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Small boats are seen at sunset on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, earlier this month. Photo: Xinhua

‘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.

In happier times, Young Beauty Star was a popular floating hotel for tourists who flocked to Dal Lake, in Indian-administered Kashmir, but in recent years a combination of politics, environmental protection and the coronavirus pandemic have conspired to mean its days – and those of the lake’s other famed houseboats – may now be numbered.

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.

Imtiyaz Ahmad cleans his houseboat, the Young Beauty Star, in the hopes of soon having some paying customers. Photo: Bhat Burhan
Initially devised as a place for outsiders to live, as until two years ago they were forbidden from owning land in the region, the houseboats for years proved popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. But after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in August 2019 stripped the former state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special semi-autonomous status after some seven decades, tourism largely dried up amid the heavy military crackdown that followed. The pandemic, which has kept India’s borders closed to foreign tourists since March last year, only compounded matters.

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

Though they are made from durable, rot-resistant deodar wood that comes from a species of cedar native to the western Himalayas, Dal Lake’s houseboats still need constant maintenance in order to remain afloat. But a near-decade ban on their renovation, or the construction of new ones, first implemented in 2009 to ease pollution and degradation of the lake has seen their number dwindle from some 1,500 to just 910 today.

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.

Vacant houseboats are seen moored in Dal Lake in June 2021. Photo: Bhat Burhan

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.”

A man rows past the Kolu Palace houseboat. Photo: Bhat Burhan

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.

Kashmir’s domestic tourism booms even as India’s Covid-19 cases surge

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.