India

Books and coffee on a Kashmir island

A girl reads a book in the Gulshan Books cafe

Locals and tourists have been flocking to a new book shop-cum-cafe in a picture-perfect setting in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Ringed by mountains and set on a tiny island in Dal Lake, which is often described as the "jewel of Srinagar", the book store has 80,000 titles on offer, including books on Kashmir's history, heritage, culture, travel, religion and literature.

Image caption Owner Sheikh Aijaz says he hopes to open other, similar book shops in Kashmir

Although it has only been a few weeks since it opened, Gulshan Books cafe has already had thousands of visitors.

There's a reading room attached to the shop where 1,500 titles are available free to read, a cafe that serves coffee and snacks and free wifi.

"A lot of the youth can't afford to buy books because they are so expensive, so we are offering books that they can come and read for free," says its owner Sheikh Aijaz, whose family owns one of Kashmir's oldest publishing companies. Mr Aijaz himself is the fifth generation of the Sheikh Mohammed Usman and Sons publishing firm.

On the shelf in the reading room are copies of the Koran and the Bible, and ancient Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are also books on psychology and philosophy.

The store is just a short boat ride away from the Dal Lake boulevard, a favourite with tourists to the Kashmir Valley.

Famed for its scenic beauty, Kashmir was a destination for Indian and foreign tourists until the outbreak of a violent insurgency against Indian rule in the late 1980s drove away visitors.

But in recent years, militancy has been on the wane and tourists have been returning in large numbers to the valley.

According to state government figures, 1.1 million tourists visited the valley in 2014, and nearly a million visited last year.

French tourists Camille Christophe and Deborah Cortez have come to the cafe for the "stunning view" it offers.

From their vantage point, they watch long narrow colourful shikara boats ferrying tourists on the lake, a fisherman waiting patiently for the day's catch, picnickers taking selfies in the gardens and a man raising his hands in prayer as the nearby mosque relays the call to prayer.

The Gupta family (in the above photograph) said they were visiting the book shop for the second time in two days.

"On our first day in Srinagar, we went for a ride on the shikara boat in the Dal Lake. This book shop was our first stop, but we liked it so much that we asked our boatman to bring us back here at the end of our tour," says Rakesh Gupta.

"It's a good place to hang out. We didn't find any other place in the city like this so we've returned here for the second day today," says his wife, Jyoti.

For sisters Deepika (left) and Pradeepika Saraswat, it's their first visit to the cafe.

"We read about this place in a local newspaper and we thought, 'A bookshop on the Dal... what a lovely idea'. And we are not disappointed," says Deepika.

Mr Aijaz says he now wants to open similar book stores in other tourist spots in the valley.

"We've given a proposal to the state administration to allow us to open similar cafes in Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg, places which attract thousands of tourists every year," he says.

All photographs by Abid Bhat, text by Geeta Pandey

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