‘All will disappear’: sun sets on Kashmir’s traditional houseboats as tourism, and Dal Lake, dry up
- There have been houseboats on Dal Lake in Srinagar since the 1860s, with more modern, palatial vessels attracting a slew of high-paying tourists in happier times
- But a combination of politics, environmental protection and the coronavirus pandemic have conspired to mean the famed floating hotels’ days may now be numbered
High in the foothills of the Himalayas, on a lake ringed by Mughal-era gardens, Imtiyaz Ahmad and two other Kashmiri men were hard at work earlier this month cleaning a sumptuous cedar-wood houseboat.
There have been houseboats on the lake in Srinagar since at least the 1860s, though in the early days they would have looked quite different from the palatial vessels filled with chandeliers, carpets and intricately carved furniture that not so long ago could earn their owners as much as 30,000 rupees (US$410) a month from paying guests.
Ahmad’s ancestors have been involved in the houseboat business on Dal Lake since the 19th century, he said, but over the past two years he has been forced to sell vegetables by the lakeside for “a few pennies” just to make ends meet and feed his family of five.
He is not alone. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimates the region has missed out on some US$5.3 billion in revenue since it was stripped of its special status, with about half a million jobs lost in the 12-month period that followed. A significant portion of the revenue that was lost would have otherwise gone to the houseboats’ owners.
No more boatbuilders
Local authorities recently announced a U-turn on the renovation ban – but for Mohammad Amin Kolu, owner of the Kolu Palace houseboat, it is a case of too little, too late.
“The artisans who would renovate these houseboats are no more. Most of them passed away [while] others opted to switch other professions,” he said.
Even in the houseboats’ heyday, there were only two or three families who had the necessary skills and experience to construct and properly renovate them, Kolu said, adding that the Najars and Kawdaris were two of the most prominent houseboat-building families who have since moved on to other things.
Those houseboats that remain are expensive to maintain, with Kolu estimating that he used to spend anywhere between US$1,000-US$1,200 every year on repairs – though he admitted that he had not done any for a long time.
One by one, even the boats that have managed to hold out through everything else are slowly falling victim to the one-two punch of unaffordable upkeep combined with a dearth of tourists.
“Take as many pictures as you can because our next generation won’t get to see these boats,” Kolu said. “All the houseboats will disappear soon.”
Dal Lake, meanwhile, still suffers from the algal blooms and silting problems that inspired the 2009 ban on new houseboats. At one time, it covered an area of some 75 sq km, according to environmentalists, but is now a fraction of its former self, encompassing just 12 sq km.
Yet Ahmad is still holding out hope for a miracle. It is rumoured that the annual pilgrimage to nearby Amarnath cave – considered one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism – will be allowed to go ahead as planned this year, bringing with it much-needed customers for his houseboat.
Before the pandemic, the Amarnath yatra (pilgrimage) would bring as many as 600,000 devotees to the region, as they made their way up to the 3,888m-high (12,756ft) cave that they believe is the home of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction, who is said to appear in ice during the months of July and August.
Last year’s pilgrimage was curtailed because of the pandemic, which has killed more than 354,000 people in India so far, but Ahmad is confident Young Beauty Star may soon have guests once again.
“I have heard yatris (pilgrims) are coming this month [June]. It has been my dream for so long to see someone from outside coming to my houseboat,” he said.