Housed in paradise: the Kashmiri tale of floating flair


One simply cannot bring to mind the maverick beauty of the heaven on earth that Kashmir is without conjuring up an image resplendent indeed in all of its striking hues and pristine charms. From green meadows to snowcapped landscapes, from spectacularly shimmering lakes to majestic peaks of the mountains, from the immaculateness of the cottony clouds floating around to the vivid shades of vibrancy asserting their prominence from across the many a waterbodies- Kashmir is a sight of surprising synchrony streaming through its offering of the most unique of experiences all through its paradisiacal premises steeped in an allure quaintly captivating. Along its ambling off the beaten path in every single element of what sums up its splendor, Kashmir is truly a heaven- one not just in its sounds and sights but also in every serendipitous manifestation of it across an entire spectrum of the senses.

Standout in every projection of its uniqueness therefore is this land of the valleys and the hills alike, verdant in its exuberance of the colors and the florals while being equally esteemed in the pristine play of its whites and living through numerous such singular strands of distinct variety that strives to deliver its vision in composite wholeness as one truly embodying of the Indian soul in its ethos of unity in diversity. And one indispensable facet of what makes so much for a prominent element across which the identity of Kashmir finds popular expression in the cultural context of it, both aesthetically and otherwise and that which presents as much a picture of beauty as it does of the many peculiarities so characteristic of its ambience assertive indeed of its character in curious uncommonplaceness, is the forever alluring vibe that resides in its many prominent houseboats. A striking sight in symmetry that delivers most famously their distinctive vision from across the immensely picturesque premises of the Dal Lake are these houseboats not in anyway exclusive to this particular region of the country but redolent still in an air of definite charm, overflowing with many a magical musings of which they have come to be so adeptly evoking of, painting a picture in stirring beauty that which endows upon Kashmir even more of the elegance across which it essentially resides.

kashmir snow houseboats
Source: Medium

Anyway a paradise in its esteemed exaltation on account of the beauty that seeps through every facade of what sums up the breathtaking magnificence of this slice of heaven descended upon earth, the allure of Kashmir encompasses a different dimension altogether meandering as it does through the thousands of houseboats majestically setting sail upon its mystifying expanse imbued with every kind of charm imaginable. And yet, it isn’t just the experience and emotion entailing out of an existence so exquisitely entrancing as this that makes the houseboats so integral an element of the dynamic Kashmiri disposition. Also intricately weaved into this facet of fascinating frill are significant strands of history, rendering this image of the Kashmiri identity a character substantial way beyond its bequeathing of beauty. In their lineage that goes back by a couple of centuries- or perhaps even way earlier- the hues scattered across this particular realm of definite drama unfurls along a trail of identity as riveting as what it tends to be across the panoramic pursuance of prettiness, drenching this image in physicality also in an enigmatic encapsulation of essences as abstract in rendition.

In all their intricate detailing and immense prettiness, it indeed is the vision of the houseboats of Kashmir that command all the attention, explaining just why they are sought out by tourists and travelers enchanted already with this dwelling of the unearthly on earth. Ornate across the splash of artwork that makes them emerge forth as a spectacle of significant grandeur, and sitting therefore so in sync with the splendor stupefying in all its conjuring of the Kashmiri charisma, these houseboats that shape up a significant spectrum of the paradisal notion of the region though came to be not in the prevailing nature of their being. Dating back to the 19th century are these houseboats that emerged as a viable way of living particularly for the officials of the British East India Company not allowed yet by the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir to buy property. Encapsulated still by the enormously indulgent beauty of the Kashmiri landscape that indeed made for a wonderful escape from the less than ambient environment of the mainland as well as enthralled with avenues of leisure and enjoyment, the British took to this ingenious indeed means of building homes upon watery territory instead, birthing therefore a phenomenon that retains the old world charm of which it was once indulgent. Intricately carved across their expanse crafted out of local cedar pine, these houseboats of Kashmir today are a definite dive into its rich heritage while being also the immensely attractive setting for tourists to so delightfully seek out. Called floating palaces, indeed for the very reason of them existing as entities along the surreal sprawl of the Dal Lake and the associated Nageen Lake, these visions of eminence anchored along the periphery of the waterbodies, resplendent today even more in their thoughtfully embodied elegance of both lavish luxury and ordinary beauty are more than evident elements of the tourism scene in the region, driving even in their static standing a whole world of dramatic definition. And it still are expressions of culture that characterise this continuing indeed mode of the Kashmiri craftsmanship, decked up as they are along their interiors by fine specimens of art and architecture poignantly depictive of the artistically steeped imagination of exclusive Kashmiri character. With elements like Chinar trees and such other expressions so integral to life across the Kashmiri assertion finding empathic exploration in carvings of wood, these houseboats that flaunt a picture of Kashmir in distinctive flair make for an intriguing enough existence across which the whole essence of the earthly paradise finds eloquent interpretation.

So scouted a symbol of Kashmir in their vibe and essence, charting out as they do to perfection the myriad twines of exquisiteness exclusive to the experience elicited out of the enriching Kashmiri escapade, these houseboats are ingrained indeed a facet of the entire existence there setting sail a vibrant dynamic of the land profuse in its medleyed avenue of exploration. Steeped also in lore is the preeminence of these houseboats, finding mention in the region’s repository of literary recounting harking back to the 13th century. But it sure had been the turn of the 1800s that dawned upon Kashmir this now identical idiosyncrasy of its being with a certain 1880 happening that set in motion this smooth sail of sight and the sensual. The distinction rests with one certain shop owner Pandit Narain Das whose burned down wooden shop led him to shift his inventory to a small boat. Used by the Hanji community who had been living in simple doonga boats for centuries then, after they having been commissioned by Emperor Akbar had been the specific vessel that Das moored to the shore, marking therefore the beginnings of the first houseboat as we know it today, of course with modifications effected over the course of time. As Das sold his specimen to an European and late began commissioning similar such boats as well, the title of Naav Narayan alluded to him and from him birthed therefore the first ever houseboat in the commercial sense of which it continues to sail today, under the moniker Kashmir Princess.

Sir Francis Younghusband, later in around 1906 was to write that the idea of a  ‘floating house’ was first floated some year between 1883-1888 by a sport loving Englishman named M.T. Kennard. And the idea was also brought into reality by this man. For a longtime, till the name ‘houseboat’ caught on, Kashmiris used to call these boats ‘the boat of Kennath Sahib’**. Younghusband wrote that although houseboat was not indigenous to Kashmir, by the year 1906 the number of houseboats in the valley was already in hundreds.

Alternate accreditations of the houseboat origin though allude more to a British link, with a sport loving Englishman named M.T. Kennard believed to have floated the idea sometime between 1883- 88. Acquiring indeed therefore an identity locally eloquent as ‘the boat of Kennath Sahib’, this assertion of the houseboat story sees this maverick almost structure of pleasing practicability gain steam quite early on therefrom. And thus within roughly two decades of their ‘launch’, the number of houseboats that came to dot already the now characteristic Kashmir waterscape incomplete without these visions of remarkable grace were a bountiful presence by the hundreds.

The hundreds henceforth took upon an additional zero to their right to manifest instead in thousandy prominence over the course of the years but it isn’t merely the number of these floating abodes of life and luxury that is remarkable. The houseboats gracing the present day escapade of extraordinary Kashmiri exclusiveness are definite definers of beauty but they make also for the retelling of a tale so nostalgic in its evoking of the local sentiment. Even as immensely beautiful weaves of the Kashmiri carpets sprawl along the floors of the houseboats lending warmth to body and heart along their dual connotations of functionality and flair, a stay on these palaces of floating dimension grants tourist a spree of elaborate experiences that emanate a charm of their own. With the alluring Kashmiri ambience unfolding in the background, seeping souls with the surreal shows of stupor availed only out of this paradise of earthly expanse, what tourists experience in all thrill of their long awaited plunge into this lap of nature carved out so deftly by expert artisans is the true essence of Kashmiriyat- whether that be of the opulence of beauty permeating every nook and corner of these floating worlds festooned with indigenous artifacts and authentic showmanship of crewels and kashidakaris or of the hospitality so in sync with the region’s residence along the play of pristine prettiness. With so much to savour, be it exotic sights of nature or hearty spreads of the most lip smacking delicacies as well as living the real Kashmiri life in the indulgent alleys of simplicity, the houseboats of Kashmir only end up reinstating the notion of this corner of the world being a world apart in all its distinction as a divine destination. For it is in the true heart and soul of Kashmir wherein lies her exaltation as being a beauty befitting of her ‘paradise on earth’ epithet as the true blue epitome of unparalleled majesty flowing unabatedly through her succouring trail of serenity.