Downtown’s Decline

  • Shabir Ibn Yusuf
  • Publish Date: Jul 22 2018 9:31PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 22 2018 9:32PM
Downtown’s Decline

                                                      PHOTO: HABIB NAQASH/KI

Once the economic and cultural hub of Kashmir, the old city of Srinagar is losing its sheen due to multiple reasons, reports Shabir Ibn Yusuf

 

Many believe that Srinagar is one of the oldest cities. And the first inhabitants of this city lived in the present day Downtown – the Shar-e-Khaas. It is the largest and the most densely populated area in the city, about 5 kilometers from the present day city-center Lal Chowk.

Srinagar city, as we know, is divided into two parts - Downtown and Civil lines. But what we don’t seem to realize is that the division is more than just geographic and has been reinforced by the situation in the last three decades.

The Downtown reflects the soul of Srinagar, the historical buildings and monuments are a witness to the rich history of the city. The present day heritage residential homes are largely depicted to be constructed from late19th century to early 20th century. Many key monuments like Jamia Masjid, Khanqah-e-Moula, Maharaj Ganj and shrines have been built by the famous rulers of Kashmir.

Located on both sides of the River Jhelum - a tributary of the Indus -Downtown is built around six bridges. The view from any of the six bridges is unique: scores and scores of old brick buildings line both the banks of Jhelum. The distinctive pagoda-like roof of a mosque or a shrine enlivens the horizon.

With a maze of narrow and winding streets flanked by two to three-storey high buildings, down at the level of urban structure is much like other “old parts of town” in the sub-continent.

In September 2014 devastating floods caused by torrential rains, Downtown was least affected as compared to the rest of Srinagar. Though close to the river, the people from other parts of Srinagar shifted to the Downtown for safety. Commercial buildings and residential homes and government offices were shattered to nothing in the other areas.

The area was usually known as chirpy and socially very enterprising. And everyone knows everybody in a particular area. This is in sharp contrast to the uptown Srinagar where in new colonies one hardly knows his next-door neighbour.

The Downtown was also once culturally, socially, economically, educationally and spiritually very rich. It used to serve as the epicenter of urban Kashmir for centuries. Sadly, with the changing times this historic part of Srinagar city is losing its sheen. The people are migrating and old structures are being dismantled to make way for new ones.

The migration is said to have been enhanced because of the volatile political situation. Most of the people from downtown started migrating to the suburbs of the city since the early 1990s. The process of this internal migration is still going on.

Factors like the impact of conflict for over two-and-a-half decades on downtown’s socio-political atmosphere, underdevelopment and government apathy have contributed to its degradation of sorts. Still, those who leave the old town get physically away, not mentally though.

Several traders who had lived their entire life in Downtown’s restive Nowhatta locality had to move to the city’s outskirts after the government ordered the bulldozing of several residences for road-widening. In the “outrageous” demolition drive that followed, the old city - hub of architectural marvel of the Valley - lost several heritage structures forever.

Many residents believe that government neglects old city while carrying out development works across the valley in full swing. As is the case with every other issue, the people read this apparent discrimination in their own way. Many see it as government tactics to teach the downtown people a lesson so that they desist from taking pro-active part in anti-establishment protests in future. For giving tough time to the state administration in the three summer agitations, Downtown seems to have paid the cost with its quality of life showing gradual deterioration over the last five years.

The stigmatization of Downtown has led to reduction in real estate prices in areas like Nowhatta and more and more people are shifting to other areas even as it does not seem to entail any real benefits in terms of housing or other amenities. After all, the uptown is no different when it comes to bad roads, closely stacked houses, narrow lanes, poor sanitation, frequent water and electricity problems.

It is the ghettoisation of Downtown which has segregated it psychologically from rest of the city. The perception of discriminatory treatment with the area should not to be taken lightly because when people of one part of Srinagar are marginalized, it does not augur well for the collective welfare of the city.

In the absence of any real efforts at reaching out to its people, calling downtown “Shahr-e-Khaas” is like mocking at it. Ali Muhammad Sagar is perhaps the only MLA from old city who seems to make conscious efforts at keeping in touch with his constituency Khanyar. The rest of them make occasional appearances. Had they been in touch with the ground, they would have felt the uneasiness in the air and the increasing sense of isolation among the downtowners.

Maharaj Gunj, the historic market of Downtown - once the hub of commercial activities - has also lost its sheen, courtesy negligence by successive governments.

Maharaj Gunj is located close to Aali Kadal (a bridge over Jhelum). Several interlinking parallel by-lanes constitute this place.

Being the first modern market of Srinagar before partition, the heritage market was established by Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1864 on the banks of Jhelum.

“It was started by Maharaj Ranbir Singh. This was the main hub of economic activities before partition. Both Muslims and non-Muslims carried out their wholesale trade from this market,” said Abdul Sattar, a trader in Maharaj Gunj. “Products were supplied from here to whole Kashmir those days,” he recalls.

Another trader said the market was so famous that goods were supplied to Ladakh from here on horses. “Goods were taken to Islamabad (Anantnag), Bijbehara, Karnah, Uri and Ladakh through boats and horses. Water transport was the main transportation those days,” said another trader Muhammad Ismail.

Maharaj Gunj has served a historic place of communal harmony and a nerve centre of all activities in Kashmir. People of all religions used to live and visit this place as within a small distance one would find a gurdwara, a temple and a mosque.

Residents and shopkeepers of this market are disappointed with the government as the place lacks public transportation facility. The complainants said the access to the area has gone so cumbersome that people avoid visiting the place.

“Had the government paid attention to this place, its glory could have returned. However, with no basic facilities such as transport, people don’t prefer to come here now,” said a resident.

“The market is in shambles which has even discouraged traders to continue their business,” said a trader.

The market also serves as an important face of the rich culture of Kashmir. The gurdwara in the market is an archetype of Kashmiris’ art and craft. From wooden door to the ceiling decorated with papier-mâché, everything inside this religious place of Sikhs gives a feel of fine craftsmanship of Kashmir.

“The gurdwara has a balcony too, where, back in the days of its charm, Sikh women used to pray. But not many people come here nowadays; the place seems a forgotten one,” said an aged local, Muhammad Sultan.

The traders say though governments made several promises, but the place where more than 2,000 shops are located cries for attention.

The state government had conceived two road projects—Syed Merak Shah Road and Khanyar-Zadibal-Pandach Road. Both the projects passed through Old City.

The two road projects were implemented by the Roads and Buildings (R&B) department at a cost of Rs 336 crores. Officially, 332 residential houses, 750 shops and 145 kanal of land were acquired for the two road projects.

The bulldozing that followed did not only decimate physical structures, it also sounded the death knell to the good old days spent in those ancestral houses.

The government has given an assurance to rebuild Shahr-e-Khaas as a heritage destination by dovetailing craft heritage and tourism. Ironically, the J&K Heritage Conservation Act 2010 is yet to be implemented in Kashmir. The Act gives legal status to the houses which need to be preserved.

Many social activists and historians, however, believe it’s the government’s “ill intentions” towards Old City which has led to the destruction of its heritage properties.

Globally, the concept of Urban Renewal is followed to address population or space issues without disturbing the physicality of the urban space. For example, the Urban Renewal is not about widening roads, but to provide passage to people. It seems this much-needed concept is still greek to the town planners of Kashmir.

The result: weathered and rundown heritage structures in Srinagar’s Old City have taken a hit. Regardless, things weren’t always like this in Downtown. Once, the hub of houses of architectural value, nearly six lakh people live in the 2.58 sq km Downtown.

The area is full of historical mosques and monuments which are no often visited by outsiders who prefer being around the Dal Lake and the newer part of the city.

 

JAMIA MASJID:

The Jamia Masjid is situated at Nowhatta in the middle of 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 extended the Jama Masjid by including turret. It is constructed in Persian style.

 

KHANQAH-E-MOULA:

Khanqah-e-Moula, also known as Shah-e-Hamadan Masjid and simply Khanqah and a shrine of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani is 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 mosques in the Kashmir Valley. It is one of the best examples of Kashmiri wooden architecture, decorated with papier machei.

 

PATHAR MASJID:

Pathar Masjid, known locally as Naev Masheed is a Mughal era stone mosque located in Downtown. It is located on the left bank of the River Jhelum, just opposite the shrine of Khanqah-e-Moula.

It was built by Mughal Empress Noor Jehan, the wife of Emperor Jehangir. The mosque has some distinct features that separate it from the rest of the mosques in the Kashmir Valley. Unlike other mosques, it does not have the traditional pyramidal roof. Furthermore, the mosque has nine mehraabs (arches), with the central one being larger than the others.

 

BUDSHAH TOMB:

Budshah Tomb, also spelled as Badshah Tomb, is the final resting place of the mother of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin was popularly and respectfully referred to as the ‘Badshah’ by his people, during his reign and lifetime in Kashmir, spanning over 50 years of the late 15th century AD, famed to be one of the most peaceful and successful periods of Kashmir.

Budshah Tomb is hence considered as the only one of its kind in and around Kashmir when compared to the other edifices and tombs of the ancient era. As opposed to a typical wooden structure of the Shahmiri period in Kashmir, this tomb was in fact laid down with bricks and hence is a brick structure antonymous to the traditional wooden Shahmiri architecture.