Fans of Bollywood movies may wonder just where the film makers find such incredible backdrops and the sight of primitive boats traversing a mirror-like lake complete with the reflections of immense snow-covered mountains seems to be a million miles away from most people’s idea of modern India but Dal Lake is unlike any other place on earth. It is situated far in the north of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir overlooked by the mighty Himalayas.
The Kashmir valley has some of India’s most beautiful scenery and has even been described as “paradise on earth” but Dal Lake is widely regarded as being the “jewel in the crown of Kashmir”. On a more local note, it is also referred to as the “jewel of Srinagar”. Those unfamiliar with the location of this lake may be surprised to learn that, far from being a remote and isolated beauty spot, Dal Lake is sited within the major city of Srinagar and is therefore regarded as being an “urban lake”.
Srinagar has a population of around 1.5 million and is the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The idea of having two capital cities may seem strange but this is not unique and three Indian states have such an arrangement and this has origins dating back to the times when Maharajas ruled and they chose to live and rule from different places in order to benefit from the best of the weather depending on the time of the year. Interestingly, just to the south of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh State operates a similar arrangement and its winter capital, Dharamshala, contains the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration (government in exile).
Dal Lake Morphology
Visitors may be surprised to find that Dal Lake is a single body of water as it has the appearance of being many different lakes and pools interconnected and divided by numerous causeways, buildings on stilts, floating gardens and houseboats.
The lake is actually formed from five lake basins these being the Nehru Park, Nishat, Hazratbal, Nagin and Brari. The lake is shallow with a depth of around 6m and it currently has an area of around 16 sq km although it has previously covered an area of around 22 sq km.
Access to Dal Lake
Being an urban lake, it is easily accessible with roads running around it and reaching this part of the world is fairly easy with a good road network and an airport just 7 km away at Badgam. It should be noted however that no rail service operates in this region.
Dal Lake and Tourism
The lake is a major attraction for tourism and recreation and although it also offers some commercial uses such as fishing and weed harvesting for compost making, these are of secondary significance. Perhaps the most defining feature of the lake from the point of view of tourism is the sight of hundreds of houseboats moored close to the shorelines.
Dal Lake House Boats
The first houseboats appeared during the days of British colonial rule when the beauty of this part of the country lured many of the British but the Maharaja of Kashmir strictly controlled the building of houses. The British overcame such restrictions by simply taking to the water. Each of the early houseboats were built in a particularly British style leading to them being described as “each a little piece of England”. Today’s houseboats continue to offer accommodation and style seemingly from an earlier age. Many visitors choose to stay at one of these unique floating homes but there are also good quality hotels and restaurants on the lake-front.
Spending time on the water is a priority for most people and one of the favourite modes of transport is the shikava boat which has been described as the gondola of Kashmir. The owners of houseboats invariably provide shikavas for the use of their guests and others are available for hire at reasonable, although usually negotiable, rates.
What to See at Dal Lake
There are many interesting places to visit such as the ancient temple of Shankaracharya or the masses of lotus flowers which bloom in July and August. The lake also has many floating gardens often moored in close proximity to the houseboats. These gardens are created from sections of matted vegetation which are simply cut free and manoeuvred into position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, water loving crops such as melons, cucumbers and tomatoes seem to grow particularly well in these conditions.
There is always a great deal of activity on the lake and it even hosts a floating market where vendors sell their produce, directly from their boats. In some areas, swimming is popular as is canoeing and other forms of boating. During the winter months, there may even be the opportunity for skiing.
When to Visit Dal Lake
The most popular time to visit Dal Lake is between June and August when the weather is probably at its most pleasant. Average summer temperatures range from 12 to 30 degrees Celsius making this a pleasant escape from the scorching summer temperatures found in much of India. Most people seem to agree with the old Maharaja on his choice of summer retreat.
Winter however has its own attractions and this is when the spectacular scenery can be experienced at its magnificent best. Winter temperatures average around 1 to 11 degrees Celsius but during a harsh winter, temperatures can drop as low as minus 11 degrees and at such temperatures, the surface of the lake can freeze. Needless to say, venturing onto the frozen surface can be extremely dangerous and should not be attempted without taking specialist advice from local experts.
Dal Lake Protection
Dal Lake offers the opportunity for unparalleled tranquillity and a connection with the past. The lake may seem unchanging but this is far from the truth. The waters may appear clean and clear but over the years the water quality has been steadily worsening for a variety of reasons including pollution caused by waste from the houseboats, including sewage. The delicate balance of the lake’s ecosystems has been upset causing some species to flourish at the expense of others which disappear. Scientists refer to such a problem as eutrophication. If allowed to continue unheeded, eutrophication could effectively kill off most of the lake’s living species with monoculture replacing biodiversity and algaes replacing other plants and hampering the oxygenation of the waters of the lake. Thankfully this potential problem has been fully recognised and the Indian government have instigated a major scheme to restore the lake to its former glory. No new houseboats are to be allowed on the lake and there are proposals to relocate some of those currently living afloat. There has even been talk of the complete removal of the houseboats but this is a very controversial point and many local people regard the boats as a major tourist attraction and part of the character of the lake. Such a clearance would therefore appear to be most unlikely. It could even be argued that Dal Lake without houseboats would be akin to Paris without the Eiffel Tower.