Houseboats in Kashmir’s Dal Lake are an expertise in themselves. However in its 45-day lengthy winters referred to as “chillai kalan,” this snow-scaped paradise can change into a frozen hell for its locals.

“That is Kanika, a journalist from Delhi. She resides on a houseboat throughout chillai kalan.” This was the proverbial “ice-breaker” that Kashmiris used for me each time I used to be launched to a brand new particular person. It nearly at all times began with awe and shortly thereafter remodeled into chilly stares, nearly as chilly because the winter in Kashmir, stemming from disbelief.

“Why would you try this to your self? Who stays on a houseboat in winter? We don’t even keep in Kashmir throughout chillai kalan, not to mention staying on the water.” What began as a joke quickly grew to become an inescapable actuality. Winter in Kashmir isn’t a simple time, much more so for the inhabitants of the lake.


Kanika Gupta

The glistening waters of Dal Lake in Kashmir’s summer time capital, Srinagar, is a sight to behold in each season. In summers, it displays the Zabarwan vary off its glassy floor like a mirror, an nearly obscene show of its magnificence. In winters, the water freezes, bringing life as we all know it to an entire standstill.

Anybody who has visited Kashmir in winter extols its monochromatic splendor in an countless diatribe. Its green-top perennial timber sprinkling powdered snow on its guests like a cheerful panorama. The sprawling mass of white snow, the frozen Dal Lake, and its auburn timber nonetheless respiratory fireplace from a not-so-distant fall season paints a colourful surroundings that pulls vacationers from everywhere in the nation and past. However taking a look at Kashmir with rose-tinted glasses is simply half the image. There’s one other facet to all of it, a darkish facet, that’s elusive to its onlookers except they keep lengthy sufficient to change into one with the valley.

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Once I arrived within the first week of January to Srinagar on an project, I used to be excited to be residing on the lake. My houseboat was owned by a heat Kashmiri household who made the winter livable. I selected to stick with them, versus a lodge or an house, as a result of I wished to assist them by the robust occasions. Tourism in Kashmir had bled dry for the final two years attributable to two back-to-back lockdowns.

Identified to be the world’s most heavily-militarized areas, India-administered-Kashmir misplaced its semiautonomous standing on August 5, 2019. A communication blockade and strict curfews have been imposed. Each vacationer within the valley on the time was requested to go away instantly. The air was thick with worry and uncertainty. The valley that depends closely on its vacationers got here to a screeching halt. It took six months for issues to begin transferring once more when one other blow to the tourism business got here—a nationwide lockdown attributable to COVID-19. Each lodge, houseboat, and tourism-related ancillary business misplaced all hope.


Kanika Gupta

For 2 years, the households residing on Dal Lake who rely solely on the earnings generated from tourism, scraped by the underside of their financial savings to remain afloat, actually and metaphorically. My choice to remain on a houseboat for the time I used to be working in Kashmir was to pay again its hospitable neighborhood after they wanted it probably the most. In my head, it was a righteous factor to do. However I utterly underestimated the wrath of winter that had befallen the valley. It was the coldest winter Kashmir had seen in 30 years. I used to be in the midst of it on frozen water, no much less.

The day I arrived, the temperatures dropped dangerously low and Srinagar witnessed its coldest evening in many years. I awoke the following morning to a frozen glass of water, frozen pipes, and a frozen lake on which my boat was moored. I heard the commotion exterior my room—the houseboat proprietor was working knee-deep in water to unclog the frosted pipes. The matriarch, his spouse and a mom of three, was carrying buckets of scorching water on a slippery snow-covered floor to help her husband within the activity. The truth of it hit me like a blizzard: The wintry panorama of Kashmir is gorgeous just for the outsiders, for its inhabitants, it’s a glacial nightmare.

With each contemporary spell of snowfall, the household spent hours and hours shoveling snow from the rooftops. When it snowed incessantly for two-to-three days, everybody could possibly be seen on their rooftops throwing snow into the water. The exercise lasted for a few hours. Simply after they thought the worst is over and got here again to relaxation after the day’s onerous labor, it began snowing once more and so they have been again on the rooftops.

I watched them helplessly as they spent a complete day eradicating snow from each inch of their getting old boat. It was not unusual for Dal Lake to devour outdated houseboats throughout heavy snow spells. Gathered snow on the rooftop provides additional weight that may sink the boat if the snow isn’t cleared. It was a backbreaking job with completely no reward, only a vital evil to remain above the water. With the tourism enterprise dealing with its worst time, the houseboat homeowners have been cash-strapped to pay for the costly repairs which can be required to maintain their boats from drowning. It was both that or grueling guide labor. My houseboat was among the many unlucky ones who had to decide on the latter.

If I believed shoveling snow was taxing, I clearly wasn’t ready for the following part of the problem: going throughout the lake when the water was frozen.

The lake that’s normally lined in yellow-topped shikaras rocking gently on its waters was utterly forsaken on chilly mornings. The subsequent day, after I needed to head out for work, I waited till 12 p.m. for the frigid lake to be prepared for any form of motion. Each day somebody would stand on the fringe of their small boats, pounding away on the lake floor to make slim gullies that the others used throughout the day to traverse. Generally the floor is so thick that it could possibly injury the boat’s underside. Folks waited patiently exterior to see who will pave the way in which for them. There is no such thing as a such factor as urgency and all the pieces occurred at a tempo acceptable to the iced Dal Lake. There was a really small window so that you can exit and are available again earlier than the lake closed all of the roads and one must do that train over again the following morning.

I braved the chilly and survived abject winter with the assistance of a searing kangri (an indigenous heating system intrinsic to Kashmir tradition) and the heat of its folks. I might typically stare on the innocuous-looking lake that has the power to change into sinister. I additionally watched all of it in silent horror, the onerous work that went into surviving the bitter chilly and the way they weathered the storm that was introduced by Kashmir’s volatility. It baffled me that although chillai kalan is a yearly prevalence, the federal government departments are grossly under-equipped to ease the lives of hundreds of households residing on the water. Generally I felt that its locals suffered in silence amid all of the speak about Kashmir’s magnificence in winter and the way it took the eye away from the actual points that get buried deep below layers and layers of pristine snow.

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