How a Kashmiri Tea Warmed My Cup and Soul

Marriott Bonvoy Traveler. Oct 2022

I wake up at 4 a.m. to the sound of an imam chanting the Muslim call to prayer from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque in Srinagar, India. At this early hour, darkness still envelops the city, the largest in India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Normally, I am not an early riser, but today I hurry to dress in my salwar kameez and meet my driver, Mohd Shafi, who brings me to the shore of Dal Lake. With its traditional houseboats and floating gardens, Dal plays an integral role in the city’s commerce and culture.

At this early hour, my plan is to visit the town’s floating market, held each day before dawn breaks. A lone boatsman meets us at the lake’s docks and rows his red-carpet-draped shikara, a traditional wooden boat, onto the cool and misty lake. There is no one nearby as far as I can see, but then, with not a single light around us, I can’t really see anything.

Suddenly, from the foggy gray mist, another boatsman emerges with vegetables stacked on his long narrow boat, then another with fresh flowers, and yet another selling tea. It’s as if an entire city has awakened from the peripheries of the calm waters. Slowly, the fog lifts. Beyond the lake, the towering Himalaya mountains appear, and around me, lotus flowers bloom in the wetlands. It is a magical sight.

It’s here that I meet the kahwa shikara, or the floating tea vendor. He enthusiastically rattles in his broken English, “I am selling Kashmiri saffron kahwa — 16 varieties mix!” trying to attract the attention of those who may need a pick-me-up.

While balancing barefoot on his delicate, low-slung boat, he inserts hot coals into a brass kettle, or samovar, and serves small cups of tea to other vendors, mainly fruit, flower and vegetable sellers.

Wholesalers come to this part of the lake long before sunrise mainly to sell the produce they’ve grown along the banks of the lake. Retailers buy their goods, taking them back to be sold at shops and markets once the rest of the world awakens.

Without much delay, Shafi orders two cups of kahwa for us. The tea vendor flawlessly transacts the piping-hot paper cups and rupees across boats without anyone needing to move from their seats.

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