The forgotten architectural marvels of Kashmir face neglect

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Srinagar, March 31 (ANI): Though Kashmir's scenic beauty often finds its mention in travelogues and various publications across the world time and again, its monuments and visual arts reflecting Kashmir's heritage have largely failed to draw a similar attention.

Kashmir's heritage evolved over a span of centuries, a culture influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam at different periods in its history. Modern-day Kashmir is inherently an amalgamation of these cultural and social influences.

Srinagar, the first stopover of domestic and foreign tourists, boasts of cultural and architectural marvels. The most impressive being Jamia Masjid near Nowhatta, a splendid work of timber architecture of the Sultanate period.

This complex suffered repeated destruction and has been rebuilt several times. It disappoints to notice how such magnificent heritage-buildings are suffering neglect, which have also borne the brunt of demolition in the city.

Part of the problem lies in the structure itself; the design and materials used. Patrons in the Valley opted for easily perishable materials like bricks and wood, which could not withstand the periodic ravages by earthquake and fire, a common enough occurrence over the centuries.

For the general visitor to Kashmir, particularly the domestic tourist, the main attraction are spots of natural beauty. The famed Mughal gardens, Shalimar and Nishat which capture the aura of romance of bygone eras are, for instance, have always been a major draw. The rest, a fascinating Kaleidoscope of visual and architectural heritage, a page of Kashmir's living history, sadly, fails to be tourists' priority.

Sameer Hamdani, architect, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), J and K, says Srinagar's architecture is a unique combination of foreign and indigenous forms reflecting Chinese, Greek, Central Asian and Persian influences. Unfortunately, most of these are almost in ruins, diminished structures of a once glorious past.

The once beautiful Khanqah, a seat of intellectual and religious learning, built by Dara Shikhoh, son of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan is a picture of neglect.. A monument where Mulla Musin Fan, famous poet and the intellectual lies buried today has damp walls, crows perched on its ruins and dogs scavenging in the area. The aesthetically built 600 -year old shrine of Sheikh Baba, a sufi saint is today in a deplorable state which speaks of long years of neglect by authorities. Cracks have developed everywhere. The stone outside is wearing out and so is the domed ceiling inside. Mohammad Yousuf, member of the local Mohallah committee says "Several politicians including Mubarak Gul, MLA from Eidgah, visited the site, promising to take up restoration work. However, till date nothing has been done".

Another neglected site is the stone mosque of Mullah Akhoon Shah, on the foothills of Hariparbhat. Built in 1649 by the Dara Shikoh, it's amongst the three stone mosques built by Mughals, the other being Patther Masjid and the Hasanabad Mosque also in Srinagar. The oldest reference to the Mosque dates back to 17th century when it was a place of worship. Today, it is in a decrepit state.

Of late, however, there has been a revival of pride in the heritage of this region, said to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, lying in the backdrop of the magnificent Himalayas. There are efforts to restore these once spectacular, now decrepit structures back to their previous glory.

There is a recognition that Kashmir has a rich and invaluable heritage that needs to be preserved for posterity. Mullah Akhoon Shah, a monument, was taken up as a project. "In 2008 Department of Tourism in consultation with (INTACH) undertook its renovation and restoration work barring Hamam or, the traditional bathing area that is facing encroachment," says Sameer Hamdani.

As in many heritage sites, restoration work comes into conflict with human encroachment. Both issues are inter-twined making them inextricable. Sikander Shah, a retired gardener from Muslim Auqaf Board, has been living in Hamam of the Mulla Akhoon Shah for the last 40 years along with his family.

Shah, who claims to be the caretaker of the mosque, refuses to leave unless adequate compensation including house is provided. "We have invested lakhs for its renovation and restoration work. For the allotment of essential services like electricity and water supply we have paid colossal amount of money to the concerned authorities," argues Shah.

INTACH's viewpoint appears equally justified. According to them, the renovation of the Hamam cannot be undertaken unless the structure is free from illegal occupation. "There is no denying that the family has illegally occupied this heritage building. But, I think, on a humanitarian basis, the family should be compensated so that they vacate the Hamam and allow its renovation," says Sameer Hamdani.

He throws light on the other encroachers of the Hamam. Apparently, for many years, it was occupied by a gym and a health club. Only when INTACH raised this issue with Director Tourism Farooq Shah in 2007, the gym was closed down.

According to Charkha Features, there are scores of other monuments across Kashmir where restoration work seems a pipe dream. The decaying historical and architectural structures have failed to draw due attention of government and even the civil society. There restoration doesn't seem a political or social priority.

There are exceptions, mercifully. Aali Majid in the Eidgah area of Srinagar has been also taken up by INTACH in collaboration with the Department of Tourism that has restored the historic mosque to its pristine glory.

Back in those days on Eid, the mosque was specially decorated. Aali Masjid also served as prominent platforms for the freedom struggle during the Dogra rule in the early 20th century.

This ancient building is today bespeaks its past splendour. The green and rust leaves of Chinars lining the mosque form a carpet of fallen leaves in its courtyard and provide a canopy for this magnificent building.

The question arises then-should this not point a way forward for the entirety of Kashmir's slowly disappearing heritage? By Tanveen Kawoosa (ANI)

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