“Where are you girls?” asked a Kashmiri friend over the phone, trying hard to sound nonchalant. It was past two in the afternoon and barely a few hours since Anisha, my comrade through my travel in Kashmir, and I had been walking through downtown Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir.
We were close to the copper goods market near the Zaina Kadal or Zaina bridge. Wandering around the bylanes, we couldn’t keep track of time. She clicked photos of copper utensils and I found myself staring at walls and roofs of homes on this rainy day in Srinagar.
Our Kashmiri friend said he was coming to take us somewhere. It seems that he had got a tip for the “Twenty 20” that was to commence soon. For those acquainted with cricket, this refers to a day-long match with 20 overs for each team. Yet, as we learned, in the lingo of Srinagar boys, this was the name given to the frequent interaction between inhabitants and the Indian military forces, one side throwing slogans and stones, another tear gas, pellets and so on. Downtown in Srinagar is reputed to be dangerous and almost considered a no-go for non-inhabitants. Yet its architectural features and beauty it showcases are alluring.
As we awaited our dutiful Kashmiri friend’s arrival, we entered a traditional bakery, where we were fed a lot more cookies than we had paid for. Within minutes, there he was, in his Maruti 800, convincing us to head to the Jamia Masjid, considered to be the most important mosque in the city. Situated in the heart of downtown, this large mosque was constructed in the late 14th century. From there we proceeded to the Khanqah, a historical shrine that is dedicated to the Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdan, a crucial figure in the spread of Islam through the Valley. This was perhaps the most beautiful religious building I saw in Kashmir—wood, reds, greens, intricate papier-mâché work on walls and an overall air of tranquility.
A long conflict in Kashmir over the past three decades along with heavy-handed administration by the Indian government means that protests and shutdowns are commonplace. Downtown Srinagar, usually the center of demonstrations has therefore gained a reputation for being unsafe and risky—but anyone who has visited the area will tell you it is nothing like it sounds.
An aspect of the beautification of traditional buildings in Kashmir, which has stayed with me as I think about Kashmiri architecture, is the use of papier-mâché. Though it has become somewhat of a dying art here, several specimens can be seen around downtown, including an ancient one dating back to the 15th century. In that era it would have been carried out by Iranian craftsmen who had been brought here. Floral motifs dominate the papier-mâché artwork, which is now very rarely spotted outside houses or on ceilings of homes.
I headed to a lawn behind Khanqah, which is just by the river Jhelum and one can view the Pathar Masjid from there, a white domed mosque. This is where I could see what I would call a very typical downtown Srinagar aesthetic—a bridge in the distance by the river Jhelum, copious amounts of barbed wire, and the two to three-story wood and brick traditional homes with their protruding balconies that remain for me this neighborhood’s star attraction.
Owing to their irresistible beauty, shrines such as Khanqah have come to be popular sights, but it is rare to find the area of downtown as a must see in your typical guides of Srinagar. Once called the Sher-I-Khaas, or the special city, the downtown area of Srinagar follows the flow of the river Jhelum. Unsurprisingly, thus, one can trace the area through the kadals or bridges present here.
The neighborhood is a visual delight for those who love shades of grey, browns, as well as maroons. The design and layout of homes around here give visitors a sense of the heritage and culture of the close-knit Kashmiri people. The winding lanes of this packed part of Srinagar has homes built so close to each other that they often share walls or even masonry.
Ta-Ha Mughal, Project Architect for Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage told me a little more about the design of the wood and brick houses that I was so fascinated with.
“A large number of the houses in downtown, which are still functional today were based on traditional architectural principles, such as wooden bracing structures and beams, which aimed at minimizing effects of floods here,” he explains. Newer buildings, usually relying on brick and mortar to solidify the structure of a wall are therefore different than these buildings whose structure is determined by wooden panels where bricks are used to fill in the gaps.
The area is flood-prone yet there are houses that have survived for more than one hundred or two hundred years. Walls bend to one direction or seem wobbly, but I am assured that they are stable and having stood the test of time, they live on to tell the tale. Special features, such as the protruding balconies (or the dub, as they are called here) and shared walls which sometimes allow access to neighboring homes to others can intrigue architects and visitors alike.
Mughal, who is also the founder and CEO of WARUK, an arts collective, explained the significance of the dub, which is a cantilevered balcony. "Functionally, the dub serves as an extension of space from within the house and has been the most sun-lit part of the house during winters."
Shedding light on the cultural significance of the dub, he continues, “When barats (wedding processions) used to pass through the streets of Srinagar, due to the social norms of excluding women from publicly participating there, the dubs allowed women to view and join the barats by way of the dab.”
Visiting this part of Srinagar shows the stark contrast from other parts where greenery is in abundance and residences have large areas to themselves. A typical house here is tightly packed with others and in some instances has access to another through shared walls and doors on the second or third story of the house. Historically, when snow would make an eight to ten-foot barrier on roads, blocking all access to the outside world, these interconnected houses not only allowed inhabitants to visit each other but also came in handy during medical emergencies.
If you want to visit, be warned, a heavy dose of reality awaits in this heritage space: you will see broken windows, a maze of lanes, bunkers with soldiers, barbed wire and anti-oppression graffiti. Interesting as it is, downtown is certainly not for everyone, particularly the traveler who visits Kashmir after hearing the famous Amir Khusrao quote (“If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this”).
If you want to, however, see the life of average Kashmiri and what their home is like, this is the place for you.