Fading Splendour

  • MUHAMMAD RAAFI
  • Publish Date: Feb 13 2018 2:27AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 13 2018 2:27AM
Fading Splendour

Maharaj Gang has long ceased to be Srinagar’s trading heartland, but it remains an architectural landmark

 

Maharaj Gunj in Old Srinagar is one of the last remaining traditional marketplaces of Kashmir, its faded grandeur testifying to the glory of the yesteryear’s trading heartland – and its decline. It's an enchanting labyrinth of shops selling spices, copper and textiles, set in stone buildings with round pillars.

Here, the past comes rushing through in the conversations of the older traders, in how they bemoan the loss of the bustle of a bygone era. They tell stories handed down the generations of how this wholesale market on the banks of Jhelum was established in the early 1860s by the Dogra ruler Maharaja Ranbir Singh, after whom this neighborhood came to be known as Shri Ranbir Gunj, or SR Gunj.

Many of the old structures on the riverfront have been rebuilt and renovated over the years, while further in several shops and godowns stand abandoned, their colossal wooden doors locked with heavy iron bars and chains. Many buildings still bear the Suryavanshi mark, a reminder of the religious affiliation of the makers of this place.

It is said that Ranbir Singh built this market to pay the debts owed to the Punjabi traders, known as Khatris, who had bankrolled his father Gulab Singh when he purchased Kashmir from the British for 75 lakh Nanak Shahis. The Khatris lorded over this market until 1947, when most of them followed the fleeing Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler, out of Kashmir. It was then taken over by Kashmiri Muslims.

“Some Khatris who had stayed put left with the eruption of militancy in 1989,” says Abdul Rashid, a cloth merchant.

The Dogras may have established this market, but the neighborhood had existed and flourished for long. The tomb of the great 15th century Kashmiri sultan Zainul Abideen Budshah’s mother is proof of the Shah Meeri influence of this place. Many historians even claim that before Ranbir Singh rechristened it SR Gunj in 1885, it was called Azbabun Trag, after the saint Azeemuddin Baba.

“This market was in fact established to destroy the Muslim traders who used to set up their stalls in the enclosure of Jamia Masjid, Srinagar,” says the historian Zareef A Zareef.

After 1947, as Srinagar grew out of the confines of Shehr-e-Khas, new markets like Lal Chowk came into being and Maharaj Gunj gradually lost prominence. As trade dwindled, people started moving out of the neighborhood.

But while the market lost it bustle, it did not lose all its traditional architecture. There is an old temple, a gurdwara and a mosque here that still retain some of their old features. It was from this temple that Hindu priests would start their pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine in South Kashmir. That was, of course, before the exodus of the Pandits from Kashmir. All that is left now is a decaying old market whose wealth of architectural and cultural heritage is such that it still enchants the visitor – but also evokes a propound sense of loss and longing for many.