In Srinagar, houseboats and their builders face extinction

On one hand, strict High Court guidelines prohibit new registration of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen lakes in Srinagar. On the other, there are just three master craftsmen left, who can build these boats, the older ones among which are in decrepit state.

A houseboat stay, once a major attraction of Kashmir tourism, could soon become just a memory. For two reasons. One, the strict High Court guidelines that prohibit increasing the number of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen lake, the second famous lake in Srinagar city. Two, there are just three master craftsmen left, who can build houseboats. All the others have passed away in the last six decades, taking their knowledge with them.

It takes these master craftsmen one to two years to build a normal house boat, called floating palace in local parlance. The houseboats are categorised in five groups—Deluxe houseboat that has three bedrooms, a dining room and a lobby; five star houseboat that has two bedrooms, a dining room and a small lobby similar to those in a five star hotel room and then category A, B and C houseboats, which are not as spacious and have just the basic amenities.

“My boat is no less than a five-star hotel, it is a palace,” said Muhammad Rafiq Shangloo, a houseboat owner, who named his boat Royal Palace. “My son suggested this name. I fixed a display board with the name on top my houseboat moored in the middle of Dal Lake.” Parked at different locations on the lake are many houseboats with colourful names like Paradise, Small Heaven, Flower Palace, Dream Palace, Queens Palace Prince Charming, King’s Fort etc.

A houseboat is usually made out of Cedar wood which can withstand damage from being in water for long periods. The houseboats usually have a corridor, drawing room, dining room, pantry, two to four bedrooms with attached bathrooms with hot and cold water running water. The accessories are carved out of walnut wood and placed in various rooms. Even the doors and windows have walnut wood carvings that provides. The sun deck is generally spacious. Interior furnishing mostly comprise carpets, crewel curtains, embroidered bedsheets, foot mats etc.

Abdul Khaliq Najar, one of the three surviving craftsmen, dropped out of school almost 60 years back to learn the art of building houseboats. His father and grandfather had been master craftsmen. At that time, most foreign and domestic tourists preferred to stay in houseboats moored in the Dal and Nigeen lakes as did the British during colonial times. Catering to these tourists generated good income for boat owners in both lakes. In the 1950s, there were only 200 to 250 houseboats in the two major lakes of Srinagar. Foreign tourists especially were offered attractive packages for two-night, four-night and a week-long stays.

“That was a golden era for Kashmir,” said Hameed Wangnoo, Chairman House Boat Owners Association, Kashmir. “Life was simple and hassle free. We used to offer packages to foreign tourists right from 1950s till 1980s that entailed stay, breakfast, shikara rides on the lakes Dal and excursions to the Mughal gardens and other tourist places.” The packages usually cost around Rs 5000 for a week-long stay. “Today, things have changed—a one night stay in a Delux houseboat costs Rs 3000 including breakfast and a complimentary boat ride in Dal Lake”. The houseboats are also capable of hosting visitors during winter. “Earlier, we used to follow traditional means of keeping the houseboat room warm.” Said Wangnoo. “Today, we have all modern gadgets like gas heaters, room heaters, blowers etc”.

A boatman rides past houseboats on the Nigeen Lake in Srinagar. Pic: Umar Ganie

Heavy losses

Wangnoo laments that for almost a decade, houseboat owners have been left on the verge of starvation mainly because of the conflict that gripped Kashmir since the 1990s and government apathy towards houseboat owners. “Since 2016, tourism has been badly hit in Kashmir. We are not able to support our family members especially school going children. Tourist footfall has gone down considerably post August 5 last year, when Government of India revoked Article 370 and sliced the erstwhile state into two Union Territories.”

As per the tourist department of Kashmir, in January 2020, the number of foreign tourists was less than 1000 while 10,000 domestic tourists visited Valley. “At present we have less than five per cent tourist booking,” said Wangnoo. “This is really frustrating. Government is not doing much to promote winter tourism in the Valley. The houseboat industry has suffered a loss of Rs 150 Crore due to the uncertainty that Kashmir witnessed post August 5 last”.

Adding to their woes was the increasing pollution of Dal lake, for which houseboats were considered a major contributor. As the business diminished, the master craftsmen who built these houseboats either died out or moved on to other means of livelihood. Leaving behind today only three master craftsmen—Khaliq, Ghulam Ahmed and Nazir Ahmed Najar alias Kawdari. Ghulam, a resident of Dana Mazar area of old Srinagar is 70 and confined to his bed. The bulk of the work, mainly repairs to the dwindling number of usable houseboats, is handled by Najar and Kawdari.

But they have not taught their sons the art of building houseboats. In fact, both Najar and Kawdari have moved away from their traditional livelihoods. Najar sells readymade wooden fittings for homes that he makes at the mill at his home in Srinagar. Kawdari has set up a retail shop at the market near his home at Kawdara. According to houseboat owners in Srinagar and veteran tour operator Muhammad Yousuf Chapri, the art of houseboat making will fade away with Najar and Kawdari.

Kawdari, who learned the craft from his father and uncle, started in 1975 when he was just 10. It took a decade for him to fully understand the intricacies of building a houseboat. “The real work begins long before the craftsman works his tools on a log,” said Kawdari. “The first test for a craftsman is selecting the right wood for the hull. It takes years of experience to tell a good log of cedar from an ordinary one. Even a minor mistake in finding the right wood could prove disastrous: the bottom of the hull will start decaying in just a few years”.

Cedar grows all over Kashmir though the cedar from north Kashmir’s Baramulla district is considered the best by craftsmen. “The best wood comes from the most mature cedar which no raw layers,” said Najar. Master craftsmen identify raw layers and veins that run through the length of the wood and remove them like a surgeon. It is believed that Kashmiri cedar can remain undamaged by water for 100 years. “Yes, that’s true,” says Najar. “But only when the quality of Cedar is the best. A trained craftsman can dismantle a houseboat piece by piece and make a new one from the same with minor changes and additions”.

In need of repairs

Houseboats are categorised as per their room-capacity. As far the waste disposal, Dal lake dwellers clean the toilets of houseboats daily. “We were promised installation of machines at each houseboat for scientific waste disposal but nothing has happened so far,” said Abdul Majeed, a houseboat owner. “We pay on monthly basis to Dal dwellers who clean our toilets every day. We ensure that the human waste doesn’t go directly into the lake.” The High Court has asked houseboat owners to dispose of their waste scientifically and the government has been asked to provide all the facilities for this. But little has been done to implement this court order.

Government labourers busy dredging near a houseboat on River Jhelum at Srinagar. Pic: Umar Ganie

At present there more than 1,200 houseboats in Dal and Nigeen lakes with less than 100 being 10 years old. Most of the older ones are in desperate need of repair. “It depends on the nature of damage. On an average, Rs 1 lakh is spent every month on the maintenance of a houseboat. Our primary focus is always checking the bottom of the boat as even a minor leak can lead to major damage,” said Chairman HBOA.  Since the income of houseboat owners has been hit badly in the absence of tourists, Wangnoo said that many houseboats are likely to vanish. “Some may sink as they have not been repaired in time”.

A few years ago, the government opened a dockyard at Nowpora in Srinagar where many houseboats were repaired by Najar and Kawdari. But now there is a blanket ban on reconstruction and repair of houseboats in both lakes as the High Court believes these boats are major source of pollution.

Ten houseboat owners have petitioned the High Court for permission to reconstruct their houseboats. “The bottom of my houseboat needs repairs,” said Tariq Ahmed Shanglo, a houseboat owner. “I cannot host guests because of this and my business has suffered”.

“Houseboats are to Kashmir what the Taj Mahal is to India,” said tour operator Chapri. “It is unfair to blame the houseboats for polluting Dal Lake. The residential colonies on the banks of the lake are equally responsible for turning it into a cesspool. A decade ago, the Central and state governments proposed to relocate the residential colonies around Dal Lake. But the programme was never implemented. Also, there are no houseboats in Wular Lake, Asia’s second largest freshwater lake. Yet it has shrunk and is polluted”.

Also read: “The Dal is dying and so are we

Muhammad Yaqoob, who recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of his houseboat in Nigeen, says drastic measures are needed to preserve the rich heritage of houseboats of Kashmir. “The houseboat is our life,” said Yaqoob. “Without it, we don’t exist. I am pained to see that only two master craftsmen are now left in Kashmir and the third one is on the death bed. Now government regulations have made even repairing houseboats difficult. We need cedar for repairs, but government doesn’t offer us subsidy. We are compelled to buy it at market rate. Without government help to houseboat owners, they could well become a memory of the past.”

The last nail

The latest High Court directives have really hit houseboat owners hard. In December 2019, the court directed all concerned authorities that “the number of houseboats which have been given registration should not be increased in any manner.” The division bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Sanjeev Kumar passed these directions based on a report by a Committee of Experts (CoE) headed by E Sreedharan, former chief of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. The other members include Dr Nivedita P. Haran, IAS (Retired), Former Additional Chief Secretary, Home Department, Government of Kerala and renowned environmentalist M C. Mehta, a native of Jammu and Kashmir. The committee submitted its report last year.

The CoE report observed that the houseboats and dongas were parked on the Dal Lake without any fixed order and the gap between the boats was not uniform. “This has occurred because there were no guidelines or policy for registration of the houseboats and no consideration about optimum carrying capacity,” the report said.

The expert committee report also referred to the willingness of several houseboat owners to surrender their houseboats in exchange for some other hospitality related business elsewhere. “Maintaining the houseboats is not a profitable business as it used to be before 1990,” the report said. The CoE has directed the Tourism department and Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) to hold detailed consultation with stakeholders and come up with a policy which would facilitate de-registration and even surrendering of houseboats.

The division bench after going through the report observed that Dal Lake is not only home to houseboats but also to dongas, shikaras, motorboats, bathing boats and other water-based carriers. The bench said that a comprehensive policy with regard to the registration of all these boats needs to be framed and directed the Vice Chairman LAWDA and Commissioner Secretary Department of Tourism to consider several suggestions made by the CoE, like revival of donga cruise, a cruise in a floating restaurant introduced in the 1980s. The Secretary, Department of Tourism has also been directed to place before the court specific guidelines regarding registration of the houseboats.

Regarding transfer and re-transfer of ownership and registration of the houseboats, the court directed that this aspect should be considered by the prescribed authority. “Specific guidelines framed or to be formulated in respect of registration and incidental matters thereto shall be placed before the court,” the court said. Further hearing on the case is awaited.

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