- The sun was setting over the magnificent Himalayan mountains. I remember holding tight to my mother’s hand while stepping up the rickety wooden stairs leading to the houseboat.
As Mother’s Day gets closer, I dream of a childhood trip to Kashmir. We took a train to Jammu. The winter capital of the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. After that, we rented a taxi to go to Srinagar. It was a scenic 8-hour drive up the mountains.
We stopped at a roadside dhaba halfway and had rajma flavored with crushed pomegranate seeds (anardaana) and basmati rice. After that mom and I slept. Dad chatted with the taxi driver, watchful of road hazards. It took us almost all day to reach Dal Lake. A gondolier with heart-shaped paddles ferried us to our destination for the night. A Kashmiri houseboat. A row of wooden houseboats was bobbing on the placid surface of the lake.
Dad negotiated a price for a modest accommodation. We were tired from our drive and the sight of colorful recliners on the balcony of our “boat home” was a welcome change after the road trip. The sun was setting over the magnificent Himalayan mountains. Making everything golden. I remember holding tight to my mother’s hand while stepping up the rickety wooden stairs leading to the houseboat. Gulbahar. A spring flower. It was a color of the blue Himalayan poppy trimmed with a soft yellow paint probably made from the golden petals of delicate potentials, and marigolds.
It was a magical place. A floating haven. My dad who was six foot three had to crouch in the houseboat but everything seemed perfect for my small proportions. We explored our bedroom. A large carved walnut bed was covered in a white Aari work embroidered bedspread. The artisan had made an exquisite garden of trumpet-shaped blue gentians, orange star-shaped geums, and pink tulips on white linen. Mom took in the ambiance with appreciation and smoothed the coverlet. Then she went to inspect the utilities. Once she was convinced that everything was clean, dad handed a bundle of rupees to the owner of the houseboat.
We washed up and went to the dining room where a Kashmiri repast awaited us on an oval brass filigree table. I don’t remember everything except the taste of freshly barbecued chicken that my father fed me or the fragrant Morelli (Gucchi) mushroom pulao. But my mother talked about the elaborate khatamband ceiling made of a myriad of pieces of cedar wood hand-fitted together like a large geometric jigsaw puzzle. A delightful example of Kashmiri artisanship.
The next day, our houseboat owner Zohaib arranged a small shopping excursion for us. Dad bought a hand-knotted silk carpet, embroidered wall hangings, phirans, paper mache jewelry boxes and reversible Jamawar shawls for relatives and friends in the plains. I proudly display some of the treasures in my home but my American friend has an entire elaborately carved walnut wood dining room set from the valley. I have dined at his table and listened to his accounts of Kashmir.
That evening, my eyes heavy with sleep, I peeked out from a round window. An enormous moon was rising, pulling the vanishing gondolas in and out of a silvery twilight. I can close my eyes and draw the outlines of houseboats from memory.
In the morning, we were served breakfast on the balcony. Zohaib poured the traditional pink Kashmiri “Nun” cha out of an ornate antique copper samovar. I dipped my finger in the tea. To my surprise it was salty. Dad and mom enjoyed this milky beverage brewed with fresh green tea. Garnished with chopped almonds and sea salt. I did not drink the tea. I relished the aroma that wafted from the buttered small round czhot. Freshly baked at the corner bakery or Kaanadar. Golden on top, with concentric finger indentations.
Kashmiris love their different breads. A contribution from the Persian and Chinese travelers along the famous “Silk Road” from the second century. We lingered on the balcony and watched the glimmering waters blend with the floating lotus flowers on the lake. Mom visited with the talkative vendors of floating vegetable and flower gardens in open boats. We savored a delicious lunch of kebabs, kulchas and nadru palak (spinach and lotus roots). We took another nap in our houseboat. Soon the day was over.
As we stepped down from Gulbahar to our shikara, my dad told me about the history of Kashmir and houseboats. I recently refreshed my memory to share it with you. As per a Puranic legend, Kashmir originated from a lake called Sat-saras. In ancient days, Rishi Kashyapa, one of the Saptrishis, (the seven ancient sages of Rigveda) meditated in the Himalayas. He drained the Kashmir valley of a vast lake inhabited by a sea monster (Was it real or just a monster of stagnant thought and ignorance?) The area was named after him Kash- Mar aka Kashmir.
The lush valley is still intersected by several rivers and dotted with lakes.
British colonizers loved to visit the mountains in the summertime but the Dogra king did not allow non-Kashmiris including the British to own land here. Hotels and Airbnbs were not common in those days. So they converted cargo boats into flotillas to travel the waterways, similar to boats in Venice or Amsterdam. In those days, the houseboats were smaller and mainly traversed on the Jhelum river. Overtime they became larger, and more luxurious. They were moored on the Dal and Nigeen Lakes, and available for those who could pay the price.
Today, I peer into the filigreed bottom of a lotus flower in my vase and wonder how long this legacy will survive in Kashmir? Sadly political turmoil, and terrorist insurgency is rampant in this “Heaven on Earth.” Kashmiris love to welcome tourists but the ongoing unrest has contributed to a shortage of skilled artisans to build and maintain houseboats. And yet I yearn to go to this special place. Perhaps this spring, the “Milk Goddess” Kheer Bhawani, the kul devi (patron deity) of Kashmiri Hindus where my parents prayed for my birth will call me to her“Tulmul” abode that has the Goddess imbued in a sarovar that changes color. Fringed by mulberry trees and deodars. My mountain home in the Himalayas.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.