The first destination that most tourists visit in Kashmir especially in Kashmir Valley is Srinagar. Srinagar is the largest city of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and the city has lots to offer in terms of heritage and Mughal gardens but the real draw is the legendary houseboats.
Any stay in Kashmir should include at least a night or two on the fabled houseboat, and one can choose from the eight hundred houseboats moored by the edges of Srinagar’s jewel, Dal Lake and its smaller and quieter Nigeen Lake.
Many tourists are attracted to these houseboats because of the unique experience of living on the water with facilities and conveniences of a hotel. Narrow, flat-bottomed canoes called shikaras paddle tourists to these houseboats that have become a defining feature of the lakes.
Loophole in the law
However, the then Maharaja of Kashmir forbade foreigners to own land and buy homes in his state which irked the British who did not want to lose their summer retreats in Srinagar. Instead, they took advantage of a loophole in the Maharaja’s law by building houseboats on Dal Lake and its waterways which sparked a boom in houseboat-building among Kashmiris.
And soon enough, these ‘floating hotels’ became resorts to royalty, movie stars, artists, writers, famous musicians and wealthy Western travellers searching for a touch of the exotic by the languid waters of Dal Lake.
*Also Read: Curious About Darjeeling, Queen of the Hills
Palatial interior furnishings
Building houseboats in Kashmir is a costly affair as owners have to spend lavish amounts of money in construction, fixtures and fittings, furnishings, upholstery and decoration.
Houseboats in Kashmir are typically made of cedar wood which does not rot easily in water, and the interiors are classically furnished with hand-carved walnut wood wall panels, doors and windows. The houseboats also need to have modern amenities and facilities as one would expect in a hotel such as a drawing room, dining room, kitchen/pantry, two to seven en suite bedrooms, hot and cold running water.
Similar to hotels, houseboats vary in degree of luxury. The low-budget houseboats are drabby whereas the deluxe or luxury houseboats have palatial interior furnishings such as thick locally-woven Kashmiri carpets, richly-carved walnut tables and chairs, plush sofas, heavily embroidered curtains and crystal chandeliers. Because of the amount of work and intricacies involved, houseboat building can take many years – some more than ten years – to complete.
One of the striking features of houseboats in Kashmir is the quirky names. Till the early 1950s, the English were the ones who named the houseboats typically after the names of their daughters or something that is lovely and beautiful. As time went on and more houseboats were built, the names varied from commonplace such as Sunflower and whimsical like Queen of Sheba or Kashmir Hilton to bizarre such as Apollo Eleven!
Shikara boat ride
The shikara boats that paddle guests to the houseboats are made of deodar wood, colourfully painted and canopied. The length of the boat is almost fifteen feet long and it can comfortably seat four people in the boat. The boatman or shikara wallah sits at the back and paddles the boat back and forth from the lake shores to the houseboats.
The houseboat experience is never complete without going on a shikara boat ride around Dal or Nigeen Lake. Explore the lake on a shikara for a few hours as it is a peaceful and relaxing experience.
Dal Lake can be too commercial with tourists especially with the houseboats positioned cheek by jowl on the lake. But exploring the lake early in the morning offers a timeless glance into another world, how life for Kashmiris on the lake revolves around the water. The shikara is not only used to ferry tourists to houseboats but also as a form of transportation for shikara wallahs to send goods to the market or for parents to send their children to school.
Nigeen Lake, on the other hand, has lesser tourists, thus the lake is extremely quiet save for the gentle ripple of the shikara wallah’s oars in the placid water and the intermittent interruptions by other shikara wallahs paddling up to your boat, dangling Kashmiri crafts and trinkets in front of you 😊
Note: Images of houseboat interiors are of Mascot Houseboats on Nigeen Lake. For reviews on Mascot Houseboats, click here.
*My trip to Kashmir was hosted by Kashmir Trails and J&K Tourism. Opinions expressed in this post are of my own.
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