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On the roof of the world; the vale of Kashmir.

On the roof of the WORLD

The verdant land of Kashmir, 5,300 feet above the sea--only slightly smaller than Great Britain--is surrounded by the world's tallest mountains, the Himalayas. It seems saffron-spangled meadows, gardens, lakes, and avenues of poplar trees are everywhere.

More than 7 million people live in Kashmir, which India and Pakistan have fought three wars over. In the words of the 19th-century Irish poet Thomas Moore, it is "the Eden of the Earth." The capital of this Eden is the "Venice of the East," the 1,400-year-old city of Srinagar. Laced with canals and bridges, Srinagar has more miles of waterways than of its narrow, crooked streets.

A common mode of housing in Srinagar is the cedar houseboat, a six-room floating palace typically 80 to 125 feet long and 10 to 20 feet wide. Houseboats came into widespread use at the turn of the century when Kashmir's maharajah issued an edict forbidding foreigners to own land. The British outwitted the maharajah by taking up residence in houseboats on Kashmir's many lakes, including the 12-square-mile, spring-fed Dal and Nagin lakes and the muddy-colored snow waters of the Jhelum River in Srinagar.

The Kashmiris have refurbished the British-inspired houseboats as private hotels with modern tile baths and hot water; chandeliers; fleece-stuffed quilts; embroidered, handmade curtains; silk tapestry sofa coverings; and hand-carved walls. A vase of fresh flowers brightens many tables.

The terrace serves as a sun deck and a place for morning workouts and evening cocktails. Each bedroom has a wood stove and an attached bathroom. The houseboats' simple design provides a living room, a dining room, and several bedrooms, one behind the other, with a corridor along one side.

Itinerant waterborne merchants cruise the lakes and eagerly sell flowers, vegetables, fruits, and various sundries. Uninterested parties must sometimes be firm with these people, who smilingly greet guests with "Salaam, sahib" and then insist the customer "not buy now, just look." Perhaps one can retreat to the secluded roof if they prove too persistent.

Most Kashmiris are Muslim. On special holy days they gather at the Hazratbal mosque to glimpse its great treasure, a thread of the Prophet's hair, which they regard as indestructible by fire.

In Srinagar's bazaars, turbaned old men sit cross-legged on the dirt floors of their shops and inhale Turkish cigarette tobacco from their hookahs. The muezzin calls "Allah akbar!" ("God is great!") from the minaret. Muslim women, heavily swathed in black or white cloaks, their eyes barely visible through mesh peepholes, dart among the crowds. Two-wheeled, horse-drawn tongas holding four passengers speed by with jangling bells. Unpainted brick and wood homes, mud roofs sprouting shrubbery and grass, tumble one over another to the water's edge.

The chinar, giant Oriental plane trees planted by the Moguls, are ubiquitous in Kashmir. Originally imported from Persia, today they exist only in that country (now called Iran) and Kashmir. They form the background to Shalimar, meaning "the Garden of Love" (for which the perfume is named), a lakeside garden sculpted four centuries ago out of the hillsides for Jahangir's empress, Nur Jahan, "Light of the World." Shalimar is resplendent with shady walks lined with stately trees and marvelous flower displays. A canal bisects a quartet of terraces. Fountains, languid pools, and waterfalls surround Jahangir's summer house, where he and the empress reclined on afternoons and evenings. From May to October, the garden presents a sound-and-light show tracing the history of the Moguls and the royal love story.

Thirty miles northeast of Srinagar is Pahlgam, 7,000 feet above sea level on the Liddar River, filled with trout. At the full moon in July-August, as many as 25,000 Hindu pilgrims and visitors to Kashmir leave Pahlgam for Amarnath shrine, a rock cave set in an uninhabited valley high in Kashmir's mountains.

Amarnath--"Place of the Immortal One"--is regarded as an abode of Siva, the greatest Hindu go, the god of both destruction and creation. Within the cave is an ice stalagmite pilgrims regard as a manifestation of Siva.

Emperor Jahangir once cultivated 21 varieties of flowers in Gulmarg--"Meadow of Flowers"--35 miles from Srinagar. At 8,500 feet high, it was the summer hill station of the British Resident. The 35 miles of countryside en route to Pahlgam and Gulmarg is marked by rural villages, sculptured rice paddies with knee-deep working men and oxen, ancient temples, and progressively higher mountains. Shepherds appear with flocks of sheep. Women balance on their heads baskets of cow dung (dried, Indians use it as charcoal and fertilizer). Girls pound garments with paddles near streams.

At Pampore on the way to Pahlgam, saffron sells for $1 a gram. It is the most expensive spice in the world. About 75,000 flowers produce one pound of saffron.

There are few places as remote as Kashmir where craftsmanship is as skilled or varied. The royal shawls (shahtoosh) are especially lovely. Their goats' wool is so soft and light that it can pass through a ring. Srinagar's Shahjee Sons shop has 12,000 shawls of different designs and colors; some are double color and reversible.

Kashmiris adopted papiermache making from the Persians and mad it a high art. Artisans today create durable trays, tie boxes, candlesticks, bowls, bracelets, and picture frames. They shred and pulp the paper before coating it with gold leaf and painting the objects with cat's-hair brushes and varnishing them.

Now that Iran and Afghanistan are off-limits to visitors, Kashmir has become one of the better places to buy an Oriental rug abroad. About 250 families work in Srinagar's Indo-Kashmir Carpet Factory, a cooperative in business since the 1940s. Some boys as young as six work nimbly at the wool looms after a half-day at school. Weavers earn $12 per square foot, averaging one-half inch every eight hours of work. The typical four-by-six-foot rug takes four to five months to complete. In 1987 the price was $1,200 to $1,300.

G. Q. Butt has been a rug weaver and seller for 54 years. His family has dealt in carpets for 400 years. Calling Kashmiri rugs "real pieces of art today and antiques of tomorrow," he recently guaranteed one for 100 years.

The moguls, given to poetic phrases, described Kashmir in lofty terms. A Persian poet wrote of Kashmir, "If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this." Countless travelers have found the spell of Kashmir irresistible and echoed similar praises.
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Author:Crowley, Carolyn Hughes
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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