Monday, May 22, 2017

Kashmir Tales – Walnut Wood Carving

Wood is just everywhere in Kashmir, but something is special at most places!
Last week I told you about how the heart of a city was dying in Kashmir, so today I decided to show you how and entire local industry of Kashmir has survived the test of time!

So much to see and so much to admire!
On my way back from Sonmarg to Srinagar, I stopped midway to click photos in the middle of nowhere, there - a small stream cascaded through a huge groove of seemingly dead old trees. While gazing around I noticed a group of three Shikaras loaded with pieces of wood trunks and two men unloading them from the shikara and transporting them in a small truck. Out of curiosity I asked out driver what that was? And if it was wood for bats – wooden bats are manufactured in great numbers in Kashmir. He said it was a ‘Budha Wontkul’ which meant old walnut tree and he said ‘Yeah Dal ya Baramulla jaega.’ (This will go to Dal Lake or Baramulla)

Walnut wood carving!
On our way back he told us how most of the carving work we see inside the famous houseboats is actually walnut wood carving all done locally. Since Jammu and Kashmir is the only place in India where you find walnut trees, it made sense that the locals preferred walnut to teak or saal for carving and making wooden furniture. Walnut carving in Kashmir dates back to the early 15th century and is believed to have come with Uzbek Missionaries to the Mughal period.

Some silently worked on the cold winter morning

Luckily the very next day I got to visit Dijoo Art Emporium in Dal lake which is one of the oldest lake based walnut wood carpentry centres of Srinagar. I saw a few logs outside and the huge boat and a man working diligently, creating objects delicately carved, chiseled and designed out of walnut wood. I saw it and I went inside without any hesitation to know more about the work on walnut wood. The Shop head at that time was more than eager to answer my fifty or so curious questions. He told me that they sell their material to outside Kashmir and their major buyers are from Delhi and Mumbai.

While some showed us what they were making.
He laughed at my naïve queries around why walnut and why not any other local trees or teak that is used to build the houseboats. He replied to me with a proud smile – ‘Yeh Teak Weak humare ghar ka nahi na, hum toh akhrot ke pedos se kamaal karna jaante hain!’ (Teak is not a local tree here. We are skilled enough to work with walnut trees then why compromise with wood quality – meaning walnut wood was of higher quality.) When I asked him if due to demand a lot of walnut grooves were being destroyed and that was bad since it is very rare in India as it is – he told me that locals cut a walnut tree only after it is 250 to 300 years old and that too if the tree doesn’t yield well for straight 3 years or so.

A relative of mine had got this walnut wood clock ages ago

He also told me that the oldest walnut grooves were in the Sonmarg area but the area has thinned down due to the demand. (Which told me why there just few logs on those shikaras) The locals apparently plan 2 shrubs in spring for every tree cut during winters but since they do not cut the trees before age, walnut wood work has been getting expensive with time. He told me the costliest wood work were the ones made from the wood closest to the roots because they are darker and more durable compared to the trunks or the branches but due to shortage of raw materials lot of manufacturers have started using the bark and branches of younger trees extensively for they work leaving the tree still in place to grow, because exporting walnuts is also a big part of Kashmir’s economy.

Table full of art

With so much information to process and so many artifacts to admire, I was one happy traveler that day, proud to know how locals value their produce and nature. He offered me to visit their main factory in town just outside Srinagar the next day but unfortunately, due to my travel plans I had to give that a miss. I collected a number of Shikaras and branch carved maple leaves from the man at work just outside the store and left happy to have known more about a local art that has survived the test of time and is still strong in the Kashmir Valley.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kashmir Tales - Dal, a way of life!

First view of Srinagar - after the flight obviously.

A placid lake, covering almost the entire stretch of Srinagar, known to tourists for the house boats that create a fence between the main land and the lake – yes this is the Dal Lake most of us know (or well – just Dal because Dal mean lake in Kashmiri Native Tongue), but there is so much more to this lake and what it is to Srinagar. Dal aka Srinagar’s Jewel is not the only lake of Srinagar but is certainly the most important one. Locals have been using the produce of Dal since the Mughal period (the period when the earliest records regarding Dal Lake have been found).
It is not just about touristy houseboats, people live on and around the lake!
Of late, my timeline and twitter feed has been filled with posts and pictures of Kashmir, which got me all nostalgic about my amazing trip to Kashmir. And made me realize, if I can do something to show the world the side of Kashmir I saw – I should do it and tell you guys more about the people and their lifestyle there! So here are my two pence – well 3-4 posts about the place that longs to be called heaven on earth again. First of which is all about the place we all know as Dal Lake!

Early morning shikaras and boats leaving for the floating market area
The earliest records of the lake mention agricultural activities the locals had developed on Rads – the floating gardens or landmasses on the lake. These Rads are the main source of Haak – a leaf or saag that is predominant in Kashmiri Cuisine. Apart from that these Rads are used for cultivating tomatoes and melons and numerous lovers like Daphne, daisy, water lilies and many more. But Rads are not just famous for cultivation, they create a system of wetlands that has become home to for knows how many species of birds and fish. And with wetlands on a shallow sweet lake you are bound to get lotus pads - which also influences the local cuisine tremendously.
A flower seller's boat
But all that was how Dal always influenced Srinagar. The major turn in the pattern came when the British decided to build Boathouses in the lake after Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir refrained from giving them permission to build new houses on land in the valley. The lavish boathouses built back then involved a lot of skilful carpentry on almond and teak wood and for this a lot of locals, proficient in walnut wood carving were employed. 

Since employment increased a lot of locals started settling around the lake and many of them built themselves smaller houseboats on the lave hence creating a whole new society on the lake. Now the lake is a flurry of activities throughout the day as the society then created has thrived and found its way of life on this lake.

Just another day for a dal dweller
The current dwellers of the lake are not only artisans or Hanjis (fishermen), but also many rich merchants have made this lake their home! From floating markets to official structures like the Post office – this lake has it all. 

Post office on a boat!
You sure see a lot of tourists enjoying a tour of the lake on bright coloured Shikaras but you can’t miss out the locals traveling on shikaras too – to and fro, from their lake bound settlements to the mainland Srinagar. While as tourists you float around the hustling bustling lake market, ducks of the lake roam freely in the same area unhinged by your presence, not bothered by the commotion.

Do you see me?
The lake has found its harmony with people and nature and so have the people who accepted the lake as their home. But sadly, due to the unplanned growth of population on the lake during the 20th century and the crazy footfall the houseboats get in Kashmir, Dal seems to be dying. 

Can you imagine this lake is dying?
Slowly, but still dying. Government has been trying to regularly clean the lake and save the wildlife there, but responsible tourism and local awareness is the need of the hour. If we fail to protect the lake in time, we would not just lose an amazing piece of nature, a lot of people would lose their way of life.

Dal is a way of life in Srinagar afterall!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hidden Gem of Seattle - Kubota Japanese Garden

Small ponds and colorful trees are everywhere!

Filtered sunbeams sparkling on streams that meet the calm waters of ponds full of koi fish. Some tall some short trees, all casting a cold shadow on the skipping stones of life. Some bell, seemingly far away, breaks the tranquility of the area but only to introduce a pleasant occasional symphony to Nature’s song. And there goes the trail where you meet kids frolicking, dogs jumping around and people basking in the warmth of the sunny day

Kubota doesn't have small Furins but sure has a huge bell!
Ever since I have come to the United States, I have a new-found love for Japanese Gardens. I always loved Japanese traditional houses and country side thanks to all the ‘Animes’ I fell in love with growing up. Knowing that Seattle has such a significant American-Japanese connection, one of the first things I did after I got my admit to University of Washington was search for Japan Town (I was thinking in terms of China Town to be frank). 

Welcome to Kubota!
And it was during this search that I came across Seattle Japanese Gardens. There are two Japanese Gardens in Seattle - one well-known, at Washington Park Arboretum, and one known to few, tucked away in South Seattle. So, I being me, chose to explore Kubota Japanese Garden (久保田) near Rainier Beach and am recommending this place to all for this spring!
This is the first glimpse of the mini jungle inside!
Kubota Japanese Garden is tucked away in the centre of a residential area of South Seattle, but the park itself is nothing short of a mini forest. Occupying over twenty-acre landscape of the Rainier Valley, Kubota Japanese Garden was started Fujitaro Kubota in 1927 but it officially became a gardening landmark of Seattle in 1981 after Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board recognized the space.

Stepping stones and grass in this case representing yin and yang or stepping stones of life!
In 1927 an immigrant from Japan’s Shikoku Island, Fujitaro Kubota, bought five acres of a swampland near Lake Washington. Since he was an immigrant, he was never the owner of the land but that didn’t dwindle his love for traditional gardening and he back then started the rock garden part of Kubota. He was then sent to Idaho due to the situation in US during World War II, but he continued to supervise the building of the garden. Ages later, now in 2017, the place is a vibrant trail with hills, valleys and terraces, interlaced with streams and ponds with the typical stones of life, koi fish and beautiful bridges and two hidden waterfalls too (or maybe it was one that is at two levels and has a secret descending path!).

One of the small hidden waterfalls
So far I have been to 3 Japanese Gardens in the US and the array of structures and garden elements at Kubota just make it the best one! The gazebo and the terrace are now famous amongst wedding photographers while the bridges and the waterfall are just everyone’s favourite and must not be missed!

Gazebo look over point and wedding photo-shoots
Rock(stone) garden, maple woods, Mapes Creek, Stroll Garden and the mountain side give you an experience of an easy hilly trail away from the hustle bustle of city life while the park is actually in the Rainier Beach neighbourhood about 5 minutes away from the Rainier Beach Link Rail Station – aka pretty close to city life area!

The moon bridge! Do you get why? The other bridge is called the heart bridge. Bridges in Japanese gardens symbolize path to paradise.
Due to all the reasons, I just gave, and many more – sunny cool Seattle weather at it best included – Kubota Japanese Garden is my next ‘Seattle Spring’ explore suggestion!
Oh the colours! 
How to Get there:
Kubota Garden is located at 9817 – 55th Avenue South, on the corner of Renton Avenue S. and 55th Avenue South and is 5 minutes’ bus ride, 20 mins walk away from Rainier station. You could also take bus route 106 from Downtown to get there.
Reflection of life, reflection of nature - well this is reflection of a sunny day in Seattle!

Best Time to Visit:
All around the year – even during rainy days! Only During sunlight hours though.

P.S. Carry a bottle of water with you because the trail can dehydrate you under sun and tire you after a point.

And since it is spring now, expect a lot of flowers in the garden!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tulip Fields of Skagit Valley

Rows and rows of colours, swaying to the winds of pacific north west, setting the ground ablaze in a rainbow coloured flame. The closer you get, the bigger they get – individually enticing you to a flowered land that kind of captures your attention so much that you forget the hordes of people chattering around you. Only two things might break your trance – a view that seems more beautiful or a splash of the puddle you just stepped into because you were focusing on the flowers. But trust me – the view of tulip gardens and just roaming around in the bulb farms surrounded by hills and windmills is totally worth it!

I don’t know about people abroad, but every Indian is surely in love with tulip farms thanks to the elaborate dreamy sequences in Bollywood movies. Of course they were Dutch fields or Kashmiri fields but tulip farms are same everywhere, right? This Saturday, I witnessed the beauty of tulip fields at Skagit Valley, Mt Vernon in the state of Washington, United States and I am still in a spell cast by that place. Acres and acres of blossoms dancing on that priced sunny day. It totally was a sight I would love to go back to any day.

Nestled in a pristine valley surrounded by the Cascadia range, Mt. Vernon has several tulip fields that make it one of the best getaways from Seattle specially during spring. Two very famous tulip fields of the area are – Tulip Town and RoozenGaarde, and I made my way toward RoozenGarde for my flowery day out of Seattle. 

RoozenGaarde was established in 1985 by the Roozen family and Washington Bulb Company. Every spring for about 3 to 4 weeks, the garden is adorned with about 20-30 different variety of tulips (from what I could see), daffodils, iris and lilies. During late April and early may, RoozenGaarde and Tulip Town host the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival and this is the best time to visit Mount Vernon to bask in spring’s warmth and walk around the arrays of the flowers.

While RoozenGaarde is a vast area with more flowers, Tulip Town flaunts more variety and ensures more colours in a single picture frame. Sure, for people staying in the North West of the US, sighting a random bunch of tulips at road side is not that uncommon, but the tulip fields of Mt. Vernon give you an experience that is close to the one that one might have if in Netherlands or in Turkey. For once I could say too much of something wasn’t bad at all!

By the way - Trivia! - Even though tulip fields are now a well-known tourist attraction of Netherlands, the flowers and the idea of the fields is native to Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Anyhow, people who cannot fly to the countries that are famous for the fields, and for people visiting Seattle till the first week of May, look of for sunny days and be sure to pay Mt. Vernon a visit!

How to Get There:
Skagit Valley is about 70 miles north of Seattle (Downtown) and it takes almost 2 hours to get there by road. This is the best way to reach Skagit valley since the buses from Seattle take about 3-4 hours and after a decent number of bus hops.

Where to Eat:
Do not eat at the gardens because it is crazy expensive! Instead make may to Mt Vernon city restaurants. There are plenty of options. 

About Tulip Town and RoozenGaarde:

Both the venues are just 2 miles away and you would require minimum 2 hours at atleast one of the places if you love photography or nature or both. Both places have a 7 USD entry fee which also covers your parking cost. Best time to visit the fields is either early morning or after 4:00 PM. This way you would avoid major traffic. Also the grounds are muddy so you would want to wear water resistant boots and keep your eye out for sunny days.
This week the farms are in full bloom and Friday is sunny – just letting you guys know.

P.S. – Keep a look out for Llamas and horses! I was excited like a child when I saw Llamas for the first time ever.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Spring is here in Seattle!

Nestled between the snow-clad Cascade Mountains and the Olympic range and small but seemingly vast Puget Sound, is this beautiful city of Seattle. A city that has affirmed my belief that one can fall in love with a place more and more with every passing day. 

Back in October, when this place was painted in hundred shades of autumn, I thought this is the prettiest a “city” can look if it is kind to nature and if it is loved back by nature in equal measures. Then came the constant overcast and some prized white washed days of winter and I found new reasons to appreciate how blessed Seattle was by nature. Now it is spring here and I feel there is no better time to explore Seattle!

If you guys agree with me and if you are planning to see the blooming flowers, butterflies and blast of colours around in Seattle – I would suggest you start it with a University of Washington Tour! It is a pink-white affair at University of Washington these days and I am sure it will warm your hearts with pure joy.

People always say appreciate the small things in life because they have the potential to keep you happy – well, at least for me it is turning out to be true. The tiny cherry blossoms clustered everywhere these days have become the reason for smiles on every visitors face who just can't get enough of the flower shots (think photoshoots!).

I always saw these dreamy pictures of Japan and yearned to be there during ‘Hanami’ season which is such a cute traditional affair under the canopy of Sakura aka cherry blossoms. Some people also know of the Sakura Festival at Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. But very few know of Seattle and University of Washington Cherry Blossom weeks. 

So here I am promoting my University for the first time ever on my blog – because this season of pink bliss is just one of the many reasons to visit Seattle now and explore nature at its best in the Pacific North West.

In the coming days, I will tell you more of this beautiful corner of the USA but for now let us welcome spring with a touch of pink, a dash of green, some sparkling white and just Words.

Not gloomy and frozen for winter's gone
And canopy of love is no more forlorn
Sing, dance, gallop and prance
The day is warm and new hope is born...

Bursting with happiness and warmth
Swaying to the breezy chords of nature
Unfreezing the benumbed hard wood core
You breath life in so many more...

Walk a path that is adorned with life
Sakura is here and Nature is fluttering again...

Thawed in the winter sun, spring is riding on
On a land all glee and lanes colored again...

For those wondering why I got poetic to convince you guys to travel and explore Seattle – didn’t the photos render you speechless at first and then a tad bit poetic? I rest my case! 
O, and I said spring and not sakura season - so don't worry there are more colorful flowers in the vicinity to pleasantly surprise you

Visit Details: When and Where?

University of Washington from 29th March to 9th April to witness 100% blooming cherry blossom trees. The flowers would still be there for another 2 weeks after that but not in full glory. Early morning would be the best time to visit to avoid major crowd.