Published: May 4th 2010April 24th 2010
The Snow Goose.
Living the life of the Raj on Dal Lake!
Kashmir gets a bad press. A bone of contention between India and Pakistan since partition; Bill Clinton called it the most dangerous place on earth. The reality is somewhat different. The way of life on Dal Lake seems to be one that has remained unchanged for centuries, beautiful and serene; life on the lake encourages a state of lethargic bliss. Far from feeling under threat, we felt cosseted, comfortable and completely safe.
Visiting Srinigar without staying on a houseboat would be like going to Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal. Ayub, owner of the Snow Goose bumped into us as we stepped out of the sumo at the bazaar. We agreed to take a look at his floating villa, and from the moment we saw it we were lost. We stepped into the living room via ornately carved wooden doors with glass panels and net curtains into an old fashioned bygone era of cosy chintz. A world of faded elegance and charm, the Raj and the 'Britishers'. Flowery, fussy, but not wildly overdone. A profusion of dark carved walnut wooden furniture - tables, easy chairs, straight backed chairs, a sofa, and a chaise-longue affair. Dark red, gold and black -
stripes and diamond snowflakes. Cedar wood paneled walls, a carved wooden ceiling and fretwork - ornate and intricate, but homely. Glass wall lamps and a heavy looking brass ceiling lamp, which swayed ever so slightly with the movement of the boat. In one corner a little glass fronted bookcase was filled with yellowing, dog-eared paperbacks, all marked with the initials M.R.S. From the sitting room a long carpeted corridor lead past the galley and the steps to the deck, to three bedrooms. More old world charm. Carpets, rugs, standard lamps, and a three quarter bed. Lots of blankets, a quilt and an eiderdown. Our own cedar paneled bathroom. The floorboards creaked slightly, and the whole boat oozed atmosphere.
From the front porch, (more carved wood, flowery cushioned bench seats, and little glass drop chandeliers) hanging over the waters of the lake, we watched life on the water unfold. Little flat bottomed wooden skiffs passed regularly. Everyone could paddle a boat. Muslim ladies, headscarves flowing, sat with knees hunched up to their chins, two hands firmly grasping the paddle. Small kids jumped in and out of boats onto tiny landing platforms and steps. Men knelt, stood, sat cross-legged in the
Dredging for weed.
prow, or with legs straight out in front of them at the back. The water is a commercial thoroughfare. There were hardware boats, heaped with brightly coloured plastic, crockery and saucepans. Flower seller boats. Vegetable seller boats (always announced by a vociferous cry of what sounded to me like 'Oww' - as if they'd just stubbed their toe). Grocery boats ('beer, vodka, whiskey, change money'). I always bought a little something from my favourite old man, who would wave and smile everytime he paddled past. He took both my hands in his as he gave me change and told me 'inshallah'. All manner of souvenir sellers tried to attract our attention - Kashmiri shawls, material, papier-mache ornaments - the list seemed endless. There were even floating ice cream sellers, cornets propped upright in a stand, a bucket of ice cream kept cool with a wrap-around wet rag, the vendor slapping lake water over it every so often. My favourites were the photographer boats - sunshine yellow, peppered with Kodak advertisements, and mottos such as 'Happy Memories of Kashmir'. They circled the shakiras - gondola like tourist craft - filled with Indian tourists, and enticed them to dress in traditional Kashmiri
The weed is used for fertiliser.
dress - wearing coin headdresses, holding plastic flowers and fake water jars, they were snapped laughing and giggling as they sat silhouetted against the waters of the lake and the distant snow capped mountains. Job done, the photographers rushed back 'Hawai Five O' style to the shakira stand, sometimes racing each other, shouting, laughing, splashing - there was always - hopefully - another customer.
When we ventured out on the lake in a shakira of our own, we were stunned by its natural beauty. Silent waters, just the sound of the paddle dipping in and out of the lake. Ringed by snow capped mountains - we could see over to Gulmarg and Sonamarg - and somewhere way beyond that was Ladakh - a kingdom still locked in snow, still impenetrable and somewhat mysterious. We watched mountains, and clouds and reflections and people on the lake, manouvering between thin strips of bobbing green - floating gardens; islands with brick houses and floating shops and markets. We passed old men pulling up lotus roots with wooden poles - a vegetable that would be sold the next morning at market, families planting summer crops, and men dredging for weed which would be
used as fertiliser. Traditional life, and several communities - farmers, villagers, houseboat owners co-existing side by side, living easily together.
At night the lake offered enchantment of yet a different kind. Lights shone on houseboat porches and twinkled around the landing stages. Our elongated glass teardrop lamps cast a golden glow; coloured bulbs behind the fretwork shone red, green and blue. The houseboats were reflected in the inky black water and wooden boats glided almost invisibly past. Eventually the call to prayer from the mosque began. Deep, all encompassing, wrapping us into this watery magical world. It came from all sides - like singing in a round - echoes touching and bumping off each other, fading and growing stronger, reflecting the heartbeat of the city; it's lifeblood.
Dal Lake has many moods, beguiling, beautiful, bewitching, always peaceful, and at least during our visit, not a hint of danger.
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