Tracing Srinagar’s Chequered Past

Shrines with papier mâché and glinting naqashi on wood walls: a walk through the old city and centuries past.  
Tracing Srinagar’s Chequered Past
Green and golden papier mâché work is Khanqah-e-Molla’s most striking feature. Photo by: Barsali Bhattacharyya

Sipping on some kahwa to start off an elaborate iftar meal in his drawing room in Srinagar, Ferooz Ganai looks surprised when I enquire about visiting the old city the next day. A long-term acquaintance of my family, Ferooz uncle had helped us plan a week-long trip to Kashmir. Now, I wanted to see the architectural heritage of old Srinagar. His surprise isn’t unjustified—Kashmir is better known for its peaks, meadows and cerulean rivers than for its old mosques and wooden houses.

The old city is often the site of political turmoil: it’s the Kashmir telecast live on news channels and usually avoided by tourists. I wait as Ferooz uncle makes calls to ensure no protests or strikes are likely on the day—news in Kashmir travels by word of mouth. Once he is satisfied (he’ll make more calls in the morning), we plan for the next day, taking inspiration from heritage walks suggested in an INTACH guidebook by theatre director Feisal Alkazi.

In the morning, we delve deep into the heart of this 500-year-old city. In old Srinagar, wooden houses stand in clusters, armed personnel are more frequently spotted and graffiti becomes increasingly bold.

Bilaal, who is driving us, expertly navigates the narrow lanes of Nowhatta to the Jamia Masjid, the city’s oldest. When I ask if he frequents this part of the city, he shakes his head. Last week stone-pelters had damaged his car. However, there is no cause for concern today, he adds reassuringly.

Jamia is grand yet monastic. Outside, shopkeepers gear up for the day. Inside, silence fills the vast prayer hall, lined with deodar wood columns. Built by Sultan Sikandar, father of Zain-ul-Abidin, probably Kashmir’s most famous sultan, the 14th-century mosque was damaged by fire before being rebuilt by Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The grand exterior leads to a picturesque inner courtyard lined with chinars, and a central water tank. In his book, Alkazi says that Jamia Masjid is the archetype of wooden Kashmiri architecture. A prominent element is the multi-tiered pyramidal roof with a spire on top—seldom seen in mosques elsewhere in India.

Less than a kilometre away the masjid, Khanqah-e-Molla, built in the memory of 14th-century Persian Sufi poet and preacher Shah Hamadan, is busier. The popular shrine stands out with green and golden papier mâché work on its facade—its architectural splendour a sharp contrast to the run-down neighbourhood.

Tracing Srinagar’s Chequered Past 1

The present-day structure of Jamia Masjid dates back to the 17th century. Its grand gates open into the busy shop-lined lanes of Nowhatta. Photo by: Blaine Harrington/agefotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

Tracing Srinagar’s Chequered Past 2

The Budshah’s Dumath is inspired by Timur’s tomb in Uzbekistan. Photo by: India view/Alamy Stock Photo/indiapicture

 

The two-storeyed building is entirely constructed of deodar wood and bricks with a pyramidal roof, which I learn
is under maintenance after being gutted in a fire in 2017. Access to the main prayer room is restricted for women, but a window offers me a view of elaborate Persian naqashi patterns on the wooden walls, Kashmiri carpets on the floor and antique chandeliers casting a warm glow over kneeling devotees. At the entrance door of the prayer hall hangs a medallion, which devotees rub to seek the blessings of Hamadan.

A balcony along the left of the prayer hall opens into an burial ground and a view of the Jhelum river. Women pray in a separate hall at the back, many humming or weeping as they tie pieces of cloth on wooden bars and make a wish or two.

Along the riverside, to the right is a hammam (dating back to the 18th- and 19th-century Afghan rule according to Alkazi), which has cubicles and shower spaces for ritual ablution. There are no tourists in sight, only locals going about their day.

I’m also the only visitor at the Pathar Masjid, my next stop. Much younger than the Jamia Masjid, the 17th-century mosque located across the river from the Khanqah, is also lesser-known among tourists. Unlike the Kashmiri wooden architecture I saw earlier, the limestone Pathar Masjid is a fine specimen of Mughal architecture in the Valley.

Built by empress Nur Jahan, it first grabs your attention with the lack of a pyramidal roof and nine grand arches. Away from the main structure, laundry dries on bushes along the boundary wall and under the shades of chinar trees dotting the compound.

A short walk away, across the Zaina Kadal—a refurbished bridge over the Jhelum that was originally built by sultan Zain-ul-Abidin in the 15th century—is Mazar-i-Salateen, a royal cemetery complex. While crossing the bridge, a wooden house on the river’s left bank catches my eye. A perfect example of wooden Kashmiri residential architecture—complete with dubs or hanging bay windows decorated with lattice pinjarkari work—the house’s derelict condition belies its glorious past. Houses here were once prized possessions of Kashmiri textile merchants, who loaded and traded shawls and carpets by the river. As is evident from the faded remains of a signboard, this one was no different.

At Mazar-i-Salateen, the most prominent fixture is the Budshah’s Dumath, a mausoleum for Zain-ul-Abidin’s mother. The 15th-century brick-and-mortar domed tomb strays from traditional wooden Kashmiri architecture. I gather from Alkazi’s notes that it was inspired by Timur’s tomb in Samarkand, the Gur-e-Amir. Other residents of the complex include Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, alongside notable Sufi preachers and noblemen.

Leaving behind the medieval Kashmiri and Mughal architecture, I end my sojourn at the 19th-century Maharaj Gunj market. Once flourishing in the heart of the old city, it is now plagued by lack of renovation and absence of shoppers. Built by Maharaja Ranbir Singh during the British rule, this was Srinagar’s first planned market. Clustered around a quadrangle courtyard are shops housed in three-storeyed buildings with sloping roofs. The Gunj market’s colonial architecture is as different from any of my previous stops, as the Mughal gardens or the Dal Lake is from Old Srinagar.

  • Barsali Bhattacharyya is a business writer by day and a budget traveller over weekends. One of her greatest joys is the feeling of having money left over from a journalist’s meagre salary to fund a trip at the end of the month. She instagrams at @barsali.bee.

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