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!