Floating houses popularly known as ‘houseboats’ on the waters of Dal Lake have a unique history. It is said that the native kings had prohibited foreign visitors, especially the British from constructing houses in the region which gave rise to the concept of the houseboat. Though some believe that there have been houseboats on the waters of Dal, Nigeen and in adjoining water bodies since 1800 but many contest this version, saying the floating houses came into being in late 19th century by the boat-dwelling Hanjji community of Srinagar who started building floating residencies for tourists.
Many associated with the tourism business said that the Hanji community started it with an aim to provide residencies to those foreigners who were not allowed to purchase land in Kashmir. However some reports from elders reveal that it was Pandit Narayan Das who first built a houseboat in Dal after his shop burnt down in 1880’s. “When his shop burnt down, it is said that he moved his inventory to a small boat used by the boat-dwelling Hanjis and connected his trade to it. However with some advancement and expansion, Das’s wooden shop became the first full-fledged houseboat,” reports said.
Later on Das sold his boat to a European tourist after he understood the potential of the trade. He indulged in the trade and started commissioning of boats which made him locally famous as ‘Naav Narayan’ and his first houseboat was named Kashmir Princess.
The history reveals that the famous British explorer, Sir Francis Younghusband, is known to have credited one MT Kennard with the idea of a ‘floating house’ between the years 1883 and 1888. It is said that for a long time locals used to call these structures as boats of ‘Kennad Sahib’. Younghusband wrote that by 1906 there were hundreds of houseboats in Kashmir.
However with the passage of time, the commissioning of houseboats became common at local level. At present, there are less than thousand houseboats on the waters of Dal being used by visitors mostly tourists across the world.
The houseboats are being considered a vital part of tourism in valley and thousands of people are associated with it. Many houseboats are furnished with lush carpets, unique glass lamps and serve up elaborate Kashmiri dishes. Known as floating houses, houseboats in Kashmir provide a unique way of residencies.
These costly wooden structures are made of cedar wood which is a type of large tree that never loses its leaves and has wide spreading branches. The interiors of these houseboats are beautifully designed with carved wood panelling while walnut wood is being used for furniture.