The Shikarawallahs

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The Quintessential Face of Kashmir Tourism


Walking down the boulevard was always sheer pleasure not to talk about the experience of shikara ride in the Dal. Going down the memory lane, our first all girls shikara ride was quite a revelation. Back home in late 1980s after having finished our Class 12th,we celebrated by venturing out on the Boulevard and despite our colour people took us for non-Kashmiris.It was a bold outing for a conservative set up.Anyway, we also pretended ignorance and stomached all the comments that came our way.

We were wooed by many shikarawallahs each calling out his shikara by anglicizednames  “ParisBeauty”,“RomanHoliday”, “PearlQueen”,“Lady Diana” and what not.The names were quite catchy and intriguing. After some haggling, we found ourselves settled on one cushioned shikara rowed by a lanky young boy. Soon we were being rowed effortlessly and found ourselves afloat in the middle of the sparkling waters of Dal. Our tired eyes had overworked the past one month and consequently dozed off amidst the gentle lapping of oars taking in the rhythmic gurgling of water. That moment of solitude amongst a crowd of friends was a prized one. Thousands of pictures zooming through right in front of my eyes paintedcolorful images of birds, dancing girls, fountains, the cascading waters and anything silly but pleasing to the senses. I was jolted out of this reverie by a shrill female voice calling out to our boatman.  It was a white foreigner lying on a houseboat deck calling out to this tall thin boy at the steering oar of the shikara. In very familiar and confident tones our boatman responded in the same slang and articulate language. This conversation went on till the shikara was out of the hearing range of the houseboat. I was amazed at the fluency exhibited by this boatman more so when he said that he was a total illiterate. Apart from the command over language, he displayed a good understanding of the psyche of the tourist and focused his conversation accordingly. There was more in store as I was further awed by his multi lingual talents. He was equally conversant in French, Spanish and German all learnt by mere interaction with tourists. And he was not the only one with this acquired skill. On paying attention to the surroundings I observed that a good number of shikarawallahs were very good with English and very friendly especially with Western tourists. The slang included usage of words like country bumpkin, skinny bones and what not. This was an experience whichI could not have missed out for anything.

However, remembering this experience after an elapse of many years, I tried to find outsome facts about this particular community of J&K State referred to asHanjis. Not dwelling too deep in the historical antecedents, it came to light that these Hanjis are also referred to as Hanza or Malaha.They live along the embankments of rivers and lakes in both rural and urban areas. The classification of this community is based on economic activities.

Eight major groups have been identified which consist of HakHanz(Vegetable grocers), GasHanz(Weeds/Grassseller), GadHanz(Fishermen), DungHanz(BoatDwellers), BachiHanz(Timber suppliers), ShaliHanz(Ration supplier), Mat Hanz(Potters) and DhearHanz(Boat traders).Their contribution in tourism has been immense mainly because of their strategic location and secondly because of their excellent salesmanship. Without taking capsules of Management mantras they had very successfully established loyalty amongst their customers. In the booming tourist era they managed repeat visits.So much so that many tourists had been hooked on an annual basis.It would not be an exaggeration to term them as cultural ambassadors as they were to a large extent providing a gateway to the foreigners to have a first hand experience of their culture and there have been various instances when these relationships have culminated into marriages too.

The era of unrest during the past few decades took its toll in entirety and this particular community also bore the brunt since tourism,the main industry in Kashmir, received a total setback.So this time around when the wind of change is quite discernible, we walked down Boulevard again and inevitably landed in a shikara. Our shikarawallah talked about the nostalgic tourist era,era when distinguished dignitaries made a beeline to the valley. I was waiting in anticipation to check the linguistic profile of the boatman. He had stuck to Kashmiri only. I guess it took a white person to bring out the multilingual talent from these boatmen. Accompanied by my children this time, I wanted them to witness first hand this experience of hearing different languages from the most unlikely persons. It so happened that our shikara steered closer to the moored houseboats and out came a young man clad in shorts and a sun hat settled on his head. Very leisurely he gave a call to our shikarawallah and he responded promptly in what my son identified as Italian. Out came a barrage of questions this time from my elder son.It was the boatman’s  turn to impress as he listed out four foreign languages being spoken by him in addition to English. What had not changed though was the literacy aspect. He was an illiterate through and through. He happened to be from the old boys association who had been part of this important aspect of Kashmir Tourism.The unfortunate years had badly affected them and they had diversified into handicraft sales and had ventured out of their native places to other states especially during winters. The linguists of yesteryears did not really add in numbers due to near absence of foreign tourists. But the hope of peace has once again coloured their dreams and whether their progeny matches to the classic salesmanship of their ancestors is something that time and circumstances will tell.

Source for facts about Hanjis-Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims.

By Nazuk Kaul