As I awoke today Sky news announced a massive earthquake somewhere in Pakistan, Afghanistan and North India. Clearly this was a big one and as it turned out during the day the epicentre was near Jurm, Badakhshan, Afghanistan and recorded as 7.5 on the Richter scale. It was enough to stop the Metro in New Delhi for fifteen minutes, 1200 miles away, but much more seriously at least 280 people nearer to the source have been killed so far. That number is likely to increase.

With the wonders of modern Internet, when it’s working in North India, we were able to establish within just a few minutes that our friends in Kashmir were safe.


Nepali family - PatanI heard last night that much of the Durbar square in Patan had been smashed in the appalling earthquake that hit Nepal recently. Anyone who has been to this extraordinary land-locked country will have been impressed by its beauty, the generosity of the people and the dire poverty.

Let us hope that the many international tourists and world heritage organisations will dig deep to restore as much as possible of this amazing place. Here is just one photograph of a typical family who are bound to have been affected.


Loot is an Indian word and William Dalrymple has just published an excellent article in the Guardian about a part of the brutal looting reign of the [English] East India Company. He cleverly links this with modern India and worlwide multinationals. A new book is promised next year.

Carving against the grain

Num panel and detailHouseboats are serious business in Srinagar, Kashmir and in two senses. In good times they are full and profitable but in the 20-year conflict they were largely left to decay. Then there is the puzzling law. No new houseboats are allowed at all and repairs are bounded by heavyweight bureaucracy, even a permit from Central Government. Meanwhile many of these iconic boats are starting to decay.

Recently there have been newspaper articles about the decline in woodcarving which is a major feature of these boats – “Kashmir’s famed woodcarving a dying art” says one paper. I have witnessed the resurrection of one of these boats and so here are some illustrations for the record.

The num or verandah on Mascot 1 Continue reading

Happy New Year and a great 2015

TBanjara - clap handshis photo of a Banjara Gypsy always cheers me up and I hope it does the same for you. It’s an old  shot (2003) taken at Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire in the Deccan which is a wonderful place in itself even though the Mughals rolled it over and the Empire ended in 1646. There is a lot to see and Hampi is a stunning World Heritage Site.

If you have not been there it is worth a pilgrimage.

Kashmir revisited 4

Typical houses on the river bank 3

Typical houses on the Jhelum River bank and the eagle tree.

I have given no clue as to the distinctive character of Srinagar city itself. It took me by surprise two years ago and I must put this omission right. Anyone who has shares in corrugated iron must be very content as I have never seen so much anywhere in India, and brand new sheets are going up daily as repairs continue. In contrast there are many rather rickety but engaging timber framed buildings lining the banks of the River Jhelum; no doubt these were once bordering on palatial. And they are very practical structures which have outlasted many other buildings of brick or concrete construction.

Here is one snapshot taken from the high water mark of the flood that gives some idea of these unusual structures that seem out of place compared with many other buildings in the subcontinent. Maybe it is a symbol of Kashmir’s singular identity and political complexity.

Kashmir revisited 3

Government flats - high water mark 2Just how high was the water in the floods? On the houseboat it was hard to tell except that it was possible to pick apples from the tops of the trees using a boat. At least 12’ perhaps 15’ ? In November I had to find a marker albeit from elsewhere. After exploring the city centre I came across an area of bland Government flats on the airport road well away from the river. The garden walls had gone and were nearly rebuilt but the tell-tale signs are still on the main rendered walls. The high water mark crosses the first floor windows and there are several lines below presumably as the sluice gates were able to drain away in stages. Incidentally many buildings in the centre are timber framed and flexible enough to resist the water pressure as well as the regular earthquakes. Much has been done and hopefully Kashmir will be back in business soon.

Kashmir: flashback – marooned

The storm - water spouts 2

The rain was like this for 5 days and nights almost non-stop.

Just two months ago I was in a disaster zone. Much of Kashmir valley was flooded including Srinagar when the Jhelum River burst its banks in the city centre. I knew little of this as we were on a houseboat just rising with the water. Back home people have commented on ‘fear’, ‘strain’, ‘safety’, ‘escape’, etc. It was not like that; it was more to do with ‘uncertainty’. Our friends had the strain as their house was flooded, they had to keep the houseboats safe and take care of us. Much of it was fun in spite of the potential catastrophe. The city centre was even worse although we did not know it until TV was restored. Here is a short picture story of our gangplank link to the land that explains itself. What it does not convey is the very strange feeling of being without power and any IT connections, just total reliance on word of mouth.


Continue reading

Kashmir revisited 2

The sides of the valleys are often well cultivated with many apple orchards, pulses, zeera, maize, rice, and the much-prized saffron. Although the heavy rains of September damaged many crops some such as vegetables thrived which is just as well as some 80% of Kashmir’s population depends on agriculture.


Gypsy camp near the Lidder Valley

Gypsy camp near the Lidder Valley

Typical village and hay loft

Typical village, walnut trees & hay loft

Kashmir revisited 1

Lidder valley towards Pahalgam

Lidder valley towards Pahalgam

After the record-breaking floods of September, the worst since 1903, we decided to go back to Kashmir in November. The main purpose was to pass on direct aid to those friends we had made and who had looked after us so well. Many thanks to those friends in the UK who contributed. The help was much appreciated by the families. The water has gone but the house is very damp, panelling warped, windows likewise and there is the prospect of the Chillai Kalan (40 days when the temperature stays between minus 3°C and 13°C), so drying out will take some time. This not a good time for chest infections, asthma etc. particularly for the older ones. The children have the garden back and have a fine time particularly as they don’t go back to school until March because of imminent snow. Continue reading

Kashmir houseboats – craftsmanship

Names such as Leh, Ladakh, Shalimar, Kashmir, and Amritsar arouse, excite, and beckon any curious traveller. Last year our regular agents TransIndus in London put together one of our most memorable trips. We had not been that far north in India and like many others before us were hooked by Kashmir. Through Mascot Houseboats (new website imminent) I learnt about the curious phenomenon of the houseboat born out of Maharajah Ranbir Singh’s refusal in the 1880s to allow outsiders like the British to cool off in the summer months and build on Kashmiri land. Thus this amazing floating tradition was established.

Nageen Lake - Srinagar

Nageen Lake – Srinagar

I have written about the record-breaking floods of September but it never occurred to me that some people would not know about the houseboats of Kashmir. So above is a general view across Nageen Lake that gives some idea. The boats, in varying condition, are big too, anything from 60 to 150 feet long, with two to four bedroom suites and about 14 feet wide. Then there is a small pantry for serving the dining room, a large lounge leading to the num or verandah. A true palace.
It is the craftsmanship that really impresses. I was lucky to see various stages in the restoration of a near wrecked hulk hauled out of the mud and after two years work, a mountain of bureaucracy, permits etc. it is due to be complete and ready for letting this month. Everything is carved and these two photographs just hint at the quality. It may even be the last of such fine work.

Kashmir Garden – unfinished panel (detail) with the carving tools

Chinar tree above the bed

Chinar tree (detail) above the bed.