Not that Maqbool Chacha owns this houseboat—or the handful of other houseboats that are collectively known as the Gurkha Houseboats. They are owned by a family known as the Wangnoos. The grandfather, Suboor Wangnoo, in the 1940s, owned a couple of houseboats here on Nageen Lake (a smaller, quieter, cleaner lake beside the larger Dal Lake). Much of Suboor Wangnoo’s clientele consisted of British and other Allied forces officers, and one of these—a general in the Gurkha Regiment—once jokingly advised Wangnoo to give his houseboats one name, rather than the individual names he’d bestowed on them. So Wangnoo changed the names of his houseboats—he named them all after the general’s regiment: the Gurkha Houseboats.
Today, Suboor Wangnoo’s four grandsons mostly concentrate on a huge trade in handicrafts (their carpets and rugs have even been bought by Hillary Rodham Clinton—a framed letter from her sat on a small table in our houseboat). One of the grandsons, called Rafiq Wangnoo, handles the houseboats: he’s made them a franchise of the WelcomHeritage Group.
We had booked a double room in advance (we paid Rs 11,600 for three nights, including breakfast and taxes). We’d also phoned ahead and asked for a pick-up, so the driver arrived at Srinagar Airport, drove us the 23 km to Nageen Lake, and then—just so we could boast of the experience—let us take a ride in the sleek, long-prowed boat known as a shikara, to our houseboat, moored at the opposite bank of the lake. It was a short journey, just over 5 minutes, and we were received at the houseboat by Maqbool Chacha and Ishfaque, the latter a young man who handles the nitty-gritty of reservations, payments, arrangements for cabs and day trips, etc.
All houseboats (and this we later learnt from Maqbool Chacha) are made of dry- and wet-resistant deodar cedar wood. Our houseboat, like the others of the group, was wonderfully carved all over, in beautifully Kashmiri patterns of chinar (Oriental plane) leaves, grape vines, flowers and birds. The furniture was even more splendidly carved in rich brown walnut wood. There were Kashmir carpets, and the cushion covers, wall hangings, curtains—even the bedspreads in our room—were covered with stunning floral designs painstakingly embroidered in traditional Kashmiri chain stitch.
Each of the houseboats of this group consists of a common drawing room, a dining room, a verandah (overlooking the lake), and four or five individual rooms. Our room, at the end of the houseboat, was called the ‘Kashmir Suite’. It contained a double bed and a single, a large tea table, upholstered stool, a small wall-mounted TV, a gas-operated heater, wardrobe (with a safe), and a luggage rack. The bedroom was comfortable (I’d have liked a couple of chairs, though), and both beds had an electric blanket each, in addition to the sheets and regular blanket.
While the bathroom had some amenities (shower gel, bath talc, etc) the tiny bottles dripped around the necks and didn’t seem to have been newly placed—I got the idea they’d been lying beside the washbasin since the last occupants. Also, the cleaning of the bathroom left something to be desired: the polythene wrapping of the soap, which had dropped on the floor the first day, remained as it was for the next 48 hours.
On the plus side, our houseboat had an amazing view. In the morning, we’d ask for breakfast out on the ‘verandah’ overlooking the lake, so that we could watch kingfishers, swallows, terns and ducks on the lake. And our evenings were invariably spent there too, drinking kehwa and gazing out on Nageen Lake.
Food for the Gurkha Houseboats is cooked at a kitchen on the shore. It’s a sort of fixed menu, though you can specify meal preferences (we made sure Maqbool Chacha understood that we were non-vegetarians, and very keen on eating Kashmiri food!) While the ‘other food’—non-Kashmiri dishes—were indifferent, the cook churned out some excellent Kashmiri specialties for us, including the silky meatballs known as rista, cooked in a spicy gravy; or, on our first evening, a delicious chicken roganjosh curry. When we expressed an interest in what Kashmiris traditionally eat for breakfast, we were offered some the next morning: two delicately salted and very good breads, known respectively as lavasa and girda, to be lavishly buttered and eaten while sipping hot kehwa.
Just ashore from the Gurkha Houseboats and about a 4-minute walk uphill is the Wangnoo family’s handicrafts centre. You can visit this to buy souvenirs (or simply get a quick lesson in what to look for in Kashmiri handicrafts—they offer advice, even if you don’t buy). Here, too, is a business centre that guests at the houseboats can use. The business centre opens between 10:30 AM and 6:30 PM every day. You can contact the office to arrange for day trips, to hire cabs for sightseeing, and so on.
We also saw, on a card in our room, a note on meal timings on the houseboats: breakfast is served between 07:45 to 10:00 AM; and dinner between 7:30 to 9:45 PM (the kitchen closes at 10:00 PM). Most guests are out during lunchtime, but if you want lunch at the boat, you should let the caretaker of the boat know well in advance.
Did we like Gurkha Houseboats? Despite the slightly iffy cleanliness in the bathroom, and the fact that the thin wooden walls means that noisy fellow guests can be a problem… yes. The lake is tranquil and lovely; the boat itself is beautiful; and Maqbool Chacha and his fellow employees do offer very heart-warming, genuine hospitality.
New Delhi, India
June 12, 2012
From journal Three Days in Srinagar