Out here on the boathouses, every day, life begins with the sunrise and every day, with the sun, it sets.
Manchar Lake, the floating village of Pakistan, lies 18 kilometres west of Sehwan Sharif on the Indus Highway. It is claimed to be one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Pakistan, and the only lake that is home to fishermen living on wooden boathouses for hundreds of years.
The lake spreads over an area of 233 square kilometres, and gets its water from the Kirthar hill torrents and river Indus. The fisher folk, known as Mirbahar or Mohannas have been living here for centuries and survive on the available fish stock in the lake.
A thinly carpeted road towards the west on main Indus highway leads to Manchar Village. The village is small, mainly comprising of a main market that is crowded with fishermen in groups, sipping chai, watching TV and discussing local politics.
The market has one mosque, a few roadside restaurants, a grocery shop and a vegetable shop.
I was travelling with a friend, both of us filled with curiosity to explore the floating village. The sun had already gone down by the time we reached. Our first look at the lake presented the beautiful, serene picture of a golden sunset and the silhouette of boats and fishermen returning home.
One of the fishermen, Allah Wasayo, and his uncle offered us a tour ride to the lake on their smaller boat. As we left the shore, we crossed through boat villages with a number of boats parked together, and families sitting outside, preparing their meal for the night.
The fishermen told me: “We own no land but boats, we live on boats that have been passed onto us from generation to generation”. There are different floating villages of different communities on the lake.
We asked Allah Wasayo if we could spend the night in the floating village in one of the boathouses, to which he offered us his own boat, a dinner with his family and a ride in the middle of the lake. We negotiated a price for the services and the experience they were about to give.
We were dropped at the shore to bring groceries for the dinner that his family would make for us, and later hopped on a bigger boat, which Allah Wasayo took in the middle of the lake, away from the shore.
The boathouse is simply a wooden boat with a big compartment in the middle, which acts as a living room, with a compartment for storage and sleeping on one side. One boat allows eight to 10 people to sleep on. Every fishermen family owns a boathouse and a smaller boat to commute.
“Our forefathers had a good time out on the lake. They had fresh, clean water and enough fish stock to make a good living. They were able to make boathouses for us. The lake now is contaminated with polluted water that has killed most of the fish stock, and I cannot afford to make another boat,” said Allah Wasayo.
As we continued our discussion, Allah Wasayo’s family prepared dinner for us at the other end of the boat. We were served Chicken Biryani in a round dish under the candlelight.
Allah Wasayo provided us with a Rilli to sleep on, a local quilt made by the women of his village. He parked the boat somewhere in the middle of the lake. It was a cold and windy night with a full moon. The fishermen chatted and sang folk songs all night long, while the waves crashed the boats every now and then, swinging us to sleep.
The fisher folk live far from what others consider the basic needs of life, like electricity. They live in complete harmony with nature. Every day with the sunrise, their day begins and with the sun, it sets too. They follow the lunar calendar.
We woke up before dawn. The night's cold had carried on into the morning. Allah Wasayo made us chai and then started the motor to take us to the shrine in the middle of the lake. The other fishermen were busy hunting ducks and fishing as we headed towards a shrine. The grave of the saint was covered with bushes and a surrounding brick wall. We offered our prayer and headed back to the shore.
The fishermen who live on the lake are poor, and give all the fish they catch to the contractor who hires them at a minimal daily wage. The lake is now heavily polluted, and receives less freshwater and more toxic water – mainly drain water from Main Nara Valley (MNV).
Drain water containing industrial and agricultural waste is the main cause of contamination in the lake. The government has planned to divert the drain to the Arabian Sea via the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD), but progress on this front has been really slow.
The area used to be a major big stopover for migratory birds from Siberia and once provided a livelihood to 10,000 fisher folk, living on 2000 boats. Now, it is just a threatened wetland.
Thousands of those fishermen have been forced to relocate to other areas for employment, abandoning their traditional way of life. The fisher folk have to buy drinking water from other sources as the lake water is now contaminated. The salinity of water is increasing day by day, making it difficult for the fish to survive and giving rise to a number of diseases in the village.
Upon returning, despite the lingering awe of the beautiful lake and the ancientness of life in and around it, I could only think of how how ignorant we are to damage our environment this way.
—All photos by author