It was a 5:30 start, pitch dark and really cold as we border our shikara or water taxi. A large portion of the population of Srinagar in Cashmere, live in massive floating homes on Dal Lake so this is the most common form of transport in this area. The previous day I had met a local guy called Dean who had told us about a unique food market, but it was half an hour paddle to get to it. Sounded confusing, but we agreed to go. It was dead quiet as we slowly glided across the lake, steam oozing out of the glass like water surface, in the distance all that we could here was the sound of the chanting rolling over the water surface from the mosque, calling people to prayer. The shikara effortlessly twisting up the narrow channels between the homes, hardly a light on we were paddled into something I think that very few people have experience, a day in the life of a community that we never knew existed, an ancient vibrant culture that has been quietly living in Himalayan foothills for hundreds of years.
Just ahead of us we now picked up a shadow and could hear the splashing of an oarsman. Another shikara now appeared out of the dawn light. Rounding the next corner a few more began appearing, heading towards a big open piece of water in the bend of the channel. Dean stopped paddling and said here we are, this is the market – we looked at each other a bit bemused, but ok if this is it who are we to question it. We then looked to the bank to see where it was, or maybe the landing site where we would get off the boat, nothing, we just drifted around. Then the sound of voices grew as well as the amount of them, quite eerie in a way as out of the darkness more and more boats appeared around us, laden with vegetables, carpets, root vegetables, spices chocolates, biscuits and flowers. These were the local farmers who had paddled from a few kilometres away to this meeting point. Then from another direction the shop owners and traders arrived from the town all heading to this meeting point, their boats empty. As there two groups converged on each other, suddenly the market sprang into life. The noise level rose and the bartering began; right here in midstream, this was the market place. Traders were buying goods from different boats, as soon as a price is agreed upon the items are weighed out per kilogram and the deals struck. There was the odd heated discussion, at times I was convinced that with the excitement one of the party was going overbalance with the violent gestation of arms, ending up in the lake as they tried to agree on a final price. As soon as a sale was transacted, the goods were moved over to the next boat.
There was a continuous frantic bustle as traders and farmers paddled round each other trying to conclude a deal, up and down they paddled, perched on the bow of their boats, they looked like cormorants drying their wings. As the dawn light began to saturate the lake, so the trading became more frantic weaving in and out of the hundreds of craft, each trying to close the last deal of the morning and empty their craft before they headed out home.