Melissa had wanted to visit Kashmir since we arrived in India nearly two years ago. She grew up around her parents’ Kashmiri artifacts and photos and imagined it as the most beautiful place on earth. You might imagine that nothing could live up to that kind of ideal, but Kashmir did. We only had four days for our visit, using up Tom’s last two available personal days, but we squeezed in as much as possible.
Traveling in a conflict zone is not something to do casually or without the right guidance and support, but luckily we knew just the right people to help us. CultureRings, a tour company focused on travel that teaches you about the culture and people of the places you visit, is run by our dear friend Kaveri Sinhji. We told Kaveri that we wanted to see both the natural beauty of Kashmir and meet the craftspeople who have made this region famous for artistry. She then partnered closely with Devika Krishnan who has worked extensively with the craftspeople of Kashmir. Devika created a beautiful itinerary for us and arranged for her friend Ramneek to guide us through the entire experience. We were both safe and delighted the entire time.
Our first day was a wee bit sleepy. To cram in as much as possible, we decided to take a 5:45 am direct flight that required us to get up at 3:00 am to head for the airport. On the upside, we landed in Srinagar at 9:05 and had a whole day ahead of us. On the downside, there was a fair amount of yawning. Our driver, Yusuf, from Mascot Travels was amazing. He greeted us at the airport and, from that point on, was always there for us right up to the last moment of leaving us back at the airport on Monday afternoon.
Yusuf drove us straight to our meeting point with Ramneek, and we began the two hour journey to Pahalgam. Because it was the last Friday of Ramadan in a state that is 96% Muslim, the roads were clear and the drive was easy. We were always conscious of the “conflict” due to the armed men stationed on every block of the main roads of Srinagar, and the incredibly good highway (probably the best we’ve experienced in all of India) that was built to facilitate ease of military movement. But our attention was focused much more on the stunning people we passed and the magnificent scenery. The dress in Kashmir is different than we’ve seen elsewhere. Tom was surprised that it was so different from what he had seen last year on his Himalayan trek. Most people, men and women, wear the pheran, a long loose garment that looks like a big shirt with three buttons at the top. In the chilly mornings, we saw men wearing a second one over the top that looked almost like a giant loose overcoat from the back. In the cold of winter when the snow many be seven feet deep, people keep warm by carrying a willow basket lined with a copper pot full of hot charcoal inside their pherans (that gives you a sense of their looseness).
For the most part, women’s heads are covered, but to vastly differing extents. Some wear a scarf set back on the head, seeming to hang from a large bun. Some wear a scarf covering the whole head and wrapping around to hang over the shoulders, and then tuck their hair and scarf behind their ears. Some wear a large gathered scarf that fully covers the head and wraps tightly under the chin leaving only the face visible. In the minority were women actually wearing niqabs that revealed only the eyes. In the vast minority (but still notable) were women who wore burkas, completely covered including a dense netting covering even their eyes. Those who weren’t wearing black were wearing bright, beautiful colors.
At this time of year, the shepherds of the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes are in the midst of their annual migration up into the mountains. As we neared Pahalgam, we began to pass Gujjars on the road, sometimes with cows, sheep, or goats with long hair and curly horns, sometimes with their small horses, and sometimes just walking in groups. They have a distinctive look, with brightly colored clothing, embroidered saddle blankets and other ornaments on their horses, and small round hats on the women’s heads and long mustacheless beards on the men. Beautiful green fields and snow-capped mountains provided an idyllic backdrop.
We arrived at midday at the Pahalgam Hotel, started by Ramneek’s great-grandfather on the banks of the Jhehlum River Tributary. With Ramneek’s nephew involved in the business, they are now into the fifth generation with this lovely hotel, and it is clearly treasured by everyone, family and staff alike. Our room had a separate bedroom, two bathrooms, and glorious views from every window. We were in heaven.
After a delicious lunch, we had a brief rest before heading out to the workshop Ramneek has created for Shepherdcrafts. In a Gujjar home, used during migration, we visited with a group of women who are using their traditional embroidery skills to create products to appeal to a contemporary market. It has been a challenge. After an initial burst of great success, the conflict in Kashmir intensified in 2016, cutting off tourism and eliminating buyers for their beautiful work. The women are clearly frustrated – their lives are hard and it’s disappointing to make the time for extra embroidery only to have it sit on a shelf without a buyer. Ramneek is determined, however, to figure out how to make this work. In addition to encouraging people to visit Kashmir and meet these skilled artisans, she is also looking for ways to find a broader market outside of Kashmir. The goal of this effort is truly to improve the lives of people who struggle. The entire room was very proud of a young woman there who had completed 10th standard in school – a bare minimum in the US, but a major accomplishment for this nomadic tribe. Another woman has a daughter who completed 12th standard. With more education, women don’t marry in their mid-teens, they have fewer children, and they are able to better provide for the children they have.
After admiring their work, we took a short walk to the Himalayan Cheese Factory, an artisanal cheese factory started by Chris Zandee, a Dutch man who married a vivacious Kashmiri woman, Kamala. They wanted to create something positive for the community, something that could provide real livelihood for people while fostering a sense of pride in their beleaguered region. Chris grew up on a farm and had learned cheesemaking from his father, so it seemed worth a try. He sources milk from 150 different women in the area, making a point of paying every 10 days. Even a woman with only a half-liter to spare can expect to receive a small amount of money on a schedule. Chris is certain that this has literally saved lives, giving women the confidence to take their children to see doctors, knowing that they can afford to pay them. He gushes about how much he has learned from the community as well, about how business can lift up a community when the priority is not shareholders. Aside from the social enterprise, this is really good cheese! The gouda and cumin gouda were truly outstanding. Sitting in the lovely yard outside the factory with the river and mountains in view, happily eating bits of cheese and sampling local honey was a delight.
We took our leave in the late afternoon, a bit sleepy and bleary-eyed, and headed back to our lovely hotel with Ramneek who took us to visit the shop that she has created there. She sells many handmade Kashmiri items from the many artisans that she works with in Pahalgam and Srinigar. Everything there is beautiful. We were particularly taken with some embroidered wall hangings created by a Gujjar family with a particularly talented deaf boy who has taken up embroidery. Ramneek has worked with him for years, nurturing his natural talent and rolling her eyes when he periodically runs off to be with the men for a while, always confident that he will return to do this work for which he has such a gift. She also pointed out to us the work of some of the artisans we would meet the next day, getting us excited about what was to come.
Given our general sleepiness, we had an early dinner, once again absolutely delicious. We were quite taken with the kalari cheese, a local delicacy that looks like a flat disc, tastes a bit like a combination mozzarella and halloumi and is served fried until crisp. Similarly, we found that the Kashmiri paneer is also more mozzarella-like with a sort of chewiness that we had never before had in paneer. Yum. That night we slept in the total darkness and perfect silence never experienced in Bangalore. We woke early with the birds, which is a very pleasant way to rise. Tea was served to us in our room and we enjoyed some time gazing at the gorgeous view while sipping our tea and easing into the day.
After tasty idli, sambar, coconut chutney (made from dried coconut since we are now far from palm tree country), and the local morning bread called lavasa, we drove up toward Aru. The original plan had been to have tea with a Gujjar family in this stunning area high in the Himalayas, but the woman we were to meet had gone into labor the night before. We mentally sent her good wishes while stopping to photograph this amazing area with flowing glacial streams, wildflowers, and the ever-present snow-capped mountains. With a few more days in Kashmir, we definitely would have done some amazing trekking. As it was, we reluctantly turned the car back toward Srinigar.
Our reluctance was short-lived, however, when a couple hours later we pulled up to a dock on the huge Nigeen Lake and were seated in a comfy Shikara, sort of like a gondola with a roof. We journeyed across the lake and ended up at the beautiful Mascot Houseboats. Houseboats in Srinagar have mostly been in families for generations. The fifth generation now runs this boat. The entire boat is ornately carved, from doors to walls to ceilings, and furnished with gorgeous antique furniture and carpets. While these boats are on the water, they are all permanently docked and do not rocking at all, but the views are magical, across the lake to the greenery of the far shore and up to the surrounding mountains. We were expertly cared for by Manzoor and his partner who served all of our meals and made sure we were always happy.
After lunch, we met Yusuf, our driver, and Ramneek took us into the old town of Srinagar. The old part of town is full of charming old two to three story buildings with high peaked roofs and ornate window frames. Many reminded us of houses more common in Portland than anywhere else we’ve seen in India. While the new part of Srinagar is at lake level and in danger of annual flooding, the old part of town is elevated and safe from water. It is not, however, safe from the ravages of time and an economy that can’t support preservation, thanks in large part to the continuing conflict. Many of these beautiful buildings have broken windows and hanging shutters, which broke our hearts.
Our first stop in Old Town was a Sufi shrine, Khankahi Shah-i-Hamdan. This 14th century shrine was rebuilt in the early 18th century, and is ornately carved, inside and out. We could not enter the shrine, but enjoyed walking the perimeter and were then invited to look through a window. The exterior is lovely, but the interior is magnificent with painted carvings covering the walls and ceiling above a beautiful carpet where people were praying.
From there we traveled a short distance to a small storefront in which a coppersmith works his magic. He used to do everything by himself – shaping the copper, carving patterns into its surface and then polishing it to a shine – but now he focuses on shaping the copper while other partners in the business do the other parts. Copper is considered an essential in Kashmir where everyone eats off of plated copper plates and bowls, drinks from copper cups, and decorates their homes with copper vases, samovars, and lamps.
The coppersmith then walked with us to the woodcarvers shop where we watched them carving intricate patterns into walnut and pine, making chests, stair railings, and table tops among other things. We couldn’t resist a big carved mortar and pestle. Now we’re really ready to make our own masalas from fresh spices!
We were now ready for a bit of nature, so Ramneek took us to Nishat Bagh or “garden of delight”, a stunning terraced Mughal garden created in the mid-17th century. We were amazed to see so many flowers that we recognized from home – hydrangeas, irises, roses, begonias, and so many more. We assume that even though we are much further south, the elevation creates growing conditions similar to those in Portland.
After the garden, we were ready to return again to our lovely floating hotel where we sat on the roof, soaking in the view until nearly time for dinner. Dinner was delicious, particularly the Kashmiri paneer in gravy. Yum. The night was a bit of a challenge for us. It turns out that Saturday night was a particularly special night of Ramadan with prayers going all night. Through our windows we could hear prayers through loudspeakers echoing across the lake from at least three different mosques all night long. Melissa finally drifted off, but Tom barely slept. As dawn came, the prayers finally stopped, but we were awake anyway. We had tea delivered to our room and moved slowly until breakfast. Happily, we were served the best aloo bhaji we’ve ever had, light, airy pooris, and girda (very like lavasa) with local honey.
After a slow start, we again found Yusuf and went to meet Ramneek who took us to the home of a family of weavers where we watched one man spinning thin pashmina thread onto spindles in preparation for weaving, and watched two other men working magic on a loom as they wove a colorful, intricate pattern into what will eventually be a large pashmina shawl. We got a serious education there into pashmina creation. A real pashmina is made from the soft hair of high altitude goats from Ladakh. These goats are shorn twice a year for their soft wool, but are in no way harmed in the process. The shepherds prize the well-being of these goats as their livelihood depends on them. There used to be a kind of wool from the undersides of juveniles and harvesting it used to actually kill them. This, however, has long been outlawed. In order to be considered a real hand made pashmina, with a certificate of authentication to prove it, the wool must then be hand spun into fine thread by women who do this specialized work. That fine thread is then woven on large looms by men, sometimes creating a featherweight fabric and sometimes creating a very dense and heavy fabric. People associate pashminas with incredible softness, but in fact the most expensive one have a bit of stiffness to them from the density of the weaving. Because tourists expect softness, some weavers will add rabbit hair to the thread or wash the completed pashmina with fabric softeners. Many completed pashminas go back to the women who embroider them in finely detailed patterns. This traditional and amazing artform is now struggling for a number of reasons: the ongoing conflict keeps tourists away so they don’t see the work that goes into making this product, uneducated tourists are then eager for bargains and happy to buy machine-made shawls made from different wools or synthetic fabrics embellished with machine embroidery, corruption has diluted the certification process, and other states seeing the interest in pashminas have begun to make cheap versions that they ship into Kashmir to sell there to people who can’t recognize the difference. The younger generations are not eager to go into a profession where you may have to invest 3-6 months of your life into creating a single garment for sale. Hopefully marketing strategies people like Ramneek are working on can ensure a continued demand for this special, skilled work and keep this amazing craft alive.
Ramneek told us that if we saw anything we liked, we should just take a picture of it because we could always come back again; we really appreciated this advice as everything was so beautiful that it would have been easy to buy something without yet fully understanding the extent of what would be available. Our next stop was in the home of another family of craftspeople. We started by sitting with a young woman who was embroidering a shawl. Her sure fingers moved quickly and the pattern was so pretty. She had also brought along a pashmina that she was embroidering for herself and had nearly finished. It was gorgeous! She voiced the frustration that the men could work all day at their crafts, but the women had so many other responsibilities in the home that their hours for work were much shorter, but she still had a smile on her face most of the time.
After sitting with her for a while, we went into the next room where the painters sat. One woman sat painting an intricate floral design on kleenex boxes, a man and woman sat together painting a four piece metal tiffin set, and the embroiderer’s husband’s uncle, a master papier mache artist, Maqbool Jan, showed us the entire process of making a papier mache box. Usually someone else forms the boxes or bowls or whatever else they’re making while he focuses on the painting. When we got to the painting part, it was obvious why. He seemed to so effortlessly create a beautiful pattern of flowers and birds on such a small scale, it was breathtaking.
After admiring their work and learning all about it, they invited us to join them for lunch, seated on the floor in their dining room with food arranged on a cloth on the floor. Everything was delicious and it was a pleasure to sit with the family. Some of them joined us even though they were fasting, but a couple of the men were eating because of health conditions. After lunch, we were taken to a room where we could see all of Maqbool’s finished products. Wow. Just, wow.
Ramneek and Yusuf then took us to Parimahal or “garden of the fairies,” another stunning Mughal garden. This one is high in the hills with a very steep terrace and strong retaining walls that are almost fortress-like. Each of the seven levels has a different feeling, all of them beautiful. We finished the day at a tea house where the walls are covered with a mural painted by Maqbool Jan. There we sampled Noon Chai, a popular salty tea in Kashmir to which you add crushed, dried corn. We enjoyed it more when we thought of it as soup.
With that, we concluded another amazing day and returned to our houseboat, which was mercifully quieter than the previous night. The next morning, after breakfast and checking out, we went to Ramneek’s office where we met the papier mache artist from the previous day. He had brought pashminas, woven and embroidered by his family, for us to admire. The perfect patterns in the weaving, the beautifully intricate embroidery, and the story behind them made them to hard to resist. We ultimately bought two that will become heirlooms for our family.
After another drive past military personnel on every block, a large military convoy that stopped the angry traffic, and multiple checkpoints, we arrived at the airport for our return journey. Yes, Kashmir is a conflict zone with reminders in not only the military presence, but also in the graffiti: “Freedom for Kashmir,” “Islamic State,” “Zakir Musa,” an Al-Qaeda affiliated militant killed last month, and everywhere “Azadi” which means freedom. It is also one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been, full of the natural beauty of mountains and water and flowering plants as well as the man-made beauty of architecture and traditional crafts honed to perfection through generations. We knew that we were in safe hands with Ramneek and Yusuf and strongly recommend that people visit this amazing place with the right guides. We left wanting nothing but to return.