Journey To The Vale Of Kashmir

Times Staff Writer

The Vale of Kashmir is golden with the rice crop at harvest time. In the high valleys it blows yellow in fields contoured to the lay of the land. Lower, peasants bend over woven straw mats to thresh the rice, slapping the grains from the sheaths. Others trudge along the narrow roads, heads and shoulders hidden beneath massive loads of straw. Golden cones of straw dot the fields, stacked by hand to dry in the still-warm autumn sun.

The road winds between the valley's streams and gentle slopes, leading from the far mountains into the city of Srinagar, and is lined with spindly nut trees, golden maples (called chinar trees) and gnarled apple trees heavy with their red fruit. In Srinagar three apples can be bought for a rupee, about 4 cents apiece.

And on the other side of the city is what everyone comes to Srinagar to experience: the idyllic life aboard a Victorian-style houseboat on lovely Dal Lake.

The reason the houseboats are there harks back to the days the English rushed from their provincial duties in steamy India in the south to the resort area of Kashmir in the north. Finding that the maharaja barred them from purchasing land in Kashmir, the enterprising British built themselves elaborate summer homes just offshore. The style has changed little since the first boat was built in 1888.

Dawn and dusk are the special times on a houseboat at Dal Lake.

It was still dark when I first heard the chanting--a single voice, a clear tenor, a sonorous and haunting resonance that drifted from some nearby shore. After a time other voices joined in and a chorus rose into the silence, melting it just as the sun melted away the night. I've never sensed such peace.

As the day drifted by and we floated up and down the lake, reclining like royalty on the cushions of our shikara, being paddled to and fro by a cheerful servant from our houseboat, I noticed something wonderful about the people of Srinager. They sing routinely.

If three girls are sitting at tea and the conversation lulls, one or another might start humming an aimless tune. If a small boy is out alone, paddling along in a hollowed-out log boat, he is more likely than not to chant a drifting melody. It would be unheard of to comment on whether one can "carry a tune" as if it were a mere object of conveyance. A song is not for a reason or a judgment. It just is. The poorest person in India is the owner of nature's cheapest and finest instrument, the human voice. I felt like singing.

To say that there is poverty in India is to belabor the obvious, but there it is, even in lovely Srinagar--the heart-clutching, mind-numbing evidence of too many people with less than the subsistence of life and health.

Ramshackle houses, holes in the wall, hollow rooms behind open doorways, even old houseboats rotten and listing in shallow canals--are all filled to bursting with babies, thin dogs, little boys who smoke cigarettes, tired old women and young mothers. Men sit around the storefronts, dusty shelves of faded merchandise, smoking from hookahs and coughing.

Their country cousins have hookahs at the edge of every rice field--relaxation from the harvesting, a break from the weary road between field and farm. They trudge along, men and donkeys, nearly buried beneath their loads of rice straw. Cars and buses honk constantly, swerve to miss them at the last minute.

Perhaps better off, but still raggedy and poignant, are the children in the dugouts who spy a tourist in a shikara from half a lake away. They row with all their might to come alongside and throw golden water lilies into the shikara in hopes of getting rupees in return.

Across the Water

Sounds carry on the lake: the singsong of children pulling lilies, people chanting as they tend their floating gardens, the dip of an oar into the water, a distant conversation.

Our boat was the Texas. Others included the Pinafore, Switzerland, Helen of Troy, the In Door.

"How do you decide on a name?" we asked our host.

"We look in books," he replied. "I see Texas. Big country. Big boat."

Names designed to appeal to the taste of visitors: Miss America, Happy Dawn, Two Princes.

The houseboats are flat-bottomed, very stationary, and generally furnished in something that might be called English chintz. Steps from the water lead up to a little veranda--a favorite place for just sitting--and inside are a parlor, formal dining room, and two or three bedrooms, each with its own bath. Atop is a sun deck.

Amenities may include such basics as hot water and extra blankets, right on up to TV sets and chandeliers in the dining room. Meals are generally included in the price. Standards vary widely and so does the quality of the cuisine.

The Texas was painted white (unlike most, which are natural wood tones) and the owner was pleased to note that a French magazine had chosen his houseboat for a fashion spread. White latticework and white ruffled curtains enclosed the veranda. Inside were hand-carved walnut tables, hand-embroidered cushions and draperies, and Mohammed, who had donned a formal white jacket to serve us our dinner.

Personal Servant

There is nothing quite like having a full-time personal servant at one's beck and call. That may not be how Mohammed would define his role, but that seemed to be the case. He couldn't read or write, but he spoke Kashmiri, Hindustani and a little English. He rowed us about in the shikara, from houseboat to shore, to town, to the crafts shops of his friends. He served our meals, brought us tea, purchased marmalade for us at a store in town.

To lift a finger for ourselves, or even decide to go explore the city on our own, we had to firmly insist that Mohammed take a break.

All around the edges of the city the home gardeners were harvesting chilies. The long red plants lay in rows upon rows, on every tin roof, and spread on straw mats and porches, to dry in the sun.

Dal Lake at one end disappears into the lily pads and the floating gardens, becoming an increasingly overgrown maze of canals lined with vegetation. Purple mountains ring the valley and thick white clouds ring the mountains, making it hard to imagine life beyond the Vale of Kashmir.

The English were not the first to discover Kashmir. Mogul emperors vacationed here in the mile-high valley sheltered by the mighty Himalayas. Some of their lavish formal gardens are beautifully kept to this day. The Kashmiris are mostly Muslim, and there are many mosques in the area.

There is little heavy industry in the valley, but fine handicrafts abound: embroidered linens, woolen goods, woodcarvings, carpets and papier-mache. Government Handicraft Emporiums are scattered around the city; the main one is housed in old British Residency buildings by the Bund. It's a good place to buy things or just for checking quality and what's available.

Nearby is a shop called Suffering Moses, which has the reputation for high-quality handicrafts. The proprietor is a renowned local character, who is said to chase from his shop anyone he deems unworthy to buy his wares. Another shop with fine rugs and crewel work is Asia Craft.

Two popular day trips from Srinagar are to the mountain resorts of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Gulmarg, a ski resort in winter, has one of the highest golf courses in the world, and in the fall and winter when the air is brilliantly clear one of the highest mountains in the world is visible. That's 28,000-foot Nanga Parbot in Pakistan. Pahalgam is a good place for camping and a photographer's joy for views of the mountains, rivers, forests and wildflowers.

Even if all the meals are included in the price of a houseboat, a most refreshing experience in fair weather is to have lunch on the lawn at the elegant Oberoi Palace Hotel on the far side of the lake, around the boulevard from Dal Gate. It's the former palace of the Maharaja of Kashmir and is a fine place to sit and watch the lake or the other privileged people seated nearby.

Two firms that handle houseboat rentals in Srinagar are TCI (Transportation Corp. of India), 3255 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 808, Los Angeles 90010, and Odyssey Tours, 1831 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 120, Santa Monica 90403. The Government of India Tourist Office is at 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010.

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