The Floating Market in Kashmir: A Living History worth Preserving

By Arka Chakarborty


India, more so than most other nations in the world, is well-known for celebrating its past. Across the subcontinent, thousands of monuments, literary works and artistic traditions represent snapshots of specific periods in the past in specific regions and localities, some of which are more famous than the others among tourists and travelers, both domestic and foreign. The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is a prime example of this celebration as it houses monuments constructed in ancient, medieval and early modern periods by patrons with different cultural orientations, material power and diverse goals. The Dal lake, popularly known as the ‘Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir’ for its scenic beauty, is no exception to this rule. Mughal emperors who regularly visited Kashmir had pleasure palaces built along the banks of the lake and gardens constructed in the islands in the lake, with the ‘Char Chinar’ gardens i.e. Rupa Lank and Sona Lank being the most well-known. The houseboats that adorn the lake today are the legacies of British presence in Kashmir during the Dogra rule, “A little piece of England afloat on Dal.” These Mughal and Dogra-era structures that adorn and animate the great lake today are in many ways relics of the past, constructed to serve certain purposes which have now given way to the singular necessity of a post-colonial tourism industry that provides employment to thousands of people, if not more. The floating market on the Dal, however, stands in sharp contrast with this general pattern. Assembling and dispersing every morning, this is one of the few tourist attractions in Kashmir that simultaneously embodies the past and yet is constantly, if slowly, evolving to accommodate the present. Perhaps less grand than the over-arching palaces strewn across the Vale, the ‘Sabji bazaar’ as it is locally known, is no less exquisite. This daily phenomenon exhibits the vibrancy and energy of life here: a microcosm of the general dynamic beauty of Kashmiri life.

Every morning at the crack of dawn, Kashmiri vegetable producers use their canoes (hikaras) to proceed to their floating gardens located across the wetlands in and around the Dal lake, harvest some vegetables and then take these freshly harvested products for sale to a designated spot within the lake known as ‘Gudher’ (literally meaning ‘Gathering’). Around 4:00 to 5:00 AM, the Gudher, just a still and empty body of water a few hours ago, comes alive with the hustle and bustle of canoes carrying vegetable merchants advertising their wares, local early risers looking for an opportunity to buy fresh vegetables at a cheaper price than the street markets, tourists visiting to witness the only floating market in India and the wonders that it exhibits and a few vendors selling Kashmiri tea or ‘Kahwa.’ Merchants can be seen wearing long-sleeved sweaters to save themselves from the bitter early morning chill, while tourists are seen sipping Kahwa offered by the canoe drivers they typically hire to guide them through the Dal lake experience. While the colorful canoes gathering at one place on the crystal-clear water of the Dal makes for a stunning landscape, this is further beautified by the presence of a small group of boats near the center of the Gudher selling flowers like roses, water lilies, daisies and lotus blossoms. The canoes regularly brought by the vegetable traders feature tomatoes, turnips, carrots, radishes, water chestnuts, leafy vegetables and nadru (lotus stem, a famous delicacy in Kashmir) etc. The market does not accept partial sales and encourages wholesale purchases. The method of transaction in this market is somewhat unique, as the barter system is still partially accepted here, at least among merchants selling vegetables. By the time the clock strikes 7:00 AM, most of the merchants of this floating market wrap up their business for the day and disperse, leaving the Gudher to be as silent and empty as it was before 5:00 AM. The vegetables which remain to be sold are sent to the nearby street markets.


The floating vegetable market on the Dal lake is far from the only floating market in the world. There are several floating markets in Vietnam, Thailand and Australia which are huge crowd-pullers and generate sizable revenue for the countries they are based in. The Kashmiri floating market remains to be unique in various respects, however. For one thing, it seems to be one of the oldest floating markets in the world. Vietnam, famous the world over for its floating markets, seems to house only a few which are more than a century old: the Nga Bay floating market situated in Hau Giang province- one of the oldest in the country- was founded as late as 1915. The origin of the one in Kashmir, on the other hand, is often traced back to the Mughal era during the seventeenth century. Although no conclusive research has been done on this, some legends claim that the markets originated when some Kashmiri merchants decided to send some melons to the Mughal emperor’s table, while others attribute its foundation to the emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) who was well known for his love for the valley; while still others prefer to push the origins further back through time to the pre-Mughal era, attributing the foundation of the market to the reign of sultan Zain al-Abidin (1395-1470). Another crucial factor that makes the Kashmiri market unique is it relatively unchanging nature in the face of potential commercialization opportunities. Many of the floating markets in Vietnam and Thailand, especially those situated in areas more accessible to tourists, have effectively reinvented themselves: while some are famous for the kind of souvenirs one might find there, others attract the attention of tourists with their mouth-watering street food which is more often than not prepared on small boats and either handed to the tourists or served to them on makeshift tables placed on floating restaurants constructed by tying some boats together. Still others offer items specific to the country or the surrounding regions. The floating market on the Dal lake first received international attention in 1960 AD, when a Japanese photographer featured it in a tourist magazine in Japan. In spite of the tourist attention it has received over the past few decades, the floating market here remains to be predominantly a vegetable market catering mostly to the needs of local traders and consumers. Moreover, the fact that this market operates fairly early in the day makes it less likely for throngs of tourists to appear, giving the market, in spite of its busy transactions and interactions, a sense of serenity that most others cannot really boast of.


The traditionalism that makes the floating vegetable market of Kashmir unique is, however, also one of the reasons now threatening its survival. In an interview conducted by one of the reporters whose work this author has cited, one vegetable seller opined that the fact that this market has kept the generations-old tradition of trading by the barter system while being surrounded by a thoroughly monetized economy discourages young people from seriously considering this as a viable career option. With less and less young people willing to follow this trade, especially when it comes to the floating market, its size may shrink significantly only a generation later, threats of the market disappearing completely looming large. The current traders and merchants who traverse the Dal waterscape with their wares, especially those who populate the floating market, are yet to utilize the potential of the market as a tourist attraction. Unlike Vietnam or Thailand, there are hardly any genuine floating shops selling souvenirs or offering food afloat the Dal. The limited options available for tourists often means that many of them do not consider the floating market to be a sensible investment of their time, leading to less earning for the traders there.


The greatest threat to the floating market, however, is one about which traders and tourists alike seem to be barely aware of, yet this is something that has the potential to completely destroy the society, economy, ecology and geography centered on the Dal lake. Over the past century, the population of Srinagar has increased 11 times, which has led to the expansion of low-quality infrastructure on the one hand and the cutting down of trees along the lake’s shores to make room for more agricultural fields, on the other. Significant amounts of untreated waste and agricultural runoff enter the lake every single day, to which can be added the untreated waste produced by the numerous houseboats of the lake. The 40000 to 70000 encroachers (as of November 2018) who have settled in the islands within the Dal lake known as the ‘Dal interiors’ add inordinate amounts of waste to the lake and remain unchecked. The lake has only 5 or 6 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and even those don’t function effectively. All this has led to the lake shrinking significantly. According to a report submitted by Rajesh Tripathi, CMD of the Dredging Corporation of India (2018), the lake’s size has already decreased from the popularly known 18-22 square kilometers to a shocking 10 square kilometers. The depth of the lake has also decreased dramatically, with reports suggesting that the lake may have already ost as much as 40% of its former depth. If this pattern continues, flooding will become a common occurrence around the lake very soon and the historic lake may cease to exist in the next century. 50% of the region’s water bodies have already disappeared, with the rest, including the Dal lake, facing disastrous ecological and chemical changes. This can prove catastrophic for the vegetable cultivation of the region which is dependent on its wetlands. The floating vegetable market of Kashmir may disappear sooner than we can anticipate simply because there may not be a domestic vegetable cultivating economy left to support it.


The exquisite floating market of Kashmir is a source of awe, joy and pride for Indians in general and Kashmiris in particular. Set amid monuments and gardens representing a past the world has long since moved on from, the floating market reflects the beauty, dynamism and energy of everyday life in Kashmir. In some ways, the market too represents a tendency to hold on to the past, especially in the partial preservation of the barter system and the apparent refusal on the part of the traders to consciously build up the floating market towards a more tourist-oriented direction. While this tendency threatens the future of the market, especially with a lot of the younger generation refusing to pursue the trade that sustains the same, some local merchants do recognize the potential of the market, with some selling souvenirs and trinkets atop their canoes along the fringes of the market in an unorganized fashion. A much more potentially dangerous threat to the market is one that threatens the very existence of the Dal: ecological and geo-morphological changes brought about to the water bodies of the region through man’s unbridled exploitation of the natural environment. Concerted and organized efforts on the part of both the government and the public at large are required in order to preserve and popularize the floating market of Kashmir while keeping in mind the natural balance that makes this market possible in the first place. A conscious collaboration between the two is crucial to make this seemingly herculean endeavor a success.