An epitome of paradise on Earth, Srinagar despite the turbulence, continues to enthral the visitors with its resplendent beauty and the Dal Lake. The Lake is Srinagar’s jewel, a vast stretch of rippling water with carved wooden houseboats moored at its edges and the lofty peaks of the Pir Panjal mountains providing a scenic backdrop. It is also the place where a major chunk of the population thrives and earns their livelihood, ferrying houseguests to and fro from the houseboats or providing tourists with an idyllic setting of fulfilling their romantic fantasy in Shikara rides. A la “Kashmir Ki Kali” style!
The floating vegetable market in Srinagar is not as publicised as the Damnoen Sadauk Floating Market in Bangkok or the Cai Rang in Vietnam, yet it is one of the top things to do in Srinagar. It offers a unique experience to understand the local life, the cultivation methods and to observe the hustle bustle of buy and sell at the break of dawn. Undoubtedly, it provides a fantastic opportunity for photographers to bring out unique ideas and images. As I heard more about it, I was keen to see it. “Madam, you must do it. I’ll pick you up at 4:30 am tomorrow at Ghat 13” said Gulfam, our organiser, guide plus owner of the shikara, Meena Mahal.
The next day at the break of dawn, Sam and I headed off for our long walk to Ghat 13 where Gulfam waited for us. With some extra cushions and fluffed up blankets, he went an extra mile to keep us comfortable early in the morning. The lake was serene and sounds heard were only of the paddles against the water and the Fajr prayer from a mosque close by. What one sees from the road is only a segment of the Dal Lake. The water canals that lead to the interiors of the Dal lake provide insights to the wonderful neighbourhood that exists on the lake. We crossed barber shops, small-scale manufacturing units, tailors, emporiums, grocery stores, garment shops and I watched intrigued. This was my third trip to Srinagar and I had little idea of the busy local life that thrives on the lake. A half-hour ride and the stillness was interrupted by excited voices. We had reached our rendezvous.
In the floating market, the sales and purchase of vegetables occur in the wee hours of the morning. Most of the vegetables are grown on the lakeside. The weeds that are removed manually from the lake, with their roots and soils, are woven together and form floating gardens. Rich in nutrients and soaked in plenty of water from the lake, vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, gourds, pumpkins, turnips, radish, saag, melons are grown and sold to buyers. Farmers come in shikaras laden with their produce and over haggling and settling of prices the vegetables are moved from one boat to the next. For some, it’s also a place to catch up and gossip with a few buddies. We were glad we were the first ones to reach and witness the entire proceedings without much disturbance. By about 6 a.m., most of the exchange was done. Any leftover vegetables are taken to the streets for sale. It was also when more shikaras with tourists entered the area bringing with them vendors selling flowers, artificial jewellery, spices, the “kahwawallah” and a shikara selling freshly baked cookies.
Gulfam had a treat planned for us. He had specially prepared kahwa from home in his Samovar and served it with Girda, a golden crust bread with indentations. With a crunchy exterior but soft inside, it makes a perfect accompaniment to tea. More than an hour and a half had passed, and the vendors started slowly moving away. The sun was shining brightly by then and it was time for us to head back. Gulfam took us through water canals to show us more of the life in the interiors. Lotus leaves scattered all over signalled that the flowers would be blossoming in the next few days. Floating gardens, women at work, the migratory birds and the stirring up of life at the houseboats, all opened vistas to the life of the locals. More than 600 houseboats dot the Dal Lake and about 300 at the Nagin Lake. The floating market is just one aspect of the Dal lake but the travel through the waterways exposes another world that exists in its interiors.
A parting note: While many shikara boat owners readily take you to the floating market, I saw some bring in the tourists much later when all the action was over. It is not easy to wake up early on a holiday, but when going to the floating market it makes sense to go early to enjoy the buzz of the place from the start. We were lucky to have Gulfam take us around. Not only was he courteous but extremely knowledgeable about Srinagar and its people. I highly recommend him and if you want any help with a houseboat stay or a shikara ride please call him at 9906432029.