Kashmir is a beautiful state of fertile valleys, rivers and lakes surrounded by mountains so steep, high and snow-capped that it looks as if a child has drawn them. So often has it been called Heaven on Earth that this is now almost an official title. Sadly, its disputed borders (involving India, Pakistan and China) have meant that travellers visit at their own risk.We were there last weekend, and came quickly to accept how fitting is that Heaven on Earth title. I will write soon on the magical seventeenth century Mughal gardens cut into the hillsides of the Kashmir Valley, and currently undergoing major restoration.
The main line of work in Kashmir is agriculture, and we saw a fascinating example of this, in the floating vegetable gardens and sunrise markets centred on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Vegetables have been produced on islands in the lake since at least the time of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Many of the vegetable plots are located on artificial islands, their soil supported on reed rafts and enriched by composted pond weed. Vegetables including radishes, carrots, onions, cauliflowers and turnips, plus brightly coloured flowers, are all cultivated on these floating plots; during the rains, the small-scale farmers turn to melons, peas and squash for their ability to clamber up supports and away from the risk of rot in the wet soil.
Every morning at sunrise the farmers gather on the lake in their narrow boats (known as shikaras) and sell the produce they have harvested. When we were there, there was something of a glut of kohlrabi, but it was still magical to see the boats gliding quietly through the water, the brightly coloured vegetables and flowers laid out for purchase.
By 6.30am the sales for the day are complete and the little boats slip away.
The work is no doubt hard – and are there are increasing worries about the impact on the lake of encroachment and soil run-off from the many vegetable plots. Yet at sunrise among the shikara-wallahs and the local farmers it was difficult not to feel we were indeed experiencing Heaven on Earth.