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Spread across 18 square kilometres, the Dal Lake is surrounded by the city of Srinagar with 15 kilometres of boulevard. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Bengaluru: The waters are still and quietly reflective, pondering like a poet over the epic in the making. But, Kashmir’s Dal Lake is more than an epic, absorbing every moment and action around it and reflecting what is more than obvious to our eyes.

For centuries, the Dal Lake has been romanticised by writers and poets over and over again and you can comprehend this obsession only when you lay your eyes on the lake.

The moment you arrive, you will realise that this is not just any water body. You will acknowledge that the poets were justified in creating this hype around the lake.

On a cold winter morning, it is hard to say where the water ends and where the mist begins, it is hard to see the horizon, yet, it is hard to resist the mysterious pull of the lake, beckoning you to traverse its mysterious world. Even in the bitter cold of subzero temperatures, once you are on the shores of the Dal, you wouldn’t resist venturing into it.

Even in peak winter, when the lake freezes, life proceeds in the lake in its hushed tone and unhurried rhythm. Everything around the Dal moves gently, like the beautiful Shikaras (boats) that sail along its placid body.

“The Dal never stops, life moves on even when the lake is frozen. People of the Dal have adjusted well to its rhythm, we complement each other,” says boatman Ghulam Hassan.

Tales of turmoil

Dal is distant yet alluring, it is unfazed yet moving, its calm environs trigger a mysterious tugging in the hearts. It may seem mute, but if you touch and feel its freezing waters, it speaks. If you pay attention it will tell you all its tales of turmoil.

“The Dal has seen it all, from the past glory of Kashmir to the present turmoil, and has quietly absorbed all the stories in her all-encompassing heart. It stores every story, nothing goes unregistered,” Hassan adds, as we set sail on the enchanting waters of the Dal.

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Boatman Ghulam Hassan. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

The veteran boatman, who has been plying his oar for 40 years, adds that the Dal is a magnificent treasure, it has swallowed and recreated millions of memories. Once it consumes something you can never have it back, what you can have is a piece of Dal forever etched in your memory.

“Be careful with your phone, if you drop it in the lake, it is impossible to retrieve. Once the Dal swallows something. It is gone forever,” warns Ghulam Hassan, as he gently steers his Shikara.

Shikaras are the colourful tiny tourist boats that are ubiquitous in the Dal Lake.

As the boat glides along, the lake’s tourism economy unravels in front of your eyes, as boatmen selling a variety of items approach our shikara one by one, as if in a pre-arranged set up.

From handicraft and dry fruits to kahwa (Kashmiri coffee) and saffron to flowers and snacks, everything is available right in the middle of the lake, even as you absorb the cool air and pristine climes of the Dal.

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Vendors with artefacts, trinkets, dry fruits other items ply the lake on their tiny boats, offering a variety of merchandise to tourists right in the middle of the lake. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Life on Dal

This mid-lake commercial activity is besides the floating bazaar that houses apparel stores offering winter clothing, groceries and coffee shops.

“This is the life on Dal, it is very dynamic and warm, you will feel the warmth of the people around you. For all of us (vendors on the boats) this is our livelihood. We do this to make a living, but this is not sustaining us, only Allah is our Provider,” said Shawkat Ahmed, a boatman selling artefacts.

Despite the cold weather and the difficulties that come along with it and the political turmoil around their lives, the warmth of these simple Kashmiri folks is palpable in the way they approach you - smiling, gentle and unhurried.

Their life depends on the business you do with them, but they don’t seem desperate, calmly moving on with the salutation of peace in search of another customer.

Boatman Ghulam Hassan has navigated the icy waters of the Dal Lake for a living since he was a teenager. The lake has sustained him and his family for over four decades. The Dal supports more than 4,000 boatmen like him.

But, Hassan says that though the lake has been very generous, the children of Dal have not been very kind with it.

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A visit to Kashmir is considered incomplete without a night’s stay in the houseboats of the Dal Lake. But, they are also putting a strain on the lake’s fragile ecosystem. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

“The Dal continues to be generous and we benefit immensely from its generosity. But as the children of Dal, we haven’t been kind to our mother. We have abused her and have taken her generosity for granted. Now, the Dal is shrinking, as if she is saying that she has had enough and wants to withdraw herself from all the madness that goes on around it.”

Dal Lake covers an area of 18 square kilometres and is part of a wetland covering 21.1 square kilometres. The lake has a shoreline of 15 kilometres encompassed by a boulevard and surrounded by many Mughal era gardens such as Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh.

But, alarmingly, the lake is rapidly shrinking due to a range of commercial activities that take place around it.

Food Basket

Dal is a world in itself, with a self-sustaining economy. It is integral to the existence of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. It is not only the most popular tourist destination of Srinagar, rather most of the city life surrounds around it.

As part of a fertile natural wetland, the lake has become the food basket of Srinagar, supplying vegetables and flowers daily to the city and beyond.

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From floating houses and schools to gardens, markets and offices, an entire community lives on and off the lake. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Local farmers cultivate a wide variety of produce throughout the year, through its famous floating gardens as well as its fertile banks and catchment areas. Flowers, especially lotus, naturally bloom around the lake in July and August, which is the summer time. The lotus stems are particularly popular with the Kashmiris as a delicacy.

Apart from farming, the lake offers commercial fishing opportunities and adding to that is the revenue tourism and recreational activities generate.

From floating houses and schools to gardens, markets and offices, an entire community lives on and off the lake, going about their daily business on small boats.

Adding to these permanent residents is the floating population of tourists who stay on the famous houseboats of the Dal Lake. The local community and the houseboats, both dump their waste in the lake.

Naturally, all these activities are adding strain to the lake’s fragile ecosystem.

Though, the authorities have finally woken up to this changing reality around this wonder of nature, but the boatmen whose lives depend on the lake feel not enough is being done to preserve the quality of lake.

The Dal lake is a pure emotion and it’s an emotion every resident as well as visitor to the lake can relate to. It is obvious that this emotion is being tainted by the general apathy of all stakeholders.

The Dal calls for urgent attention beyond the romanticised imagery. If not, the iconic image of a tiny boat gently gliding on a placid surface under the backdrop of snow-capped mountains will soon become a distant memory!

-- Shafaat Shahbandari is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru and Founder-Editor of Thousand Shades of India