Travel

In India, a floating market blooms on the Dal

Dal is a lake in the northern Indian city of Srinagar, the summer capital of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. (Dal means lake in Kashmiri.) The vast urban body of water plays an important role in the city’s tourism, recreational, commercial, fishing and farming sectors. But the approximately 6.9-square-mile lake is being encroached upon by pollution, endangering its status as Srinagar’s lifeline.

Dal is almost a small city unto itself, with floating houses, schools, markets, marsh farms and even a post office. A fleet of houseboats lures travelers to spend time in one of the many floating neighborhoods. One of its top attractions is the early-morning vegetable market, the only traditional floating market in India, where farmers who grow vegetables and flowers inside the lake’s marshes sell them to vendors, who then take the produce to different parts of the city through connected canals.

A shikara carries people on the Dal, which means lake in Kashmiri. This is a relatively serene bank of the lake, away from areas usually popular with visitors. Behind is a houseboat that hosts tourists staying for longer durations. Houseboats are generally adjoined by a service boat where the hosts live.

To visit the market, you must wake up early to catch a shikara, a traditional wooden flat-bottomed boat, which must be booked in advance. The boatman will row the shikara across narrow water alleys, crossing the floating city at the threshold of dawn. Along the way, you can witness the darkness of the sky yielding to a radiant golden yellow, to the melody of the birds singing and the rhythm of the oars.

After about 20 minutes or so, you will start hearing the hum of a market in full swing. Suddenly, the shikara will take a turn and enter a substantial open part of the lake. You’ll be welcomed by the sound of farmers and vendors chatting, bargaining and making deals. Flower sellers with their shikaras full of colorful blooms sail from one tourist boat to another. They give a complimentary lotus even to those who don’t buy anything. The early-morning shivers are taken care of by vendors selling kahwa — a traditional Kashmiri drink made of green tea leaves and whole spices, sprinkled with saffron and nuts — from their shikaras.

A shikara glides through the calm waters of the Dal toward the vegetable market as dawn breaks.

Vegetables include eggplants, cauliflower, carrots, turnips and Kashmir’s special nadur, or lotus stem, which is grown in the fertile marshes of Dal and used in many local cuisines. By 7 a.m., the market loses its buzz as the vendors leave to deliver their wares and farmers return to their floating fields, built atop mats of soil and vegetation. The sound of birds returns, and the boatman drops you back on the shore in the brightness of day.

Farmers sell in bulk to traders and vegetable vendors before taking backwater routes to different parts of the city to sell directly to residents.

En route to the vegetable market, visitors pass a floating neighborhood with handicraft shops and general stores. This shop lures tourists with its exquisite pashmina shawls.

A farmer carries his produce to sell at the vegetable market.

The market is also a social scene, where locals chat and exchange news. It’s said that the vegetable market, which has been going on for more than 100 years, keeps functioning even on curfew days, when the city is closed.

Assorted flowers from the boat of “Mr. Wonderful,” a florist, include lotus, a variety of daisies, marigold, bluemink, zinnia and ipomoea.

Residents greet each other after the vegetable market closes. The lake has about 800 houseboats, such as the one in the background, serving tourists.

An Indian pond heron sits on a shikara in a fleet that will soon be ferrying tourists to different parts of Dal.

A boatman using a traditional spade-shaped oar returns home in the light of sunset.

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Credits

Prabhakar is a photographer based in Delhi and Kutch. His website is nipunprabhakar.com. Find him on Instagram: @nipun_prabhakar.