The moment Srinagar is mentioned, Dal Lake and the image of the shikara immediately comes to mind. The Dal surrounded by the Zabarwan Mountains, with floating houseboats, a thriving tourist floating market of curios, and clusters of water fountains in the lake, all add to its natural beauty. Changing views with the changing weather, the hint of gold reflected from snow-clad mountains with the setting or rising sun tugs at the artist in you.
The fountains are battery-operated and fitted into air-filled tubes so they can float. Rather ingenious! As these tubes are grouped together they look beautiful during the day and magical during the night with lights on. The lake has a lot of underwater vegetation which is used by farmers to create floating islands of grass. The farmers pull out the grass soil and roots with long bamboo poles. According to the shikarawala this is self-contained manure and also helps in desilting.
Observing a lot of the weeds on the side of the lake piled high, our boatman explained that the weeds on the side of the lake/road have been cut by machines. The machines only cut the weeds from the upper surface leaving the roots intact. He had an amusing simile. He said, “it is like the hair on my head, when I cut my hair it takes a month to grow back. But the weeds grow back with a vengeance in 3 to 4 days and much thicker”. As against the weeds removed manually, the weeds removed by machine are only good for garbage. Weeds removed manually with roots and soil are used by the residents of the lake to convert into floating vegetable farms. They are bundled together and a seed planted. The water is from the lake and no manure or fertilizer is required as the dry weeds fulfill the need.
The houseboats on the lake, a popular tourist attraction are over 90 years old made from Deodar wood (teak). These are furnished luxuriously with exquisite furnishings. No new houseboats are possible to build because of the prohibitive cost and ban on tree felling.
The lake is a thriving, living city and water system. Taking a shikara at 5.20 am to visit the floating vegetable market was a learning experience, besides the beauty and serenity of the surroundings. We saw the floating market in houseboats with all the handicrafts and curios still to open shop for the tourists. The floating markets functioning on the lake are Vegetable Market, Zafrani Market, and Flower Market. One floating houseboat shop selling snacks and essentials however was open.
On traveling further we saw the floating vegetable market where the farmers came with their produce from the lake in their shikaras. This turned out to be a bulk transaction with the buyers taking their vegetables for further supply.
By 6 am all marketing was over with the produce sold. The buyers leaving with their purchases, the sellers rowing away or congregating for a little chat in the lake, almost like people catching up with news on crossings or chaupals. It was indeed a unique sight.
We spent almost two hours on the lake and realized it is a very vast water body, home to farming, fishing, tourists, water lilies, exotic birds, and waterways. In fact, a lot of the lake has been encroached upon and the actual area has diminished. All those owning any property on or around the Dal cannot sell to any private person now. Neither is any new construction allowed. The property reverts back to the government. A lot of people have been shifted out in an effort to preserve the lake. Dal is fed by a number of freshwater springs and is connected to the Jhelum River. There are underground springs and in winter when the lake freezes the warm spring water attracts the fish deep near the aquifers. So winter fishing is done using nets while in summers as the fish is close to the surface fishing rods are used.
Efforts are on to relocate the ever-growing population and check encroachment. Whatever the challenges of conserving this unique lake, it will forever attract the romantic.