Houseboats in Srinagar – Can a trip to Kashmir or Srinagar to be specific ever be complete without experiencing them. In fact, Kashmir tourism thrives on the unique houseboat experience that the tourists come here for.
After 3 days in Gulmarg and its famous Gondola ride, we landed in Srinagar to spend a night on a houseboat. I was initially a bit disappointed to know that we are not staying at the famous Dal Lake but at Nigeen Lake or Nagin Lake. I had never heard of this lake. Srinagar has always been equal to Dal Lake. After taking a round of Srinagar and its Dal Lake, I am happy that I stayed at Nagin Lake. Which is not as crowded as the Dal Lake allowing you to spend some time with abundant nature around. It was an experience to spend a day on the houseboat and observing the life and commerce of Srinagar & Kashmir tourism that revolves around these.
Srinagar Houseboats Experience
A colorful Shikara took my luggage and me to the landing of the Houseboat. I was served some tea as soon as I entered. And I saw my friends sitting around, a vendor selling colorful paper Mache products. Colorful hand-painted boxes, bells, bangles, trays, and many other small items. We were still haggling with him for a fair price when another vendor selling Kashmiri Jewelry landed and opened his suitcases filled with silver jewelry. There was a kind of pop out market there.
It was time for a leisurely Shikara ride to see the sunset on the lake. We again sat on the colorful Shikara and our boatmen started slowly pulling it into the waters. While most others in the boat were worried about the depth of the lake and the high probability of this slim boat toppling, I was worried about the cold water of the lake. We sailed past all other houseboats parked on the lake with curious names. Saw many new-age hotel chains claiming the houseboats as well. There were houseboats belonging to heritage hotel chains and others from their names indicated local ownership. All the boats were in familiar shades of wood with the outer verandah well carved out wooden panels.
What made me curious is that one edge of these boats is always attached to the land. But these boat operators always bring their customers through a Shikara ride giving an impression that the boat is standing in the middle of the waters.
Shikaras have been immortalized in many Hindi films as the perfect place to romance. With the number of houseboats around and many more Shikaras doing rounds with tourists, am not sure about honeymooning couples romancing in them. But a ride in Shikara is definitely romantic. If for a moment you thought it would be a solitary exploration of nature, you can’t be further from the truth. Every 5 mins another Shikara would come and park itself next to your one and there begins the pursuit of a salesman. It is a complete marketplace. And the moment these Shikara shops spot a tourist the others in the waters line up to it one by one.
You can buy silver jewelry, Paper Mache items, Kashmiri Saffron, Phirans, or get a cup of Kahwah. If you are not in a mood to shop or forgot your wallet in the boat – there are photographers who would come with a whole stack of Kashmiri costumes to you. You can wear them on top of what you are wearing. Yes, right there in the narrow fragile Shikara in the middle of the chilling cold lake. And get yourself clicked as ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ or ‘Kashmir ka Phool’. If you do not want to go through the rigmarole, they would click your pictures with your camera for a small fee. Which is a good idea for there is no other way to get yourself clicked in the middle of the water.
Floating Vegetable garden
Somewhere your Shikarawala would point you to a floating vegetable garden. Remember Kashmiris eat a lot of lotus stem and it grows in water. Even a lot of greens that they eat grows in water – is it not amazing. Have you seen floating vegetable gardens elsewhere? If yes please share the details with me.
From wherever you look at Shikaras – from the shore, from the boat, or from another Shikara – they always make a good picture. Give a perfect perspective that every travel photographer is looking for.
History of Houseboats in Srinagar
It is often believed that the British brought the concept of houseboats to Kashmir valley. However, I learned from our host Yaseen Tuman of Mascot Houseboats that in the ancient Kashmiri literature dating back to 13th CE, there is a mention of boats in the lakes of Kashmir valley. So boat making was not new to Kashmir. However, they were used more for the convenience of local people rather than for tourists or visitors.
The Internet tells me that when British people came to the Kashmir valley, they were not allowed to buy land. As an alternate option, they built boats. Parked them in the expansive lakes and lived out of them. Over a period of time, these boats in Srinagar parked on the edges of the lakes became Kashmir’s major tourist attraction.
Today when you look at Dal Lake from the Shankaracharya temple, all you see is a city of these boats. Imagine the economy that revolves around them and how many lifelong memories are created here.
What is a Houseboat all about?
Parked in a row along the edges of lakes like Dal Lake and Nagin Lake, houseboats in Srinagar look like a village surrounding the lake. Inside they usually have a few rooms with ensuite bathrooms, a dining room, and a common room where all guests can sit and chat. All rooms have some arrangement to keep it warm and cozy, while the window overlooks the chilly waters of the lake. A small verandah with a sit-out is the loveliest part of the boat. I would never forget early morning sitting out with a cup of tea in one hand, kindle in another. My eyes two-timing between the Kindle and the scene on the Nagin Lake, as the fog lifted itself lazily, as the Shikaras started making rounds selling flowers and as the sun rays kissed good morning to the waters of the lake.
Exquisitely carved Wooden Boat
We took a round of a neighboring luxury boat that had some exquisite woodcarvings all representative of the life and culture of Kashmir. Motifs that prominently feature on the woodwork of Houseboats in Srinagar almost always include Chinar trees that are so integral to the Kashmiri life. The bathrooms had all the modern amenities. And for a small window in July, there were air conditioners. Each and every piece of furniture showcased the fine workmanship of Kashmiri artisans. It was sad to hear that it is very difficult to find wood carving artists these days. As they hardly find enough work for a living by this art. Interiors are all done in wood.
The quality of carving and furniture depends on the category of boats. In the few of them that I saw wood panels were like a documentary on Kashmir and its Flora & Fauna.
Making of Houseboat
An added advantage of traveling as a travel blogger was that the owner not only showed us his other boats but he also played a film for us on the making of a houseboat. I loved watching that video. We would never know how much it takes to build a massive boat that would live for at least 50-60 years. And would entertain thousands if not more tourists in its warm interiors. How the long wood panels are made into a hull – the bottom part of the boat that floats in the water. And then how each panel is hand-carved and how all of them come together to make a lovely home for the tourists.
We heard stories of business going down during the turbulent times in Kashmir. How the houseboat owners came together to bring it back by slashing their prices and by opening up them to mass tourists while earlier they catered only to elite tourists.
Everywhere we went in Srinagar city, people spoke about the terrible floods the previous year. Everyone spoke about how high the water was. It was only the houseboat owners who were not impacted as the boats would just float on the water no matter how high or low the water is.
Jammu & Kashmir tourism website lists all houseboats in Srinagar on all its lakes by category. Along with the boat owner’s name and the year of inception of the boat. When you buy your Kashmir tour package you can check the category of your boat here.
- Make sure you enjoy at least one sunset and one sunrise.
- Do take at least one Shikara ride.
- Haggle and negotiate before you buy anything from Shikara shops.
Take it from me, living on a houseboat is an experience you would cherish for the rest of your life.
Read my other posts on Jammu & Kashmir.