houseboat builder’s sorrow of not keeping promise of preserving the craft in family

  • UBEER NAQUSHBANDI
  • Publish Date: Mar 25 2019 5:33AM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 25 2019 5:35AM
houseboat builder’s sorrow of not keeping promise of preserving the craft in familyFile Photo

A ban on building new houseboats, a fabled tourist attraction of Kashmir, has prevented a master craftsman from keeping his promise he had made to his father as a teenager.

Nazir Ahmd Najar, who comes from a Srinagar clan of houseboat builders in which the craft has passed on from generation to generation for centuries, had promised his father to pass its secrets on to the next generation in the family.

And now he is among the last master craftsmen capable of building a typical and unique Kashmiri style floating hotel or houseboat.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court banned construction of new houseboats owing to rising pollution in state’s water bodies, principally the Dal Lake.

Consequently, Najar said their clientele dried up, forcing his clan to take up other businesses.

At present there are around 1200 houseboats in Kashmir including in Dal and Nigeen lakes.

Most of the legendary master craftsmen from clans involved in houseboat building for centuries including Sangmis, Ganis, Najars and others have passed away over the years, while for their progeny the precious craft is not viable anymore, said conservationist and former president of houseboat owners’ association, Mohammad Yusuf Chapri. Even Najar is hard to locate now. He comes from one of the most famous clans, Kawdari, one among the last houseboat makers in Kashmir.

“It takes years to master the intricacies involved in houseboat making,” Najar says, adding the floating beauties are made of cedar (deodar) wood because it doesn’t decay easily in water.

Apprentices first had to learn the art and niceties of identifying fine cedar, which used to come mostly from Boniyar in Uri, Nowshera and other forests of northern Kashmir.

Any mistake, Najar said, in identifying the finest quality wood would mean a disaster. A houseboat made of inappropriate wood would decay fast.

“It is making the base of a houseboat called noer which is an art. It is this part which no novice can make. The body (above water part) called ghari and interior designing can be done by anybody,” said Najar. It takes a year to make a deluxe houseboat with its base or noer taking more than 50 percent of the total building time.

“My grandfather had five sons. Among them only two learned the craft. Similarly, my father had also five sons. Only I could do it,” Najar said.

Making the base of a houseboat involves hard labour, a fine hold on geometry and patience for filling up gaps and joints with koeth, unique glue made from lake grass like pecch and bangi. A houseboat can cost anything upward of Rs 5 crore and requires between 1500 and 3000 cubic feet of fine cedar wood for a 50 feet to 150 feet lone float. Making houseboats used to be a lucrative profession, but not anymore.

Craftsmen like Najar have switched to other businesses, discouraging their children too from pursuing the ancestral heritage craft. None of Najar’s sons know the craft.

“I am forced to disallow my children to carry forward this legacy. Though, it pains me, but there is no choice,” said Najar, as he marveled at pictures of houseboats like New Jaqueline and Apollo 8 that he has made. The once in high demand master craftsman, Najar now only occasionally gets called for repairing existing houseboats.

“My grandfather Haji Abdul Khaliq Kawdari had performed Haj in 1895 when few in Kashmir could afford it,” says Najar, referring to the riches houseboat making had brought their family in yesteryears.

Although Najar regrets not being able to keep the promise he had given his father, but he is happy to have two apprentices -- Nasir and Mehrajuddin, both graduates -- to preserve the heritage craft.

“They are highly talented and willing to keep the craft alive,” said Najar. The veteran Chapri, who also owns a houseboat, laments lack of interest in the government for preserving the legacy.

“If this art dies, we will reach a point where we will have no houseboats that are marveled all over the world.”