A Muck of History

In Kashmir’s checkered history preserving records of the past have always been a priority. But with floods catching officials unaware a part of Kashmir’s rich history is turned into a heap of rubble. Safwat Zargar talks to officials to understand the quantum of loss.

The damaged records of State Forest Department being sun dried. Photo: Bilal Bahadur
The damaged records of State Forest Department being sun-dried. Photo: Bilal Bahadur

At Srinagar’s Sri Pratap Singh (SPS) museum, piles of artefacts and antique items are left out to dry in the sun. The floods of September 7 rummaged through centuries-old textiles, paper machie, manuscripts, exceptional paintings and ornaments. The skeletal remains of a woolly mammoth, unearthed in south Kashmir’s Pampore in 1931, is being spirit-washed. Mud-stained shawls and attires hang in the shade of the museum, a gust of wind flowing over Jhelum, waves the hopes of the revival of Kashmir’s flood-stained legacy.  The classic Buddhist knowledge: Gilgit manuscripts, only surviving at present, have also absorbed flood water.

“Most of the affect has been on organic products (40 per cent) and textiles (60 per cent) in the museum,” says Director, Archives, Archaeology & Museums, Mohammad Shafi Zahid, who is seeking expert consultation for preserving and retrieving the “affected” items. The “affected” textile items include an 18th century Map of Srinagar city, a kani shawl, woven over a period of 27 years by a Kashmiri artisan, Ghulam Amma Kaloo. It also includes royal attires of Mughal Period.

“The building remained in the water for about a week and the ground floor of the new museum building is still in water,” Zahid says. “We are in constant touch with the experts. They are arriving next week. Till then, under my supervision, we are giving all the preventive treatment to the affected objects.”

Asked whether the late intervention of experts might lead to further deterioration of the precious objects, the director says “for now we have employed all the local experts who are working on the communicated guidelines from various laboratories based outside the state. We have been able to salvage them.”

Reacting to the damages to the cultural and historical objects kept at the museum, some civil society groups and NGOs have launched campaigns to stress on the government to immediately involve experts from foreign countries so that they can be restored.

Built by Dogras in 1898, the museum approximately has 79595 artefacts covering Archaeology, Numismatics, Decorative Art, Arms and Armoury, Paintings and Textiles. Despite the completion of a five-storey building at the cost of Rs 28 crore, the foundation stone of which was laid by the then chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the building passed all the deadlines for the inauguration. The artefacts continued to remain in the old building constructed during the Dogra era. With recent floods, the old building too has suffered damages.

Few metres away from the museum, the officials at Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages are still busy counting losses and cleaning the muck. Alongside Jhelum, which runs parallel to the academy, submerged the old building for one week, seeping into the unique and precious cultural properties preserved in the academy. Around 50 out of the total 600 manuscripts are “affected by floods”, officials say. Of the 600 paintings, the floods “affected” 50 oil-on-canvas paintings.  Ten thousand books in nine languages, published by the academy, are a mound of paper-slush.

“Only ten per cent of the cultural properties are affected. We have contacted National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property (NRLC) Lucknow, for helping us in retrieving the precious property,” says Haroon Rashid, officiating secretary, Cultural Academy. “They have the latest technology and equipment. One of their team is visiting Kashmir in coming days and we are hopeful of retrieving the loss.”

The official, however, claims that some of the exclusive and unique cultural properties weren’t touched by floods. “We were aware of the situation and on September 6 shifted all the manuscripts and paintings to the upper floor. Since the upper floor was also submerged to a certain level, the effect on few objects couldn’t be avoided,” Rashid says.

The academy is famous for antique handwritten Korans, all of which, according to the officials, are safe. It houses an 800-year-old handwritten Koran Nusqa E Fataullah, which is the first Koran hand-written by a Kashmiri. Fifteen years back, representatives of Zurich library, Switzerland offered 50 crore rupees for this manuscript.

Khata E Nakhoon, a Koran copied and written by nail-impressions, several centuries back, survived the floods. Another historical marvel depicting Islamic legacy of Kashmir is a copy of Koran written in Saffron ink. In original Sharda script, Bhagavad Gita and its Persian translation, only one in the world, escaped the fury of floods.

The academy has famous paintings of M F Hussain, Bindra, Lakshmi Pai and G R Santosh, which weren’t touched by the floods. “The 50 affected paintings have dry mud on them. Since they are on acrylic, there won’t be any loss to the colour, but still, we have left them as they are, so as the expert team will take care of it,” Rashid says.

Ten per cent of the old jewellery, utensils and other artefacts have been affected by the floods, officials at the academy informed Kashmir Life.

More than 150 years old land and survey records kept at Directorate of Survey and Land Records, Bemina was only a few feet away from destruction. Hadn’t it been the pre-emptive effort of the departmental staff to shift the records from ground floor to upper floor, the land and survey records stretching from Jawahar tunnel to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PAK) would have been a pile of waste? “On September 2, we decided to shift all the records, which is in thousands of bags, to the upper floors of the building,” says Mohammad Ismail, section officer, who led a team of 25 members tasked with removing the records.

Interestingly, the building of land and survey records also known as Muhafiz Khana is few metres away from the flood channel in Bemina. The officials at the department also feel the danger of preserving historical land records in a vulnerable place like this. “If the water level would have reached to the second storey, where the records were kept, it would have been a disaster,” says Rashid Farooq, another official.

In 2006, the floods in Bemina had led to the damage of some of the records at the department. “The department was quick in responding to the incessant rainfall this time as we’d seen floodwater reach here nine years back,” Ismail says. “Our records are completely safe, even when the buildings remained in the water for ten days.”

Directorate of Stationery and Office Supplies, J&K, at Lal Chowk lost government stationery worth two crore rupees. Besides, the department completely lost all the official records. “The building was in the water for ten days and all the depots of stationery and government supplies were in the ground floor,” says Shafiq Ul Rehman, an official.

The floods also affected thousands of files of police records. According to police, 16 police stations and five police posts were hit by the floods. The loss is still being assessed. Hundreds of registers, scores of files of PSAs and killings, diaries, FIR registers and other records are currently being taken out in police stations.

“The cleaning process is on and we haven’t quantified the loss,” says Manoj Sheeri, Public Relations Officer, J&K Police. “At some places, we have kept the files to dry out in the sun. We will see what is retrieved and whatnot.”

Dozens of service books and files of CRPF were lying on road near Radio Colony in order to dry out in the sun. Rows of CRPF personnel stood circled around it. In Srinagar’s Badam Bagh Cantonment area, headquarters of Indian Army in the valley, the chief office of Army remained submerged in water up to two-stories for two weeks. When the water receded, army records of Leh and Kargil, construction records of the army in Kashmir and other valuable documents were a sponge.

In Srinagar’s Sadder court, even three weeks after the floods, it is hard to distinguish between filth and paper humps. Heaps of bedraggled files and affidavits still dot the court premises. Legal experts say the loss of records will create “delay” in delivery of justice as the files and records have to be created anew. On September 7, one of the breaches in Jhelum had occurred near the backside of court on the bund, inundating the buildings up to 20-feet in water.

“Currently we are retrieving the files. We will be assessing the situation in coming days,” says Rashid Ali Dar, Principal District and Sessions Judge, Srinagar. “Our record at nine courts, which was either stored in upper stories or first floor, is completely safe.”

According to Advocate General, Muhammad Ishaq Qadri, eighty per cent of the decided records at Jammu and Kashmir High court has been affected; in addition, Bar Association’s library in the court is almost entirely affected.

In Ishaq Qadri’s office at High court, the “damage” to equipment and records is more than eighty per cent. The records include cases of the high court, writ petitions, files of cases regarding the state and the Union of India. A seven-decade-old library in the court premises has ninety per cent damage.

“We are still assessing the damage. Once all the wet records are taken out, only then we’ll be able to decide further action,” says Qadri. “Since the records are damaged, it will be a time-consuming process. We have to rely on the files of lawyers and use the Photostat copies of evidence in their files. We might have to call back some witnesses in order to establish the file again.”

J&K state legislative council suffered the loss of equipment and infrastructures worth six crores, official sources say. The floods also washed away government records including service records, assembly history records, proceedings record and all the privilege motions. Among the destroyed files is the file of controversial former Army chief V K Singh. Officials also say that some of the records at MLA hostel have also suffered damages.

The ground floor of the civil secretariat which remained submerged for almost two weeks led to complete damage of records of various departments. The departments of Forest, Rural Development, Cooperative, Housing and Urban, National Informatics Centre and Transport have been handicapped of their official records by the floods.

At state government’s information department, mounds of newspaper archives lie submerged in brownish muddy water. The old dilapidated building of the department wears a look of a haunted building. Employees at the department are engaged in cleaning up the muck but the damage to the old records seems beyond repair.

“We have lost all the un-bonded records and some old newspaper cuttings,” says Joint Director, Information Shafqat Iqbal. “Some of the newspaper cuttings dating back to 60-70 years. Some of our official records has also suffered damage. Currently, we are drying them.”


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