When they moved in to refurbish their hotel in Kashmir four years ago, it was a homecoming in more ways than one.
Musadiq and Huma Hussain belong to a new generation of Kashmiri hoteliers, who’ve converted their house on the fringes of Srinagar’s Nageen lake into a hotel called Dar-es-Salam.
It was set up in the 1970s, when state tourism was booming and film crews descended in droves each summer in search of scenic song-and-dance settings; Pighalta Asmaan, a Bollywood family drama starring Shashi Kapoor and Raakhee, was shot here in the early 1980s.
Then followed a long-drawn-out armed conflict, an era of uncertainty and disruptive events. As the killings began, visitors stopped coming and the hotel rooms started to empty. Like many others, the Hussains, too, closed their hotel in 1989 and left.
As tensions cool, the duo has decided, after 15 years of exile, to give another shot at reviving their hotel. “This is our home. I had to return," says Musadiq, 56, who had moved to New Delhi with his wife and two children.
Musadiq, it turns out, had lived his whole life in the lakefront house built by his father, Maqsood Ali. It is uniquely situated, on the fringe of one and a half acres of land off Ashai bridge, the point where the waters of Nageen meet the more famous Dal lake.
It is easy to see why he fell in love with the spot. In colonial India, the British virtually owned the V-shaped Nageen lake. For the sake of privacy, early settlers built houseboats to bypass a local ban on buying property, and trespassers were kept off beyond the bridge with a sign that read “No Indians allowed".
Perhaps it was the delicious orange sunset he viewed from the bridge, or the cool waters he enjoyed swimming in, Ali began dreaming up a blueprint for his future home right on the Nageen. So, in 1942, the wealthy landowner’s son successfully influenced and struck a deal for the property, exchanging paddy fields double the size to acquire it.
Like most traditional houses built close to the waters, the foundation was entirely made of deodar pines, vertically laid like pillars and later piled with earth to reinforce the base, all with the help of local masons.
Today, the biggest attraction of Dar-es-Salam, which boasts of personalized services, is its peaceful surroundings. Located on the quieter northwest part of town, it literally lives up to its name which means “abode of peace" in Persian.
Sipping Kashmiri kahwa in family silverware in an intimate sitting room, it’s hard not to appreciate the family patriarch’s quest to build a large country-style house to accommodate his six offspring and an ageing mother.
There are 14 rooms in the hotel and the family has judiciously decided to keep the original plan intact. “We are determined not to destroy the character of the place," says Khurram, Musadiq’s 25-year-old younger son, who now helps run the business.
Long absences had taken a toll on maintenance. Successive icy winters had destroyed the building’s water connections. The intricate woodwork that runs through the ceiling had fallen off in places.
A renovation project was soon ordered and everything, from upholstery to curtains, saw a dramatic overhaul. The bathrooms were upgraded with hot showers. The white paint on doors and windows was painstakingly scraped off to expose the warm honey-toned pinewood beneath, which “cost a lot of money". Modern conveniences, such as electric blankets were installed in the tidy, no-frill bedrooms.
The family deliberately opted to keep their hotel compact and run fewer rooms. They also decided to keep the front-view portions of the house as common areas. The idea was to offer guests a chance to mingle in a city where nightlife is non-existent (only one hotel—the InterContinental—has a bar licence).
So, depending on which room you choose, you can admire the snowcapped mountain ranges on a clear day. At a short distance, Hari Parbat, an early-19th century fort, sits atop a hill, below which Akbar once engaged 200 stone masons to build the Nagar-Nagar city for himself and his many wives.
Near the foothills today are the tin roofs of illegal homes, due to be removed soon following a court order.
The good news is that visitors are trickling in and some linger on longer than planned, attracted by the solitude the place offers and the excellent staff. Many of them are college dropouts who couldn’t find another job in a state where unemployment is rife.
Hansa and Tulsi Tanna, a Gujarati couple from Mumbai, had barely checked into a Gulmarg hotel when they decided to head back to Dar-es-Salam, where they had stayed earlier. “Here, you can enjoy the garden and the staff is so nice," says 77-year-old Hansa Tanna.
Being vegetarians, the Tannas did find the idea of a common kitchen, where both non-vegetarian and vegetarian are cooked, bothersome. The hotel’s specialities are Mughlai and Kashmiri cuisine and guests can indulge in lamb dishes such as the succulent rishta or the fist-sized meatballs called gushtabas, meat chunks pounded into a smooth paste, a dish traditionally prepared by men and which most modern Kashmiri women now order from restaurants.
For those who want to explore life beyond the garden, blooming with orange lilies and fading irises, the hotel organizes shikara trips. As you leap off the boat on a rainy day, expect one of the staff to come running out with umbrellas to escort you back to the hotel.
The return of visitors to the valley is an encouraging sign for hoteliers who are fed up with long years of trouble and eager to get back to business. And, as far as rest and relaxation go, it comes guaranteed with the hotel’s nameplate. “Our idea," repeats Khurram, “is to give guests the peace they are yearning for."
TARIFF PER NIGHT (ALL MEALS INCLUSIVE)
Regular double room: Rs4,500
Premium double room: Rs5,000
Presidential suite: Rs12,000
Service charge 10%; prices vary depending on options chosen.
The place is child-friendly, although close supervision is needed as it’s right on the lake