Kashmiri architecture: From syncretism to dilapidated edifices

By Salika Rashid

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness” – The aforementioned lines of Frank Gehry profoundly enunciate the primacy of architecture. Architecture not only aids in illustrating myriad facets of time and history but also assists in discerning the trajectory of its pattern. It has perpetually demanded care and maintenance because art has to survive in order to demonstrate the past to the present. Rajeev Bhargava has aptly propounded, that it “contributes to and enhances our collective self-understanding; it touches our identity, evokes strong feelings and is the source of pride”.

It seems true that it is like a kaleidoscope with which one can decipher numerous colors of history whether custom, values or civilization; hence one can comprehend world view with a single lens. It echoes the stories of a particular time period and accentuates the experience of being human. It is in this context one can recall the artistic valley enveloped by natural pegs – Kashmir.

Kashmir is a treasure house not only to the prominent snow-capped mountain range, ‘margs’, flora, and fauna, but is also home to a unique culture-curated wazwans (Kashmiri meal) or the diaphanous pashminas, the rich heritage and vibrant architecture. It has remained a “melting pot” for a multitude of traditions and cultures in the past. It is a testament to blended traditions and beliefs of ancient Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam; thus has truly exhibited a specimen of tolerance and pluralism of a diverse society. The amalgamation occurred due to the Silk Route which connected Kashmir with Central Asia as it brought with it its diverse aesthetics. This inclusivity has remained a key trait of Kashmir; it has been under various rules, which include -Buddhist, Hindu, Turkish, Mughal, Afghan and Dogra rule. Furthermore, the rulers of their respective periods maintained unprecedented influence over art and architecture.

Historical background

The Buddhist rule which commenced in the 3rd century AD set its mark on the stone architecture in the form of monasteries, stupas, etc. From 4th to the 11th century, that is, during the period of medieval architecture, Hindu rule began and it promoted stone architecture, mainly in the form of temples. Later, Turkish rule (from the 14th to the 16th-century) left its impressions on brick and wooden architecture (pinjirakari, hammam, etc), generally seen in shrines and mosques. The art of naqashi (painted lacquer) and khatamband (woodcraft in which wooden pieces are fitted into one another) was initiated by Persian and Central Asian craftsmen in Kashmir. The wooden and stone architecture (khatamband, pinjirakari) was also emphasised by the Mughal and Afghan rule. But not much architectural work was witnessed under Dogra rule.

Hence, it is palpable how numerous rules in Kashmir embellished its syncretic beauty. The robust edifices configured as shrines, temples, mosques, houses and houseboats illustrate the lambency of art and architecture in the valley. The well-known shrine Charar Sharief which is in Budgam district of Kashmir was built to commemorate a renowned poet and Sufi saint of Kashmir, Sheikh Noor Din, also known as Nund Resh. This shrine illustrated architecture in the form of Pinjra Qari, Zoone Dab ( a cantilevered balcony designed to view the moon). Another notable structure, Jama masjid, which is situated in Srinagar, is Indo-Saracenic style architecture. This structure depicts the medley of two cultures, that is, it has been erected in Persian style but its minar is topped with umbrella-shaped finial, which is in similitude with Buddhist pagodas. One can learn that unlike Islamic mosques of the world which are designed as domes and minarets, this mosque is adorned with pyramidical rooftop. Another captivating mosque in the old city of Srinagar is Khanqah-i-Maulla; it represents wooden architecture and is decorated with papier -mache. It resembles Buddhist chaitya halls. Like Jama masjid it is structurally conical on the top of the roof while the wooden columns are used for substantiating the ceiling; something similar was seen in temples of medieval Kashmir.

Not only prominent structures were testifying the traditions of time, but even common houses and “palatial floating houses” vouched “a moving diorama of architecture soaked in the past”.

Every house had a wooden balcony attached with a room called dub. Taq, Dhajji Dewari, wood, mud and bricks (including khaam seari) were prominently representing the magnificence of architecture. Likewise, houseboats echo the detailed designs of Kashmiri architecture which entail double arcaded wooden cloisters with pinjra-kari (geometric wooden latticework) screens and khatamband (wooden pieces fitted into one another) ceilings.
Therefore, one can assume that all the shrines like Khanqahi Mualla, Naqshband Saheb, Dastgir Saheb including mosques, temples, houses, houseboats symbolise the intricate and refined testimony of architectural styles.

Where are we at present?

One will concede with the fact that Kashmiri architecture is at the verge of extinction. As we have inferred that art speaks about time but when it is perishing, it can’t even speak for itself. One recognizes the concoction of faith and culture in consensus with each other. Furthermore, ignorance and disconnection with history have profoundly amounted in ravaging Kashmiri art and culture. Ostensibly, one can assert that we are lagging behind in imbibing and cherishing our intriguing culture and heritage just because of our silo mentality.

Modernization and technology have been the primary factors for the shift in taste among the natives. The transition from a mud and wood house to cement and brick at the expense of vernacular architecture has consumed the valley in its grip, although this step was in direction for structural stability. Even insulation and comfort were trampled for the “cold modernity”. According to the study titled “Financial evaluation of different space heating options used in the Kashmir valley”, published in the International Journal of Ambient Energy, modern houses in the Valley had “poor insulation levels and loose-fitting doors and windows, thereby contributing to huge heat losses”, and which, in turn, leads to the long-term costs of heating during the harsh winters. The alteration also took place amongst prominent architectural structures. Saleem Beg, convener of the Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage lamented while referring to the reconstruction of the Chrar-i-Shareif shrine. He called it “inappropriate interventions” and “perennial infirmities” to the structure.

Natural calamities such as floods, earthquakes, water logging due to heavy rainfall, snowstorms, and windstorms too account for obliterating the heritage of the valley. The other issues faced by these edifices include theft, burglary, vandalism, deterioration due to age, electrical hazards, and decay due to lack of maintenance. Khanqah-e-Moula was damaged in 2017 due to fire. Chaar -e -sharif was gutted to ashes in 1995. The traditional pattern of the shrine was altered with a concrete structure which had no similarity with the old one. At many places, Mehrabs had been replaced with glass in the wooden frame and even paintings, carvings were battered due to new layers of paint. Temples are also in a shabby condition. Political unrest in the valley is adding fuel to fire as it is turning the symbol of rich culture into a bruised place.

The construction of modern structures by totally dismissing the rich culture is a gigantic boondoggle. It is imperative for the people to re-analyze what they are trading for their syncretic beauty because Kashmir, according to many, is a place which teaches the world about the balance of life with nature.

Our smidgen effort to mitigate the lacuna created by us can be valuable in resuscitating our heritage. We have to focus on 3r’s- Restoration, Resurgence and Resurrection in order to reconstruct our art and architecture. Our lives will be barren and desolate if we continued with the same attitude without any compunction. There is a dire need to address and come up with the measures for rebuilding our regional gem. Government and we as individuals should collaborate to bring our spiritual and vibrant Kashmir back.

We know the fact that if history gets erased, one loses one’s identity. Therefore, it is crucial for us to rejuvenate our pride. And it is worth mentioning what Leonardo da Vinci has propounded- “Beauty perishes in life, but is immortal in art”.

The author is Student of Delhi University


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