Srinagar is a place where the roads break in two to spare the ancient chinaar tree.
The built-up areas stop short, and leave alone the greenery around the famous Dal Lake. Its sprawl was set against the stunning slope of Himalaya, which loomed like a giant wall. The lake in late summer was decidedly showing signs of eutrophication, but this probably helped keep the surface still, and it was often mirror-smooth.
In the days that we were in Srinagar, our houseboat host drove us around to a few places. We even drove through the downtown area, though he deeply wished we didn’t have to, because the soldiers where everywhere there, even more than usual. Not just along the streets, but upon roofs and the awnings of multi-storey buildings as well. Anyone in this area could be marked, and it made him nervous.
A consequence of this state of affairs is that I have almost no photos of downtown Srinagar. Warned against it, lest I be misconstrued as photographing the occupation and my camera confiscated, I refrained. This is probably why there are many photos online of Srinagar’s lakes and mountain, but rarely of the city itself.
Srinagar deserves to be photographed
And this was a shame, because the buildings in old Srinagar are actually quite lovely. We saw even more of it when our friend went to see cashmere merchants and took us along, and we passed through its urban residential areas.
How shall I explain it? It looks like a city that had been well-built. You could see it in the old city with its medieval buildings, and from the stones of its main attractions. Its beautiful library and its craftwork. The wooden cantilever balconies reminiscent of the Jewish Quarter buildings in Andalucia, and the brick homes with its ancient arched windows.
And Srinagar’s Jamia Mosque, with its Himalayan architecture, which my host later felt was safe enough to stop by, and let us peek briefly through the gate. We couldn’t enter; city folk weren’t allowed to hold congregational prayer during the heightened military lockdown.
In the refuge of the garden by Hazratbal Mosque, fathers bring little daughters for an outing, a mark of intact families and good communities. The people seemed to do their best to ignore the armed men around them if they could. Sometimes, they ignored them so well, they seemed to me like ghosts of the old city, save for their modern sweaters and jeans.
All of which only made it more astonishing to us that, before coming here, our friend had told us a relative was getting married, and we were invited. How were they going to pull off a wedding, when Srinagar was under a lockdown?
How we got to attend the wedding after all
In a way, the militarised situation was why we were separated from our friend in the first place, who had flown with us on the same plane. We took longer to clear the procedures, as foreigners. But the military lockdown meant that he could not wait for us and show us the way to his home.
Fortunately, I had persuaded Baiti that we simply must stay at a Dal Lake houseboat on our first trip to Srinagar, at least for a few days. So we did have somewhere to go to, and weren’t homeless.
But he eventually found us, after we returned from Naranag. It was really quite astonishing, because even though we eventually found his house and left a note, we were too vague about our houseboat in it, and he had no idea which of hundreds of houseboats it could be.
Fortunately, a flower seller had earlier come to us on his shikara filled with blooms and seeds, while we were sitting one morning at the houseboat front deck. It turned out that he lived in the same village as our friend, and when he heard that he was looking for two Southeast Asian females travelling together, it could only have been us.
Lakeside contrast of Srinagar
Well past the main roads and into the villages on the rim of the lake, the atmosphere changed markedly. The area was quiet, but humming with people on their day-to-day tasks, and people coming to visit the homes. The people spoke louder, and more merrily.
Further along the canals, past the floating vegetable beds, the edge of the reeds open to a peaceful lake, limpid and picturesque. It reminded me of the inner canals of Dal Lake, where the floating vegetable market was perhaps the only trade happening with all the shops shuttered. These were refuge areas, where one could feel safe and relax.
I began to believe that maybe it would somehow be possible to hold a wedding, after all, if it were by the lake.
Stumbling upon the wedding drum circle
Returning from the canal, we heard the sound of women’s choral singing. Veronica, a Cuban-American permanent nomad who was staying at our friend’s home when we caught up with him, cried out with interest. We hastened with curiosity, drawn by the sound of drumming.
Past a corner, we stumbled upon a group of women seated on the lawn. They held clay drums that tapered long at one end, and a skin stretched over the other. At first we hung back, unsure if we shouldn’t freshen up first. The singing stopped, as the drumming women paused to warm the skin over a charcoal brazier that they handed around. Spying us, someone waved us over, so we approached. Before long, Vero was dancing with them and we were snacking on puff pastry and milk tea.
As we had guessed, the singing was part of the wedding celebration, which usually spans several days. (This one was whittled down, due to the circumstances.) Neighbourhood women would come together on the first day to sing.
They had already had the henna day. This is part of the pre-wedding, when women would draw designs on their hands, an Indian culture which was also absorbed into my own culture in the distant past. Women would have the henna drawn on both the palms and the back of the hands, as they drew the design for the bride. The groom would wear henna as well, but only on the tips of his fingers.
Baiti and I were already henna’d up; at the houseboat, a cousin of our host had offered to draw on our hands.
Preparing the wedding feast
Afterwards, we were taken to see the wedding feast preparations. It seemed that Kashmiri men do most of the wedding cooking. The wedding feast involved several traditional dishes, all of which were heavily spiced. As I remember, there was a chicken dish, a mutton dish, two dishes that involved mutton balls, and a paneer dish. There was also a vegetable dish with lotus root, which the women were in charge of.
I guess in every culture, when there’s cooking outdoors to be done, and there’s meat involved, the men are suddenly happy to do it.
A family member gave us a rundown of what the kitchen crew was doing, and gave us the name of some of the dishes, but I can’t spell them! Fortunately ‘wazwan‘ was easy enough, so I can find you this article, which describes the masterpiece of Kashmiri cuisine.
He further told us that these dishes were Persian in origin, though in the present day they are no longer made in Persia (Iran) itself. The guy in charge of cutting the meat would be the head chef. The ingredients in a wazwan would not necessarily be found in the market, as they are special ingredients that need to be bought in specialist stores, like saffron and Kashmiri chillies.
A low-key Kashmiri wedding
A tent sprang out of nowhere at the drum circle lawn, when we passed it some time later. It was a traditional Kashmiri eating tent, comprising of large white cloth panels with hamdani embroidery. There were sheer panels at regular intervals built into the cloth like long, arched windows. Inside, the eating tent was unfurnished and carpeted, like most rooms in Kashmiri homes.
We came again at night, and fairy lights fell from the groom’s parental home. There were many people around, for the bride had arrived. There were adults, of course, but children as well. Little girls in lovely modern gowns, and little boys predictably in jeans and shirt, at best.
We sat with the women for tea and plain pastry in the eating tent. Outside was bustling, but as with most weddings, I’m never entirely sure for what. Within the tent were dads watching over toddling daughters, possibly seeking a refuge from the feminine bustle.
At one point – and I know not how – Baiti and I were commandered by a gaggle of children. One girl in particular had good English, and insisted on practicing it by giving us a tour of the wedding spaces (not that the commentary was actually related to the wedding!). The remaining children flowed after us – well, mostly Baiti – like a cloud of ducklings.
The wedding feast
The marriage ceremony happened the following morning. It was time for the wedding feast. The eating tent was big enough for half the guests; the men enter first, and then vacate it for the women’s turn.
The feast was served Arab style, the rice on large trays that are shared by several people. Servers came around to ladle out the wedding dishes one by one. They were all good, and I don’t know which one I liked best. We finally got to taste the two dishes involving the mutton balls; the smaller balls were spicy and a bit salty, whereas the bigger balls had yoghurt mixed in and were slightly sour. The latter one was the closing dish.
Like Malays and Indonesians, Kashmiris eat with their hands. They also have a washing pot which the servers bring around along with hand towels, for people to wash up after finishing their meal.
Oh, and the ladies do not show up with just one dress. We saw several women in different clothes throughout the day! Weddings are fashion week, apparently!
That night, when things have wound down, our friend was in the front room with a curious decoration. It was money, arranged in a circle and decorated in green and gold, so that it resembled a giant medallion. He was in charge of the mahr, the bridal gift, and he was preparing to accompany the groom as he pays a visit to the bride’s side.
Before long, the groom’s procession passed by the house. He picked up the gift and an incense burner that was already smoking, and joined them.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.