Thursday, February 22, 2024

Kashmir’s houseboats: A dwindling legacy of cultural heritage

Photo by Isa Macouzet on Unsplash

Despite its rich cultural heritage, the houseboat tradition in Kashmir is under threat. The government has been accused of ignoring the issues faced by these skilled artisans, leaving them to struggle on their own.

Moreover, the lack of young apprentices to learn the craft has resulted in dwindling numbers of skilled artisans, further jeopardising the future of this unique aspect of Kashmiri culture.

For decades, houseboats have been an integral part of the cultural heritage of Kashmir. They are a unique blend of Kashmiri and British architecture that has become a symbol of the region’s rich cultural history.

The houseboat industry, once a flourishing and thriving sector, is now on the brink of extinction due to government neglect and lack of support. The decline of this industry has left many houseboat owners and skilled artisans struggling to make ends meet.

Riyaz Ahmad Dar, a houseboat owner with 45 years of experience, laments the state of the industry, stating, “It’s a pity that we are witnessing the slow death of a tradition that has been around for centuries.” The government’s ban on the construction and repair of these boats has resulted in many of them sinking, leaving the cultural heritage of Kashmir in a precarious state.

The history of houseboats in Srinagar dates back to colonial India when British visitors were denied permission to own land in the scenic Kashmir valley. In response, they turned to the waterways and came up with the concept of a “floating camp.” The ingenious Kashmiris then converted the region’s cargo boats into elaborate houseboats that catered to the needs of the British visitors.

Over time, the houseboats grew in size to accommodate changing needs and were moored in stationary rows, presenting themselves as floating hotels in Srinagar’s Dal and Nigeen Lakes. Despite the fears that the houseboat business would die out with the departure of the British following Independence in 1947, the owners proved to be resourceful and repurposed them as hotels catering to Indian tourists.

Suhail Ahmad, a young houseboat owner from Chinar Bagh area of Srinagar, has been grappling with the loss of his beloved houseboat. Due to government restrictions on repairs and maintenance, Suhail’s boat sank underwater, leaving him and his mother with no source of income.

“I live alone with my mother and the houseboat was our only source of income. Since the time we lost the houseboat, I have worked as a labourer, which was never my work.”

Suhail’s situation is not unique, as many sole breadwinners in the houseboat community have similarly lost their livelihoods due to government neglect.

Despite the critical role that these houseboats play in the local tourism industry, their upkeep and maintenance have been severely affected by government restrictions. 

The government’s inaction towards the plight of these houseboat owners has caused widespread frustration and anger. 

“The government has turned a blind eye towards us,” Suhail said.

Once boasting a peak of 3,000 houseboats in the 1970s, the combined total of houseboats on both lakes now stands at just over 800. The decline is attributed to various factors, including the ban on new construction activity around the lake, including houseboats, imposed by the High Court in 2010.

Despite houseboats contributing less than 5% to the pollution, as claimed by they have been caught in the crosshairs of the ban, which has remained in force for over a decade. However, there is hope on the horizon.

In May 2021, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha announced a new policy that allows houseboat owners to repair and renovate their boats.

This announcement brought a glimmer of hope to the beleaguered houseboat owners, but they are still awaiting the policy to be established on the ground. 

As one owner lamented, “We have been doing to and fro rounds to different offices as to when we will be able to renovate our houseboats again, but we are still not allowed to do so.”

According to Manzoor Pakhtoon, the Chairman of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, “We are not allowed to repair them, reconstruct them and even apply for renewal of the licence. No matter how much time we approach the authorities, they just delay the process.”

This lack of action from the authorities has put around 200 houseboat owners in a difficult position, with some considering giving up their licences due to the crisis. Pakhtoon describes this situation as a disaster for the tourism sector in Kashmir, predicting that the number of houseboats in the region will decrease significantly in the coming years.

Apart from the loss of tourism revenue, the decline of the houseboat industry also means the loss of unique and valuable craftsmanship. The skill required to design a houseboat is like no other, and the skilled craftsmen who possess these skills are becoming increasingly rare.

The decline of the houseboat industry in Kashmir is a concerning issue for both the local community and the tourism sector. As Pakhtoon noted, “Houseboats are an important part of Kashmir’s culture and heritage, and it would be a shame to see them disappear.” It is imperative that the government and other relevant authorities take swift action to address the crisis and ensure that the houseboat industry in Kashmir is able to thrive once again.

The issue of pollution in Kashmir’s lakes is a topic of great concern for both locals and tourists alike. Houseboats, in particular, have been singled out as a source of pollution in these waters. However, Manzoor Pakhtoon, the Chairman of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, strongly disagrees with this notion.

“At times, people blame houseboats for polluting the lakes of Kashmir, but it’s a blatant lie,” Pakhtoon says. “If you visit the adjoining areas of Dal Lake, most of the sewage is untreated and thrown into Dal Lake, and we do not think that we even pollute 1% of the lake.”

Pakhtoon’s sentiments are echoed by many other houseboat owners in the region. They believe that the government is unfairly targeting them while ignoring the larger issue of pollution in the lakes. The government has tried various measures to reduce pollution in the lakes, but they have not been successful.

“The government has been trying for years to lessen the burden of pollution in the lake but are failing miserably,” Pakhtoon says.

“They even tried installing biodigesters last year but failed miserably.”

The installation of bio-digesters was meant to be a solution to the problem of untreated sewage being dumped into the lake. However, the project failed to produce the desired results, leaving many to question the government’s ability to tackle the issue of pollution in the region.

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