By Er Ashraf Fazili:

Ashraf Fazili

Millions of years ago our entire land mass formed the bed of a sea. The Indian subcontinent is a southern region and peninsula of Asia, mostly situated on the Indian Plate and projecting southwards into the Indian Ocean from the Himalayas. Geologically, the Indian subcontinent is related to the land mass that drifted from Gondwana and merged with the Eurasian
plate nearly 55 million years ago.

Geological evidence and ancient legend agree that the Valley of Kashmir was millions of years ago one vast lake hundreds of feet deep. In prehistoric times, the basin of Kashmir contained a lake much larger than that of today. The sandstone rock at the western corner of the basin seems to have been sent by a cataclysm followed by attrition, and the lake was drained by the deepening of the Baramulla gorge, which was the slow process of erosion by water, and which must have taken hundreds of years to accomplish.

Various lakes like Wular, Dal, Manasbal, Anchar, Khushal Sar, Gil Sar and other wetlands of the valley are the remnants of this vast lake. However, Tarikh-i-Hasan quotes that in ancient times Dal was a waste-land called YATALNI MARG. Raja Parvarsain constructed a dam on river Behat at Nowpora and made it flow at the foot of Koh-i-Maran, through the center of the city. After a period of time, the flood in Behat caused the aforesaid wasteland to be flooded to form a lake.

Kashmir is a unique tourist resort. Its temperate climate, mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes have attracted tourists from the earliest times and it was a favorite recreational area for the Moghul Emperors and British rulers. Today one of the main tourist attractions in Kashmir is Dal Lake.

With the increase in population both around and within the lake, overgrazing of the catchments, increasing intensity of agriculture both in the catchments and in the floating gardens and wastes from the houseboats and hotels have resulted in an increased flow of nutrients in past few decades and as a consequence further deterioration of the lake.
The first-ever study of the “Pollution of Dal Lake” was carried out by ENEX of New Zealand and a report submitted by them in November !978 with Commonwealth funding for Technical Cooperation.

In the eighties, Urban Environmental Engineering Department (UEED) was charged with the implementation of Dal development project along with Sewerage and Drainage of Srinagar City.

A 3-day National Workshop on Conservation of Dal Lake was held on 15-18th October 1983 by the Department of Environment Govt. of India in Kashmir University on banks of Dal Lake in which I too participated. Many papers were presented by the experts.

Subsequently, Lakes & Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) was formed in April 1997 to look after the Conservation of Dal and Nigin Lakes and many more interim reports were framed including the latest one in 2000 from AHEC-now IIT Roorkee.

As rightly stated by Prof. D.P. Zutshi that Dal Lake is the most beautiful and expressive feature of Kashmir. It is more than a lake. It is the cradle of Kashmir civilization. Bernier the first European to visit Kashmir was profoundly moved by the lake’s limpid waters, mountain amphitheater and lazily lifting clouds, he remarked that such a sight would melt the heart of
even the hardest visitor. Shaikh-ul-Alam (RA) refused to proceed ahead of Koh-i-Sulaiman saying If I see Dal-Lake there will be little left for me to see the Paradise.

Recent geological evidence suggests that the Dal Lake is 50,000 years old having been formed because of draining and fragmentation of “Karewa Lake” which filled the entire Valley of Kashmir some 4 million years ago. The earlier view that the Dal is a post-glacial lake, having originated through the changing course of River Jhelum may not be fully accepted.

Further studies on this aspect would be very interesting. Whatever the origin, the lake at the time of formation was much larger in size, comparatively deeper and oligotrophic in nature. With the establishment of a Neolithic settlement in Buzuhoma, overlooking the northern shores of the lake nearly 5000 years ago, the human influence on Dal began. With the
increase of population, the number of settlements and the need for more land for huts and agriculture also increased. The terrestrial ecosystem got exposed to erosion with the clearing of the forests causing draining of silt and nutrients to drain into the lake. It was in the 3rd and 4th century that Buddhist Vihars were constructed at Harwan being close to the water source and 4th International Buddhist Congress was held here, contributing to the flow of nutrients to the lake. In the 6th century with the construction of a temple at Ishbar (Nishat), Hindus began to frequent the place.

Though Kalhana did not mention about Dal Lake in Rajtarangni, yet Srivara used the name “Dala” for the lake. He states that Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-70) beautified the lake surroundings and got a boat constructed for pleasure trips. Far-reaching changes in the catchment area were brought during Mughal rule (16th -17th century) by laying a large number of gardens and orchards thus exposing a large area of the terrestrial ecosystem. Thus large quantities of silt and nutrients must have flown into the lake. In the 17th century, the Hazratbal Shrine on the western shore was built and houses the sacred relic of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The adjacent lake area is known as Hazratbal basin and thousands of people congregate here on Fridays to use lake water for ablution.

The first authentic record of the lake area was framed when in 1857-59, Major Montgomery of the Survey of India prepared a map of Srinagar City, which included Dal Lake also. That depicted very few settlements and floating gardens within the lake, the water level was much higher and the area of water spread was nearly 25 sq. km. This spread was confirmed by
Drew (1875), Lawrence (1895) and Stein (1900), but these authors stressed the point that the lake was shallow in many parts.

The last Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh made the major assault on the lake in 1930 with the construction of Boulevard, Kotar-Khana Island and the approach road to the island. The part cut off from the main lake was later filled and used for the construction of hotels and residential buildings. Maharaja’s Palace was constructed after shifting of the villages located there. After 1947 another island was created at Gagribal called Nehru Park. Next Convention Complex was built on the western bank after filling a large part of the Lake Water though opposed by Mrs. Indra Gandhi.

3The recent estimates indicate an extremely diverse catchment area of 3337 of Zabarwan range a part of Zanskar Himalayas. The western part is highly urbanized with large human and animal population, orchards and agriculture fields. The mountains have low vegetal cover, high erosion and silt shedding. Hence the Telbal nallah and other inflowing streams bring in large quantities of silt, nutrients and pesticides to the lake. On the basis of
the present rate of sedimentation the age of Hazratbal basin has been envisaged as 157 years.

However, it has been observed that the ecosystem of the lake is very resilient and with periodic floods excess of silt and nutrients are drained out of the lake. Thus nature has been protecting the lake through millennia and hopefully it would continue to do so in future also. The underwater vegetation acts as a biological sink for large quantities of nutrients, also
producing enormous quantities of oxygen used for respiration by other organisms, part of oxygen released is utilized for the oxidation of organic matter. Kashmir has been repeatedly ravaged with floods which often destroyed the entire crop causing many deaths due to starvation.

It was during those hard times that people would survive on food plants obtained from lakes and marshes. An approach to Lake Conservation is a very specialized subject that requires a basic understanding of ecology for which capacity building would be advantageous. The machines used for harvesting aquatic vegetation in the lake do not and can not differentiate between the useful plant to be left alone and the harmful species that need to be harvested. Selective de-weeding is not easy to achieve. Exotic species like water fern, water lily and submerged hornwort should be the prime targets for removal. Harvesting is like lawn mowing, temporary relief but not a permanent solution. It also depends on the person/s who direct these operations.

Floating garden based agriculture is very ancient in the lake when this practice was already in force in Dal Lake during Zain-ul-Abidin’s rule, for which the King issued a decree for restricting their spread. Only a small area in the western part was identified beyond which the floating gardens were banned. During the beginning of the 20th century floating gardens started spreading rapidly in the western part of the lake which brought a major change in the shape, size and hydrology. It is most probable that floating islands were created to escape from periodic flooding, because of their buoyancy they move with fluctuating water levels.

However, most of these floating islands have been converted to non-floating islands on which houses have been built. The people who for centuries have been living on the floating islands need to be educated to preserve the ancient ecosystem with minimum possible damage to the lake ecology. It is necessary to consider their ecosystem needs, social needs and economic realities. An open public decision-making process would enable us to protect Dal Lake ecology and also save floating gardens for posterity.