A Photo-Ethnographic Study, A Rural Asian Wedding Travelogue, Dal Lake, Jammu and Kashmir
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About Kashmir, A Tale of Keepers and Rowing a Shikara to a Friend’s Wedding in Lake Dal Srinagar

Learning how to row was the most profound, useful as much as useless, but one hypnotic skill that arrived at one point in my life. I was living with the Huns, a houseboat community in Dal Lake. The boat in general is called Shikara in Kashmiri. And Rowers were called Keepers, an English word. And perhaps it was this word that lured me to become one; a keeper. The one who keeps.


Kashmir; the most beautiful valley on Earth. Not because it is pretty but perhaps the most complex. Also, the most militarised one, around that time. The aura of violence and terror was ever present in everyday Kashmiri life. When the valley was going through its longest curfew of their existence, I was there, walking, documenting the flatlands of Srinagar and hiking up the Harvan Mountains, even finding my way to the Mahadev Rock in the Pir Panjals while also finding myself bathing in the waters of the river Lidder, formerly Lambodarini and the mighty Indus. I was learning to live with the birds and had gradually started rowing, following all sizes of moon. Peripherying the colony of once occupied houseboats on many majestic nights of Dal. A time like this seldom arrives in a traveller’s life when where he is wandering, there is water and there is violence and you are rowing through the two.

Many a nights, as the sounds of the gunshots echoed in the valley far, I slept questioning my space, tossing-turning on my wooden floor while it creaked every time I moved but instead thought of the fate of those fishes too that moved or slept right under my boat. I used to think that it had to be something more if I was there to experience all this. I still don’t know but may be I was the one chosen to carry these memories through. From teaching in the foothills of Siachin Glacier to having a houseboat as a home in Lake Dal with the company of the birdman himself- the best keeper you can learn from. And it arrived at a time when life was shaping my consciousness as I kept collecting people’s lives in thought and language- I was practicing keeping memories, carrying them like a portable study bank; of a land, whose existence had water in its very name; Kashmir- literally meaning a bowl of Water. Having all the fresh water coming down the mountains forming many a lakes throughout the region. And each connected with the other. There were tales of people talking about reaching any part from anywhere by water, Rasool would say that he in his younger days had rowed upstream from the mighty river Jhelum to Lake Dal. But it’s not possible today. They have put gates. They have cut water from between. Time and corruption in last half a century has eaten Kashmir inside out. And anyways, after the last devastating floods of 2013 there is actually nothing left to keep; left ones are only the keepers with their tales of Kashmir and memories of floating on water.

But it was not Rasool who taught me how to row; it was a boy of four whose boat I first navigated to reach the back lanes of Dal. I had started to collect the dreams of houseboat owners while photographing their beautiful rooms inside houseboats. It is like living in a mother’s womb consciously- on water, one told me of his understanding living on a houseboat. It is like you are always moving he said and only sometimes that awareness arrives, what’s only missing were my mother’s lullabys.


The Keeper sits at the nook end of the boat looking over, keeping everything still, and directing the journey towards its destination. One can only imagine how in the olden times the keepers had the time to only observe the nature’s elements in its richness without once looking at the phone while moving through the waters, observing the winds, its density. The waves and the depth of water. Keepers know how to see and metaphorically for me they know how to keep. Now more than any other time in history of Kashmir because Kashmiris have lost too much- Relations, trust, love, parents, sisters, children, life and above all for many their own land. So I would imagine they know what keeping is. Because while living there I was learning just that. Learning to keep ones memories, collecting them in my mind from which i could transcend. Living in Dal with birds and boats I was practicing transcending from life and to a living dream because living like that cannot be real. More so for someone from the Capital of India, a city super hyper in its being.


I was there at a time when terror was hiding like a snake in the lake- that lake which had been quiet after the defeating floods and cries of gun shots, encounters and cross counters but all these by then had become intrinsic to life of Kashmir. There I was, living and learning to row, archiving the stories of houseboat dwellers moving between restlessness and horror; interpreting their dreams and documenting their everyday family lives in the hidden, colourful rooms of the houseboats.

Also rowing brought a few remarkable changes. My arms became stronger, they found a shape very similar to other boatmen, you should have seen my triceps. My friends who visited started touching it, to feel it for themselves. My chest started coming in shape and my ribs showed like that of poster boys of any gym. Moreover being a vegetarian living with a Muslim family had me eating less and mostly only one full meal a day. And it is only now that I am thinking about it. It became a lifestyle of sorts. I was now trusted for faraway journeys that lasted several hours of the day. And these journeys were the real test of your skill and your body. It made my lungs feel super charged and healthy, high with Oxygen overdose and a running intuition that to transfer that much energy I either had to stretch my body or sit still meditating on my breath till it calmed down. I had lost much of my natural body weight may be due to excess walking and aimlessly rowing. Even In the nights after long days when Rasool wanted to smoke after dinner under stars and in silence, I rowed for him.


One day, we were coming back from Char Chinar, the farthest place named after four beautiful and life size chinar trees and back on our way to Nigeen Lake, the path had become harder, as I had to dodge the boat and apply twice the power to sail through the harmful weed grass that had been eating the lake like dandruff eats away hair. Those days everybody talked about the sewage and weed pollution in the lake and that it were alarming. As I dodged past that area, while taking a turn a man showed a hand from one of the houses. He wanted a lift. I went near and stopped the boat, placing it against the ramp in a way that could only be done by someone local rowing for years as placing a boat can arguably be the most difficult part and I had become skillful in it. “Wari choo?” with my elemental Kashmiri I welcomed the man but he in no time learnt that I was not from here and felt taken aback of course. It was not normal for a non-Kashmiri to be sitting in the keepers seat, leave offering a lift to a Kashmiri himself. As he started inquiring from Rasool about me, Rasool kept laughing, enjoying watching the new comers bewildered face. Noor was shy and his vulnerability made him likeable. He was a tour operator and to my luck many a trekkers who used to go trekking in Kashmir every month, used his services. He knew local agencies and many houseboat operators. Upon knowing what I was doing in Kashmir, he promised me to introduce his friends who would allow me to document their boats and that in time I started doing. He asked me to drop him to the Dal market ahead, as we closed in towards one tailor shop, Rasool suddenly stood, threw his cigarette, almost jumping from the boat on to the ramp, walked in the shop with his hands wide open reciting many a times the name of the tailor, his old-old friend, Bashir-Bashir-Bashir. They hugged each other like children hug parents. Noor was standing smiling watching all this. Bashir was the best tailor in Dal Lake who was famous for making shervani’s for weddings. Noor had come to collect his shervani as it was our turn to get surprised, Noor was getting married tomorrow.  

We all got excited and had kehwa, Noor invited us to be there whole day tomorrow. I was particularly happy as I was already looking to document a Kashmiri wedding for my long-term Rural Asian Wedding Project. And what more can I ask for than finding something to work on in the backyards of Lake Dal.


Rasool was very happy that day. He met his old time friend, and we got a party to attend to. And when the next day arrived, it was a colorful delight, I got introduced to the famous Kashmiri wazwan, the chefs and the royalty with which they cook their dishes, even though I couldn’t eat any of it but it was the wedding, the colors, clothes, walls, and the environment had their own story to tell.


Acknowledgment


“Apart from Rasool, all other names are changed.”


In last three months this was my fourth attempt at writing this essay. All the drafts that sat in front and left me without warning one after the other as my old computer saw one too many internal deaths. I thought some power didn’t want it to be written. Starting from September, I at last am publishing it today, in December.

In itself it is a big tick off my head. Even though I couldn’t carry the same feeling and prose that I had put in by my third attempt; It is still strange to learn about how differently I could write about my life, events and incidents in Kashmir. That life is soaked in my veins as food gets consumed in stomach. As much I write, various interpretations keep coming out and keep surprising me. Yet I feel there is something a lot deeper still to come of my time spent in Kashmir land. Only time will tell. Please enjoy the wedding.


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Thank you.


If today is the first time you have arrived on The Road to Nara, you are heartily welcome ~ Namaste

If you have any suggestions, please write in the comment box or feel free to write to me at narayankaudinya@gmail.com


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I will take this opportunity to introduce you to About me and importantly;

As a co-traveller, my Ten Learnings from several years on the roadbefore you coarse on youown Road to Nara.

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Also, You will be happy to know about My Little School Project. If you wish to come over for a visit someday that you must, you will be heartily welcomed here

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by

Hi, I am Narayan Kaudinya. And i welcome you on this journey, the Road to Nara ! I am an Ethnographer and a practicing Indologist. I did my masters in History and further learnt Sanskrit, Yoga and Nerve-therapy. At 24, pushing most academic sounding, office sitting works away, i felt compelled to know and understand the world and my country, Bharat/India. I travelled, and as it happened i took up teaching in Kashmir and further up in the remote villages of Baltistan in the foothills of Karakoram Ranges. For around three years and many states later there came a time when i felt that it was only while teaching i learnt how to laugh, to see, feel, breathe, love and cry -with children, and mostly resource-less parents in the harshest-freezing border conditions. I write, and work as a documentary photographer and Filmmaker, with numerous published, exhibited and some awarded stories. In my travels and life i have let nature lead me, the divine mother, and as a Yogin, my resolve here is to share my experiences and thoughts as honestly, and through them to blossom in everyone the power and possibility in pursuing your breath, that you seek your true nature with courage and curiosity. Here, on this road i will share my spirit, my love for nature, the elements of life that are us. And in doing so, i'll be happy to see you along.

78 Comments

  1. Your writing is a beautiful tribute to this special land. I think of the Kashmiris around Dal Lake often in the winter months. Especially the family we stayed with, wondering how they are managing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you know the feeling, the water and its scape around. It is close to cruel atleast for the Dal Lake house boat owners in winter times. The maintenance of the boats, less to no tourists makes it harder.

      When were you here?

      Like

      • Oh maybe my comment wasn’t clear. We visited in the spring a couple of years ago but the family told us how hard it was in the winter. I think of them often in winter when I’m in my insulated house with heat and electricity and they have none.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This essay about Kashmir is one of the best documentaries written by Narayan,
    Yes, he was chosen to carry those memories of his time there and put them into his tales from India because his huge talent was God-given for a reason.
    There is a need for another Indian writer to follow in Rabindranath Tagore’s footsteps to receive the highest literary award, and Narayan is that one. He is the superb keeper of Indian culture, traditions, and rituals, and there is no one more deserving of God’s support. His language is unique and takes your breath away –
    when writing about his fourth attempt to document the daily lives of Kashmiri people he uses the expression, “that life is soaked in my veins”, and now through his wonderful writing, it is in his reader’s too.
    Narayan’s evocative photography of the sumptuous interiors of the Kashmir dwellings and some vegetarian food, such as chapatis and spiced cauliflowers was so tempting that as a vegetarian, I became hungry by looking at the photos.
    Many readers will be subscribing to rowing clubs after reading Narayan’s detailed description of how rowing positively changed his body.
    His excellent observation of how life without the distraction of mobiles allows people to be enriched by observing nature in its complexity.
    Many writers’ works were inspired by water, and so Narayan’s life on water and bathing in rivers created a masterpiece, a compendious and thought-provoking study that will remain unfailingly engaging. Thank you.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bowing down to these words that sound like a garland of flowers to me dear Joanna. It’s a long way to go. To write all those stories still that I feel can come to life. But at times it’s just like who cares!!

      Thank you so so much for these words remain with me in times of dot dot dot. Love to you.

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      • I wrote about your talent in such a way, Narayan, not because I have a direct line to God, but because I know that you are a modest and unassuming man, and despite all the wonderful comments from your readers you hesitate about the greatness of your ability as a writer. Nothing will happen unless you write and photograph, and you have to find the means to combine the distractions of your home life with what is your destiny. Your writing is special not only because of your talent but because your every word is inspired by your passionate love for your country.
        Just write, Narayan, just write!

        Joanna

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well written and definitely a great experience learning to row. A beautiful land in a military zone is the saddest part of Kashmir.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are keeper of so many stories but also a teller, as well as photographer. The world is changing so rapidly and it is important for us top remember old ways as well as the many people we meet in our travels. It seems to me that Kashmir has had troubles for as long as I can remember. So sad for such a wonderful place. There used to be a wonderful Indian restaurant in New York City that was decorated with all those beautiful colours. I enjoyed it so much. It is interesting how one can tell the same story in very different ways. I have had the same experience. I am glad you were able finally to post your story of rowing in Lake Dal. I could feel the gentle rocking of the boats. I very much enjoy all your stories and photos. Thank you. Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Caro, for your understanding, affectionate and uplifting comment.

      And don’t really want to blame anyone but South Asia partition in mid-20th century is still playing a major role in governments policies. Mid-east, Afghanistan is gonna boil as much as Pakistan sooner or later. Kashmir is under control by force of law.

      Yes it took my patience and somewhere will to keep.writing it again Caro. Thank you again for mentioning it. My wishes for the coming days.

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  5. Narayan, this is a touching, beautiful post, well worth the repeated attempts at writing. It has the pathos of threats to a way of life caused by violence and barriers to the navigation of waterways; it has the joy of a Kashmiri wedding. The photos are rich with the joy of living and the beauty of the scenery. ❤

    I admire your choice to live among other cultures and experience their way of life, and I appreciate your sharing those experiences with us! Thank you. Best wishes for 2023 and all the years to come!

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    • Barriers to navigation, recent floods and choking waterways are very much due to the corrupt practices of the real estate players, or so say the locals themselves. But generally a human has to be involved in anything and probably everything.

      Thank you dear Cheryl. I receive your wishes well.

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  6. While it would have been easiest to lean to one or the other side of the story, brining in personal biases, this post has managed to stay the course and remain true to the subject, that of telling human stories as they are seen and experienced. Good piece of documenting, Narayan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have much to say, but words fail me. All I can muster is: The photos are impressive. The colorful clothing always looks glamorous to me, and I’m realizing you are keeping many stories. Yeah, hard work and not grazing on snacks and 3 meals a day is actually more like how we are designed to be, triceps too. : )Happy for you that you have had many experiences. It is sad that in Kashmir as well as in other beautiful lands that there are humans doing inhumane stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have loved to hear more and truly what you felt Dawn.

      India is colourful, literally and may be from.within as much it could be dark.

      Yes, Kashmir is too heavy for its life’s worth as of now. I appreciate your words Dawn. Thank you.

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      • Thank you, Narayan. Once in a while when I get going, it seems I may never shut up. So often I just hush and listen or read. : ) Also, you are welcome.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you, Narayan. I have often wondered if anyone thinks they are as precious as I know them to be. : ) They are truly beautiful (& cute) and many are so sweet and smart. My eyes are only opened to them, that is all.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Michael Graeme says

    Utterly magical, Narayan. Your words and your photographs are, as always, deeply moving, rich in colour and joyful meaning. Your affection for place and people is so infectious.

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  9. I love the photos – what a lovely wedding. And all the other photos, too. I spent a couple of weeks on the lake in 1989, just as it all began to get dangerous. It was a great place, though, and I loved it.

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    • It takes me to the memory lane dear Mick. You were there right at the end of the famous hippy trail thing that brought many from London to Kashmir and other parts. I have heard a lot about late 90s, that era’s Kashmiri music and Kashmiris themselves unable to decipher their understanding of their land, future and present.

      Absolutely glad to know mick. Thanks for writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I missed the hippy trail thing by a few years, Narayan, but I think I probably got more out of my travels than they did. A combination of slow travel, learning as much as I could about the culture and the people, and a few months voluntary work in a school and orphanage (on a different journey).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes Mick you are right. People of hippy trail largely got lost in all the merry making and trying to balance their relationships and joy they were getting out of everything.

          I am actually happy to learn a out your travels and the way it happened because It’s rare to find any well documented literature by the hippies themselves, at least here how much I have read.

          For you those days must still.make you alive and wanting to travel back again!! Obliged. Thanks again for sharing, mick.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. WOW.My dear kashmir.I had gone there five times and lived in a houseboat on Jhelam River.I was much impressed their language style,life style and most kind hearted nature.Eventhough,there was the many commandos for safety but I never saw any terrorist activities.there are many trees of Chinar which were attracting me very much.Now ,I love those Chinars and include in my poem as symbol of love.do you know-those trees never die.my all trips of Gulmarg to Sonmarg are alive in my memory and houseboat owner Rashid Bhai’s sisters have become my close friends.they call me often still now.I am thinking to go there again our paradise of India.your this post is reminding me all things related from Srinagar.Beautifully written,dear!!🍁❤️❣️🙏🏻❣️❤️🍁

    Like

    • Much gratitude Aruna. There is nothing like these memories one remember spent at a special place with loved ones.

      Chinar is a beautiful tree to look at. Poetic even, though it has some negative traits too.

      It is a beautiful place dear Aruna like your comment here. Thank you.

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        • Yes, Some. for starters, like its trunk is hollow. You cannot use the wood for many purposes as its not strong. The ground where Chinar grows, no other tree can survive or grow around it. All the boats and house construction were done from Devdar which you hardly see today as they were cut incessantly and chinars had to be left.

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          • My dear!!China’s trunk is not hollow type.it never dies.it is symbol of immortal love.Chinar was rooted by Noorajahan in kashmir brought from Iran.

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            • Dear Aruna, I appreciate your rooting for Chinars for it must Everlast. I hope every tree lives till it can. But nothing does ofcourse.

              Symbol of immortal love, yes well what can I say Aruna, I feel the tree has seen more bloodshed than love eversince he is brought !! Anyways, Devdars last way longer in wood, on water and in the environment.

              there’s a saying in Kashmir about Chinar and Devdar that when Chinar crosses its 100th year, devdar th

              Like

  11. The Jambudvipa Diaries says

    Absolutely wonderful. I have seldom seen someone talking so deeply on Kashmir and when according to your bio you are not even Kashmiri. It’s amazing. A follower fan here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is such a beautiful and flattering message. Yes, was just blessed to live for sometime in the water land. Much gratitude. Thank you.

      Like

  12. Fascinating account of your stay in Kashmir, Narayan! Living with a local family, living as they do – that’s the best way to know a place. I have been only as an ordinary tourist, but I too love Kashmir. Truly the most beautiful place on earth. Gar firdaus bar ru-e zamin ast
    Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast

    Liked by 1 person

    • The place apart from the surfacial beauty still vibrates. Some charm remains. And it’s not easy to stay here as a traveller. Apart from obvious issues It’s darn expensive. But even to experience it as a tourist is a blessing 🙂

      Like

      • I don’t think I want to go there again – I feel all the recent ‘development’ would have ruined its charm. We went way back in 1989. I keep those images in my mind’s eye and live on that!

        Liked by 1 person

        • 1989 Harini- it was a simmering time. Rasool’s wife was german she fought her way out of valley by 1989 summers. It had boiled to the maximum by then.

          Yes, We still don’t know what all is going on and going to happen. But I do care for Kashmiris.

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  13. It can be quite a challenge to comment after something so profound as your experiences and true immersion. You have the unique heart of the traveler who takes in all. I am in awe of you. Thank you for sharing. I sense that you touch everyone you meet (as you are touched by them, their worries, their trials, their loves) and what a view you have given us of Kashmir boat life. You have a rich inner life my friend to capture all you do, and to keep it, and to tell it! I did have a question about some of those pictures with grass. Was that back on land? What does a keeper’s seat look like? How often would you hear gun shots? Where did you sleep and when? I hope you don’t mind me asking and if I missed some in the reading, I am sorry for it.

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    • Dear Ka, such a beautiful comment made me rejoice those times again. Thank you.

      Dal Lake has solid land in its backyard. Where the Houseboats are parked, behind them there is land where they farm and pet fishes, sheeps, hen and other birds. Keeper’s seat is just most wooden boat’s end where a plank is kept for them to sit on.

      I used to sleep in an old houseboat with Rasool. I stayed with him for four months on and off. The gun shots echoed across valley in the night time. Its sounds pretty scary today but i guess it was an adventurous time for me as documentarian.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. KK says

    Thank you, Narayan ji, for this wonderful post along with awesome pictures that reminded me of my visit to Srinagar. It’s altogether a different experience to sail in a shikara, both in daytime and under twinkling stars.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I so enjoyed this essay, Naranyan–your beautifully crafted words, the experiences, the photos, the boats and houseboats, colors, and the wedding. Thank you.

    Like

  16. There is so much beauty in your words and your pictures are outstanding Nara.. I’ll be back to this enriching post.. TY! ❣️

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    • Thanks Stuart for writing. But it could be WP who didn’t let you see some posts as I was pretty much on time most weeks 🙂

      Nevertheless. Thank you. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I was wondering how you survived through your stay and documentation as you are a vegetarian. The wazwan looks delicious!!

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    • Geeta, i should rather include it as FAQ someday soon. As Kashmir was not the first place where I had to diet a little which i enjoyed too. But quiet a few stories on my Veg-Days will make it a super read. O yes, Wazwani chefs were real charmers with old old tools and centuries old kitchen wares.

      Like

  18. Geeta, i should rather include it as FAQ someday soon. As Kashmir was not the first place where I had to diet a little which i enjoyed too. But quiet a few stories on my Veg-Days will make it a super read.

    O yes, Wazwani chefs were real charmers with old old tools and centuries old kitchen wares.

    Like

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