Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, wrote of Kashmir as 'a garden of eternal spring, an iron fort to a palace of kings - a delightful flower-bed, and a heart-expanding hermitage for the mendicant'. In some ways Srinagar was the loveliest part of the Mughal empire. Cherished for its location amidst the Himalayan mountains where beautiful wild flowers grow, where the streams are always bubbling with crystal clear water, and the gentle breeze is scented with the aroma of mountain herbs. Akbar brought this region into his empire in 1586 and he, his sons, and grandsons spent time and money in building gardens and palaces to enhance the natural splendour of the valley.
Srinagar is today the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and lies 1730 meters above sea level in the center of the Kashmir valley. The name Srinagar implies a city (nagar) marked by distinctive beauty and dignity, abundance, and affluence (shri). The city is situated amidst a ring of mountains, with three lakes, the Dal, Sona, and the Nagin, and the river Jhelum gently meanders through it on its course to the wide plains below the valley. It is not one monument or building but the natural location of the city and the distinctive quality of the architecture the claims the attention and admiration of visitor and tourist.
It is the natural beauty of the valley, the lakes with its houseboats and floating flower gardens, the formal yet exquisitely laid-out formal Mughal gardens, the ancient buildings and quaint wooden architecture of Kashmir, that capture the romance of Srinagar.
The city has grown around the three lakes which lie in the central basin of the valley. To the north and north-east of the lakes are the Mughal gardens, Nazim, Shalimar, and Nishat. To the west of the lakes is the Hariparbat Hill on which Akbar built a splendid fort that overlooks the entire city. On the eastern side of the Dal lake is the Shankaracharya Hill atop which stands one of the most ancient temples of Srinagar. Due east is another popular garden called Chashma-i-Shahi and the Pari Mahal with its commanding location. South-east (five kilometers) of the town is Pandrethan where a lovely Shiva Temple still stands. To the south-west of the lakes, amidst the old city, is the magnificent old Jami Masjid and the Patthar Masjid (literally the stone mosque).
This is perhaps the oldest known site in Srinagar and a motorable road up to its summit provides a captivating view of the city below with its maze of streets, peaked rooftops, and shimmering lakes. On top of the hill is a small Hindu temple associated with Shankaracharya, a ninth century philosopher who is said to have traveled from Kerala to Kashmir holding discourses and discussions along the way to revitalize Hindu philosophy. Even today his commentaries and discourses are an invaluable means of understanding the abstract and intricate beauty of Hindu thought. Excavations at this site have suggested that there may have been a Buddhist monument here erected during the third century BC in the reign of Emperor Ashoka.
On the opposite side, between Srinagar city and Nagin lake, is a low hill held sacred by the goddess Durga with the Chakradhara temple on the north-western side which has a mosque that replaced the original structure on one side. Crowning the hill is the Hariparbat Fort built between 1592 and 1598. The other walls and gateways, though much restored, bear evidence that the Mughal emperor Akbar also contributed to the construction of this fort situated at this dramatic vantage point overlooking the lovely city of Srinagar. In accordance with the style of the day, the fort once contained many palace buildings, ceremonial halls, apartments for royalty, quarters for servants, but nothing of this Mughal past remains today.
On the southern side of the fort is the Shrine of Makhdum Sahib and relatively new mosque. The shrine draws hundreds of pilgrims as it is reputed for its healing powers. Below it is the Mosque of Akhund Mulla Shah built by Shah Jahan's favourite son Dara Shikoh. Like his great grandfather, the Mughal emperor Akbar, Dara Shikoh delighted in the study of religions and sacred texts of the ancient world. Unfortunately he was executed in 1659 by his brother Aurangzeb who succeeded Shah Jahan to the throne, so little of Dara Shikah's architectural heritage remains today. When Mohammed Dara Shikoh returned from Hijra (in 1640) he went to Kashmir and met Mulla Shah whom he called "the most perfect of the perfect, the flower of the Gnostics, the tutor of tutors, a sage amongst sages'. Dara Shikoh held several discoveries with this great Sufi teacher in his quest to find a unifying philosophy that would bind all the religions of the world together. The mosque built by Dara Shikoh is dedicated to Mulla Shah and is a unique structure built in stone rather than in wood. The grey limestone mosque stands in a quite garden surrounded by a stone wall.
At the foot of the Hariparbat hill stands the Gurudwara of guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth guru of the Sikhs. The shrine commemorates the visit of the sixth Guru to Kashmir during reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
A ten minute walk from the shrine of Makhdum Sahib is the great Friday mosque called Jama Masjid or Jami Masjid. The peaceful inner courtyard of the mosque is entered through arched openings at the center of each side of the rectangular enclosure wall. The arched doorway is crowned not by the usual domed roof so characteristic of Islamic architecture, but with tall pyramid-shaped pagoda-type towers that dominate the landscape of Srinagar. The sloping roof of the enclosure is held up by over 370 pillars, each one an entire tree-trunk of deodar (a distinctive, local, evergreen tree).
The mosque was originally built at the end of the fourteenth century but suffered great damage after fires in 1479 and 1674. In 1841, in the reign of Maharaja Sher Singh, it was rebuilt and enlarged to its present proportions and remains one of the best example of the cross-cultural fertilization of the architecture of Kashmir.
Shah Hamadan Mosque to the south is another fine example of the wooden architecture of Kashmir. Though it was built in the fourteenth century it has also been renovated several times. The elegant so-called Patthar Masjid across the river is a stone mosque built in 1623 by the empress Nur Jahan, the legendary beauty and wife of the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
Srinagar was developed by the Mughal rulers as a retreat from their capitals-Agra, Delhi, and Lahore. When the heat of the plains became intolerable they found cool comfort in the garden palaces of Kashmir. Nazim Bagh, the Garden of the Morning Breeze, was the earliest garden built by the Mughals. It was constructed to the west of the Dal lake by Emperor Akbar, but unfortunately very little of it remains. Nishat Bagh, the Garden of Happiness, was built during the reign of Jahangir. Situated to the north-east of the Dal lake it affords a spectacular view of the hills and the water. The Chashma-i-Shahi, the Royal spring, is an exquisite garden designed around a natural spring. It was built for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan by his provincial governor.
Shalimar Bagh, situated on the north-eastern end of the Dal lake, is perhaps the most beautiful of all the Mughal gardens of the Indian subcontinent. The garden was constructed by Nur Jahan, wife of Jahangir, though renovated and supplemented by subsequent rulers. The plan of the garden is based on the Persian charbagh design in which a square garden is divided into four equal parts by water channels laid out to form a cross. The garden were constructed at three levels. The lowest was a public garden with a pavilion, the Diwan-e-Am, with a black marble throne where the emperor is said to have sat in public audience. The middle level was the emperor's garden, and above it is the zenana garden for the private pleasure of the ladies of the harem. From this exalted place they enjoyed the best view of the location. At the center of the cross-shaped water channel of the zenana is the Black pavilion added by Shah Jahan in 1630. It is a beautiful, curious hybrid structure with a three-tiered sloping roof that conforms to indigenous wooden architecture, with stone pillars and carved brackets comparable to the ones seen in the Mughal forts of Agra and Delhi. The water channels were once filled with fragrant water which cascaded down from one garden level to the next. Oil lamps were placed in the chini-kanas (trellised pigeon-holes), and as water flowed over them a fairy light effect of shimmering cascades was created. The gardens were once adorned with trees and plants that the Mughals and their wives adored. There was an assortment of evergreen trees and blossoming fruit trees: the stately chinar or oriental plane tree, the straight and regal cypress, fruit trees like the apple and plum which brought forth bouquets of lovely bright blossoms in spring. The blend of seasonal (temporal) and evergreen (constant) trees was symbolic and aesthetically pleasing.
Among the favorite spring flowers were the iris, narcissi, and bright torches of tulips, while the summer brought cascades of sweet-smelling jasmine and roses, brilliant sprays of peonies and delphiniums. Between May and October a son et lumiere is held at Shalimar Bagh in the evenings to capture the fairyland effect of this lovely garden palace of the Mughal princes.
What's In The Neighbourhood
A stroll through the old city of Srinagar can be an interesting experience, for the Kashmiri is also a talented artist and salesman. There are wooden and silk carpets that echo the carpets of old, embroidered clothes and firens (the baggy over-shirt worn over even baggier trousers by men and women), and brightly painted objects made out of papier mache. The Shri Pratap Singh Museum near Raj Bagh has an interesting collection of stone sculptures from Hindu temples of the region, samples of handicrafts and textiles, especially some exquisite shawls. There are some archeological objects from places like Burzahom (16 kilometers from Srinagar) where a neolithic site dating back to 2400 BC was recently unearthed. At Pandrethan, a twelfth century Shiva temple has been constructed at the center of a spring tank. This temple made of limestone has a delightful sloping Kashmiri roof, gabled porches, and classical columns. Of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu architectural heritage of Kashmir little remain except for two superb examples at Avantipur (28 kilometers from Srinagar) and the ancient Sun Temple of Martand at Matan (101 kilometers from Srinagar). These are classic eighth-ninth century examples of local stone architecture reflecting influences from Gandharan art and indigenous wooden prototypes. The ruins of the Martand temple are located in a beautiful setting against the backdrop of the hills on a high plateau overlooking the plains. Though ruined, the massive proportion of the temple with colonnades and sculptured detail is very impressive. Conforming to the wooden model, the temple has sleep sloping roofs as a precaution against heavy snowfall. The Martand temple is unique in form; other notable examples of the Sun Temple are those of Konarak (Orissa) and Modhera (Gujarat).
How To Get There
Srinagar is linked by road and air from Delhi and Jammu. The nearest railhead is 283 kilometers to the south. Srinagar is well-equipped for the traveler with an assortment of hotels, though many people would prefer to experiment with a stay in the well furnished house-boats on the Dal and Nagin lakes.
In Srinagar summertime begins with the festival of Baisakhi (13-14 April). Visits to the resort of Gulmarg, camping, and trekking are very popular during this time of year. Entry to Ladakh is also possible by road during the summer months when the roads are open.