WULAR LAKE, India – As the chill of the winter night breaks and the morning haze clears, the young woman wrapped in a woolen tunic rows her shallow boat through the weed-choked waters of Wular Lake until she reaches a marshy spot where a prized crop of water chestnuts grows wild.
She puts on short wooden skis, slides over the dense tangle of green, reaches down through the floating canopy and starts picking the sweet, aromatic berries. Across the lake, thousands of other women and men are going after a harvest that will total some 5 million kilograms for the year.
"It's a hard job, but this is what our families have been doing for ages," said 26-year-old Kulsooma, who along with two brothers has been harvesting water chestnuts with their father since she was a child. Like many people in the Himalayan territory, Kulsooma goes by only one name.
Spiky, triangular water chestnuts have long been a major crop for those living near Wular, one of Asia's largest freshwater bodies and the largest of the lakes in India-controlled Kashmir.
The marble-sized fruit must be shelled of their dark brown casings and dried in the sun until they are crispy and white. Then they are ready for market, where they are a popular item for Kashmiris who eat them raw, roasted or fried during the harsh, snowy winter.
They can also be ground into a flour used by diabetic patients, because it is free of both cholesterol and fat, and by fasting Hindus on days they are forbidden from eating cereals and pulses. The shells are used as cooking fuel. Some researchers are even investigating whether the fruit has cancer-fighting properties.
Farmers near the lake rely on water chestnuts during winter. A kilogram of raw water chestnuts sells for about 15 rupees, or about 23 U.S. cents.
"When most farmers in Kashmir have very little or nothing to do during the bitter winter months, we've at least some source of income," farmer Mohammed Afzal said. "This is truly a god's blessing."
Water chestnuts are ready for harvest each year from November through February. The job sometimes requires entire families, with the men thrashing the water with boat paddles to separate floating chestnut leaves from other foliage and debris clogging the marshy water.
Some families spend weeks together, camping on their boats within the lake, until their hulls are filled.
"My grandfather would tell us a story that, when floods and famine devastated Kashmir more than a century ago, the chestnut flour saved Kashmiris from starvation," said 65-year-old farmer Mohammed Subhan. "This is not a mere fruit, but our source of livelihood."