Sunday 28th June – Mughul gardens and markets

Another beautiful morning, which turned into the hottest day of the year so far. After breakfast we took the shikara across to meet Tahir and headed off in the car to visit some of Srinagar’s famous Mughul gardens. Built by emperors of the Mughul dynasty which ruled Kashmir from 1586 until 1752, these all share a set of underlying geometric and symbolic principles of Persian origin. They are divided up into sections to ensure that, like paradise, they are never boring, all feature canals and running water to represent the waters of life and all the senses are addressed. Hearing is catered for by the running water and fountains, smell by scented plants such as lilies, roses and jasmine and sight by brightly coloured flowers.

There are cherry, apricot and peach trees for nourishment and chinar (oriental plane) trees for shade. First on the itinerary was Shalimar Bagh built by the emperor Jahangir, father of Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, for his wife Nur Jahan and opened in 1619. The garden was made famous as the setting for some of Thomas Moore’s ‘oriental romance’ Lalla Rookh, though he’d never actually visited. Now the whole gardens are full of people out enjoying a Sunday afternoon break – many are visitors from other parts of India. The pools and fountains are full of boys of all ages splashing around.

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Shalimar gardens

You can hire a traditional Kashmiri outfit in which to have your photo taken but many of the ladies are already dressed in beautiful saris. We prove to be as much of an attraction as the gardens at times – for some reason lots of people want their photos taken with us but that does mean that we can take pictures of the women in their beautiful dresses without feeling like voyeurs!

In the past the garden was divided into three sections. The lower terraces were public gardens, the middle section with its turkish bath and Hall of Public Audience was for the emperor, and the upper terraces were for the ladies of his harem. The ceilings of all the halls are decorated in beautiful papier mâché panels but, sadly, much of the wall decoration in the famous ‘black marble’ pavilion (actually a dark limestone with fossils, rather like our Frosterley ‘marble’) in the ladies’ garden, built later by Shah Jahan, has been lost or graffitied over. There are still some beautiful flower details and lovely views over the garden though.

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The black marble pavilion, Shalimar gardens

From Shalimar we drove the short distance to Nishat Bagh, right on the shore of Dal lake. This garden, built in 1633 by Nur Jahan’s elder brother, is a long narrow rectangle rather than the more traditional square shape, with water flowing down a series of steep terraces to reach the lake. Originally there were 12 terraces, representing the signs of the zodiac, but the bottom terrace was cut off when the road around the lake was built. This was the favoured campsite of 19th century European visitors to Srinagar, for its beautiful views down to the lake.

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Dal lake from Nishat Bagh

Our last visit was to the beautiful Pari Mahal garden, or fairy palace, built by Shah Jahan’s eldest son to house his spiritual guide. This is another steeply-terraced garden, set high above Dal lake in the foothills of the Zanskar mountains, with panoramic views over the whole valley, so a good place to start our visit on Tuesday, I think. The road up to the garden is narrow and twisty so an early visit might mean less congestion than today, when vehicles were reversing randomly and at speed.

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From Pari Mahal

We returned to the houseboat for lunch – three courses again – and a welcome nap in the heat of the day. Afterwards Tahir took us to a craft workshop where we saw beautiful Kashmir carpets being made and had some difficulty persuading the owner we really weren’t intending to buy. I made some comment about wanting to have a go at paddling the shikara and was handed the spare paddle straight away and set to work. John and Helen said the shikara man basically gave up doing more than just steering at that point and left me to it! After the carpet factory, Tahir took us for a walk through the old part of the town and past the bustling Sunday market on the bund. We ended up crossing the Jhelum on a footbridge and were able to see how much higher the water was just a couple of days ago.

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Houseboats on the Jhelum river

We drove back to the houseboat this time through the maze of narrow streets around the back of Hari Parbat hill past many of the oldest mosques and shrines in Srinagar.

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