While in Venice

I was constantly reminded of the quintessential houseboat or Shikara in Kashmir
"The Shikara economy has an enduring existence in the heart of Kashmir and Srinagar for it consumes within its rich fold — people from all walks of life —- people who give credence to the idea of Kashmir."
"The Shikara economy has an enduring existence in the heart of Kashmir and Srinagar for it consumes within its rich fold — people from all walks of life —- people who give credence to the idea of Kashmir." Wikimedia Commons/ gnuckx

I was in Venice recently and the city of gondolas welcomed me with open arms. Like any excited tourist, I was mesmerised to see the gondolas navigating through the length and breadth of the city.

However, while the gondolas kept me constant company throughout my delightful stay in one of the most picturesque and quaint cities in the world, I was constantly reminded of the quintessential houseboat or Shikara in Kashmir — for like the gondolas navigating along the Venetian waters, the beautiful and resplendent Shikaras along the lakes in Srinagar especially the Dal are emblematic of quotidian life in the region.

Just like the men who man the gondolas, the men who navigate the Shikaras engage in this professional activity to ensure their sustenance.

The Shikara economy has an enduring existence in the heart of Kashmir and Srinagar for it consumes within its rich fold — people from all walks of life —- people who give credence to the idea of Kashmir.

Life on the Dal Lake

A visit to Kashmir is invariably incomplete without a visit to the world famous Dal Lake — which is a city in itself amidst its tranquil waters. 

I say that– for the Dal (literally meaning lake in Kashmiri) spanning 18 square kilometres is always buzzing and thriving with activity on a daily basis depicting the quotidian existence of the quintessential Kashmiri— who lives in and around the lake.

For instance, the Shikara that one finds serenading on the lake witnesses the quotidian life of the average Kashmiri living on the waters of the Dal.

Figures suggest that there are about 950 shikaras that rest on the gleaming waters of the Dal and thousands of families are dependent on it for their lives and livelihood.

These people include the boatmen who run what I may call the shikara economy — as tourists flock these houseboats for comfortable homestays between July and November every year.               

Interestingly, these people alone are not the residents of the water bodies. Another set of people known as Hanjis too reside in the tranquil waters of the Dal et al.

These people cultivate vegetables on floating gardens built from two types of weeds found in Dal Lake and locally called Pech (Typha angustata) and Nargasa (Phragmites australis).

There are two kinds of floating gardens as well — the raadh which is a mobile garden suitable for growing vegetables like melons, pumpkins and tomatoes while the other remb is static and this garden is usually found along the shore.

The Hanji community constitutes the beating heart of the Shikara economy. They are the people who run the marketplace on the waters supplying the residents of the water body with everyday essentials fulfilling their day-to-day needs.               

This ‘water city’ has its own post office that lets people reserve parcels. It also has its own floating theatre which is often beaming with activity. It also houses massive floating gardens that are full of vegetables and fruits — everyday essentials that are a prerequisite for the people living in the waters. The people engaging in agriculture along the lake live in complete consonance with nature and this practice has been in place for centuries now.

Changing Scenario

However, with the passage of time, the members of the Hanji community are now facing an existential threat to their quotidian existence.

As reported by the Anadolu Agency, members of the Hakhaenz (gatherers of wood from water bodies) and Bahatchihaenz (who live in boats that are made up of Bahatch -- a type of grass) are no longer found.

Their disappearance is unfortunate for these people  — despite being a part of the subaltern or the periphery, enrich the mainstream — providing Kashmir with its cultural distinctiveness.               

Perpetual encroachment along the lake has had an adverse impact on the Shikara economy.

Relocation plans are afloat to move the 50,000 odd residents of the lake to more conducive spots along Srinagar city.

While encroachment claims are true with reports of the Dal Lake shrinking coming to the fore, fore, a harmonious balance between conservation efforts and preservation of lives and livelihoods of the people will transform the Shikara economy for the better.

Since the lake is at the centre of life in Srinagar, steps need to be taken to preserve the lake while ensuring that the people who call the lake ‘home’ are not completely pushed away. These include members of indigenous communities like the Hanjis who derive their identity from their association with the lake.               

In fact, the lake’s conservation should ideally not involve relocating the lake’s residents — instead, it should involve a multi-pronged effort on the part of all major stakeholders — the state and the citizenry –  to ensure that the lake is preserved well for the use of the present and future generations.

This model of sustainable development will ensure that the lake continues to be the cynosure of all eyes for years to come.              

Preservation efforts could include the construction of sanitation facilities for existing residents. Afforestation efforts within the catchment area along with the prevention of grazing there could assist in conservation as well.

Finally, reducing the use of pesticides and weedicides could be an additional measure to increase the longevity of the lake.

The lake is a natural entity with a cultural ethos and it is this inherent identity of the lake that makes it a living example of what constitutes the Kashmiri identity.

The lake is part of the natural heritage of Kashmir and its conservation will ensure the harmonious existence of the Shikara economy in consonance with natural forces. The lake’s ensuring presence will – in fact ensure that people like us — ardent admirers of Kashmiri culture — will have the rare opportunity to embrace it!               

Finally, the lake’s enduring presence will perhaps enable us to capture a beautiful sunset with our naked eyes on the Dal Lake while sitting on a quintessential shikara almost all the time — just like the beautiful sunset in Venice that I witnessed during my short Venetian gondola ride. For us to have this lived experience again and again, the shikara economy needs to thrive and not just survive.

Anuttama Banerji, Freelance Features Writer & Political Commentator.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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