Indian-administered Kashmir

Home Sweet Houseboat: Many Wouldn’t Trade Kashmiri Waterway Life for a Place on Land

There are more than 1,000 houseboats in the Kashmir Valley, and some families who reside in one vessel earn money by renting a second one to tourists. But other people brand these water dwellers as poor, and pollution and the territorial conflict have driven tourism down.

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Home Sweet Houseboat: Many Wouldn’t Trade Kashmiri Waterway Life for a Place on Land

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Small wooden canoes are used to travel longer distances on Dal Lake and the Jhelum River. This is a popular mode of transport for people who live on houseboats.

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SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — There have been houseboats on Kashmir’s rivers and lakes since colonial times, and the floating dwellings, some of which emphasize luxury, are big tourist attractions. But the families who live full time on houseboats struggle with a social stigma that is isolating: Other Kashmiris sometimes assume that houseboat dwellers are too poor to live on land.

The boats were originally built to house British officials of the East India Company, says Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri historian, poet and social activist. The maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir did not allow the British to buy property, he says.

The first recorded houseboat in Indian-administered Kashmir was registered in the late 1880s.

“It was only the foreigners who lived in the houseboats on river Jhelum,” Zareef says.

British rule in India ended in 1947, but the culture of living in houseboats continued, he says, and grew as more tourists came to Indian-administered Kashmir. Before the 1970s, records indicate there were around 200 houseboats on the Jhelum River and Dal Lake.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

The wooden boats, known as “shikaras,” ferry people from the houseboats to the shore.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Shikaras come in many sizes and have roofs to protect passengers from the harsh sunlight. The boats are the most common form of travel for people who live on houseboats and for the tourists who rent them.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Dal Lake and the Jhelum River are transport highways for wooden boats that ferry dry goods, fresh vegetables and flowers.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Misra, 45, has been living in this houseboat since she married in 1987. Her mother-in-law, son, and youngest daughter live with her. She does not use a last name.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Misra, now a widow, says her family’s main income is from renting their second houseboat to tourists.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Misra’s kitchen is in a separate wooden room attached to the houseboat, called a “doonga” by locals. The room is built on stilts in the water.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

The houseboats on Dal Lake are homes as well as moneymakers, as many are rented to tourists.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Ali Mohammad Fargoo, 76, has lived all his life on this houseboat on the Jhelum River. But his children and grandchildren, including grandson Faizan Nazir, pictured here, who share it with him, want him to move to a home on land.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Fargoo owns two houseboats. He lives in one with his family and rents the other to tourists. But fewer tourists come to the Jhelum River these days, he says.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

The houseboats that are built to be rented to tourists larger than the ones used by locals as homes. The tourist houseboats are elaborately carved, and often have three or more bedrooms with attached bathrooms, a lounge, dining area and a kitchen.

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Some families who live on houseboats own small canoes and do most of their travel along the waterways.

Mahmood Ahmad Shah, the director of tourism for Kashmir at the Department of Tourism Jammu and Kashmir, says there were 1,300 houseboats registered in four lakes and rivers in Kashmir Valley in 2015.

All houseboats, whether used for personal or tourism purposes, have to be registered with the Department of Tourism, Shah says. Dal Lake had the highest number of houseboats, with 740 in 2015.

Almost all houseboats are stationary, Zareef says. They receive electricity from the mainland through wires on fixed poles in the water, and water from pipes laid on the lake bed, but there is no sewage disposal system.

Since 1991, the government has placed a ban on making new houseboats, because the rivers and lakes have become polluted by them.

A multi-tier categorization system, begun for the houseboats during the colonial period, continues today for the tourism houseboats and is administered by the Department of Tourism, Zareef says. Houseboats that are homes to people are not categorized.

Many houseboat owners work as fishermen or as “shikarawallas,” the local term for workers who transport people and goods in boats across the lake. Some houseboat owners manage other houseboats that are rented to tourists, Zareef says. Many families also cultivate vegetables on the lake, using a traditional system of mats woven from weeds that can grow cabbage, spinach, pumpkin and others.

Many of the floating dwellings have been passed down in families from generation to generation. The houseboat community is tight-knit, Zareef says. Residents often intermarry, and they celebrate holidays and festivals together.

But the community also faces a social stigma, with many people assuming they can’t afford to buy land. That stigma makes it difficult for the community’s young people to find jobs on land, or to find marriage partners who aren’t other houseboat dwellers, Zareef says.

Now, many families who for decades have lived on houseboats are moving to dry land. It’s not clear how many are leaving, because the houseboats are often kept and rented to tourists. But those left behind are working to preserve traditional houseboat culture.

Ghulam Mohammad Gooru

Ghulam Mohammad Gooru, 60, was only 15 years old when he started working as a shikarawalla on Dal Lake.

He uses his shikara, a long wooden boat, to ferry people and to sell vegetables and other necessities. He also takes locals and tourists for boat rides around Dal Lake. But in recent years, more people are offering ferry services, Gooru says, so his share of the work is shrinking.

“When I started to row a shikara during the 1970s, there were few shikaras, and the tourists used to come in large numbers” he says.

Now, he says, there are about 500 shikaras plying the waters of the Dal Lake. Official estimates are higher.

Gooru lives in a house on the banks of the lake with his wife, son and his deceased brother’s family. Everyone relies solely on Gooru’s income, and they’re struggling to make ends meet, he says.

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Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Ghulam Mohammad Gooru, 60, says he was 15 years old when he started working as a shikarawalla, or boat man, on Dal Lake. He uses his long wooden boat, known as a shikara, to ferry people and to sell vegetables and other goods to houseboat dwellers.

The summer months, from April to August, provide the best income, Gooru says. That’s when Kashmiris, Indians from other states and foreign visitors are more likely to visit the lake. On busy days, he earns up to 500 rupees ($7.38). But during the winter months, from September to March, he says he’s fortunate if he earns 100 rupees ($1.48) a day.

A ferry ride from land to a houseboat costs 10 rupees (15 cents) each way for houseboat residents, Gooru says. Tourists pay 350 rupees ($5.16) per hour for a boat ride. That rate is set by the Department of Tourism.

“Most of the problems that I face are during the winters, as on most of the days I do not even earn a penny,” Gooru says.

Manzoor Ahmad

Dal Lake’s natural beauty has long drawn visitors from around the globe, but its once-pristine water is now threatened by pollution from houseboats, says Manzoor Ahmad, 55, who rents a houseboat to tourists.

The 1970s and 1980s were boom years for tourism, he says.

“The lake was very clean, and people from all corners of the world would specially come to see it,” he says. “Now many people hardly believe that this is really Dal Lake.”

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Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Manzoor Ahmad, 55, owns a luxury houseboat on Dal Lake that he rents to tourists. The houseboat boasts intricate wood carvings, three bedrooms with bathrooms, a dining hall, a kitchen and a terrace.

Pollution has decreased the size of Dal Lake, and the water stinks in many places, Ahmad says.

Ahmad lives in downtown Srinagar, but his family has owned and managed a tourist houseboat, H.B. Royal House, since 1985.

The houseboat, which is decorated inside with intricate wood carvings, has three bedrooms with bathrooms, dining hall, kitchen and a terrace. It is categorized as a Deluxe houseboat by the Department of Tourism.

A cook and a visitor coordinator are the boat’s two staff members.

Ahmad charges between 4,000 rupees ($59) and 4,500 rupees ($66) per day to rent the houseboat during the summer season. He usually gets about 60 to 70 customers per month during the summer months, he says.

But in winter, the numbers drop to an average of three or four customers a month, Ahmad says. His rates also go up to 6,000 rupees ($89) per day, since there is an increase in electricity costs to heat the houseboat.

Tourism started to drop when the Kashmiri conflict worsened in 1990, he says, referring to an insurgency connected to a long-simmering land dispute pitting India and Pakistan against each other.

“Due to the conflict that started during the 1990s, the tourist flow decreased, and our business was affected severely,” Ahmad says. “Though the tourists started to come back, but the foreign tourist flow did not increase that much.”


Misra, 45, has always lived on Dal Lake. She was born in her family’s houseboat, and when she married in 1987, she moved into the houseboat owned by her in-laws. Her husband, Mohammad Aslam, who died in 2003, earned money by renting the family’s second houseboat to tourists.

“I was born here, married, and my children were born here, and they live here,” says Misra. Misra uses only a single name, following the tradition of some women in Kashmir. “I cannot imagine a life out there in the houses on land.”

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Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Misra, 45, has lived on this houseboat since she was marred in 1987. Her family’s main income comes from renting their second houseboat to tourists.

Misra, together with her mother-in-law and two of her three children, live on an old, weather-beaten houseboat built of wood that has turned pale over time. The boat has a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area, as well as electricity and potable water. Sewage and waste water go directly into the lake.

Their second houseboat is rented to tourists.

Misra says that living in the floating houses is not always easy.

“Here we face many problems while managing the day-to-day affairs,” she says. “If a person is sick, it takes a lot of time to reach the hospital.”

Misra’s mother-in-law, Mogli, is 75 years old and confined to her bed. It can take up to an hour to reach the hospital for any treatment, Misra says.

Houseboat dwellers rely on ferries to take them ashore to purchase necessities.

Winter brings power cuts, she says.

Their houseboat also needs repairs, Misra says. It has been repaired every three years on average, and costs up to 60,000 Indian rupees ($886) each time. The family varnishes and paints the wood every six years, and spends up to 200,000 rupees ($2,953) for repairs and maintenance every three years or so.

The family’s main source of income is whatever is earned from renting the second houseboat. Misra’s son manages that business.

During the summer months, when there are regular rentals, the family earns around 15,000 rupees ($221) to 20,000 rupees ($295) a month, she says.

“The houseboat is the only source of income, and we are dependent on it,” Misra says. “It is our life.”

Misra’s youngest daughter, who is in her final year of secondary school in Srinagar, wants to move to land because that’s where her friends live, Misra says.

But Misra does not want to live in a house on land.

“It has been so long, and I only want to live here,” she says.


Salim Ahmad Badyari

Salim Ahmad Badyari, 35, says it took years to convince his family, especially his parents, to move from their houseboat to land.

The change is a relief for Badyari.

“I always feared to live on water,” he says.

He remembers a time, during his youth, when a shikara began to sink in bad weather. The boat’s operator was able to swim and save everyone, Badyari says.

Aside from the dangers, Badyari says, he didn’t want his children to suffer like he did from the stigma that comes with living on a houseboat.

“I wanted my children to live in a house like the other children do,” he says.

Now, he says, many of his neighbors don’t know the family once lived on a houseboat.

But sometimes Badyari misses the simplicity of residing on a houseboat with only two rooms. The family spent all its time together, he says.

“But I don’t regret my decision, as I can see a good future for my family now,” he says.


Ali Mohammad Fargoo

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Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Ali Mohammad Fargoo, 76, has lived all his life on this houseboat on the Jhelum River, and he earns an income from renting a second houseboat to tourists. But fewer tourists come to the river, he says, instead preferring the wide expanse of Dal Lake.

The September 2014 floods that devastated portions of the Kashmir Valley were especially scary for people who lived on houseboats, but those residents benefited from living on the water, too.

Ali Mohammad Fargoo, 76, says his houseboat on the Jhelum River rose with the floodwaters.

“We felt that it would just flow off, but then we tied numerous ropes to the boat with the pillars on land, and it stayed still,” Fargoo says.

Fargoo has lived all his life on a houseboat.

“I am a waterman,” he says.

Fargoo lives on a houseboat with his two sons and their families. He owns a second houseboat on the Jhelum River, which he rents to tourists. That’s his main source of income.

But the Jhelum River is no longer a popular tourist destination, Fargoo says.

“I have memories before the 1990s when this area used to be full of foreign tourists,” Fargoo says. But the military conflict in Kashmir kept tourists away, he says.

The tourists who do come to Kashmir prefer the houseboats on Dal Lake, he says. The lake is bigger than the narrow waters of the Jhelum River, and hosts more activities, including boat rides and a floating market.

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Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Ali Mohammad Fargoo’s grandchildren play in a sandy area near the family’s houseboat. The children say they want to move out of the houseboat and live on a house on land, like their school friends.

Fargoo says the tourist-houseboat owners on the Jhelum River have done everything they can to attract visitors.

“We have slashed our prices, but still the flow is less,” he says.

In 2009, he rented his houseboat for 1,500 rupees ($22) per day. Now, the rent is 1,000 rupees ($15) per day.

Fargoo says his children worry about the stigmas associated with living on a houseboat. That’s the only reason the family has ever discussed moving to land, but Fargoo says he’ll never do so.

“I will stay here till the last breath,” he says. “This is where I have seen my children grow, and I have all my memories here.”

Fargoo says that he has told his children they should feel privileged for the experience of growing up and raising a family on a houseboat.

“I feel it is the perfect place to live,” he says. “After all, not all the people can experience living on water.”


Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated four interviews from Kashmiri and two interviews from Urdu.