Just Before Dawn

In Srinagar, a floating market feeds the 50,000 Kashmiris who live on the city's lakes

Ariana Lindquist

In the wee hours of the morning, while darkness still swaddles Dal Lake, which seeps into the porous edges of the old quarter of Srinagar, the call to prayer beckons worshippers to mosque. No sooner are the observant roused than the birds awaken to pour their songs across the water. It is at this hour that the 50,000 Kashmiris who live on Srinagar's lakes—in houseboats and on man-made islands—gather in their narrow wooden vessels to haggle at the floating market. Much of what they sell or trade—kohlrabi, whose greens Kashmiris love; lotus root, which gets simmered in yogurt sauce for the remarkable dish called nadru yakhni—they grow themselves on buoyant gardens they can tow from spot to spot. Other produce has been brought from shore, trucked up from warmer parts south. But no matter their cargo, it is these waterwise marketeers who, at dawn's first light, truly witness Kashmir as the "heaven on earth" that the 17th-century Mughal ruler Jahangir famously dubbed it. As the sun rises, illuminating the snowy caps of the nearby Himalayas, the men, wearing woolen tunics to ward against the cold, conclude their business. Using long paddles, they maneuver their boats, called shikaras, along the lake's western edge and through the canals of a city that is beginning its new day.