“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Ather pleads for preservation of Srinagar’s historical buildings

(Syed Ather Qayoom Rufia, 27, was born in Srinagar, and received his initial schooling from the Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School, Srinagar, and Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. He graduated as an Architect from the Rizvi College of Architecture, Mumbai. He is currently a partner in an architect and real estate development company in Srinagar. His personal interests are reading, writing and surfing the internet.)

Preserve the heritage, don’t destroy it

At a time when the world is moving successfully ahead, surprisingly, Kashmir for some mysterious reasons is going back to the future. Heritage means something being inherited and is a legacy from centuries. Any cultural heritage expresses the cultural diversity and wealth existing in the country and aids in defining its identity. The heritage intensifies the connection between the people and its land, the links between the community and the country’s cultural landscapes and those between man and his past, and contributes to social cohesiveness. The diverse and numerous cultural heritage assets in Kashmir are tangible archaeological and historical testimonies that give expression to the unique Kashmiri identity. They reflect the range of ethnic and cultural communities in Kashmir, and they tell us of our current identity and our past. The cultural heritage and its surroundings are a nonrenewable physical resource that cannot be replaced or copied. Cultural assets today are highly vulnerable and are constantly threatened by the ravages of nature and man, accelerated development that is accompanied by pollution, population growth and density, an increasing burden of internal and foreign tourism. The great sensitivity of cultural and historical buildings and sites requires that we actively protect, conserve, and present them, to enjoy them now and to bequeath them to future generations.

But unfortunately that is not the case in Kashmir. Local population seems least bothered in the concept of heritage conservation because in Kashmir for the past many years day-to-day survival has been the main concern. Government and semi-government bodies do not seem to have the concept, the capability and the resources to protect and conserve our heritage sites and buildings. As a result we are on day to day basis losing our most valued sites and buildings with respect to culture, architecture and historical importance. At present our heritage buildings with purely traditional architecture, which has now been transformed into the so-called modern architecture, can be seen in every nook and corner in the old city of Srinagar. These are our cultural treasures which need to be preserved. But on contrary these old and traditional buildings are not only being altered or vandalized but even being demolished. We can very clearly see the vandalization of the old “Ganda Singh building” in the heart of Lal Chowk. Some portion of the building is being forcibly possessed by the army and the other half can be seen altered at various places for different commercial purposes. The front façade of the building can be barely seen as it has large advertisement hoardings all along.

Adjoining this building is the old palladium cinema which is still in ruins and tells the same story. The estate building in Lal Chowk, which was burnt some years back, is still in ruins and the authorities do not seem to be bothered to make use of the building in the heart of the commercial hub of the city. There are numerous heritage buildings in Srinagar city which have not been altered but completely demolished for various reasons, mainly for commercial purposes. The latest such example which stunned almost every admirer of the historic and cultural fabric of the old city and many experts is the 150 years old heritage building, “Lal Ded Memorial School” situated at the right bank of the river Jehlum, opposite Shergarhi Palace. What is more surprising is that this demolition has come at a time when the authorities are engaged in the riverfront development of river Jehlum. The development plan seems to have more mechanical and engineering methods rather than more humane ones. Surely the demolition of this 19th century old heritage building can never fit in the development plan of the river Jehlum especially when the tourism department had proposed to convert the building into a cultural centre that would have housed a craft museum. It was a three storey building constructed with typical Kashmiri architecture and a part of its roof still had birch on it. What remains today of this historic building is its ground storey only.

The building was a construction of the Dogra period and ironically it served as the first office of the Srinagar Municipality when it was set up in 1886, and today the same department gave the nod for its demolition. The building was later converted into a school by the renowned poet, Pandit Deena Nath Nadim. On the basis of its architectural and historical significance, this 19th century building had been registered as a Grade-1 historical property. Every citizen of Kashmir has the right to question the Srinagar Municipality responsible for its demolition– that why such a building with such a historical importance was demolished, and why authorities from time to time change the built heritage and historical fabric of the city, and why all the development plans related to town planning lack this basic issue of conservation of heritage buildings. Why old heritage buildings are allowed to be demolished by the Srinagar Municipality so easily on a mere certificate from any civil or structural engineer declaring it unsafe? Srinagar Municipality ordered for the demolition of this 19th century old building (vide order no: SMC/KH/9978002 dated 23-01-2008) on the basis of some cracks after the earthquake. Weather any expert was even consulted by the corporation could be anyone’s guess. However observations of the experts from INTACH, an NGO working towards the heritage sites and buildings in the city, revealed a different story. There report clearly stated that the building was suffering from minor problems which could be easily rectified. In order to give more teeth to their findings, INTACH asked a renowned structural engineer, Rajindar Desai (consultant UNESCO) to examine the building and he in his report corroborated the findings of INTACH. On the basis of these findings, the tourism department had also written to District Development Commissioner, Srinagar for acquisition of the building. It still remains a question that why the recommendations of the experts were ignored by the Srinagar Municipality and why this historic building was not handed over to the tourism department by the civil administration for its development even after written request.

This blind eye by the authorities towards the historical fabric of the city has converted these old heritage buildings into an “endangered species”. At present a proposal by the government is on the table, which could result in the demolition of the sadder court in Lal Chowk, and in its place could come up a multi-storey shopping complex. The court complex houses the Dogra period buildings, which are a real treasure in terms of our built heritage. There demolition would be one huge blow to our built heritage in the city. It is time not only for the authorities but for the common people too to wake up to this vandalization of our built heritage.