Floating Gardens of Dal Lake

Prof. (Dr) R.D. Gupta
Vegetables appear to have been cultivated in Jammu and Kashmir since time immemorial. This stands mentioned in historical treatise like the Nilmata Puran (6th or 7th Century AD) and Ksemendras Narmamala (11th or 12th Century AD). Widespread cultivation of vegetables in Kashmir region mostly consisted of Utpalasaka, Sanda (Lettuce), and Kaccha guccha (modern Kaodan). The mentions of vegetable cultivation, irrigation and manuring have also been made in Rajatarangini written by Sri Kalahana. The vegetables such as Kachidani and Upal (Hak) used to grow for serving as food of poor classes during ancient times.
The floating gardens were also quite common on city lakes, especially on the Dal lake in the past. They used to produce an abundant crop of cucumber and melon as has been stated in Gazetteer of Kashmir Ladakh published in, 1880.The watermelons and a number of vegetables were also cultivated on floating gardens during the period of Mughal. The watermelons of Kashmir were so popular that Mughal emperors had taken them to Agra for their table use (History of Kashmir by Bamzai, 1962). In the book entitled, Geography of Jammu and Kashmir (Anand Kaul) updated by P.M.K.Bamzai, there is mention beautiful lakes in the valley which yielded plentiful fish, waternuts, lotus roots (Nadru) etc and on which were floating gardens. Floating gardens produced a number of vegetables like cucumber, pumpkins as well as melons and water melons. There is also a mention about the manner by which the floating gardens on the Dal lake were formed. Not only this, whole huge floating gardens dragged away! Vegetable and fruits threon stolen! The empty gardens left on a vast expanse of water! Such stories have been heard over hundred of years.
Some officers of the British rule posted in Srinagar quite often received complaints regarding stolen floating gardens. Perplexed and inquisitive they had to visit personally to the world famous Dal lake. In a book, “A History of Kashmir” by Bamzai first published in 1962 (Gupta, 2003), there is written that cultivation of vegetables on floating gardens was extensively carried out during the Sikh regime (1819-1846). Sir W.R. Lawrence in his book, “The valley of Kashmir published in the year 1995, also describes about the floating gardens as well as lilies of various colours, the leaves forming which rest lightly and gracefully on the water, and queen of all these species, magnificent lotus with its large leaf and tall quivering stem, drooping under the weight of the exquisite and noble tulip shaped pink and white flower in the midist of floating garden.” There is also mentioned about the manner by which the floating gardens were formed.
Formation of Floating Gardens
Islands or floating gardens on the Dal lake in Kashmir, are formed from the weeds, after collecting them from the lake itself. Such weeds mostly consist of Typha augustata and Phragmites communis which are in Kashmiri language known as Pech and Nargasa, respectively. Some other hydrophytes like Trapa spp (Gair, Singhara in Urdu) and the almost extinct Eurale ferox, are also occasionally used to form floating gardens.
The boatmen after collecting the weeds, press the roots of one against those of the next, then of next against those of the two and so on.The weeds with their muddy and sticky roots get so coalesced that these can hardly be separated. The boatmen then prune the tall culms and, thus, they themselves make mats. These mats float in the lake water which eventually constitute floating gardens. The boatmen may double the thickness of their floating gardens by stowing over them a second layer of weeds after pruning away their culms in the same year. They may similarly have a third layer over the second onwards, because the garden tends to lose its thickness by the constant play of water underneath, repeat such layering after two or three years.
The boatmen, thus, maintain floating gardens at a thickness of 1 to 2m with width about 2.5 to 3.0 m and in length around 45m or sometimes 90 to 135m. They have their ingenious technique for uniting small pieces together. They moor two pieces end to end. Along the seam they plant willow cuttings in such a way that two ends of each go deep into the two adjacent margins much like the cramps of boat. Almost every such cutting puts forth elaborate adventitious root system, traverse both to the margins together, strongly seam the other gardens.
Classification of Floating Gardens
Floating gardens are of two kinds which are locally called Radh and Demb types. The Radh type of floating gardens are made of long strips of lake reeds having a breadth of about 2m and can be pulled from one place to another. Not ineferior to the Radh in productivity are Demb lands which are formed along the sides or sometimes in the middle of the lake when the water is shallow (Gupta et al.1983).
Present Status of Vegetables and Fruits
Although the floating gardens are extremely suitable for growing several vegetables and fruits yet the boatmen do it in an ingenious way by growing only five of them. Out of these five, three are vegetables viz; tomato, pumpkin and cucumber and two are fruits viz; melon and water melon. Sometimes beans are also grown, they are sown directly into the garden itself.
As the sowing time approaches (April-May) the boatmen shapes the muck into small mortars (mud). These he arranges in parallel rows in a room, and then sows one or two seeds of vegetables or fruits in the hollow of each. Controlling the conditions inside, as far as possible, by closing or opening the windows, he soon has his seeds germinating. When the first buds and scions have formed, he transplants the saplings along with their mortars into the floating gardens. These saplings grow rapidly and their vegetables and fruits ripen far in advance compared to those grown on farm lands. This brings the boatman rich dividends and he is seen everyday rowing and pounding huge boat loads of his produce across the Dal into the surrounding markets.
The boatmen of the floating gardens on the Dal lake have traditionally adopted the profession of vegetables and fruits cultivation purely organically. The main organic manure applied for their cultivation is Hydrilla muck and this the boatman continuously adds. Sometimes when the weight of the growing plants threatens to sink the whole floating garden, he removes some of the muck. The boatmen did try some chemical fertilizers, but found that these only reduced the yield of the vegetables and fruits, and as such they discarded their use. If well decomposed Hydrilla muck i.e amorphous in nature and brown-black or black in colour, is added regularly, it boots the yield of the vegetables and fruits to the extent of 320 to 480 q hector of Dal land as against 160 q ha-1 yield of other farms enriched with chemical fertilizers. It is attributed to the richness of the available plant nutrients already existing in the Hydrilla muck. This finding is inconformity with the results of Gupta (2012) who recorded very high content of organic carbon (2.0 to 3.5%) as well as available N,P and K contents in the range of 27.2 to 42.0, 3.1 to 4.8 and 32.2 to 39.0 mg per 100g of floating garden soil, respectively.