|| Kashmir, as every guide book to state unfailingly
mentions, ‘is endowed with a silvery network of placid lakes and sparkling
streams’. Mountain tarns are a delight to the trekker as rushing streams are to
the angler, but their appeal transcends the purely visual, for Kashmir’s
waterways have for centuries been home to a community of people whose lives have
been lived on them.
Unlike fishing communities throughout coastal India whose homes are at the
water’s edge, Kashmir’s boat people actually live in their boats on Srinagar’s
These lakes are far from being flat bodies of water. To get an idea of their
true character, we can do no better than to look at them from a vantage point on
Shankaracharya Hill. Srinagar’s magic hour is undoubtedly at dawn when pearly
light has just begun to uncoil the city from its slumber. Down below stretch
rows of houseboats like washing hung out on giant line. Areas of Dal Lake are
clustered with sloping roofed houses on islands, while other parts appear lush
and green like well-tended gardens. As the eye travels onwards, houseboats,
houses and vegetation cease abruptly, and two enormous sheet-like expanses of
water, the Bod Dal and Lokut Dal, come into view. Each has, as its focal point,
a diminutive island planted with a clump of chinar trees. Far in the distance,
the single dome of Hazratbal Mosque and its minaret gleam like a pink pearl with
the soft light of dawn. Diametrically opposite is another lower hill, Hari
Parbat, which wears its fort like a crown. At the foot of the hill is a
straggling cluster of monochromatic houses punctuated by spires of mosques. It
is difficult from this distance to see where the Dal Lake meets the River Jehlum.
Even at this early hour of the morning, small boats make their unhurried
progress along the water. They are laden with mounds of dewy-fresh vegetables,
many-hued flowers or mountainous piles of weeds. A lone shikara resembles
nothing more than a grasshopper that has paused for a moment on the surface of
To get a close-up of life on the water, one could make ones way to one of the
wooden bridges in the Old City. Once the day has well and truly begun, the
bridge resounds with an unlikely range of traffic – a flock of sheep chased by a
harried shepherd, vehicles that rumble by and a horse-drawn carriage piled high
with silk carpets. Threading past vendors selling fragrant roasted maize and
somewhat less fragrant dried fish, the muddy waters of the Jehlum swirl beneath.
Three-storied houses of unburnt brick edge the water, counter pointed by the
graceful spire of a nearby mosque. But it is the boats that draw attention.
Unpainted wooden barges with sloping shingled rooftops crowd the waterway. Each
has a handkerchief-sized deck at its stern where stout matrons bend over spinach
greens, hold noisy conversations with each other and mind an assortment of
children – all at the same time. A small uncovered boat passes by, laden with
aluminum cooking vessels for sale, and the neighborhood is all agog. The utensil
seller has one customer who nimbly leaps from her barge to his boat, age and
bulk notwithstanding, and within seconds frantic bargaining is in progress to
the delight of the neighbors who have gathered on their decks to watch.
Soon enough there comes another, even more interesting diversion – a barge being
moved downstream. On the roof of the barge is a quilt and a bicycle, and on the
deck, a handful of fowls. A grizzled old man wields a long pole, pushing the
boat forward gracefully, while managing, somewhat miraculously, to avoid
collision with all the other crafts that crowd the narrow waterway.
Flanking the edge of the river intermittently are stone stairways leading to the
water. They serve a variety of purposes – women from the surrounding houses
squat on them to wash clothes; an army of shrieking children use them as diving
boards to swim in the muddy river; men use them as park benches to watch the
world go by. Each boat has two or three rooms with wooden partitions and no
furniture at all. Cushions are used to lean on while seated on the floor, and a
pile of quilts and mattresses stacked neatly, probably serve as beds during the
night. Only the kitchen is lined from floor to ceiling with vessels. It is not
possible to say immediately, what each is used for because none look like
anything out of a western kitchen. But cooking vessels, eating bowls and water
tumblers are all made of copper, silvered with tin and the sight of them in
kitchen is an attractive one.
What are the origins of these boat people, whose lifestyles have obviously
evolved for so many centuries to become what they are? They themselves claim
descent from Noah of the Bible, whose ark, they would have us believe, drifted
to Kashmir after the Great Flood receded. A colorful theory no doubt, but one
that has little supporting evidence. Walter Lawrence, the Settlement
Commissioner of Jammu and Kashmir at the turn of century, writes in his book,
The Valley of Kashmir, (which remains the most definitive work on the State)
that the boat people are probably of gypsy origin. Certainly, life in a boat
affords a remarkable degree of mobility, far greater than that of nomadic
shepherds. And if the community is gypsies, they could well be unique, for there
are few records of other gypsy communities in the world whose life is lived upon
In Kashmir, where one’s community determines one’s profession, the livelihood of
the boatmen is hereditary rather than voluntary. Within the community are a
number of clearly marked divisions, the principal ones being those of the
houseboat community; those who live in doongas on the rivers; market gardeners
and shikara men whose homes are houses on the lake; and the fishermen.
Kashmir! The whisper evokes a
portrait of beauty: the stunning snow capped peaks of the
Himalayas: flower strewn valleys dazzling the eye with all the
colors of the rainbows and lakes, with floating gardens, teeming
with wildlife. Kashmir has a strong spiritual essence; the aura of
the surrounding beauty makes it a place to commune closely with nature and ones
Today World is beginning to realize that modern Kashmir, is once
again, becoming a place to unwind !
Srinagar is at once a collection of
images: a son-et- lumiere that tells the story of the love of the Mughal
emperors for this paradise vale; deep green rice fields and river bridges of
gardens in bloom and lakes rimmed by houseboats; at once summer capital of the
state, business centre and holiday resort.
Srinagar is as much imagination as it is fact, for every season offers new
vistas to this city of great antiquity. Spring breathes life again into a frozen
world and the air is heady with the fragrance of a million flowers that blossom
on trees, shrubs and creepers. Summer heightens the effect and autumn is
poignant in its colours of warm introspection. Winter brings with it snow, the
Dal Lake freezes and beneath a leaden sky, roasted chestnuts turn the atmosphere
aromatic with the promise of warmth and comfort.
The river Jhelum and the Dal and Nagin lakes dominate
Srinagar and its life and activities. Here lush wild gardens of lotus and water
lily flower amidst bustling lanes. By the lakeside spread the gardens of the
Mughals in patterned beauty. And the people move with a tranquility borne of a
history laden pulse of activity.
Kashmir has four distinct seasons, each with
its own peculiar character and distinctive charm. These are spring, summer,
autumn and winter.
Spring, which extends roughly from March to early May, is when a million
blossoms carpet the ground. The weather during this time can be gloriously
pleasant at 23oC or chilly and windy at 6oC. This is the season when Srinagar
experiences rains, but the showers are brief.
Summer extends from May until the end of August. Light woolens may be
required to wear out of Srinagar. In higher altitudes night temperatures drop
slightly. Srinagar at this time experiences day temperatures of between 25oC and
35oC. At this time, the whole valley is a mosaic of varying shades of green -
rice fields, meadows, trees, etc. and Srinagar with its lakes and waterways is a
heaven after the scorching heat of the Indian plains.
The onset of autumn,
perhaps Kashmir's loveliest season, is towards September, when green turns to
gold and then to russet and red. The highest day temperatures in September are
around 23oC and night temperatures dip to 10oC by October, and further drop by
November, when heavy woolens are essential.
Through December, to the beginning
of March is Winter time, which presents Srinagar in yet another mood.
Bare, snow-covered landscapes being watched from beside the warmth of a fire is
a joy that cannot be described to anyone who has not experienced it. Some
houseboats and hotels remain open in winter-these are either centrally heated or
heated with ‘bukharis’, a typically Kashmiri stove kept alight with embers of
wood, quite effective in the winter.