It's water chestnut season in north Kashmir's Bandipora district. During harvest time, which extends from early February to late April, hundreds of villagers set out early in the morning for a day-long trip to pick chestnuts from Wular Lake, one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes. These boats are their second home - between dawn and dusk each boat (with two people) collects about 30 to 40 kg of water chestnuts.
At the village of Zurimanz, which sits on the banks of the lake under the gaze of the Baba Shakur Din hill, almost every household has a small boat. Every morning, villager mill about the dockyard preparing for their long journey with essentials such as paddles, nets and a long stick to keep the boat steady while collecting nuts.
Asad-ullah Mathanji, a middle-aged man with a grey beard and skullcap, heads this big caravan of boats. He has been harvesting chestnuts for more than 20 years. His day starts with azan (prayer call) at a local mosque; by the time he returns his wife Aisha has prepared plenty of noon chai (salt tea) and lunch for the journey. With these fortifications, Asad and his younger brother Abdul Majeed set off on their expedition.
Collecting water chestnuts is an exercise in patience. It takes a full day to collect a boatful of nuts. First, the nut collectors select a site where the crop is good and with a long paddle pull together the growth in a heap on the lake. Then with the help of a net they slowly pull out the nuts; the dirt and weeds that come with the nuts are washed off right away and the harvest is collected neatly into the boat. This exercise continues until dusk.
Once Asad finally gets home, his wife helps him carry back the nuts to their home and dries them to make them ready for the local as well as national markets.
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Water chestnuts are a popular (and delicious!) snack in Kashmir. On the streets of Srinagar and other nearby areas you will find them being roasted or even served raw; flour is made out of these nuts too.
The trade of collecting water chestnuts provides employment to thousands of people, but the work is seasonal. For the rest of the year, these people either fish on the lake or offer their labour for daily wages. They are used to waiting for the next season.
A boatman rows home at dusk after a long day on Wular Lake.
The day's harvest.
A villager grinds dried water chestnuts into a powder.
Abdul Majeed unloads water chestnuts from his boat.
Asad-ullah Mathanji after a satisfying day on the lake.
Asad-ullah Mathanji's home on the banks of Wular Lake.
Asad-ullah's wife Aisha uses traditional methods to dry the chestnuts.
Boats tethered outside homes for the night.
Dried water chestnuts are processed by villagers in a grinding machine.
The chestnuts are dried while dinner is cooked.
Piles of water chestnuts await the ministrations of an elderly woman; the women of the household prepare the day's harvest for the market.