Srinagar is THE City of Gardens. Don’t buy any advertising that says some other place is the Garden City. This. Right here. Is It.
We arrived a little too early in the year, and too soon after all the flooding, for anything to be ready or in bloom but you can see from the pictures how beautiful these places are, even in winter. Each of the gardens has a Rs. 10 entry fee whether you are Indian or a foreigner. They are well worth the visit, especially when the flowers and trees are in full bloom (end of February through October, I am told). When I return to India, I plan to also return to Srinagar for a week while these parks are in bloom.
But we weren’t there at the right time, so instead of visiting six or seven beautiful Mughal gardens, I visited two. It was not just because of the winter season either, a man in Nishal Bagh also convinced me that visiting these places alone in winter, without the benefit of security, was not a safe thing to do. But before we get to him, first the garden – Shalimar Bagh.
Shalimar apparently means “abode of love”. There was a small garden here around 139 A.D. with a cottage that has long since been lost. Then Emperor Jahangir, a Mughal emperor, in 1619 built the Mughal garden of Farah Baksh here to please his queen, Nur Jahan. Under Shah Jahan, the garden was again extended and renamed Faiz Baksh.
The popular name Shalimar Bagh, after a village that once existed near here, continues to this day as the popular name of the garden. The Mughals were so enamoured with Kashmir that under Emperor Jahangir, the Mughals made the arduous trek here to make this their summer home no less than 13 times, making the difficult high mountain passes on the backs of elephants.
The garden was again extended and additions made by the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Maharaja Hari Singh.
The fountains are connected by a channel to Dal Lake and in spring, summer and fall, water flows into the spectacular fountains here. The day I was there a massive tree had fallen over and workers were hard at work repairing and rebuilding one of the fountains at the marble palace, which was once the guest residence for European visitors to the Mughal court.
The little marble palace need some restoration work to bring it back to its original state but it is beautiful nonetheless.
So on to the sleazy guy shall we? I felt perfectly safe walking around Shalimar Bagh even though it was nearly empty and the sun would be setting shortly. There were a few young men in there along with a few couples. No one bothered me in anyway.
Next stop, Nishal Bagh. A few more people, a larger garden area and there. Right there, at the far end of the park, above the fountains where I got beautiful shots of the sun setting over Dal Lake… sleazy young man.
Now I wouldn’t have labelled him sleazy right off the bat. There was nothing sleazy about his clothes or his style. In fact, he had a four month old German Shepherd puppy with him and though he said “Hello” as I passed him, he seemed more focussed on teaching the young puppy to “sit” and “stay”. I ignored him and went about my walk through the park. I couldn’t ignore him for long though.
He began walking down the left-central pathway toward the entrance of the park. So I chose the right-central pathway, a few metres away. He said “Hello” again and asked “Where is your guide?” Red flag alert. He either a) wants to sell me tour guide services and is a hawker or b) wants to know where the males are, if they are with me at all, and if so, where. The A option didn’t bother me as much suddenly as the B option, which everyone has been warning me about. Don’t wander off alone, they said.
I took a quick survey of my surroundings and realized that I had moved all the way to the back of this park and away from other people. I had wandered off alone – alone except for this guy and his puppy. The nearest people were at least 70 metres below me near the front gate. I kept walking in that direction, trying not to show any anxiety at all, and said “My brothers and our guide are waiting for me down there.”, nodding toward the front gate area. Better to have two or three males waiting than one, I thought.
I kept walking. He said “What do you think of our garden?”, “Beautiful.” I said. I kept walking, one hand on the strap of my camera, the other on the handle of my kirpan. Something was really giving me the creeps about this guy and until I was back with other people, I was going to be ready to defend myself.
“What country are you from?”, “India”, “Kashmir?”, “No.” “You look young and beautiful.” Okay, buddy… you’re about 25 maybe? This can’t be a pick up, seriously? What are you up to? I kept walking. Closer now, 50 metres or so from the nearest other people. Why can’t there be just one or two walking toward me instead of away? Why?
“Thanks. You have a nice day.”
“My name is Ikhbar.” No response. I keep walking. “Your name?”
“You are very sexy. Can you sit with me for ten minutes?”, pointing at laneway that leads even further from the centre of the garden and further from other people.
“No. My brothers are waiting for me. I told them I would come right away.”
“You are sexy. Do you know sexy?”
“Uh-huh. Thank you and have a good day. I must be going.”
“Just five minutes”, he says, pointing at another laneway leading to the edge of the garden. “What is time?”
“Time is running out, Ikhbar. Good-bye.” I kept walking, 40 metres now. I can sprint that if I really need too in just a handful of seconds. Shouting distance for sure. People would see the scene if he tried anything. Inside the zone of safety. But also close enough that he will start to see that there aren’t two pale “brothers” waiting for me at the entry way. In fact, the park is seriously beginning to empty of people. A group of teens near the gate, an older couple just leaving the park,
“I like your body.” No response. Keep walking.
“I like your breasts.” Seriously? You’re sticking with this trying to pick me up garbage? What do you really want buddy?
Suddenly a Sikh man and his wife appear 5 or 6 metres away, off of one of the side paths that Ikhbar (or whatever his real name is) is pointing to. I swear Waheguru sent the Sikh family to make safe the situation. I walked just two or three metres behind them, the entire way to the gate.
While sleazy stalker boy continued:
“You are so sexy. I like your body. I like your breasts.” … over and over and over again. While I said “Okay goodbye” and “No, I won’t come sit with you.” I swear the gentleman in front of me figured out what was going on and slowed down on purpose to keep within range of me.
I never did figure out what he wanted. Maybe he was hoping for sex from an older, pale woman. Maybe he was trying to lure me down to the edge of the garden to rob me. Maybe worse. Either way, he was sleazy, not safe and he wanted something that I was not willing to give him. Maybe he was just sleazy, some guys are.
I followed the Sikh man and his wife toward the gate. Just 10 metres away, the group of young people started talking to Ikhbar, laughing at him. Most of the conversation was in Arabic but I caught the important bits. “It didn’t work this time?” “Ha ha, she is too smart for you brother.” I turned around at the gate, safe now and within eye shot of Jagdeep and the homestay owner, just long enough to see him hand off the dog to one of the young people and make his way back the way he came.
Outside, I asked the homestay owner whether any of the gardens had security at this time of year. He let me know that no, not for a few more weeks when the tourists would start coming to Srinagar. Until then, the parks are staffed only with ticket sellers outside. Do guys like this hang out in all of them or is this just Nishat Bagh? They are everywhere, I was told. So, no more gardens for me this trip. I would wait until I return to Srinagar, preferably with other travellers.
Given that the other gardens – Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Gardens, Chasme Shahi, Indira Gandhi Tulip Garden, etc would now be off my list, that shortened our list of things to see substantially. Though there were still beautiful mosques, temples and a fort to see though and a boat ride on Dal Lake, maybe some more hiking.
Over dinner, we discussed our experiences in Kashmir so far, including a realistic time frame for driving that highway. We discussed making our way back to Ramdan the following evening and staying there as a pit stop to the long haul to Pathankot. We talked about how worried our families and friends were after our problems near Ramdan. We decided that we would see how the following day, a Saturday, Valentine’s Day actually, went and if we were able to see everything AND still hit the road at a reasonable time, we would do just that. A decision we would regret in some ways later on.
Peace and love all,