A sinking feeling: Owners of Kashmir's iconic houseboats fret over 'ailing heritage'

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 19 September 2021

A sinking feeling: Owners of Kashmir's iconic houseboats fret over 'ailing heritage'

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
  • A 2005 building and repair ban restricted owners from houseboat maintenance, causing many to sink
  • Experts urge authorities to ease policies and preserve the 'identity of Kashmir' after COVID-19 related travel curbs upended industry

NEW DELHI: Manzoor Kundroo wistfully traces his fingers over the intricate woodwork that lines the interiors of the King’s Ring, his family-owned heritage houseboat and one of many stationed on the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir.
It’s been the pride of his family for more than 80 years and their main source of revenue but fell into disrepair after a 2009 Kashmir High Court directive banned construction work in the area as part of an environmental policy to protect Dal.
Authorities were also asked to reduce houseboat numbers and not to renew licenses. The order proved devastating for Kundroo and hundreds like him – with owners banned from repairing them, many houseboats began to sink.
A part of King’s Ring sank a few months ago. Today, its woodwork is rotting, and the carpets stink, but Kundroo says he has no money to keep it afloat.
“The boat needs urgent repair work for it to be used, but I have a family to take care of. The money we used to earn from the houseboat was more than enough for us and the boat’s maintenance. Now, it’s not possible,” Kundroo, 39, told Arab News.
A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided.
They were first built on Dal Lake in the late 19th century as a place for Europeans – banned by the Kashmir king from owning land in the region – to reside in.
Over a century later, houseboats rose to over 3,000 and were often featured in Bollywood films, becoming a tourism mainstay in the disputed Kashmir region.
Before they hit rock bottom, the Kundroo family used to earn $800 a month by renting the facility to local and foreign tourists who visited the picturesque valley and its must-see attractions.
Nowadays, however, he and his extended family of 11 reside in an area adjacent to the houseboat, struggling to make ends meet.
There are over 950 houseboats in Srinagar that are part of an industry that has been an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage for over 150 years, despite decades of conflict in the hotly contested region that India and Pakistan claim in entirety but rule in part.
But the aftermath of political unrest in the past two years and loss of tourism to the valley due to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown hundreds of houseboat owners like Kundroo into the deep end.
Driven by the industry’s plight, in April, the government said it would allow owners to repair houseboats if they cleared their dues, such as power and water bills, and acquired a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for repair work, which often takes months to process.
But Kundroo, who has switched to a desk job at a tourism company to make ends meet, says it’s a vicious circle – without the houseboat, he cannot earn money to repair it, and without repairs, he cannot rent the facility.
“We could not get the NOC from the government to repair it, and it sank. For the past year, we haven’t paid electricity bills as we don’t have money. We are willing to pay if we are allowed to earn,” he said.
He added that a dearth of tourists to the valley had compounded the issue.
“Despite all the difficulties that the tourism in Kashmir used to face, we somehow used to survive on the income from the houseboat, but that certainty is gone,” Kundroo said.
In August 2019, New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its special semi-autonomous status, placing the region under a heavily militarised curfew, with Internet cut for more than six months.
Tourists turned away, and the numbers reduced to zero a few months later when the pandemic hit and India closed its borders to international visitors to curb the outbreak.
Much before that, Kundroo says King’s Ring had seen better days. It featured in the Kashmir shooting for the 1962 Hindi hit film, Aarzoo and had been “home,” for a few days, to the acclaimed late comedian, Mehmood Ali, father of renowned singer Lucky Ali.
Activists, for their part, said they are concerned about the future of the industry.
“Over 20,000 people are directly dependent on earnings from houseboats,” Yakub Dunoo, president of the Houseboat Association of Kashmir, told Arab News.
Dunoo has been running the “voice of the voiceless people” campaign for the past two years to highlight the issue of boat owners who “are surviving on basic minimum with tourism since 2019 almost down.”
“We have asked the government to waive off all the charges and allow the repair to take place. The conditions are too harsh to fulfil,” he added.
Officials from the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.
But houseboat owners such as Abdul Qadir Gasi said they are waiting for the government to “improve conditions.”
“My situation is such that if the government waives off thousands of rupees that houseboat owners owe to the electricity department, I will still not have money to repair the boat,” Gasi, 49, told Arab News.
Dunoo is hopeful of better days ahead, citing an uptick in tourism after the removal of COVID-19 travel curbs.
“If the situation continues like this, there might be some recovery,” he said.
Manzoor Wangoo, president of the Negin Lake Boat Association, agrees but is particularly concerned about Kashmir’s “loss of heritage.”
“Houseboats are an ailing heritage of Kashmir, and we want to preserve it. They need expensive repairs every year so that water does not seep in, but the financial situation of owners is so grim that they can’t do anything,” he told Arab News.
“They are the identity of Kashmir, and if we continue apathy toward houseboats, the next generation will only read about it in their textbooks,” he added.
Wangoo further implored the government to devise a “comprehensive policy” for owners who are already “on the verge of extinction” to preserve the heritage.
Kundroo says that’s all he’s asking for.
“Our main worry is not about money. It’s about losing heritage and history. If the government does not want us to survive as houseboats owners, it should rehabilitate us and give us royalty instead.”

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The valley in the northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, surrounded by some of Pakistan’s highest peaks and glaciers, is home to over 24,000 people who remain largely cut off from the rest of the country in the winter months, when temperatures can fall below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

In the absence of reliable gas or electricity sources, residents have had to find alternative means of heating their homes. One option is burning the colorful leaves that fall in autumn, which locals call “gold” and diligently collect between late November and early December to use as burning fuel in the winter ahead.

“We don’t waste dried leaves because they are the main source of heating for us,” Mohammed Jaffar, a 68-year-old resident of Garbong village, told Arab News.

Jaffar, a member of the village’s welfare committee, which is responsible for leaf collection and distribution, said the dried leaves were “the biggest blessing.”

FASTFACTS

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The collection and distribution of dried leaves among Garbong’s 130 households take almost a week. Each household nominates a woman representative and does not receive leaves if it fails to do so. The same practice is observed in all other villages in Khaplu valley.

Mohammed Ali, who summons residents using a mosque loudspeaker every morning during the week to collect their share of leaves from the nearby Stronpi village, said leaf collection rules and exact dates were established years ago to avoid conflict.

“Fifteen years ago, women would fight each other for dried leaves,” he said. “Now, the committee monitors all the affairs of the village, from the mosque to working in the fields and personal disputes as well as dried leaf collection.”

Once distributed among village households, the leaves are burnt in the open air. When they stop giving off smoke, they are brought into the kitchen in a metal pot, placed under a special square table and covered with a blanket or quilt.

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“Without dried leaves, how could we spend the winter days?” she said. “It’s only seasonal dried leaves, but for us, it is like gold.”


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The central and local government immediately ordered a probe.

BACKGROUND

Local media reported that telephone and internet services have been suspended in Mon district as the incident has fueled anger among members of the Konyak tribe, which constitutes a majority in the region.

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The Nagaland chief minister appealed for calm and tweeted that justice will be “delivered as per the law of the land.”

Local media reported that telephone and internet services have been suspended in Mon district as the incident has fueled anger among members of the Konyak tribe, which constitutes a majority in the region.

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