The Dal Lake is the heart of Srinagar, the center of all life prevailing. The beauty, the vibrancy and cultural radiance at Dal Lake encompasses within itself a life which boasts to be unique anywhere in the world.
The houseboats and Shikaras have existed on the lake for centuries with a wholesome and amazing infrastructure inclusive of markets (floating!), doctors, tailors, bakers, post office, and conveyance (Shikaras!). The lake freezes over during extreme winters but the life on the lake is always flowing!
A Mughal fort towering above on one side of the lake, surrounded by high rise snowcapped mountains on another, a boulevard lined with gardens of Mughal era, exclusive Kashmiri handicraft emporiums and a number of scenic spots on the lake itself, Dal presents a charming and intriguing picture of Kashmiri lifestyle. Anyone who is visiting Srinagar is quintessentially thinking of a house boat stay and a Shikara ride. Shikaras are the only means of conveyance for those living on the lake; and for a tourist a Shikara ride gives an insightful glimpse into the life and culture of Kashmiris.
At a rate of Rs. 200 for half an hour and Rs 300 for one hour, Shikaras are available from the Shikara stands. If you wish to spend more time or cover longer distances, you can easily negotiate with the ‘Shikarawallahs’ who contrary to the popular belief are helpful and don’t take undue advantage of the tourists.
The most striking thing about the Dal lake is the presence of hundreds of house boats with artfully designed interiors, excellent Kashmiri wood carving, Kashmiri embroidered curtains and Kashmiri carpets. The families of house boat owners, Shikara and shop owners and vegetable and flower cultivators have been existing on the Dal Lake for centuries.
The Shikara ride takes you to a number of spots such as Nehru Park, Kabootar khana, char chinar, floating garden, lotus garden, and floating market.
My personal favorite is the floating market which I make a point of visiting at every single opportunity. The vegetable floating market (which has to be visited between 5::00 AM to 7:00 AM!) is a unique scene. A 150 year old market, one of its own kinds in India floats on the largest water body, Dal Lake. The market is second only in the world to the rowing shops along the Mekong River in Vietnam. Approximately 12, 500 acres of land along Dal Lake is used for vegetable cultivation and generates business worth Rs. 35 million annually.
This market is most famous for its floating vegetable market but you will realize as you are riding on your Shikara that vendors on these floating markets sell almost everything that can be possibly thought of. I was literally bombarded by mobile shops selling soft drinks, Kashmiri kehwa, jewelry, wooden artifacts, flowers, vegetables and even a floating photo studio!
A floating market called as Meena Bazaar is a major attraction. You can buy everything from Kashmiri shawls to papier mache artifacts and wood carving items to Kashmiri dry fruits. The myriad of colors and forms on the water makes up for a perfect picture for a photographer’s lenses. The traditional village is an interesting site and your Shikara owner can take you to visit the looms where shawls and carpets are being made.
One word of caution; don’t buy dry fruits or Saffron from these floating markets as you may get impure saffron which is Kashmiri saffron mixed with Iranian variety.
The lotus garden and the floating garden with their fragrant and colorful blooms, and a multitude of vegetables are an amazingly captivating site. The Kashmiris use the stems of the lotus flower as an important vegetable.
Enjoy a cup of Kehwa from a mobile café while moving past the various interesting spots to Kabootar khana. A lot of kingfishers and some migratory birds can be seen on the way.
The kabootar khana is a small island with a Mughal structure built by the Maharaja and used as summer palace by the queen. It is now home to a lot of pigeons. Close to it is the most talked about site on Dal Lake, char chinar. An island flanked by four feisty chinar trees, it is an ideal spot to spend some time simply admiring the milieu.
I have had the opportunity of taking Shikara rides on Dal Lake on a number of occasions but the sheer reverberance and the undying spirit of the Kashmiris never ceases to amaze me.