Most Europeans would not entertain the idea of visiting Kashmir. Last year there were quite a lot of disturbances there and for years it has been plagued by the unhappy politics being played out by India and Pakistan. I ask myself whether this is this the price you pay when there is so much beauty as everyone wants a part of it?
Kashmir was in the hands of a Hindu Maharaja at the time of Independence but it always had a large Muslim population. At Independence there was an expectation that it would go to Pakistan but in fact the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession which was accepted by the Indian government. The resulting war in 1947 produced a divided state where India claims the majority of it but there is also Azad Kashmir administered by Pakistan and Aksai Kashmir administered by China. Throughout the years disputes, militancy and armies have kept this region on the edge and its people have suffered endless hardship and injustices.I cannot lie- the military presence was everywhere. Barbed wire fences, sand bags, barricades, smart and large Indian soldiers wielding weapons and impressive army establishments like the High Altitude Warfare Institute are all around you.
Our balcony on the houseboat
The dining and sitting room
The bird life is right there in front of you swooping and singing all day long
All the more reason to say enough - these handsome people should not suffer any more and need to be supported to promote the beauty of their country and the two or indeed three dominating countries have to find a peaceful way forward. I will not lose sleep over this or hold my breath but feel I need to say it as I come from a divided country too- probably the last in Europe and half my homeland is under occupation 37 years since it was invaded by the Turkish army but I still hope that one day there will be a settlement which will allow us to live and prosper, side by side, in our own beautiful land.
So we visited Kashmir and it was truly magnificently beautiful and strangely one of the most peaceful places I have been to in India. Shrinagar is the capital of the state and we stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake. As often when I am faced with new situations I question how things came to be- who started the tradition of houseboats and why. Part of it was the reluctance of the Maharaja to allow anyone to own land and the increasing desire of the Britishers to spend time in this cool paradise. Doonga boats were introduced to house them and they eventually lead to the sophisticated, elaborate and plush houseboats that you can now find on Nageen and Dal lake all of which are almost exclusively used by tourists and which are stationary but come complete with wood carved ceilings and ornate balconies facing the lake, electricity, Kashmiri carpets and flush toilets and a cook who prepares and serves aromatic Kashmiri food.
The Lakes are surrounded by high mountains- I could have been on lake Leman, lake Como or Annessy in France - but this was even better because the best way to move around on the lake was on a shikara, a shallow wooden boat with an awning and cushions to recline on, steered with a single heart shaped paddle by an obliging Kashmiri through the lotus and marigold flowers. The light plays games with the colour of the water and the mountains cast their reflection downwards to add to the aura. More on the the areas around the lake in my next blog.
The heart shaped paddle
The lotus flowers in bloom
Our wonderful shikara man Lhasa who spoke the Queens English and had never been to school.