Kashmir isn’t the easiest place to set up a business. But an author, fashion designer, teacher, and businesses-woman has defied all odds. Besides running the first and only design school in Kashmir Valley, she has now founded a unique cheese factory, cafe, and homestay in Tangmarg. Text by Anubhuti Krishna, photographs courtesy of Cheese Factory
Meet Insha Qazi, the woman behind a unique cheese cafe in Kashmir
In 2015, When Insha Qazi returned to Kashmir after studying in London, she realised that the region had few employment opportunities for the youth. A civil engineer and business management graduate, Qazi did not want to settle outside of her home state, like many others her age had, but not having employment options meant that she either had to leave or create an opportunity of her own. She chose to do the latter.
Having witnessed the penchant of Kashmiri youth for creativity and recognising the potential of local arts and crafts, Qazi decided to set up a fashion design school in Srinagar. Fashion, she believed, could make a strong statement for the Kashmiri youth who had had no opportunity to pursue it so far. And so, in 2016, she set up what was the valley’s first design school. By her own admission, the first few months were hard. “We were threatened and intimidated by extremist groups, and some sections of the society tried to present us in a negative light,” recalls Qazi. She, however, persisted. The school did not just pick up, but in just a couple of years, its students were participating in prestigious fashion shows, running successful businesses, and making money.
Another person would have been content with this feat, but not Qazi. No sooner than matters of the school settled, Qazi (who is still involved in running the design school) moved on to Tangmarg, a small town 45 minutes away from Srinagar, to work with local women under the National Skill Development Corporation. It was here that she conceptualized and brought to life the region’s first cheese factory, cafe, and homestay—a concept hitherto unknown in Kashmir. “Tangmarg has a rich tradition of dairy, which inspired me to set up the cheese factory here. I wanted to create a world-class product that utilizes the resources we have and the skills our people possess, and which, in turn, takes Kashmir to the world,” Qazi reflects on her idea.
“My favourite childhood memory,” recalls the 31-year-old, “is breathing in pine scented air, watching glorious sunrises, and gazing into starlit skies at our estate in Tangmarg. Its unchartered beauty has always attracted me, and I feel Tangmarg can be the next big tourist hub of Kashmir.” With the neighbouring Gulmarg saturated by tourists every year, Tangmarg’s rise seems inevitable.
The Cheese Factory—a name shared by the factory, the cafe, and the homestay—stands out for its location as much it does for its unique architecture, art, and decor. Set on a 50-acre private estate, the space is blessed with sweeping views of snow-clad peaks and surrounded by thick forests of sal, oak, pine, deodar, and rhododendron. There is also a delicate fresh water stream that idyllically meanders around the land that once belonged to the maharaja of Kashmir and was known for the panthers that frequented it.
Nothing quite prepares you for the Art Deco inspired living room-cum-cafe at The Cheese Factory. The space, which opened a few months ago, boasts jewel-toned upholstery and gilded accents: think luxurious sofas covered in rich velvets, large copper vases atop gold trimmed tables, life-sized murals jutting out of walls, and eclectic sculptures. “When I designed this space, I was sure that I wanted to bring elements of the European Industrial Age. This was the time when artists across Europe had started to transform factories into homes, giving rise to the concept of lofts,” explains Qazi, who has worked with a similar theme in her design school and created lines of fashion based on the aesthetic of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Qazi’s love for that time period is evident in the over-the-top yet pleasing aesthetic of the space she has created at The Cheese Factory. It is not just the design, the food served at the cafe is unique too, especially for Kashmir where European cuisine is hard to find. The menu is designed around local ingredients—cheese from Qazi’s own factory, trout from a local farm, walnuts and apples sourced from the valley, dairy from local vendors. “We have created a classic menu of mutton burgers, grilled trout, wood-fired pizzas, artisanal breads, and hand-churned ice cream. Everything is locally sourced or made in-house.”
If the cafe exudes luxury and opulence of the Art Deco era, the homestay and cottages stand out for their striking grey cement oxide walls, natural palette, and exposed material. Made in association with a Delhi-based architect, Rubina, the design focusses on the play of texture, light, statement chandeliers and art pieces, indoor plants, and big, bold furniture upholstered in silk and satin. The idea, says Qazi, was to have fun, but also create a space like no other.
The place might look straight out of a period drama set in Europe, but if you look closely, it intelligently incorporates Kashmiri architectural elements and crafts. Fireplaces, chimneys, walnut wood cabinets, and large windows blend seamlessly with modern wall clocks, provincial French chairs, exquisite chandeliers, accent mirrors, dramatic lighting and what-not. Locally sourced natural material like wicker is employed in utility baskets and planters, Kashmiri copper vases stand by the windows, and the traditional copper traam, usually seen in wazwaan feasts, has been turned into a sink under a gilded mirror. Pashmina shawls, meanwhile, have been styled as throws. Qazi’s design work is synonymous with maximalism and grandeur, and she hasn’t skimmed on the larger-than-life elements in this space. “While most things do appear European, this project is largely made in Kashmir,” reveals the groundbreaking entrepreneur.
Where does she want to take the business from here? “I want to create a world-class space in Tangmarg where people from all around the world can come to witness the beauty of Kashmir and its people, eat its beautiful food, and experience its unique culture,” smiles Qazi. When you stay and dine in The Cheese Factory, it certainly seems possible.
All major airlines connect Srinagar to airports across the country. Tangmarg is a scenic 45-minute drive from Srinagar Airport.
The cottages start from INR 25,000 per night (for the entire cottage); standard rooms start from INR 7,500; call +91-9871870666 for reservations.
Drung Waterfall and Dam: A scenic waterfall that freezes in the winter, Drung is popular with tourists and locals alike. It’s located less than 10 minutes away from the homestay.
River Ferozepur Nalla: This is a Typical rocky mountain river and makes for a beautiful picnic spot. A British-style picnic can be organised by the homestay for guests, who can also go river-rafting here.
Nilang Lake Trek: A 10-minute walk from inside the factory estate takes you to the Nilang Trek site, which is known for its scenic views.
Baba Reshi Shrine: A beautiful Sufi shrine popular with people from all walks of life, Baba Reshi Shrine is also known for its quintessential Kashmiri architecture.