How Srinagar’s historic hub is losing its centuries-old glory


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Outside the historic Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta Chowk. Pic Umar Ganie

Modernity is yet to fully destroy the centuries old flavours of downtown Srinagar. It is still the place to go to, to sample the real taste of Kashmir, known for its traditional craft skills, its architecture, its spiritual sense from some of Kashmir’s most revered shrines sporting pagoda like roofs, especially the historic Jamia Masjid, the seat of power and religious authority of the Mirwaiz family, whose current head Umar Farooq, delivers the Friday sermons here.

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And, of course, its bazaars at Borhi Kadal, Zaina Kadal and Mahraj Gunj, named after the Maharajas that ruled Kashmir from 1846 to 1947.  These bazaars used to offer special varieties of dried vegetables, varieties of dried fish, besides herbs used to treat various ailments.

“Downtown represented the microcosm of Kashmir culture, social, economic, and spiritual identity,” says renowned humourist and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef. “All has vanished now.’’

Major Heritage Sites

JAMIA MASJID: The Jamia Masjid built in the Personal style is situated at Nowhatta in the middle of the downtown. It was built by Sultan Sikandar Shah Kashmiri Shahmiri in 1400 AD under the order of Mir Muhammad Hamadani, son of Said-ul-Auliya Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani. Sultan Sikandar’s son Zain-ul-Abidin added a turret to the mosque.

KHANQAH-E-MOULA: Also known as Shah-e-Hamadan Masjid or simply Khanqah, it is the shrine of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani located on the right bank of the river Jhelum between the Fateh Kadal and Zaina Kadal bridges. First built in 1395 AD, it is the oldest mosque in Kashmir. It is one of the best examples of Kashmiri wooden architecture, decorated with papier mache.

PATHAR MASJID: Known locally as Naev Masheed, this is a Mughal era stone mosque on the left bank of Jhelum, bang opposite the Khanqah-e-Moula. Built by Mughal Empress Noor Jehan, the wife of Emperor Jehangir, the mosque has some distinct features that separate it from other mosques in the Valley. For instance, t does not have the traditional pyramidal roof. Furthermore, the mosque has nine mehraabs (arches), with the central one being largest.

BUDSHAH TOMB: The final resting place of the mother of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, popularly and respectfully referred to as the ‘Budshah’ and ruler of Kashmir for over 50 years during the late 15th century, one of the most peaceful and successful periods of Kashmir history.

The view of downtown from the bridges over Jhelum is of tightly packed houses built with unbaked bricks and deodar wood lining the river’s banks. Over the years, migration, militancy and urbanisation has led to the dismantling of many old structures. Today, many traders who had lived in downtown’s restive Nowhatta locality for decades have shifted to the outskirts. Mainly as the area witnessed frequent clashes between protestors and security forces which would lead to shutdowns resulting in huge losses.

Other traditional markets like Maharaj Gunj too are facing extinction. Established by Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1864, it had grown into an important commercial hub as Kashmir’s first modern market. “It was the main hub of economic activities till partition,” said Abdul Majeed Zargar, a trader at Maharaj Gunj. “The market supplied all kinds of commodities across Kashmir. Horses carried goods from the market to Ladakh and beyond. Transportation by water being common then, boats ferried goods to places like Bijbehara, Karnah and Uri.” The market should have been preserved for its historical value,” said traditional copper trader Imtiyaz Ahmed. “This market has lost its glory and traders feel discouraged.”

A view of the downtown area from the River Jhelum. Pic Umar Ganie

Neglect and decay

Failure on the part of successive governments to understand the historical significance of this market has today led to its decay. According to the elderly people of downtown areas, very little was done to protect the heritage of the old city because downtown Srinagar always remained the hub of pro-freedom sentiment and clashes and violent protests became an everyday feature.  The old timers believe that people of downtown Srinagar always resisted New Delhi’s approach towards it, the reason why the state governments ignored the old city and focussed on renovating and repairing only its shrines and parks.

“There was a long pending demand for de-congesting the old city in a people-friendly manner which never happened,” said Abdur Rashid Hafiz, a resident of downtown Rainawari area. “All the politicians played vote bank politics with the downtown electorate.”

Ghulam Rasool, who owns a catering shop in the market, said the government has given an assurance to rebuild Shahr-e-Khaas (downtown) as a heritage destination by dovetailing craft, heritage and tourism. But things have remained stuck despite passing of the J&K Heritage Conservation Act 2010 for conservation and preservation of heritage including buildings, structures, monuments, precincts, artefacts, sculptures, paintings, handicrafts, manuscripts, music, dance, drama, performing acts, living traditions like crafts etc. As per the provisions of Section 7 of the Act, the then Government even created the J&K Heritage Conservation and Preservation Authority with Tourism and Culture Minister as its Chairman for this. “But successive regimes ignored this legislation and nothing was done to implement this law,” said Aijaz Rasool, a university student from downtown Srinagar.

Gen Next moves on 

Elders living in the downtown areas believe that different crafts were gifted to them by the Sufi saint Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, who travelled from Khatlan in Iraq to Srinagar and camped at Khankah-e-Moula some 700 years ago.  “Crafts like papier machie, wood carving, carpet weaving, carving on copper vessels were gifted by the great saint to Kashmiris,” said Muhammad Yousuf Shah, who runs a copper business at Zaina Kadal. “I have inherited this business from my father but none of my sons want to take up their family business. I have two sons and both are government employees. Since our business is running at a loss, I think they took the right decision. It takes me months to find labourers to make varieties of copper and bronze utensils. My friends who were in this business have either died or migrated to other areas.”

Wood carving, shawl weaving, embroidery, carpet weaving and other traditional means of earnings are fast fading away as generation next has opted for other means of livelihoods and the continued strife in Kashmir has forced people to migrate to safer locations. “I was living at Rajouri Kadal for decades with my three brothers in a two-storey brick-house till 2000 and we were a happy joint family,” said Ghulam Mohiudin Khan, who sells carpets. Khan said frequent shutdowns, curfews and protests led to their shifting to Soura, a few kilometres away from downtown.

“Not many people are into carpet weaving now as it isn’t lucrative anymore,’’ said Khan. “We used to employ 40 workers when demand was good. Now we have only five workers as cheaper alternatives have impacted sales”. Ghulam Khan recalls the times when customers would throng his shop in the 1990s. “Today, my customer base has shrunk, as no one comes from the districts to buy carpets”.

But will the new Union Territory administration help revive these traditional crafts, which used to be the backbone of the region’s economy, and how? That remains to be seen.

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About Abid Bashir Wani 7 Articles
Abid Bashir Wani is a senior journalist in Srinagar with over 10 years of experience in print journalism.

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