• Syed Jazib Ali

Shikara rowers recount good old days


Ghulam Mohideen Bhatt, 65, has seen the best and the worst of times while rowing his shikara - a traditional Kashmiri boat – in the heart of Kashmir’s tourism industry - in the waters of the Dal Lake during the past half-century.

Bhatt has witnessed the golden period of tourism through the decades of 1960s and 1970s flourishing in Kashmir’s scenic locations and he has seen a desolate lake as militancy raged through the region creating a lengthy hiatus in tourist footfall after 1990.

“The Kashmir valley is famous for its beautiful mountainous landscape,” Bhatt said as he went on to describe how people would drink the lake’s water during earlier years. “Now, we do not even advise them to touch the lake’s water,” he said, referring to the growing pollution that has ailed the lake.

Unlike Bhatt, who still rows the boat at an elderly age, most of the people associated with this trade are young men.

Mehraj-ud-Din, 22, has been rowing the shikara for the past six years and this is his only source of income. “Only a few old men are now associated with the profession. Not many are above 35 years now,” he added.

The boatmen, like Bhatt and Mehraj-ud-Din, see Kashmir through the prism of tourism and its numbers, which become their source of income as they ferry tourists on the lake.

The Dal Lake, nestled in north-east part of Srinagar city and spread over 21.1 sq km, is at the heart of region’s tourism industry and is linked to livelihood of thousands of people. The lake has more than 1,200 houseboats, which have enticed visitors for the past more than a century, and 4,500 shikaras.

The shikara is also part of the official logo of the tourism industry. The department on its website describes shikara ride as tourism “one of the most soothing and relaxing aspects” of a holiday in Kashmir.

In the recent years, the tourism industry registered a comeback as the period of turbulence relaxed resulting in increased footfall of visitors.

“2010 has been the best year so far, even better than 1970s and 1980s,” said Bhatt, who acted as a boatman in Shammi Kapoor-starrer “Kashmir Ki Kali”.

Bhatt, who is the president of the Shikara Association and lives in the vicinity of the Dal, said he is worried about the lake, which has degenerated over the years.

The lake has suffered extensively over the past decades due to increasing encroachments, human interference and pollution and the failure of successive governments to implement remedies.

A few people in the tourism trade linked to Dal said they were taking their own initiatives to save the lake. Altaf Chapri said he has fitted a bio-tank to his houseboat – Sukoon - which has prevented discharge of waste into the lake.

“These may seem small steps in a long journey, but Sukoon sees itself as a signpost of the necessary future direction in sustainable tourism,” Chapri said.

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©2019 by Syed Jazib Ali