Thursday, January 8, 2009

Butt Clermont- A dream afloat on water...

It is a dream afloat on water. It is a reality, writ on fringes of a dream.

On a secluded bank of the mesmerizing Dal Lake, these carved wooden palaces have been the most sought after tourist destination in Kashmir. In the lap of the Zabarwan hills, canopied by blue skies and overwhelming Chinars, the Butt Clermont house boats are arguably the most scintillating homes on water.

Only eight kilometers from the city center, Lal Chowk, Clermont nestles quietly in the Naseem Bagh- the garden of breezes. It has played host to some of the most famous people to have visited Kashmir in the last half of the century. From celebrities to politicians, almost everyone who came to Kashmir has come here.

The photos of the guests in the reception room seem to shrink me as I begin to recognize them. My eyes are flickering across the frames searching for that one photo. Instead, I find Joan Fontain, the famous Hollywood actress, smiling seductively. A little away Neil Armstrong stares with his moony eyes.  I find American ex-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller standing besides Mr. Butt, the owner of the houseboat. And finally, I see him. George Harrison, the Beatle, hung on the wall.

The guest book reveals even more names imprinted in history- Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar, Dilip Kumar and P.G Wodehouse, the humorist writer. The recent addition is Peter Jennings and Micheal Palin.

 “All these people came to stay in our houseboat because of the service we provide. The way we care for the guests and give them attention is what they like” says Mr. G.N Butt. “We have been working hard to keep our guests comfortable ever since Clermont was established.

The history of houseboats in Kashmir dates back to the mid-19th century which was the peak of Indian Raj in the neighboring India. The maharaja of Kashmir submitted to British dominion, but insisted on one condition: that the occupiers and other non-natives refrain from setting up any fixed buildings in the state. The British agreed. And instead came up with mansions on water.

Butt Clermont was established in 1940 by a handicrafts businessman, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. "My father was regularly going to Calcutta to sell handicrafts," says Ghulam Nabi Butt, Owner of Butt’s Clermont. "There he met a British couple working in a shipping company and they became good friends. One day they asked him if he can arrange a houseboat for them during their Kashmir visit and he agreed".

 Bhat returned to Kashmir and set-up a houseboat at Naseem Bagh. For seven year, before the partition, the British couple, their friends and relatives were the regular visitors to the houseboat. "After partition they left Kashmir and didn’t return. But they transferred this property to our name." says Ghulam Nabi Butt. Since then it has been a favorite destination for tourists.

The Butt’s Clermont Group consists of five houseboats. Each houseboat has bedrooms with attached bathrooms, a living room and a dining room. One of them is a special honeymoon houseboat.

The boats are luxurious and aesthetic. Intricately carved cedar woodwork, magnificently stitched crewelwork on the curtains and tinted chandeliers set the rooms completely apart. The Kashmiri silk carpets grace the flooring.

Adding to the beauty of the houseboat is the touch of Kashmiri Cuisine. One can order from the entire range of Kashmiri delicacies. And the aroma of the famous Kashmiri Kehwa at the Clermont’s is something not to be missed. The cooks can even make foreign dishes with an equal skill.

Three shikaras, canopied longboats await the guests to take them into the vast expanses of the Dal Lake and the floating gardens. The butt Clermont’s unlike other houseboats on Dal Lake has a beautiful garden on one side. Besides playing soccer in evenings, the garden is famous for candlelit dinners and barbecue parties.  

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