Kashmir houseboats, Kashmir Dal Lake, Dal lake, Kashmir houseboat makers
A houseboat rendered inhabitable in Srinagar's Dal Lake. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

The houseboat has been an iconic motif of Kashmir. The cluster of grand houseboats lined up along the Dal Lake is one of Srinagar’s–and even Kashmir’s–most recognisable view, over the years reducing down to something of a cliche to represent the Valley and its culture.

What would the Dal look like if, one boat at a time, the line of houseboats disappeared? 

In the past four and a half decades, Nazir Ahmad Kawdari has made several houseboats that form the iconic view of the Dal Lake and on the adjacent Nageen Lake to its west. But today he sees no future in continuing with the traditional craft.

In addition to the red tapes strung up by the government, what threatens to jeopardize the future of houseboats is that the last houseboat maker in Kashmir, Mr. Kawdari, may not pass along the knowledge and art of making houseboats.

When one of Mr. Kawdari’s three sons showed an interest in following in his footsteps, he was adamant to not let him pursue an uncertain future. “I knew that he would regret this decision after a few years,” said Mr. Kawdari.

Last man standing

As a 15-year-old in 1975, Mr. Kawdari started going to the dockyard in Nowpora area of Srinagar to learn the craft of making a boat’s hull from his father. Later, he learned how to make the upper part of the boat from the famed master houseboat maker, Ghulam Rasool. 

“After learning the basics, I decided to learn how to make the entire houseboat on my own and I did that,” said Mr. Kawdari.

Since then, Mr. Kawdari said that he has built, entirely or in parts, about 600 houseboats and repaired about a hundred that were built by the three generations of the Kawdari family before him. Mr. Kawdari and his team of workers have also constructed the Gulfam houseboat, the biggest houseboat afloat in the Dal Lake.

Mr. Kawdari’s skill has also attracted attention beyond Kashmir. He said that he has been approached by hoteliers from mainland India and even outside India—from Germany and Italy—to construct houseboats for them, offering huge sums of money. He never agreed—the thought of selling his culture outside always stopped him.

Over the years, Mr. Kawdari said that he improved his skill by learning from about eleven master houseboat makers. Today, he is the last one left as others either died or abandoned the craft due to economic pressures. Mr. Kawdari is now faced with a dilemma.

Kashmir houseboats, Kashmir Dal Lake, Dal lake, Kashmir houseboat makers
Nazir Ahmad Kawdari in one of the houseboats he crafted. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

A complex art

The construction of a houseboat requires people specializing in different jobs starting from ironsmiths to carpenters. “The one who makes the windows of a houseboat cannot make the hull. Jobs are distinguished completely,” said Mr. Kawdari.

Earlier the houseboats used to be around 70ft. big but with time the houseboats got bigger and today, the size of houseboats ranges from 110ft. to 190ft. “The biggest houseboat that we have constructed has been 190 ft. in size,” said Mr. Kawdari.

A houseboat is usually made by joining around five large wooden planks. Bending the wood to form the base of a houseboat is considered the most difficult job but the technological advancements made the job much easier for the makers. 

Deodar is considered to be the best wood for constructing houseboats, surviving for about a hundred years submerged in water, according to Mr. Kawdari. “I recently saw a houseboat made by my grandfather. It was 82-years-old. I opened that in 2019 and still got ten to fifteen wooden planks that I reused in another houseboat,” he said.

Mr. Kawdari recalled the times when foreigners would visit him to know about who had designed his houseboats. “I told them that I am everything including the architect myself,” he said.

He added that the learning and making of houseboats is very tricky and since there is no work left for the makers, nobody wants to learn the art of making houseboats anymore. “The houseboats are dying,” said Mr. Kawdari.

“We only need work” 

Houseboats are made entirely of wood and require regular repairs to keep it afloat, from which Mr. Kawdari made a profit of between four and five lakh rupees every year. But the earnings have spiraled down to a minimum in recent years.

For the past year, especially after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy on 5 August 2019, Mr. Kawdari said that he has not earned it at all. “The government said that the abrogation will bring prosperity to Kashmir but that did not happen,” he said. “Ever since that day, there have only been losses.”

The 53-year-old houseboat maker was already struggling with economic crunch for a long time but his hopes were completely shattered when the J-K administration, on 8 April 2020, arbitrarily banned the making of new houseboats “as a step to preserve Srinagar’s Dal and Nigeen Lake for future generations by adopting sustainable tourism.”

Shortly after the ban, the bureaucratic administration imposed a new houseboat policy on 27 June, listing out “guidelines” for houseboat owners to procure No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from various government departments that the “registering authority deems proper before applying for renewal”.

Mr. Kawdari’s income is dependent only on the coring of houseboats, a process done every alternate year to plug leaks in the houseboats, but due after the imposition of the new houseboat policy, he has been left with nothing to do. 

“Even the houseboat owners are not left with money to get new houseboats constructed or to even repair the old ones. We do not get any orders now,” said Mr. Kawdari, adding that securing NOCs from indifferent government officials was an uphill task.

“Coring is done with [the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority’s] permission but they do not allow it anymore,” said Mr. Kawdari, prompting some to approach the courts. “So many cases of repairing and reconstruction are even pending in the High Court. The work of houseboat owners as well as the makers have ended in Kashmir.” 

The red-tapes imposed on those who are dependent on the Dal Lake for their livelihoods have disheartened Mr. Kawdari. He no longer feels that making houseboats is a viable business anymore, for the maker as well as the customer–all due to the government’s policies.

Arshid Jahangir, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Kashmir University, said that a study on the carrying capacity of houseboats in Dal Lake should have been done before the ban on making new houseboats or forming the houseboat policy. 

“Through the study, we might have able to know how many houseboats Dal can sustain, how much area is covered by houseboats, how the sewage could have been tackled and managed in a better way,” said Mr. Jahangir, adding that such a policy cannot be made on mere assumptions.

Mr. Jahangir believes that the culture and art of making houseboats should be promoted and supported by the people of Kashmir and the houseboats should be renewed as per their life span. “Houseboats are an important part of Dal Lake. The livelihood of houseboat owners and makers should be protected,” said Mr. Jahangir.

In the earlier years, Mr. Kawdari along with his seven workers would make at least three houseboats in a year. But the sudden decline in business has left the last houseboat maker alone since there has been no money to give to the workers. “What will I even give to them?” 

Mr. Kawdari, like many others, tried seeking help from the authorities to revive his work but that help never came. He believes that even today if the government tells him to make houseboats, he will make them. “We only need work,” he said.

The story originally appeared in our 5-11 October 2020 print edition.

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