One of the most endearing sights of Kashmir that draw tourists to this valley are the houseboats on the Dal and Nagin lakes. Overlooked by the Himalayas, surrounded by chinar trees, the houseboats are a permanent feature of Srinagar&rsquos waterscape. Mostly divided into economy and luxury classes, these houseboats do not lack in anything that a land-based hotel can provide, by way of decoration or amenities, including wood-panelled rooms and furniture made of walnut wood, magnificent carpets, and more. You can spend hours looking over the beautiful lakes, the life of the boat people, visit the floating market or buy a souvenir from a passing shikara.
It is not known when or how the houseboats were introduced, with several stories circulating around the origin. Two of the tales relate to the presence of the boat-dwelling Hanji community. One says, the community started building houseboats for the British in the late 19th century since the latter could not own land in the valley. Another attributes it to a shopkeeper named Pandit Naraindas, whose shop had gone up in flames. Since wooden buildings were prone to catch fire, he apparently moved his shop to a boat near a Hanji settlement. He further improved upon it and sold the houseboat to an European. It was not long before the idea spread among others. A third quotes the famous British explorer Sir Francis Younghusband as saying it was a person called MT Kennard who launched a &lsquofloating house&rsquo around 1883-88.
While the houseboats became popular among European travellers, they began to take on interesting names. The Buckingham Palace has now attained legendary fame. The Hindi film industry too has been responsible to a large extent in popularising Kashmir as a romantic and honeymoon destination for Indians.
According to many of the houseboat owners, a recent draft policy formulated by the Jammu and Kashmir union territory (UT) government, may not be beneficial for the future of the houseboats. They claim that already the number of houseboats have dwindled to a large extent.
According to the draft policy, no new houseboats can be constructed at Dal and Nagin lakes while the existing ones will have to follow a stringent rules for renewal of license. According to media reports, the government has said that the guidelines will conform to the overall conservation framework of the Dal framed by the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) among other things. One cannot deny that sewage from boats have been known to pollute the pristine lakes.
However, the traveller community hopes that both parties will be able to work out a solution and everyone continues to enjoy a stay at these beautiful floating homes.