Permission to restore century-old houseboats in Kashmir's Dal Lake is a welcome move for tourism

Stationary houseboats in Dal Lake, Sri Nagar, Jammu and Kashmir, 2022. Image by author.

Stationary houseboats in Dal Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, 2022. Image by author.

Dal Lake, a mesmerizing water body nestled in the heart of Kashmir and surrounded by mountains, is one of the famous tourist destinations in Jammu and Kashmir. One of the main attractions in this lake is the century-old iconic houseboats that are part of the heritage in Kashmir Valley. However, their survival has been threatened due to an almost five-decade ban on repairs of these classic houseboats due to pollution concerns. Additionally, a 2019 court order mandating the removal of unregistered houseboats further threatened their existence.

In a much-welcomed move, the local government approved permission and repairs for 19 houseboats in June 2023 and subsequently allowed comprehensive facelifts and restorations of interiors of all the century-old houseboats. The houseboat owners association appreciated the move and also appealed to the government to extend permission to all kinds of houseboats.

Showkat Kashmiri from Jammu and Kashmir tweeted:

Seher Mirza, a resident of Srinagar, also tweeted:

The majority of these houseboats are rented out to tourists, while a few others are maintained by wealthy Indian families who spend holidays in Dal Lake.

The sinking houseboats

The houseboat tourism industry has faced significant challenges in recent years. In August 2019, the government of India revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which provided special autonomy status since 1950 to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Fearing unrest, hundreds of political leaders were placed under house arrest, and access to mobile, landline, and internet networks was suspended. Schools were shut down, and curfews were imposed in many places.

Dwindling tourism, due to the prolonged curfews and internet shutdowns coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, already had a noticeable impact on the survival of these boats in the following years. In the past, the Kashmir Valley boasted around 2,000 houseboats, while at present, there are only 750–800 houseboats operating on the Dal Lake.

The wooden houseboats remain stationary and are prone to natural disasters such as floods, making regular maintenance and repairs essential for their upkeep.

Journalist Nazir Ganaie tweeted:

Journalist Jehangir Ali shared a similar story in 2020:

This 2022 video by VideoVolunteers community correspondent Urvat il Wuska from Srinagar, Kashmir, highlights the story of one houseboat owner who has appealed to the government for compensation. The owner shares that they were forced to relocate after their houseboat was severely damaged, and they were unable to repair it due to the repair ban.

This houseboat was both home and the source of income for the family, and they became homeless when they could not repair the boat.

Lack of craftsmen and limited funds for repair

The typical houseboats in Dal Lake are crafted from wood and adorned with intricate Kashmiri woodwork, furniture, carpets, and tapestry. These stationary boats usually have a few rooms for guests with attached fully furnished baths, a common dining area, a kitchen, a living room, and a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Dal Lake.

Exquisite artwork and decoration in a houseboat in Dal Lake, Srinagar. Image by author.

Exquisite woodwork and decoration in a houseboat in Dal Lake, Srinagar. Image by author.

To maintain and repair these houseboats, the finest quality of wood and experienced craftsmen are required. But there is a shortage of these craftsmen as many switched professions due to the prolonged ban. Houseboat owners often must obtain hard-to-get loans to fund the expensive repairs.

This year there has been a resurgence of tourists in the Kashmir valley due to the improved security situation and stability in the region. If the iconic houseboats can be repaired and preserved, it will be a crucial step in rescuing an important heritage of the Kashmir valley.

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