With an abundance of inland waterways, Kerala has always been in the forefront when it comes to water tourism. For the same reason, Keralites are no alien to houseboat cruises and canoe rides.
But that doesn’t make the lure of shikaras on Dal Lake in Srinagar any less enticing. Akin to the Venetian gondolas, Shikaras are the face of Kashmir's aquatic tourism. A breathtaking panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains makes the boat trip all the more enchanting.
A normal shikara can seat half a dozen people, including a boatman at the rear end. A typical shikara is made of the willow wood, which is native to Kashmir. The front end of the boat is pointed, the rear end is flat and the middle segments have wooden planks.
"The wooden planks are fastened using iron clamps and nails, which are eventually hidden,” says Kashmiri native Arif. After completing the base structure, each boat is fitted with plush cushions and other upholstery. It is also painted in bright colors.
Most of the shikaras come with kangers, which are earthen pots filled with hot embers. The Kashmiri people generally hide them inside their long robes to protect themselves from the biting cold during winters.
At one end of the lake, huge houseboats welcome tourists. Unlike shikaras, these houseboats are similar to its Kerala counterparts. Immobile and sturdy, these huge wooden boats are huge luxurious, well-appointed homes with comfortable living space, dining room, kitchens and bathrooms fitted with big tubs. Sometimes, two houseboats are joined by a platform and one of the boat functions as a huge kitchen from where food is served to the inmates of the houseboats.
Tiny shikaras are the only way to reach these houseboats, which are stationed at the sides. Shikaras are also used for touring around the lake. While on a shikara, you can even experience the delight of shopping. Shikaras equipped with Kashmiri jewelry, artifacts, dress and other items will surround you midway through the trip and you can hone your bargaining skills in the middle of the lake.
Photographers too flock would around you during the ride in their respective shikaras and may strike a deal to take a picture in traditional Kashmiri attire for nominal rates.
But the best part of any shikara ride would be the authentic Kashmiri kebabs you get on some boats. These shikaras are equipped with skewers and coal, and they offer you the chance to choose a kabab of your choice. Biting into these succulent kebabs while enjoying the boat ride something worth experiencing.
The Nishant gardens, Shalimar gardens, and the Hazrat Bal mosque are directly accessible by the shikaras. The char chinar, or the four trees on a tiny island can also be viewed from the lake. The very famous floating vegetable market can also be seen on a tour in the shikara. A one-hour ride in a shikara will cost you around Rs 400. But if you negotiate well, you can get a steal of a deal.
Reaching Dal Lake
The lake is situated at the heart of Srinagar city. Srinagar is well connected to all parts of the country. The nearest airport is Srinagar airport, Jammu Tawi is the nearest railway station.