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Boat Industry: A Lost Tradition In Kashmir
By A. Majeed Kak
The historical evidences of neolithic settlements in Burzahama (Srinagar, Kashmir in 2300-1500 B.C.) confirm that human life in the Kashmir valley had settled very close to water indicating that the earliest inhabited areas in Kashmir were close to the world famous Dal Lake. Almighty Allah has bestowed Kashmir with beautiful lakes, springs, rivers, snow-fed streams, cascades, brooks, etc. with the result that many tribes, who ever visited, invaded or conquered this beautiful piece of land, settled very close to these lakes and rivers. Gradually man became well-acquainted with grasses, sedges and other aquatic plants growing abundantly in them, and so used them in his day-to-day life. By and large his needs and requirements increased and he started investigating the means and ways of navigation. Wood, being porous and lighter, floats freely on water, and initially logs of wood were probably used to move in water. From rafts they might have started constructing boats. Wood was abundantly available everywhere in Srinagar, also close to river Jhelum (Vetesta). So kings and rulers started building palaces and made capitals on the banks of river Jhelum. It is a vast river passing through all the three major districts of the valley at that time, covering more than 75 km in a zig-zag manner. During those days, passages and roads, ponies and carts were nowhere to be seen and travelling and transportation of the commodities was done only through water transportation. So man started thinking of building many types of boats required for his needs.

Boat industry in Kashmir is very old and has been of great importance for its life and economy. The section of people dealing with this industry is locally called haenz (hanji, boatmen). They are very hardy, muscular people as they start towing or paddling boats from their childhood. Lawrence in his book The Valley of Kashmir mentions that Kashmiri A boatmen are an important and prominent tribe, but it is too difficult to trace their origin as their profession in Kashmir is very ancient. When investigated from these people, they claim that they are the descendants of Prophet Nuh (Noah) (AS), but it seems that they have descended from gypsy origin. Lawrence has rightly and very comprehensively classified them on the basis of their profession in Kashmir. He subdivided them into various divisions. Some are semi-amphibious, mostly vegetable cultivators on floating or permanent islands (radhs) and peddlers locally called demb hanz. Another group, particularly from Wular Lake, engaged in collecting and dealing with the trade of water chestnuts (trapa natans) or singhara locally called gaer haenz; these two sections are considered respectable amongst the whole community. The second section lives in bahatch which was a bigger cargo boat with or without cabins and another in war (small cargo boat) carrying loads in the form of ration, firewood or construction material like stones, bricks, sand or clay is locally called bahutschi haenz. The less respectable section is dunga haenz and those dealing with passenger boats, staying and inviting foreigners and other people illegally.

The worst of the donga haenz is the mar haenz, who navigate locals and visitors in mar (canals). There are gadi haenz whose men catch fish and their females sell them door to door during the day. There is also a small section of people called huk haenz who make their livelihood by collecting drifted wood from various rivers. Nowadays this system does not hold perfect as many types of boats are outdated and extinct because of multiple reasons. Many boatmen have changed their profession. Once important mar (canal) passing through the centre of old city has been filled up and transformed into metallic road, now called circular city road. Presently, houseboat owners are treated as highly respectable people as they have become quite rich —Kashmir being one of the famous tourist places.

Kalhana (1150) in Rajatarangini mentioned that Srinagar city was built as a town, and a market with full supplies was established on two sandy flanks of river Jhelum (Vetesta) by ancient King Nara. The movement of ships (boats) gave magnificent look to the river. Biscoe (1922) mentions that the first houseboat was introduced by Kennard which was a double-storeyed boat that could be used for residential purpose. This was constructed at the behest of Emperor Akbar, who desired that Srinagar should be a floating city. It is mentioned by Abul Fazal (1868-1890) that when a model of ship was introduced in Dal Lake of Kashmir, everybody was astonished to see its shape.

Later, skilled carpenters in Kashmir adapted a unique skill in constructing all types of boats, with flat bottom and crescent shaped hull with prow and tern (front and back portions) much raised. Thick planks of durable deodar wood was used in constructing hull which is water resistant. All joints made were tightly fitted to prevent entry or leakage of water. These were packed with hemp (cannabis sativa) and fibres (common weed growing in all our wastelands). Nails used were made from seasoned wood of very old mulberry tree; also special U shaped iron nails gripping joints tightly were used. Rest of the body of khutch, houseboats and boats with cabins were made of other types of cheap woods like kail (kayur) or budul. It is written in Ain-e-Akbari by Abul Fazal that all trades in Kashmir were made through boats. Since people in the city were residing on two banks of river Jhelum and all transportation and movement of commodities was mainly done through water transport as there were no roads or any kind of vehicular system, not even bull or horse carts. Population was very less; also the needs of the common people were limited. People used to move on foot to long distances and the movement from one district to the other was made through river Jhelum by navigation. Many types of boats were rowing in our water bodies with different purposes. Longer distances from one district to the other (district Anantnag to Baramulla through district Srinagar) were also covered in light boats or through passenger boats on River Jhelum. Barges that supplied ration, firewood and other commodities to city people was locally called bahutch. Two types of bahutch were common. One was the large one that could move freely in rivers and in lakes; their anterior and posterior ends were raised with a central cabin of two rooms, one room accommodated a huge quantity of goods, ration, etc. while the other room was used for their personal accommodation. Another type of bahutch was slightly smaller that could enter small canals and mars locally called war. It was towed with lesser efforts and could transport less quantity of goods to the interior parts of city through various canals. Doonga or houseboats were used for accommodation of tourists during summers but were also used for transportation of grains (ration for people) during winters when there wast no traffic or tourist rush. All of them were well-wrapped with a few rooms, well-furnished and decorated, either with two sides slanting or with flat roofs. Khutch was another water cargo boat, heavy and clumsy, made of thick planks without any roof. It was used for transportation of clay, stones, sand, bricks, all construction material that could not get damaged by rains or snow. An interesting feature of all these boats is that all have flat bottoms and are made of water resistant wood deodar (cedrus deodar a).

Numerous floating islands and radhs in lakes are cultivating huge amount of vegetables and other herbal products like pumpkins, melons, water melons, etc. These are transported by smaller boats to the market. It is locally called demb nov (demb means marshy land or floating islands). Hanjis (boatmen) also use it for short . journeys from their residential doonga to their relatives or market. It is a roofless, light boat. Shikara is a transport tourist boat used to take them around the lake for ride. This boat is beautifully decorated with comfortable Dunlop double seats, side curtains and an arched roof with single or double paddlers. Tsatawar was a small boat without roof used to search drowned dead bodies or to save the people stranded in cyclonic winds in lakes, particularly in Wular Lake (one of the largest Asian lakes)-also called life boats. People using them were very courageous.

All the above-mentioned boats were meant for common people in the past. But rulers and kings were enjoying specially designed boats called parinda, lari nov or chakwari because they moved fast (Lawrence, 1889). It was also called flying boats, which could accommodate only four persons in a cabin. It was a long, light boat pulled by 40-50 paddlers in a rhythmic manner. Later it was modified having the shape of a peacock with a raised head in front and body used for special occasions in river Jhelum and Dal Lake of Kashmir; when any State head or sovereign used to visit Kashmir, he was towed by motor launches and not by paddlers. It was the fastest carrier on water in the valley.

Presently no khutch, war, tsatawar or parinda is visible anywhere in our water bodies. Because of construction of a network of metalled roads and availability of faster vehicular transport, all these have vanished. In fact, for modern-day conveniences, many kinds of comfortable passenger buses, trucks, load carriers and other vehicular transport are adequate.

Presently cozy and comfortable 3-star, 5-star and 7-star commercial, single-storeyed houseboats are available in Dal and Nageen lakes. All these are registered under tourist laws. Besides, there are tourist shikaras for tourists. A lone, antique, double-storeyed houseboat is seen on the bank of river Jhelum near Abi Guzar bund. It cannot be moved or pulled to any place because of lowering of water level and the deposition of silt and other effluents at the river bottom. All lakes are squeezed by land-grabbing and all the channels are filled for permanent tracks. Light boat detnb naov is used for personal movement by lake-dwellers and also by vegetable cultivators to take their produce from their fields to lake banks, where from vegetables are transported directly to various markets. --(Courtesy: Miraas)

News Updated at : Sunday, June 30, 2013
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