• Muhammad Zaka Ur Rub
  • Publish Date: Oct 17 2017 10:03PM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 17 2017 10:03PM

The story of Sopore’s incredible Meeras Mahal and the visionary woman who shaped it

On the outskirts of Sopore in North Kashmir lies a treasure of cultural heritage. It’s called Meeras Mahal. It’s a repository of Kashmir’s traditional crafts and, more importantly, it preserves the heritage and memory of the Common Man.

The museum was founded by the late Atiqa Bano. Atiqa was born in Jamia Qadeem, Sopore, in the 1940s and educated there. Hers was an educated family. Her father, Molvi Mohammad Yasin Masoodi, a leader of the Muslim conference in the 1930s, died when she was only a few months old, leaving Atiqa, and her four siblings, to be raised by her mother.

Atiqa did her matriculation in 1956 and was appointed a school teacher, and eventually moved into bureaucracy. She retired as director of J&K Libraries and Research in 1999. Perhaps because she was so devoted to her work, Atiqa never married. She would say she didn’t need to raise a family because the whole Kashmir was her family.

Atiqa died on October 4, 2017, aged 77, and was buried in the courtyard of the museum she established.

“My passion is to keep the face of ancient Kashmir alive,” Atiqa would say of her life-long mission.

She set to work soon after her retirement, going door to door to put together the collection for Meeras Mahal. Atiqa started the museum with one Kundal, a clay firepot around which the Kangri is woven, says her sister-in-law Nablo Bank, who manages the museum now. “Atte Saeb wandered the whole of Jammu and Kashmir in search of artefacts,” Nabla said. “It was her vision that took her dream Meeras Mahal from one Kundul to a repository of hundreds of thousands of artefacts.”

Atiqa had said as much once: “A naive idea of creating something imaginary that too without any assistance was an uphill task. It needed immense courage, patience and diligence to remain steadfast.”

Her nephew Muzamil Ahmad Masoodi says Atiqa had a difficult time collecting antiques. “She went searching for artefacts as far as Tangdar, Keran, Uri, Gurez, Jammu, Beewah, Kishtwar, Poonch, Rajouri and that too mostly in her old age,” he said. “She spent a lot of her money buying these things, most costly being ornamental jewellery. Apart from a few antiques donated by people, the rest were either purchased or bartered.”

Some artefacts it took quite an effort to bring to Meeras Mahal – a chula carved out of a single stone from Janbazpora Baramulla took a crane and tens of labourer to load and unload, says Jan Mohd Masoodi, another of Atiqa’s nephews. A Kanz, also made from a single rock and weighing several tonnes, had to be brought all the way from Tangdhar in the far north. An old wooden coffin was bartered with a new one.

Atiqa spent almost all of her savings and pension on Meeras Mahal. No help ever ever came from the state, financially or otherwise. No recognition either. “The most tragic part of following the dream was to make people realise a castle was being built,” she would lament.

It was an inspired dream. “What is not recorded is not remembered,” Atiqa would say. “I have always believed in the importance of preserving our unique history and heritage. It is important that our future generations remember our Actual Kashmir, its culture and traditions, and keep them alive. That is my dream.”

“And it’s a history of the common man, not of royalty,” she often emphasised.

So, what did Atiqa collect in Meeras Mahal? Ancient fossils; marks of Ashoka; Buddhist and Shaivite sculptures; fireplaces, cooking and storage vessels; utensils of carved wood and stone, and baked clay; cloth-making apparatus; over a dozen kinds of intricately vowen Kangris; over 50 kinds of wood and jute footwear; old costumes; precious jewellery; writing slates; a wide range of musical instruments; chandeliers; coins of copper, brass and clay; handwritten manuscripts in Sharda, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic scripts. And this is far from an exhaustive life.

Atiqa wasn’t just a protector of heritage. She was also a social activist. In the 1970s, she had single-handedly set up a welfare organisation called Majlis-e-Nisa that worked for the welfare of women. The idea was to ensure their financial independence and give them self-confidence. “In Kashmir, women see themselves as someone’s wife or daughter,” she had explained her motivation. “I wanted them to think of themselves as individuals. I encouraged them to be good at whatever they did, even while fighting social evils like dowry.”

Majlis-e-Nisa Majlis-e-Nisa helped poor women learn sewing, knitting, calligraphy, the teaching of Quran and such. “Women are our assets,” Atiqa would say. “It is the duty of mankind to preserve their modesty with utmost delicacy and dignity.”

Outside of her museum too, Atiqa worked tirelessly for the promotion and development of Kashmiri language and culture. In 2003 she startedKashur Meeras, a weekly newspaper, but couldn’t sustain it. “Everybody is after what she created but nobody touches what she wanted to do,” complains Nuzhat, Atiqa’s niece. She points out that Kashur Meeras could not be sustained because the state government wouldn’t give it advertisements despite Atiqa’s request. The weekly has not been published for months and Nuzhat fears it may become defunct. The only hope of reviving it, Atiqa’s family says, is if the Department of Information or Culture lends its support.

That is also true for Meeras Mahal, which would struggle to stay afloat without government support and, perhaps more crucially, patronage by the public. Apart from financial help, the museum’s caretakers also need scientific expertise and technological support for preserving the artefacts. Although the archaeology department had promised to help, it has so far done little more than register a few artefacts at the museum.

That perhaps sums up the state, and public, apathy to preserving our past. It is time we made amends and started caring about our cultural heritage. We could start by ensuring that the dream that Atiqa Bano shaped in the form of Meeras Mahal gets the support and patronage it needs, and indeed deserves. That would the best tribute to the great woman who gave her life to preserve our rich heritage.


Muhammad Zaka Ur Rub is a PhD scholar in Management Sciences