Saturday, October 16, 2010

Origin of Kashmiri House Boat and some other origins




House Boat and 'doonga' cook boat on Jhelum river, from around year 1904
A House Boat on Dal Lake, year 2008
I first came to know the interesting story a couple of years back, the story of how Kashmir got its famous houseboats. The interest however was triggered about the stories that I have heard about families in old times travelling to Tulamulla in doonga via the river route, taking days, sometimes braving waves.

 Here's a pieced together narrative, an attempt at putting dates to the events

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Close to the end of 19th century, Kashmir was opening up to outsiders again. And the outsiders, mostly European, were pouring into the valley. And they needed a place to stay for their long holidays, buying a piece of land and building a house was out of question, Maharaja Ranbir Singh would have none of it. No outsider could buy land in Kashmir, no outsider still can. A couple of years later, even Vivekananda had to return empty handed when he came looking for a place to set up his ashram. With a restriction like this, the tourist business wasn't going to take-off.

Around year 1881, Rev. John Smith Doxey against much odds opened a missionary school in Kashmir. Pandit Nariandas, a Kashmiri Pandit trader became one of the first few Kashmiris to have taken up English language at this school. One of the other students of what was to become the nucleus of future great institution of Christen Missionary School in Kashmir was 14-year old Pandit Anand Koul, a cousin of Nariandas.*  In around 1883, the working of the school was taken over by Rev. J. Hinton Knowles. Knowles in around 1885 went on famously to document the folk literature of Kashmir, a task in which he was assisted by young Pandit Anand Koul. Pandit Anand Koul obviously was too bright, acknowledging and honoring this fact, in around 1895 Knowles made Anand Koul Headmaster of the school: a first for a Kashmiri. In year 1897, some night of September or October, Anand held dinner in honor of Swami Vivekananda who was visiting Kashmir at the time hoping to find a suitable place for his ashram. Swami Vivekananda's travel diaries of the time documents, among many other things, his stay in a 'houseboat'.  So, we can assume that the houseboats were already popular by then.

The credit for it goes to the other less famous student of Rev. Doxey, Pandit Naraindas. That the credit should go to a Pandit is all the more strange because Pandits traditionally never were boat builders or even boat owners. The story goes that in around 1885, just when his cousin Pandit Anand was helping Knowles write a book, Pandit Naraindas had a shop that used to cater to the needs of the foreigners. Business must have been good and man must have been happy. But tragedy stuck when this shop got gutted in fire, a phenomena common at the time given the old world wooden structure of the city buildings. Not giving up, and coming up with a desperate idea, Naraindas moved his remaining goods to a doonga, a small boat used by hanjis for residential purposes, and moored it at a suitable site. And just like that shop was open again, this time doing even better than before. Soon he began to improve his shop by replacing its matted walls and roof with planks and shingles. This was the first  houseboat afloat.

Sir Francis Younghusband, later in around 1906 was to write that the idea of a  'floating house' was first floated some year between 1883-1888 by a sport loving Englishman named M.T. Kennard. And the idea was also brought into reality by this man. For a longtime, till the name 'houseboat' caught on, Kashmiris used to call these boats 'the boat of Kennath Sahib'**. Younghusband wrote that although houseboat was not indigenous to Kashmir, by the year 1906 the number of houseboats in the valley was already in hundreds.

It is said that after building his houseboat, Naraindas was approached for sale by a European who had taken fancy to his boat. Naraindas sold his boat at a profit and soon realized that this was way better deal than the deals he was making in his store business. So he became a boat-builder, and a houseboat builder at that. In a nasty old tradition of the land, people nick named him Nav Narayan or Boat Narayan. The first houseboat he built and managed was named Kashmir Princess.

Till the year 1948, his family alone had built and managed some 300 houseboats. But by 50s they were already selling-off the business because of lesser margins on account of lesser foreign tourists.

Raj era was over.

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A newspaper article from year 2004 about his great-grandson, Suresh Kilam, building giant houseboats in Delhi. [Newslink]

Pandit Nariandas is more well known today as the father of mystic scholar of Kashmir Shaivism, Swami Lakshman Joo and not as the father of Kashmiri houseboat.

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*Geography of the Jammu & Kashmir State  Anand Koul, Prithivi Nath Kaul Bamzai, (1978), first printed 1913). According to  S. N. Pandita's Western indologists and Sanskrit Savants of Kashmir (2002 ), a third student had the name Pandit Shivnarayan Bhan and that there were only five students in the beginning. 

** Jammu and Kashmir by Somnath Dhar (1999). 

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10 comments:

  1. i never believed my mother on this, but I think I will have to accept now, this Nava-Narain as he was called later, was related to my great grandmother, and used to live in Namchibal- in Fatehkadal where this whole boating thing started.

    ReplyDelete
  2. An old wives' tale that may well to be true! Thanks for the extra info. I was having a tough time trying to pinpoint the location where this incredible venture started.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Got this interesting comment and a wonderful link from a reader, Showkat/Yaseen Tuman. This was left at some other post, so moved it here (Yes i got it Yaseen,thanks!)

    "Dear Vinayak, keeping a update of your interesting blog all the time.. Your recent post of Houseboats seems to be little conflicting / contradicting of the knowledge / documents I have about houseboats (Since I belong to Housboat Community - Hanji). We have testimonials dating back to 1882. Actually the first one of 1882, 1888 and hundreds of them of the later dates. Here is a peice of History narriated by my Dad ( Azim Tuman ). Firstly Darpad Doonga were used to accommodate tourists / colonial officers from 1865 - 1880.It was incident that General Dunlop went through during a cruise on Darpad Doonga. General Dunlop was person who changed outlook of Darpad Doonga and designed wooden walls and thus Houseboats came into existence. Since, then unending innovations have been done till 1990 and now Houseboats are a sore in the eye of many kashmiri's who want to get rid of them forever. However, Tourism being my proffession and houseboats being my passion, I will fight till the last tooth and nail to keep this legacy afloat. Use the link to check the testimonials at mascothouseboats website"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yaseen,
    first thanks for the comment! I don't contest your documents (which I believe are a wonderful cultural artifacts in themselves), the oldest of which seems to be dated 1882, and I certainly don't your version of the story. In fact, at the time of writing that post I was think that logically the Hanji's should have the first ones's to offer the services. And your story and documents sort of collaborate Younghusband's story about M.T. Kennard which places the origin around 1883.

    What I believe must have happened in all probability that back then Naraindas must have taken houseboats to such a scale that it became a mushrooming business. And the label of 'Nava-Narain' stuck to him.

    About the 'eye-soreness' of houseboats, its a case of human excess. A little control and regulation could never have caused the problem in the first place.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow I am happy to know about the History of my Kashmir...Thanks Buddy for this Priceless efforts...

    ReplyDelete
  6. The largest House Boat in Dal Lake is 180 Ft. long, 20 ft. wide & 12 ft. ↕.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you have any information on the weight (roughly) of the house boat??

      Delete
  7. you have collected a great information on Kashmir thank you for providing such information

    ReplyDelete
  8. What is the local name for the house boats of Srinagar??

    ReplyDelete
  9. MY FATHER IS BOAT MAKER OF KASHMIR,WE ARE IN THIS BUSINESS SINCE 1880
    NAZIR AHMED NAJAR ALIAS KAWADAREE

    ReplyDelete

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