Quiet flow the tourists
30 April 2002
Tariq Ahmad Bhat
SRINAGAR: The chirping of birds heralds a new dawn for Ylva Karlem. The tourist from Sweden looks out from the deck of her houseboat
on Dal Lake, in Srinagar, and watches a spectacular sight. The rising sun with the mighty Zabarwan range of the Himalayas in
the backdrop. "You can't ask for a better start to the day," Karlem says.
This is the fourth time in two years that she has visited Kashmir. And each time she opts for a houseboat. As the sun pours
through the window of her bedroom, Karlem sets sail in a shikara (local boat). She paddles quietly by the other houseboats
lining the Srinagar boulevard, skirts round the Rupi lank and Sona lank, small island gardens in the lake, as the darood (praises
to god) from the mosques fill the air. Similar incantations emanate from the shrine of Hazratbal, with its white dome and
minarets visible from a distance. By the time Karlem returns in the shikara, friends Guiy and Einor, both from Israel, are waiting
for her on the deck.
The houseboat combines all the facilities that any good hotel could offer. Depending on the size, a houseboat may have two to
four bedrooms with a common sitting and dining-room. These 'floating palaces', built entirely of deodar wood, are designed
incorporating aesthetics and comfort. Intricately carved furniture made of walnut and framed tapestries lend the rooms a royal
and ethnic touch.
Fresh from a shower in the plush bathroom adjoining her bedroom, Karlem is ready for breakfast. Abdul Rehman, one of the
four waiters in the houseboat, enquires whether she intends to visit any tourist spot. "No, I have to go shopping and then to the
Internet cafe," she says. The Swede biotechnologist enjoys wandering around on her own. "You can't understand people and
cultures if you remain a visitor. I could have stayed in a hotel but living in a houseboat makes me aware of how people live here.
Each member of the family that owns the houseboat personally looks after you."
The uncertainty in Kashmir did not make her cancel the visit. "It deters many people but I have experienced nothing that could
scare me away. Everybody is so hospitable and helpful in Kashmir," she adds.
While Karlem treks around Kashmir with a guide, Guiy and Einor have a fixed schedule for the day. They are ready and
waiting with their cameras to visit the 2500 BC Shankaracharya temple situated 1,000 feet above city level. This is where the
Shankaracharya stayed when he visited Kashmir 1,000 years ago, to revive the Sanatan Dharma.
Blue Palace, where the Israelis are staying, is situated close to Nehru Park, a small island with a well-maintained garden, a hotel
and a mini swimming pool. Their journey to the temple will begin as soon as they hit the boulevard which lies on the foothills of
the mountain range. The track is a good one and the journey in a vehicle takes less than 10 minutes but Guiy and Einor prefer to
foot it. "This is a great site. We have mountains in Israel but not this big. These mountains stretch far and wide. I have been in
India for the last five months and there is nothing like staying in a houseboat," says Guiy.
Meanwhile, a Japanese couple, Kayoke and Masumi, plans to visit the Mughal gardens, with its stepped terraces, flowing
water courses and majestic chinars. The first garden, Chasmashahi, is closed to tourists for security reasons but the botanical
garden, with natural slopes, an artificial lake with plastic boats and a variety of flowers and trees is adequate compensation. The
garden, which lies almost in the lap of the Zabarwan range, is a favourite with visitors.
Meanwhile, Guiy and Einor inspect Nishat garden designed by queen Noorjehan's brother Asif Khan. It boasts a breathtaking
view of the Dal Lake and the Zabarwan hills. Shalimar, the third garden, planted by Jehangir, has a series of stone pavilions
where concerts are held.
Many tourists visit the Hazratbal shrine, the repository of a single hair of Prophet Muhammad which is exhibited on certain days
of the year. But most of them return to their houseboats before sunset for a ride on a shikara. It is the most soothing and
relaxing part of your stay in Kashmir. You could peddle across to the char chinar (four trees) that stand on a small patch of land
in the middle of the lake.
It is a pleasure to observe the life of the 40,000-strong Hanji community who dwell in the lake's backwaters. They are entirely
dependent on the lake for a living and are classified as Donga hanjis (houseboat owners) and Demba hanjis (vegetable and farm
traders). Bahatchi hanjis deal with the willow and serve as conduits for supplies of edibles. The Gada hanjis provide fish.
Doctors, tailors and bakers are live in small wooden shops on the Dal.
The tourists usually enjoy the sights of the Dal and then proceed to Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahelgam. The 56-km
Srinagar-Gulmarg stretch is a one-day trip. It has some of the best ski slopes and one of the highest 18-hole golf courses in the
world. En route to Gulmarg is Tangmarg, another beautiful picnic spot. The 87-km-long Srinagar-Sonamarg stretch is scenic
and famous for its glaciers. It lies in the Sindh valley and is strewn with flowers and ringed by mountains. The
Srinagar-Pahelgam trip takes three hours and passes the saffron fields of Pampore and the 1,100 year-old temple of Lord
Vishnov built by King Awantivarman.
Houseboat Owners Association president Abdul Razak Katro says: "We have lowered our rates considerably for the tourists.
We now charge Rs 600 a day including breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is one third the rates for the deluxe before militancy
struck the state. Other discounts are also available but only 10 per cent of the 1,100 houseboats are occupied. I want to assure
prospective visitors that Kashmir is perfectly safe for them."
Business should pick up when the Amarnath yatra begins in June. Giving a further fillip to the sagging industry, the chief minister
Farooq Abdullah, under the media glare, took a dip in the Dal Lake during the Baisakhi fare at Nehru Park. "I wanted to relive
my childhood days at Dal," said the chief minister. "I want the people to come and experience the joys that Kashmir offers and
take back our fresh air."
For Karlem and other tourists, the sight was enchanting. They could probably bottle the air until the next visit.