Here in the Vale of Kashmir, the garden spot of India, a visitor can live on a luxury houseboat high in the Himalayas, be waited on by four servants, dine day and night on the finest food, and gaze out on a landscape so stunning it has inspired poets and charmed the fiercest Mogul warriors.
The first houseboats were built by the British to circumvent a local law that forbade them from owning land around the lakes of Srinagar, Kashmir's capital city. Today the houseboats have become a part of the Kashmiri landscape. More than 900 are permanently moored on Dal and Nagin lakes. Most are owned by Kashmiri families who rent them out to visitors as a family business.
Kashmir's houseboats are large, elaborate structures - more house than boat - measuring more than 100 feet long and 20 feet wide. Made from carved sandalwood and draped with colorful awnings, the deluxe houseboats have three or four bedrooms and baths with hot and cold running water, a formal dining room and a living room furnished with Oriental rugs, teak tables, overstuffed couches, lots of brass and a profusion of fresh flowers. Each also has a sundeck and a veranda with a view of the hazy blue Himalayas.
For two people $40 a day includes a room on a deluxe houseboat, the highest of three classes of houseboats rated by the government, three meals a day, an attentive houseboy, and the services of a boatman who stands ready to whisk you to shore in a gondola-like craft called a shirkara.
During the summer most of India is hot and dry but the state of Kashmir, which sits atop the triangular subcontinent like a jewel in India's crown, remains spring-like throughout the tourist season, which in Srinagar is spring through fall.
Kashmir was a favorite retreat for the great Mogul rulers of Persia during the 17th century. Here they built lush pleasure gardens with formal terraces, pavilions and bubbling fountains. Three of these gardens are open to visitors to Kashmir today. The most famous is Shalimar, built by Emperor Shah Jehan for his favorite wife and queen.
Many of the shikaras which pass by the veranda of the houseboat are used for brisk commerce on the lake. A boat may be laden with a colorful variety of wares - soft drinks, fruit, flowers, wood carvings and food - a veritable floating general store. Some houseboat guests complain that they are constantly nagged by these boatmen/peddlers. A stern look from Mohammed or Mr. Kotroo dispelled peddlers from our boat, the Rover. No one came aboard unless invited.
Those who were admitted came laden with treasures tightly bundled in a white cloth which was carefully unrolled on the veranda floor. One such merchant brought a selection of embroidered cloth - shirts, table settings, handkerchiefs - another was selling fur hats, gloves and mufflers, yet another white bundle contained gems and semi-precious stones all being sold at bargain prices.
As in any family business, the more care and attention given to the enterprise by the family, the more successful the business, and Kashmir's family-run houseboats are no exception. Some houseboat guests complained of poor housekeeping and bland, unappetizing meals. On the Rover, beds were promptly made and the houseboy was constantly fluttering about with a feather duster. Meals were not only acceptable, they were imaginative and delicious.
Guests began the day with pancakes, eggs, toast with marmalade and fruit. A hot lunch included soup, barbecued chicken, fried potatoes, green beans and an apple torte still warm from the oven. Dinner was a full course meal with roast lamb and russet potatoes as the entree and a luscious walnut pudding for dessert.
One complaint that all travelers from the West share, no matter how high the quality of the houseboat, is the problem of poor sanitation. Plumbing in all of India is rudimentary and the limitations posed by a houseboat do not improve matters. Waste is dumped directly into the lake. Consequently, all water must be boiled before drinking and raw fruits and vegetables should be avoided.
One of the favorite pastimes of visitors to Kashmir is shopping because the area is so rich in local crafts. A shopping excursion is easily arranged by the houseboat manager who will hire either a taxi to negotiate the side streets or a shikara to glide along the city's watery thoroughfares.
Whenever visitors venture out from the houseboat, whether to shop, sightsee, or walk in the pleasure gardens of the Moguls, they should brace themselves for an onslaught of very persistent salesmen. The only recourse is a firm and unyielding no, for to show any interest at all is to be descended upon by a horde of hagglers.
For more information, write the Government of India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112 or 230 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago 60601.