The fabled houseboat, like all things Kashmiri, had its origins in a political dispute. The deeply suspicious Dogra royal family of Kashmir might have had an alliance with British India, but they were certainly not going to allow British civil servants to take up homes in Srinagar. Nor would they allow any outsiders to buy land, either for offices or sanitoria. Casting around for a place to stay, tourists and officials from British India chanced on Srinagar’s common doonga boats and started converting them to the floating comfort palaces that we know and love today. These were outfitted with lavish bedrooms and living rooms, sometimes even with fireplaces. Everything possible was done to make them habitable for months at a time. The official parties would return to winter in the plains, and return again in the summer.

But the British were not the first to spot the scenic potential of living in a boat in such charming surroundings. Kashmir’s lakes and rivers had always supported a riverine culture, and the grand Mughals made the most of it. Emperor Jahangir’s pleasure barges would snake up and down the Jhelum on moonlit nights, while his musicians serenaded the royal party from other boats.

But it was modern tourism that popularised Kashmir’s houseboats. They became so iconic that when militancy effectively curtailed tourism in the state, Kerala moved swiftly to turn its own rice boats into a new generation of houseboats.



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