Witness the living history of Kashmir

Several important documentaries made by relatively unknown filmmakers go unnoticed every year. Thankfully, institutions like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts are serving a crucial role by highlighting such films.

As part of its fortnightly screenings, IGNCA recently showcased The Boatmen of Kashmir - a beautiful film on the Heenz community which lives on vocations related to water bodies of Kashmir. Made by one Ayash Arif nearly seven years back, it gave Delhiites a beautiful view of the valley as well as interesting information on this primitive tribe.

Legend says that Kashmir was once occupied by a mammoth lake Satisar, meaning lake of goddess Sati. Satisar was also home to a demon Jalodbhava who terrified the people living in the mountains. Rishi Kashyap heard their cries and appealed to the gods to help them. Finally, Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar and struck the mountain at Baramulla (Varahamula) creating an opening for Satisar to drain out. Thus, Jalodbhava was killed and Kashmir formed.

Thanks to Satisar, Kashmir is still inundated with lakes, rivers, springs and streams. Therefore the earliest settlers of Kashmir – the Heenz – made water their life and vocation. Not much is known about the origin of these people, but the ancient historian Kalhana refers to them in his epic Rajtarangini (12th C) and Heenz themselves claim to be descendants of Prophet Noah.

The most prosperous among them are the houseboat owners. The film quotes Haji Abdul Samad Katroo, president of the Houseboat Owners Association of Kashmir as saying, “There are at least 1200 such boats in the valley today. They transport visitors along Jhelum from Baramulla, Sopore, Wullar, Manasbal, Ganderbal, Shadipur to Srinagar finally.”

“Houseboats, being a luxury item, fetch good amount of money. Most of the owners live in the boats themselves, are educated and some even married into high-society European circles. There are other tribes in the Heenz community, though, who are lesser fortunate and threatened by penury and extinction every day.”

Gaadi Heenz fish in the lakes and springs. Fish is not the preferred non-vegetarian food of Kashmiris, but Gaadi Heenz are attributed with single-handedly creating a place for fish in Kashmiri cuisine. Then there are the Demb Heenz who rear vegetables on the lakes.

These arise from floating gardens which are a unique gift of mother nature to Kashmir.
The Kar-naav Heenz exploit the tall grass which grows on lakes to make handicrafts while the Geer Heenz collect water chestnuts (panifal) which are especially consumed during Hindu holy days in fruit or flour form. None of these professions are much profit-yielding today, nor is the younger generation interested in continuing them. So the Heenz continue to forget their identity and assimilate in the general populace of the valley.

Then, there are other concerns such as silt pouring into Jhelum from mountains making it shallow and the Heenz themselves polluting the waters by conducting their vocations rashly. Basharat Ahmed, Controller, Media Division, IGNCA, says, “We don’t know how long this community will survive. So we thought why not screen this film at least.”
“The Heenz are an important link of our past to our present. That is how they must be viewed – a unique race, a living history of Kashmir.” 

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