It may be hard to imagine, but Srinagar was once a tourist city. It still is, of course. But these days, I have the impression that it is mostly a domestic or regional tourism destination, whereas it was once an international draw. In its heyday, it must have been crowded with tourists. The touristy area around Dal Lake felt like it was built to accommodate that. It was obvious that, as a tourist city in a craft-making culture, there are many different souvenirs you can buy in Srinagar.
Even when the shops were all closed, there was still a constant stream of shikara boat sellers on the lake. Getting approached by these is inevitable, even when you’re on a shikara yourself, though some shikara boatmen do help you avoid the merchants if you wish. The boatman souvenir sellers also approach houseboats, and some have an arrangement with them. So, in the mornings, chances are there would be at least one souvenir salesman showing wares at your houseboat.
I guess how you perceive this depends on whether you like being sold to, and if you’re interested in the souvenirs they bring. The items they bring are typically things like embroidered suede bags and tablecloths, cheap pashmina (although those are technically contraindicating words!), cheap saffron (also contraindicating!), gemstones and jewellery.
I mainly wrote this article to document the souvenirs that tempted me, and those I could not buy (because of the strikes and lockdown). Given the circumstances of my visit, indicative prices I mention below should be taken as being on the low end. Use this article as more of an inspiration guide; see Kashmiri websites like Kashmirica to learn the craft’s history and details.
- Cashmere shawls
- Fine embroidery
- Goatskin bags
- Kashmiri carpets
- Nuts & dried fruits
- Papier mache products
- Flower seeds & bulbs
- Gemstones & jewellery
- Wood carvings
- Should you haggle for souvenirs in Srinagar?
- Should you buy souvenirs from shikara merchants or from the shops in Srinagar?
- Carbon offset information to Kashmir
Cashmere is literally synonymous with Kashmir. For a long time, Kashmir was the only place you could get pashmina or cashmere from. To this day, Kashmir produces the best quality cashmere. Its Himalayan pastures allow it to rear goats adapted to the highest altitudes, yielding the softest and finest hairs.
Cashmere shawls are ubiquitous in Srinagar, and boatman sellers would probably bring ‘pashmina’ to your houseboat. However, is very unlikely that these would be real pashmina, which is high quality cashmere. Usually they will be lower quality cashmere, from coarser hairs on the goat, or hairs not from pure alpine breeds. If you’re looking for true pashmina, but do not already know what it should feel like, it’s better to find a reputable shop with a large enough range so you can actually touch the premium cashmere. It should have a price that stabs you in the heart a bit; although, buying this quality in Kashmir is still more affordable than elsewhere.
Or you can ask me for a special order at the online cashmere store I co-founded with the local Kashmiri family who befriended me in Nepal. On the shop blog, I wrote about how I knew that the shawls brought in by the boat sellers were not the best cashmere, and also about how cashmere compares in softness to other natural winter fabrics.
Pro tip: If you do buy a real 100% cashmere shawl, you don’t need to wash it often. As in, almost never. And for heaven’s sake, never put it in a washing machine! A colleague of mine brought home a fine cashmere shawl for his wife, who then accidentally put it in the wash. She now has a ball of cashmere.
Kashmir also produces some of the finest embroidery in the world. You will find several different embroidery styles; a selection is described in this article. From the wares of the boatmen who came to our houseboat, you could get Kashmiri embroidery on souvenir items ranging from cashmere or cashmere blend shawls, homewares such as tablecloths and cushion covers, and suede purses and handbags.
Indicative prices: at least 5000 rupees for a tablecloth, and about 300 rupees for a cushion cover, depending on size and embroidery.
Since we also visited with our friend, who stocks embroidered cashmere at his store in Pokhara, we also managed to see the very best of Kashmiri needlework as he visited his network of craftsmen. This is the kind of embroidery fit for royalty; some are worth thousands of dollars. I don’t think I’ll ever be rich enough to buy one!
I don’t know if you can easily find this quality in souvenir stores. It was certainly an experience to get to see and touch such handiwork. Later on, we even managed to meet some of the embroiderers themselves.
As mentioned above, you can also get goatskin products in Kashmir. Goats are the primary livestock in Kashmir, providing milk, meat and hair. Goat herding in Kashmir is almost completely free range, and organic, just by default. I remember having to explain modern animal husbandry to our new friends when we met in Pokhara, so that they could better describe how they rear goats by comparison.
The most common souvenir goatskin products are various kinds of bags. They are usually embroidered with hamdani style embroidery (upper right on the photo collage in the ’embroidery’ section above).
This souvenir probably requires shipping it home. (Not that I haven’t lugged a carpet up and down planes, up and down steep hill steps in Granada, and across arched Venetian bridges…). Anyway, Kashmir is also famous for carpet-making, which isn’t surprising because of the strong Persian cultural influence. Our friends in Kashmir are themselves a family of master carpet weavers.
You can visit carpet shops that have a tour to explain the craft of carpet-making. This was when I learned that the very common paisley pattern in Indian fashion represents a fist print. Apparently, a great Indian king had used it as his seal, so from then on this shape has come to symbolise high class and royalty.
Kashmiri carpets are invariably hand-knotted, on traditional looms at home. They can be quite pricey; but that’s because they are made by hand, not mass produced, and each design is unique in some way.
Carpets you’ll find in Srinagar are usually silk, but local people use wool carpets due to their cold winters. Depending on where you shop, you might also be able to get carpets woven by Kashmir’s nomadic people. These would have been commissioned beforehand, and the nomad family would weave it as they travel.
Nuts & dried fruits
Kashmir also grows an abundance of nuts. Walnuts and almonds, for instance, are common. Almonds are so common that our houseboat host gave me a whole bag. That was how I got some almonds even though the shops weren’t open.
They also grow many kinds of fruit in Kashmir. We passed by many stores on the way to the floating vegetable market that advertised dried fruits. It was a shame none were open.
Anyway, if you are the kind of person who prefers edible souvenirs, then you’ll be able to stock up on nuts and dried fruit. Unless you’re also from a place that grows these locally, I reckon they would likely be far, far more affordable here than back home.
How can you think of Kashmir and not think of saffron? Kashmir is one of the few places in the world that grows saffron as an industry. Indeed, we had planned to visit a saffron farm of our friends’ relative, and get some real saffron as well. However, lockdown meant that people could not freely travel around Kashmir, and we could not go.
Saffron is one of the ubiquitous souvenirs you’ll come across in Srinagar. It is typically sold in tiny plastic boxes in 1 gram amounts. However, unless you know what you’re looking at (and we didn’t), it’s hard to tell whether it’s real saffron or not, or a mix. Our friend had intended to come with us to shop for saffron in Srinagar’s local shops to make sure we got the real thing (and not get shafted), but it was moot as the shops were all closed.
That said, we encountered many, many boatmen peddling saffron. A saffron merchant who visited the houseboat even demonstrated real saffron to us, mashing some in water to display the strong yellow colour and saffron smell, compared to fake saffron. However, bear in mind that just because a merchant shows you the difference, doesn’t mean that the ones he actually sells is 100% genuine!
We bought some, and I think they are either not real saffron, or adulterated with fake or low quality saffron. For starters, it’s too cheap, even considering the lockdown situation and the sellers desperate for income. We found prices as low as 200 rupees a gram. The main reason why we bought saffron was because we thought we might not meet up with our friend again, having lost him at the airport. That, and because we felt we should spend, to help in a difficult time.
Papier mache products
Papier mache items are souvenirs that I did not know were associated with Srinagar, beforehand. It was only when we were boat touring the mostly-closed floating souvenir stores within Dal Lake that I saw the shop signs, and became curious. In my mind, ‘papier mache’ looks like the stuff I made in primary school. In other words, not exactly high art. To my surprise, I peeked into a window and instead saw objects that look more like the fine lacquerwork of Vietnam!
Had the shops been open, I have a feeling that I would have bought papier mache souvenirs. For more about Kashmiri papier mache craft, check out this article.
Flower seeds & bulbs
Kashmir is fantastic for horticulturalists. There are many gardens in Srinagar, and it’s easy to get fresh flowers here. Some are even grown in the lake itself, in floating flower nurseries fertilised by lake bed sediment, which we saw people scooping out.
Consequently, depending on your country’s customs regulations on importing plants, you can get flower seeds and bulbs as souvenirs from Srinagar. Some of the gardeners visit the houseboats to peddle packets of seeds, and sometimes flower bulbs. They were about 170 rupees per envelope of seeds.
The seed sellers would typically have a catalog that shows the photo of what the flowers will look like, but they rarely know the English horticultural names. As my mom is an avid gardener, I showed her the photos so that she can gauge which ones had a shot of growing in our hot equatorial climate. This is how I learned that you can’t really rely on the photos, since quite a few of the seed packets actually sprung out the same plants.
Gemstones & jewellery
Kashmir has precious stone lodes in its mountains. For instance, it has one of the finest sapphire lodes in the world. Someone told us that a Kashmiri sapphire had just sold at a Hong Kong auction for millions of dollars. But gemstone jewellery was also a common souvenir among the boatman sellers in Dal Lake.
I think ‘buyer beware’ applies in this case, since there’s no way to know whether the stones are genuine. Buy them in this way if you like the jewellery as souvenirs, and don’t care if it isn’t real. That way you’d have no regrets. The jewellery style is not very diverse, mostly catering for a more local/Indian style. I think they should diversify and modernise the designs. They would have been more difficult to resist then.
I’m sure there are actual shops on shore where you can get properly certified gemstones, if you were looking for jewels.
You immediately know that wood carving is a Kashmir craft upon arrival at Srinagar airport. The military don’t let you take any photos inside the airport, so not many people know this. But the inside of Srinagar airport is finished with a lot of carved wood, beautifully done.
The houseboats of Srinagar are also often ornately carved. From the ceilings to the verandah railings, Kashmiri woodcarving is on display. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that carved wooden items are among the souvenir products that you can shop for in Srinagar.
Should you haggle for souvenirs in Srinagar?
Haggling is ok when shopping for souvenirs in Srinagar. We didn’t haggle hard, since we knew the prices were already low; the lockdown made it a buyer’s market.
I advise you to use your intuition to know when to haggle hard, and when not to. Merchants aren’t necessarily equally in hardship; some are just scraping by, but others are just wily. And if you find out later you could have haggled more, I’m guided by the wise words of our diplomatic driver long ago in Morocco, when my dad told him how much we bought my carpet for: “If you like it, then it’s not expensive.”
Should you buy souvenirs from shikara merchants or from the shops in Srinagar?
You will certainly be approached by shikara merchants, selling souvenirs from their boats. It can get difficult to resist looking at their wares, since it is so easy and they are very persuasive. In our case, the shops were not open anyway, so they were almost the only ways we could get any souvenirs from Srinagar. But if the shops are open, you might be better off resisting until you can visit them to see the differences in quality, range and price.
In terms of souvenir shops in Srinagar, you can find them onshore in the Dal Lake area and in the city. But there are also the shops within Dal Lake itself, among its lake islands. People on the lake islands are all employed in crafts – shawl weaving, embroidery, wood carvings, papier mache etc.
The shikara boat sellers will say their goods are less expensive than in the shops. I don’t know if this is true, like for like. I mean, if it’s cheaper but it’s not the same quality, that doesn’t count. However, I do know that if you somehow manage to shop in the factories and warehouses, these will be cheaper than the boat merchants. But then again, we only got to do that because we eventually found our friend, who actually has them in his network.
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.