of Dal Lake’s luxurious houseboats and stroll through the Eden-like Mughal Gardens in Srinagar.
Though Dal and Nagin lakes look on the map like two separate bodies of water, they are in fact joined with waterways through a labyrinth of floating islands, manmade areas reclaimed from the water where people live but also grow their crops. Like in Venice, water taxis are the only way to travel from A to B, and travelling the back waters you’ll see shikaras carrying children to school, men to the market and women on their way to visit friends.
No trip to J&K could possibly be complete without a night (or, ideally, longer) aboard one of Srinagar’s legendary houseboats, the beautifully carved cedarwood structures that float romantically on lively Dal and quieter Nagin lakes. Originally built by the British to enable them to get around local restrictions on land ownership, the houseboats and the hospitality of the houseboat owners have become a Kashmiri institution, with many visitors returning year on year to spend their summers on the water.
There are quite literally thousands of houseboats in Srinagar, and they are regulated by the Houseboat Owners Association (tel: 245 0326; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.houseboatowners.org), which also sets the prices for rooms and can make bookings on your behalf.
Unless you’re going on a reliable personal recommendation, don’t pre-book your houseboat, and especially not in Delhi. Packages are much more affordable if you arrange them directly in Srinagar, and you’ll have the opportunity to look at several options before making your final choice.