My father tells me stories about growing up in Kashmir. He describes it as a wealth of natural beauty tucked high away in India's north, with unique cuisine and local craftsmanship. While years of political unrest makes this state especially interesting to the curious traveller, much of what he remembers has since been washed away.
Kashmir is a war-torn territory that is currently split into three main zones: the northwest belongs to Pakistan, India controls the central and southern portion, and the northeast is part of China.
In the 60s, Kashmiri nationalists tried to form an independent state, and in the midst of political uncertainty, tourism has taken a hit.
Often dubbed the "Switzerland of India," the valley of Kashmir finds itself between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range. My father would talk of breathtaking mountaintop sceneries paired with an evening view of houseboats on Dal Lake. Towards the end of the summer, lotus flowers would blossom on the floating garden.
Five years ago he took me to Kashmir. We stood in front of Dal Lake as I closed my eyes and listened to his words, trying to imagine what he saw 50 years ago. When I opened, I was underwhelmed. A lake that was once a popular paradise was reduced to murky waters. The serenity it would once bring now feels eerie.
While shikaras still mark the water today, environmental deterioration and heavy pollution has stricken Dal Lake. Houseboating was a common choice for visitors to Kashmir. Wealthy artists and movie stars would boast about the luxury and tranquility found here.
Today, many of those same houseboat hotels are run-down -- the wooden structures are rotting and there is little to no maintenance work being done to improve conditions. Tourists are better advised to stay in hotels and visit the lake by day.
The state is mainly divided between Hindus and Muslims. The beauty of this heavily disputed territory comes in the form of monuments, textiles and religious shrines which draw influences from rulings of different times.
While the face of Jammu and Kashmir has changed over the years, the cuisine does not fail to deliver. Traditional cooking is catered to a non-vegetarian palette -- the signature dish is a yoghurt-based lamb curry called yakhni, often paired with white rice and other curried vegetables. Mouth-watering meat dishes are typically followed by kahwa -- a traditional green tea spiced with saffron, cardamom and ginger.
Kashmir is also the place to get your hands on true pashminas. About a two-hour drive east of Srinagar Airport is the town of Pahalgam. Here, local artisans line the streets selling colorful shawls, carpets and embroidered ponchos. Visitors can ride ponies up to a scenic meadow, known to locals as Baisaran or "Mini Switzerland." Each summer a three-day Hindu pilgrimage leaves from Pahalgam to Chandanwari.
When we returned from Kashmir my father said it brought him closure. I think that he still closes his eyes today, and imagines the paradise the north once was. The place he left behind looks better than the one he came back to.
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