Until the morning of January 13, on the third day of my trip to Kashmir, I only knew one definition of “breaking the ice.” That day, I got to witness a whole new meaning of this phrase, through the lens of the people living in one of the world’s most famous and tourist-dense lakes, the Dal Lake. Text and inside photographs by Shubhanjana Das
I landed in Kashmir after two cancelled flights, in the middle of the dreaded ‘Chillai Kalan’, the 40 days of harsh winters from December 21- January 31. It has the valley on a standstill as heavy snowfall blocks runways, roads, electricity and water supply. Sights of Kangri (an earthen pot woven around with wicker, with burning embers of coal in it) and Bukhari are ubiquitous in Kashmir as the temperature dips below freezing point.
My nine-day trip in Kashmir began and ended in the bustling city of Srinagar, located on the banks of River Jhelum. But my accommodation was located far away from it all. I had to cross a part of the lake in a Shikara to my picturesque houseboat, one of the hundreds that are stationed in designated spots on the lake. Even though some parts of the lake freeze every year, this year, the mercury dipped steeper than usual, freezing the entire lake for the first time in 25 years. With hundreds of houseboats floating on frozen waters and Shikaras that make going around the lake possible, life in the Dal as a tourist is scenic, mystical, and thrilling; but for locals, it’s equally challenging.
By 9 am, as locals begin their commute through the lake, life starts stirring in the waters. But not this time, when there was an 8-9 mm thick sheet of ice to break through to reach the ghats. As I sat with my Kangri and a cup of Kahwa in the balcony of my houseboat, I watched locals in their small boats and Shikaras with tourists making their way through the ice and fog, breaking each inch of it with their oars in compromised visibility. Children sat patiently, tourists watched on, flummoxed, capturing the two different reactions to the extreme weather conditions that are normcore in Kashmir during December and January. I also overheard my hosts recalling the time when Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (erstwhile Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir) drove his Land Rover on 22” thick ice on the Dal back in 1964, while this time, a video of kids playing ice cricket on the frozen lake went viral on Facebook.
As tourists, our bewildered vision can blind us to the struggles of the locals who live in the houseboats. From providing hot water despite blocked water pipes to making sure guests are warm and snug in their rooms despite frequent power cuts, everything becomes a herculean task. Even my favourite breakfast in Kashmir, that consisted cups of Kahwa, Kandur wali roti (local handmade flatbread) and omelette, could be procured only after my host rowed through the sheet of ice to get the bread and eggs from a grocery store on the lake. Seeing him emerge from the horizon, rowing through the ice, made me realise that the flagrant romanticisation of the snow, the cold, and the Narnia-like landscape of Kashmir tends to narrow our vision from the people who make it possible, their hardships are hidden from our sight.
With tourism only beginning to return to normal again, it is humbling to watch the locals go out of their way to make visitors fall in love with Kashmir, all over again.