The Story of Srinagar House Boats

Life could not get any better. I was standing over a shikara-stand near Dal Gate in the city of Srinagar, to be rowed across to stay in a houseboat, an event I had been waiting for since adolescence. My first introduction to the romance of houseboats in the Dal Lake was on the TV screen. In the foreground was Shammi Kapoor on a shikara, his charm as huge as the lake around him. On the soundtrack Rafi’s voice somehow rose and fell with Shammi’s unpredictable body. Later, Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore, on their respective shikaras, were trying to reach each other across the lake waters. But the script of Kashmir ki Kali continued to carry them further apart.


The quiet lake, the decorated shikaras, the flower-sellers, the small islands… the setting seemed perfect for love. All this happened in the foreground while somewhere in the background I could see bigger boats in which, I was told, one could stay. This possibility of being day and night in the heart of romance stayed with me for years. And now here I was, with two shikaras vying to take me to my houseboat, and they were named — hold your breath — Life in the Lake and Drink of Love. The latter prevailed and Drink of Love drifted moodily on the Dal’s waters.


Dal Lake (Photo by Basharat Shah)

Dal Lake (Photo by Basharat Shah)


A few strokes of the carefully painted oar and we had left behind the clatter of the road. Now the only sounds were the muted splashes of the oar rhythmically bending to the water and a few snatches of a language that sounded definitely Central Asian and was Kashmiri. We went along a street of houseboats, and then I realised that contrary to my vision of a houseboat being an isolated refuge in the middle of a watery nowhere, where you came to escape life, staying in a houseboat on the Dal was like living in a township, discovering a new way of life.


Except that the township was floating in water, and each residence (that is to say, each houseboat) was given a sweet, sometimes fantastic, name instead of a mere number. There is a remarkable ingenuity, genius in fact, at work in the naming of houseboats. There are the usual obvious names — Pleasure Palace, Shalimar, Garden of Eden, Khyber and Mughal Sheraton — but they are regularly punctuated by the unusual and even the weird. Sample these — Miss America, Honolulu, Dulcedomum, Persian Gulf, Neil Armstrong, Acropolis, Metropolis, San Souci and New Soul Kiss! Houses on water.


However, much before New Soul Kiss could vie with Dilruba for tourists, the whole business began with the inventiveness of the British administrators in 19th – century India, who flocked North each summer for some respite from the heat and foment of the plains, but were not allowed to buy land in Kashmir. Not to be outdone, they hired boats that carried rice and other cargo up and down the Jhelum as well as in the flat water-filled belly of Kashmir (Dal, Nagin and Wular lakes are a major presence in the Valley) and made them their summer homes. The trend caught on, especially in the last century, and most old boats were converted into ‘houseboats’ for visitors while new ones kept getting added. There is an interpretation of the meaning of the name ‘Kashmir’ which says that ‘Ka’ means water and ‘shimeera’ means dessicated.


Srinagar (Photo by Maahmaah)

Srinagar (Photo by Maahmaah)


The idea, according to mythology, is that Rishi Kashyapa drained a lake to produce the land now known as Kashmir. Look at a map of Srinagar and you’ll be struck by the description; the land is indeed filled with and surrounded by water. The Dal Lake is a vast waterscape with many islands and the houseboats make it a bustling metropolis close to the lovely leafy Boulevard. The Nagin, on the other hand, is relatively far off and much like a tourist village frequented more by foreigners who prefer ‘the quiet’. At present, the Dal has more than a thousand houseboats and Nagin a little less than 200. The typical houseboat is a largish boat, which has two to five rooms with attached bathrooms, a balcony and usually a terrace in front. The wood is rarely plain; intricate carving is common on the walls and roof, Kashmiri carpets and rugs adorn most floors, and a dining room and sitting room are customary. The houseboats are run by joint families who live either in the houses on land just behind the houseboats or on adjoining houseboats.


Though these Kashmiri houseboats are water-worthy boats, they usually are not moved and remain moored to the land. I saw only one houseboat move and what a sight that was! That day I was walking back from Nishat Bagh on the Boulevard to the centre of the evening’s action near Nehru Park, when along came a motorboat tugging a houseboat. This one was a gaily-decorated ‘baraati’ houseboat on its way to the dulhan waiting in another bedecked houseboat for her nikaah. A third houseboat had been hired to host the marriage dinner. Dusk soaked up the remains of the daylight rapidly and in the gathering darkness the three houseboats glowed and onlookers crowded the embankment to participate in the unusual marriage ceremony.


A gently rocking life Life on a houseboat can be experienced in two different ways. Either you can limit yourself to the lake and the activities it offers: Take a shikara ride on colourful high-backed seats in the highly cherished tradition of honeymooners; have a daylong shikara sojourn spanning the entire Dal and the adjacent Nagin Lake; buy flowers from floating shops; get your photographs clicked in kitschy Kashmiri dresses, again on floating shops; and drop by the Nehru Park Island or the Char Chinar Island. The other possibility is to treat the lake as the home you return to at night and in the day visit the Srinagar that lives on land — the Mughal Gardens, the Hazratbal Mosque, the Shankaracharya Hill and Temple, the older, differently architectured Shah-i-Hamdan Mosque with its steeple-roof in the old city… walk the tree-covered avenues. See the contrast between the tall lean poplars that rise straight heavenwards, and the thicktrunked opened up and spread out chinars.


Srinagar (Photo by Russavia)

Srinagar (Photo by Russavia)


And, of course, go on day-trips to those time-honoured haunts of honeymooners, Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Savouring these delights, sometimes sad seeing the lake dying due to weeds,overuse and neglect, I slowly got used to the slight tremor when I stepped on to the houseboat, the feel of wood and carpet under my feet and the moments of uncertainty in mid-air as I hopped on to a shikara. I woke up as the quotidian sounds from the household began to float in from the meshed and curtained walls. There would be a debate between enjoying a lie-in in the bed, or jumping out and seeing another morning on the lake. Mostly, the lake won easily.


So there I sat, on the terrace in front of the houseboat, sipping delicious aromatic kahwa. The morning was alive in a completely non-touristy manner. On the neighbouring terrace, the old houseboat owner was dipping his baqerkhani roti in his tea and shouting out salaam-ewalekum to the old woman rowing towards the Boulevard. School children came in pelting from behind the houseboat and jumped on to the shikara waiting for them. Nearby there was an animated dialogue going on in Kashmiri — I could make out nothing except the English words like militant and government, which, of course, figured more than occasionally. Another boat came around, the men in it doing the tough but helpful job of scooping up the weeds and the filth from the lake.


This they would sell to the kitchen gardens behind the houseboats as manure. I remember the lake used to shiver every so often. It shivered whenever I stepped on to the houseboat, the shiver from its wavy surface shaking the boat and running through my spine. When the breezy morning chill caressed its skin, or when a speedy motorboat put fear in its soul with its fierce racket (thankfully, there are only two on the Dal Lake), and when the mountains around cast their shadows to hide the warmth of the sun.


One morning, my houseboat owner Badyari Saheb, with his most beautiful and deep-timbered voice, was talking to a troika of women tourists from Delhi amid this shimmering shivering lake. Violence figured in the discussion. Nevertheless, the women promised that they would come back, and Badyari Saheb asked them to visit in winter.We could see his eyes looking far away unfocussed and dreamy as he said, “In the winter, everything is white all around, the house tops, the roads, boats, trees… soft cotton drifts down from the heavens and the valley becomes a paradise, a white paradise….”


While on the houseboat


The incredible beauty of the Kashmir Valley comes together in the distinct flavours of Srinagar, J&K’s summer capital: The autumnal red glow of the expansive chinar trees, the labyrinthine alleys and waterways, the unique, exquisite wooden architecture, the rather Central Asian air. Srinagar’s wooden mosques, with a pagoda-like steeple (instead of the usual dome), are a unique feature; witness the Shah-i-Hamdan Mosque in the Old City and the Makhdoom Saheb Shrine on Hari Parbat. But what defines for most visitors Kashmir’s Mughal heritage is preserved in the perfection of Srinagar’s gardens. The Chashmashahi, Shalimar and Nishat gardens prove that it took the beauty of Kashmir for the Mughals to perfect their famous formal gardens. Don’t miss the fabulous views of Srinagar city and Pir Panjal Range from Chashmashahi.


First, the inevitable: chances are you will be directed to the Mughal Gardens on your first day in town. Submit. Buy entry tickets at the gate of Shalimar Bagh, a quick frisk, and presto! It’s 1619 and you’re a Mughal. You and a few hundred others. At the summit of this fourterraced garden stands the beautiful baradari, a summer house ringed with pillars of black marble from Pampore. Despite all the scars from what Kashmir has been through, the Shalimar of Jehangir remains utterly regal. The heronry and the hamam are sadly silent but the gardens still ring with the cascades and watercourses of their heyday and are still lined with stately chinars that shade this idyll.


At Nishat Bagh (entry fee INR 10), just 4 km down the road on the lakeshore, the secluded dignity of Jehangir’s garden gives way to a giddy lightness and openness with a splendid view of the Dal Lake and the mountains beyond. This garden once had terraces stretching right down to the lake, but the lower reaches have been consumed by ‘progress’: the road and its dhabas. It was laid out in 1632 by Jehangir’s brother-in-law (Nur Jahan’s brother) Asaf Khan. On Shah Jahan’s instructions, the Mughal governor Ali Mardan Khan built the small but perfect Chashmashahi Gardens in 1632. Beautifully tucked into a fold of the hill high above the lake, these gardens are also quieter than the others.


Your next essential destination is Shankaracharya Hill, or Takht-i-Suleiman, rising directly from the Boulevard on the southern lakeshore. At its pinnacle, 1,000 ft above the lake, is the temple associated with Adi Shankaracharya, who is said to have meditated here. North-west of Shankaracharya stands Hari Parbat, crowned by the fort of the same name. Architectural historians are dismissive of this structure as ‘commonplace’. But seen from the intended perspective — that of the cringing subject — it is very impressive. In the city proper is Srinagar’s central mosque, the Jami Masjid. This unique structure — with its massive deodar columns, 378 of them — can be ascribed to three Mughals as well as several earlier monarchs.


A short distance from the Jami Masjid, on the right bank of the Jhelum, stands the celebrated Khanqah of Shah Hamdan. This gorgeous building has a pagoda-like spire mounted on a cube of timber and commemorates the first visit to the city of a famous proselytiser from Iran, Mir Sayyad Ali Hamdani’s in 1372. If you have the time, the ruins of the 8th-century Sun Temple at Martand (66 km) are exquisite. The splendid view of the Pir Panjal Range is unlikely to distract you from the grandeur of the ruins. Fluted pillars, trefoil niches and arches abound, the most spectacular capping the entrance to the temple itself.


By Amit Mahajan


Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator and has done a few other odd jobs.