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13th June '2007
Kashmir’s Threatened Heritage


Recently the New York based World Monuments Fund (WMF); a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of endangered architectural and cultural sites around the world included the city of Srinagar and the old town of Leh in its watch list of threatened World Heritage Sites. There are 100 sites all over the world which are on the list issued for the year 2008. The purpose of inclusion of various sites on the list is to invite global attention to the World Heritage threatened by neglect, vandalism, natural disaster, and armed conflict. This declaration is the result of the efforts made by the J & K Chapter of INTACH and CHEK, the two organisations which have been actively involved in mapping and preservation of Kashmir’s Heritage over last few years. The State Tourism Department has been giving total support to these efforts. The details of these efforts were given in a press conference by the Tourism Secretary, which has received wide coverage in the media. However, there seems to be some misunderstanding among some people about this declaration. Even though it is a welcome step as regards recognition to the existence of certain heritage and historic sites of global importance, yet it is also a very serious indictment of the local authorities as well as people about gross neglect and vandalism of the same. Unfortunately the State controlled electronic media highlighted the fact as recognition of our heritage which would attract a large number of tourists here completely omitting the most important operative part about the neglect and vandalism of this heritage both by the state authorities as well as local residents.

In Kashmir we have very strange contradictions in all spheres of activity including preservation of our rich heritage. We do not preserve our historical monuments and buildings but try to rebuild these after demolishing the original ones. A living example of this is the ancestral house of Mulla Tahir Ghani in down town Srinagar, the world famous Kashmiri poet who is reputed to have written over a hundred thousand verses in Persian. Sometime back it had been decided to restore this heritage building. Lo and behold our brilliant engineers virtually demolished and reconstructed the same! So much for the efforts to preserve our heritage buildings. This is not an isolated case but a general trend. Kashmir had historically different periods which contributed their unique type of architecture. The Hindu period, the Buddhist period, and finally the Islamic period. The Hindu period had massive stone temples like Martand, Avantipur, Naranag, and so on. There are also smaller temples in different parts of the valley. A detailed description of these ancient monuments is given in Aurel Stein’s translation of Kalhana’s Rajtarangini. In addition, we have the ruins of the city of Parihaspura established by King Lalitaditya. One typical example of vandalism done by none other than the archaeological survey of India is the Naranag Temple. A corrugated iron roof has been placed on a massive stone temple! The temple which is in ruins would have been more presentable without a modern day tin roof. Similar is the fate of famous shrine at Kheerbhawani. It is totally surrounded by modern multi-story flats constructed for housing returning migrants. It is doubtful if any migrants would like to stay in those complexes? Regarding Buddhist period, there is very little trace of so many Viharas constructed during this period which have been described by Hieun Tsang in his travelogues. Most of these were either destroyed or converted into Hindu temples after the revival Saivism and decline of Buddhism. The most extant historical buildings pertain to the Islamic period. After the advent of Islam in the valley in the twelfth century, a large number of hospices, and mosques were built. Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani popularly known as Shah-i-Hamadan was accompanied by 700 Sayyids who spread all over Kashmir and established hospices for preaching of Islam. These Khanqahs were built of wood with pagoda type of roofs. During the Dogra period the British architecture was introduced in the construction of residential buildings in Kashmir. There were a number of these buildings on the Residency Road. The first one is the Government Arts Emporium which was the British Residency. It got burnt down a few years back due to electric short circuit. However, it has been reconstructed as the original one with the expertise of INTACH. The next was the Foreigners Registration Office which has been demolished and a modern building constructed in its place to house the CID Headquarter. The other heritage building of this period still standing is the J & K Bank which was earlier ANZ Grindlays Bank. For unknown reasons it is still untouched! Another heritage building on this line was the Peston Jee Building which has given way to a modern hotel and a shopping complex. There are a number of other heritage buildings which have been “Modernised”. However, a few citizens have maintained their houses in the traditional style and they continue to live in these. Vandalising of the heritage has taken many other forms. Defacing walls inside monuments by writing names is a common disease everywhere in this part of the world.

There have been many instances of encroachment of historical shrines, graves of famous people including past Kings of Kashmir especially in down town Srinagar. Another threat during last couple of decades has been the “collateral damage” due to the conflict raging in different parts of the state. Chrar-i-Sharif is a very stark example of this loss due to conflict. There are some other shrines in the valley which have suffered same fate. Apart from these causes, extensive damage has been caused by the care takers of the shrines themselves. They have tried to renovate historical buildings with modern building materials without bothering about the original works of art and craftsmanship. This damage is irreversible in many cases. Recently we had a first hand encounter with the vandalism being done to one of the probably last surviving wooden Khanqah. Mr. Randolph Landenberg, an American expert on architectural heritage who had done appreciable amount of work on mapping Kashmir’s architectural heritage mentioned about Khanqah-i-Khawaja Masood Pampori. This Khanqah situated in Pampore was built by Khawaja Masood Wali in sixteenth century. Khawaja Masood was a leading trader of Pampore who in the latter part of his life became an ascetic totally devoted to God. He passed away in 1612 A.D. (1021 A.H.). The Khanqah is a two storied building with the ground floor comprising a double storey hall. The construction follows the traditional pattern of wooden cribbage construction associated with the Muslim religious architecture of Kashmir. The Convenor of the J & K Chapter of INTACH, Editor in Chief of Greater Kashmir and myself visited the Khanqah which is the last surviving example of Kashmiri Wooden architecture. The first eye sore is a store constructed in front of the Khanqah in brick with a tin roof. The foundation of the building has been painted in gaudy colours. The entire back wall has been covered by coloured fibre glass corrugated sheets. Some of the traditional lattice windows have been replaced by modern windows with glass panes. The main hall has been given a false ceiling to divide it into two stories thereby taking away all the grandeur and awe of the original spacious hall. Wood panelling of walls has been done with inferior wood which has covered the original cedar wood normally considered to be resistant to termites. In brief everything has been done to destroy the original beauty of the traditional construction. All this has been done by the people supposed to be care takers of the Khanqah. This is just a living example of vandalism very near to the city. One does not know what the fate of other historical shrines is. Most of the damage has occurred in last couple of decades. It is true that the situation of conflict wherein the very survival of a human being is threatened does not leave much room for finer values of life like the historical heritage. However, one of the main causes of apathy towards heritage has been the total ignorance of the local people about our history full of a rich cultural past. Had our people not been virtually starved of history, they wood have had full knowledge of these edifices and would have definitely cared for the same. In the present circumstances the first and foremost task is to get a stringent legislation passed by the State Assembly for declaring buildings and other heritage sites as protected and prescribing severe punishment for vandalising and defacing of these. Without a proper legislation with sufficient teeth for the protection of our heritage it may not be possible to preserve the same for our future generations notwithstanding the efforts of the World Monuments Fund to put it on a global watch list!

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