Houseboats of Kashmir

By Sayan Lodh

Popularly called floating hotels or floating houses, houseboats are one of the main tourist attractions peculiar to Kashmir and Kerala in India. Attracting tourists from all over the world, the houseboats of Dal lake and Nageen lake have carved out a niche for themselves amidst the picturesque setting of the paradise on earth. Depicting intricate woodworks of local Kashmiri and colonial Victorian designs,most of the houseboats are made of sweet-smelling wood varieties like Deodar, Cedar, etc.(Gupta 2019, 99) One of the most common designs is the Chinar tree, which is inseparable from Kashmiri culture. Unlike those of Kerala’s backwaters, the houseboats of Kashmir are immobile.

A typical one consists of about three to five rooms with centrally located living and dining rooms. They range from 24 to 38 metres in length and 3 to 6 metres in breadth. One of its most prominent features is the deck, which serves as a sundeck and a place for having tea, enjoying the picturesque mountains and the lake illuminated by the golden sunrays. Normally houseboats are anchored at specific points in the lake, with three to four boats being strung together for facilitating movement of goods and residents from one to another.(Ray 2007, 55). This gives an appearance of a floating aquatic village.

Shikaras are light flat-bottomed tarpaulin covered wooden boats which are found across water bodies of Kashmir. The multipurpose boats are nowadays mainly used for tourism. Some are still used for traditional purposes like transportation, fishing, aquatic harvesting, and as floating shops. In rare instances, larger ones are used as makeshift houses. Akin to the Gondola of Venice, Shikara is a cultural symbol of Kashmir. A Shikara ride though the Dal Lake with mesmerising views is truly an unforgettable experience, even immortalised in Bollywood movies such as Kashmir ki Kali (1964) (Escapes 2021).

Houseboats are generally preferred by those who like offbeat destinations amidst the lap of nature, rolling in the pristine waters of the lake. They possess all modern amenities like running water, satellite television, and even internet connection. All houseboats retain a shikara for use by its boarders, providing them a distinct experience. Shikaras also come near houseboats selling flowers, spices, dry fruits and Kashmiri handicraft items (Ahmad and Khan 2018, 155-156).

The origin of houseboats can be traced back to the 15th century under Sultan Zainulabidin, who introduced different types of houseboats. Mughal Emperor Akbar later built many beautiful Gujarat style houseboats based on Gujarati architecture. The entry and settlement of non-Kashmiris have been restricted by some Kashmiri rulers since ancient times. Alberuni’s Taqiq-i Hind mentioned that the only foreigners being allowed in Kashmir under Islamic rulers were Jews (Kak 2017, 7). When the Dogra rulers banned the British from purchasing any land in Kashmir, the latter circumvented this ban by purchasing houseboats and converting them into luxurious residences with modern amenities. The first such purchase was done in 1888 by M.T. Kennard. Later some larger houseboats were constructed by Kashmiri artisans for British patrons which rivalled the western luxurious hotels (Dar 1976-77, 3-4, 27).

The houseboats are primarily owned and managed by an endogamous Sunni Muslim Koshur (Kashmiri language) speaking community- the Hanjis. Raja Parbat Sen (6th century CE ruler belonging to Karkota dynasty) introduced Vaishya and Nishad boatmen from Sangla dweep (probably present Sri Lanka) into Kashmir. However, Hanji legends mention Noah as their progenitor.The Hanjis are divided into classes- with the houseboat owners being socio-economically at the top of hierarchy. They reside mostly by rivers and lakes, and are placed at the lower strata of Kashmiri society (primarily due to their educational backwardness) even below peasants and workers despite some of them being well-off. Some Hanjis have started living on land by purchasing properties. They rarely marry outside their own group and class (except in a few cases of love marriage with foreigners, and Kashmiri Muslims) (Dar 1976-77, 3-4, 7-8).

Colonial era travelogues are some of the earliest sources to mention about Kashmiri houseboats, albeit their racist undertones towards Indians in general. Eve Orme mentions the Kashmiris as ‘idle, liars, and thieves’ who would force and manipulate young European women resident in the houseboats of Srinagar to buy their wares- woodworks, papier mâché, silk, brass and copper statues. Orme contradicts herself when she mentions that Kashmiris spoil India, yet they are ‘beautiful physical specimens.’(Eve 1945, 11-12)

A. Petrocokino mentions three kinds of houseboats in 1920s Kashmir- elegant houseboats comparable to those on river Thames; small simple ones; and finally, the modest dunga. A dunga measuring around 70 feet long and 6 to 8 feet broad, is tapered at either ends. Atop the boat is a light wooden-framed structure, covered on roof and sides with thick reed matting. There is a large sitting room, and a few bedrooms covered with carpets on the floor to make the stay comfortable. He preferred a dunga over houseboats due to their small size and easy manoeuvrability.(Petrocokino 1920, 3-6, 75)

Petrocokino alludes to the jealousy of Kashmiris towards non-Kashmiris, and advises the travellers to hire a local Kashmiri guide on their arrival. He advises the Europeans to book a houseboat before their arrival to Kashmir by contacting merchants like Motamid-Darbar, Samad Shah, and Bahar Khan. This indicates that by the 1920s, there were at least some Indian-owned houseboats challenging the European monopoly. He compared the houseboats to property investments, akin to purchasing land. Besides the Dal lake, at that time houseboats were also present in Wular lake and Jhelum river. They were also used by villagers for social festivities like weddings (Petrocokino 1920, 16, 60, 67, 74).

Till the 1980s, there were about 3000 houseboats, which have reduced to less than 1100 at present. Due to political turmoil in late-1980s, average occupancy rate of houseboats dropped below 5% from about 80% before the turmoil. Approximately 70% of houseboat owners changed or adopted a secondary business to run their households (Ahmad and Hussain 2011, 6). The few who continued in this business faced problems due to strict government control, and environmental regulations. Since 1991, the government has banned the construction of new houseboats, with renovation of old ones being rigidly regulated since 2012. This has led to some old houseboats sinking into the depths of the lake due to lack of timely proper maintenance.Third generation houseboat owner Umar Akhtar lamented that the political turmoil coupled with lack of government support have left them stranded, with some owners selling their prized possessions. Municipal authorities further pressurise houseboat owners to install expensive sewage treatment systems to reduce pollution in the lakes which many owners are unable to afford (Gupta 2019, 104-105).

Unlike foreign countries, the houseboat sector in India is largely unregulated, unorganised, and not connected to any water sports industry. Initiated as retreats for Kashmiri sultans and Mughal rulers; houseboats turned into utilitarian comfortable permanent residences for colonial officers and troops posted in the princely state of Kashmir. In the post-colonial era, the houseboats became popular tourist attractions which served an increasing number of visitors till the political turmoil of 1980s-90s. At present most houseboats suffer due to strict environmental regulation and government policies creating hurdles in their renovation. Without financial or technological aid, the houseboats cannot transition into sustainable models to prevent pollution of the water bodies. Removing the houseboats would strip Kashmir of one of its cultural heritages. One way forward is to properly organise, and regulate the houseboats, through collaborations with popular hotel chains. Each houseboat is a piece of floating art which needs to be conserved for the future generations just like any artwork.