Houseboats are the heritage
Houseboats in Dal and Nagin lakes besides on the waters of river Jehlum are not mere commercial establishments but part of Kashmir’s heritage. These houseboats have, in a way, become part of Kashmir’s identity and it is every tourists dream to stay at least once in a houseboat. Though not much literature is available about the history of houseboats in Kashmir, some claim that houseboats have been present on the Dal Lake and Nagin lakes since the 1800s. Some trace the houseboat phenomenon back to the 1880s, to a shop owner named Pandit Naraindas, who catered to foreign tourists. When his shop burned down, it is said Naraindas moved his inventory to a small boat used by the boat-dwelling Hanjis and moored it. His became the first proper houseboat after some modifications. Naraindas later sold his boat to a European, saw the potential in the concept, and began commissioning boats. He became known as Naav Narain (Narain the boatman) in the local community, and his first houseboat was named Kashmir Princess. However, the famous British explorer, Sir Francis Younghusband, is known to have credited one MT Kennard with the idea of a ‘floating house’ between the years 1883 and 1888. It is said that for a long time locals used to call these ‘the boats of ‘Kennad Sahib’. Younghusband wrote that by 1906 there were hundreds of houseboats in Kashmir. Whatever the narrative one may believe, fact of the matter is that houseboats are a treasured heritage of Kashmir and should thus be preserved.
It is satisfactory to note that the present administration has started taking steps for the preservation of these houseboats. Sometime back, Jammu and Kashmir administration has decided to provide subsidised timber for repairs and maintenance of houseboats and taxi shikaras and the decision has been hailed by all those involved in the trade. The houseboat owners have been complaining from past several years that the concerned authorities are not allowing them to repair their houseboats. With the sole motive of discouraging further houseboats to emerge on the waters of Dal and Nigin Lakes, the authorities had made even the process of renovating existing houseboats cumbersome. The houseboat owners, for whom their boats are the only source of livelihood, have been complaining that as they are not being permitted to renovate their boats, they have been losing the clientele and also risking the very existence of their boats. However, their woes had gone unheard for reasons that houseboats are being propagated as the sole source of pollution of the Dal Lake, which in reality is not true. There are huge hotels and other establishments including government owned Hotel Cantuer and SKICC, on the banks of Dal, that pollute the waters more than the houseboats. However, there is a common perception that houseboats are responsible for all ills and therefore the pleas of the owners to renovate their boats would not get any sympathetic audience.
In this backdrop, the UT government’s decision to provide subsidised timber to the owners of houseboats and taxi shikaras has come as a big relief to the owners of houseboats and shikaras.
The decision made by the government will go a long way in saving the houseboats in Srinagar lakes. Those who see these houseboats as eyesore and blame the same for the dilapidated condition of Dal need to understand that by saving houseboats, the administration is actually saving the rich cultural heritage of Kashmir.