Kashmir Cultural Centre


Kashmir’s idea of creating a cultural Centre is a sad tale of missed opportunities spread over almost half a century writes M Saleem Beg

Durbar Arrives Maharaja Partap Singh being taken to his palace in Srinagar in a huge boat. Photo Ottoo Hanigmann

Kashmir has variously been described as a crucible or a melting pot of different cultural streams and influences. These influences are home-grown and local in addition to those transferred through migrations and acquired by interactions with other societies and civilizations. This cross-cultural intermingling has given Kashmir a distinct and composite identity and has been celebrated historically through arts, architecture, and literature.

In early medieval era conquests and annexations by the powerful and expansionist neighbours were the norms. Kalhana, the twelfth-century storyteller, historian, and poet gave a glimpse into its mystical and harmonious moorings stating that “the country can be conquered by force of spiritual merits but not by faces of soldiers”. This explained Kashmir’s cultural depth and superiority in an age and world where force was the only mediating factor between countries and cultures. The spiritual prowess of great religions of Buddhism and Islam is a testimony to Kalhana’s insight and the socio-cultural plurality of Kashmir. 

Master Sanskrit and Persian writings help imagine Kashmir not only as a paradise but also an abode of Gods. Paradise has been described as eternal bliss and God’s ultimate creation. Again, Kalhana rings in the Sun, the life-giver of the universe when he states “in Kashmir, out of respect as it was, the sun does not burn fiercely during summer.”

Material Culture

Kashmir has a bit of all that the great twentieth-century public intellectual and eminent orientalist Edward W Said defined as ‘The Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of the previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these’.

Durimg one of his visits, Viceroy from India being taken to the Sherghari Palace in Srinagar.
During one of his visits, Viceroy from India being taken to the Sherghari Palace in Srinagar.

The Kashmir culture has drawn and built upon these fragments and imaginings. Studying the material objects of culture gives us a better understanding and appreciation for the complex lives of the people who interacted with those objects. Explains the polis project: “Material culture provides us insight into the nonmaterial culture, which includes the ideas, beliefs, habits, and values of the people. Material culture, tools, weapons, utensils, machines, ornaments, art, buildings, monuments, written records, religious images, clothing, and any other ponderable objects produced or used by humans”.

Cultural Infrastructure?

After having looked at different facets of culture and its relevance, we must now look at the issues of their preservation, promotion, and presentation.  In this regard, museums have always been and shall play a crucial role in preserving culture with careful documentation so that these are shared and understood by natives and those from different cultural backgrounds. However, the broader sweep of the cultural objects has a risk if remaining outside or non-focused if the cultural expression revolves just around the museums. That is where cultural centres under different nomenclatures become relevant.

A rare photograph showing Sheikh M Abdullah in the Royal Palace at Srinagar in late 1947.
A rare photograph showing Sheikh M Abdullah in the Royal Palace at Srinagar in late 1947.

These cultural centres are essentially dedicated to creative arts like art galleries, manuscripts, libraries, performing art spaces, crafts displays and spaces for live demonstrations and exhibitions. Many historic cities in the subcontinent have been able to cater to this felt need and many cities have more than one centre catering to each segment or a group of segments under a roof. These cultural centres are more than museums even though in many cases, museum objects do find their presence. Jammu and Kashmir, with its vast and diverse historic and ancient material objects, also picked up the concept of establishing such centres.

The SPS Museum

The first and by far the most important institution of substance is the Sri Partap Singh Museum established during the Dogra period in the 1890s at Royal premises on the Jhelum riverbank. It is noteworthy that the initial collection of textiles, exquisite shawls, and craft objects came from the Maharajas personal collection in Tosh Khana and the palace. Cognizance of the deep cultural roots and outpourings of Kashmir over two millennia led the Dogra rulers to hunt and assemble a respectable collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures and other art objects that are now the prized possession of the museum.  While this museum provided respectable space for historic objects, the collections tended to remain mostly static except for some small gaps when people of merit and understanding played a role in enhancing the collections.

Sher Ghari Palace

 Abhinav Gupt Centre

Soon after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah returned to power in 1975, the Jammu and Kashmir government thought about enhancing the cultural infrastructure and a process of setting up of cultural centres was initiated. Accordingly, a centre each was planned for the twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar.

The centre at Jammu was named after Acharya Abhinav Gupt, the great twentieth-century Kashmiri Shaivite scholar and a humanist. The name was proposed by Dr Karan Singh, former Sadr-i-Riyasat, and the scion of the erstwhile Dora dynasty and a scholar of Hinduism. Then, he was a member of Lok Sabha from Udhampur when he suggested to Sheikh the first-ever cultural centre be named after this great philosopher.  This centre came up at Jammu in 1978 with attendant facilities.

Nestled below the imposing Mughal Fort is the shrine of Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom.

This Acharya Abhinav Gupt centre has been a focal point and great support for furthering the cultural heritage with significant exposure to the other cultures represented through performances, music, drama, and art exhibitions. This infrastructure was further augmented by setting up Kala Kendra across the Tawi in the last decade of the twentieth century. Kala Kendra has the largest display space in the whole of North India, though there has always been a lament locally that its infrastructure has remained grossly underutilized.

Tahzeeb Mahal

The Kashmir centre, named Tahzeeb Mahal, was proposed to be set up in the historic Emporium Garden, the fabulous garden that earlier housed the British Residency during Dogra rule. Sheikh Sahab had grand plans for this centre due to his deep respect and knowledge of the cultural diversity represented through both material and intangible heritage and the multicultural dimensions of Kashmir. The Emporium garden with its grandeur was an appropriate choice.

A view of Hari Niwas where state government functioned during the flood. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

However, after his death, the administrators decided to construct a bridge across River Jhelum close to the Zero Bridge with the alignment that would pass through the site of the proposed Centre. The location for Tehzeeb Mahal was shifted in the mid-80s to the banks of Dal Lake near Nehru Park. When all the preparations for design and appointment of consultants were made and in fact the architectural design received, a High Court order banned construction along the banks of the lake. This site was again abandoned.

During Omar Abdullah government, Tehzeeb Mahal was revived the third time and the site at Tourist Reception Centre near the Polo ground was selected for its construction. The State Road Transport Corporation which was operating a bus service from a portion of the site was shifted out and the whole land was given to Jammu and Kashmir Projects Construction Corporation for the construction. The architectural design approved by the government envisaged a 1.20 lakh sq ft complex at the initial cost of Rs 69 crore with a 600-seat auditorium, 100-seat seminar hall, galleries, book shop, cafeteria, and attendant facilities.

The foundation stone was laid by the Chief Minister in 2013 and three years were given to JKPCC for its completion. It was not to be so, again, for some unknown reason. In October 2018, an announcement was made that the project has been shelved as the site is located in a high traffic area. Till then around Rs 8 crore had already been spent on the construction.

SPS Museum Srinagar

The land was restored to SRTC and an announcement was made that Tahzeeb Mahal shall now be set up at Hari Niwas Palace, a prime location along the Lake. Hari Niwas has a chequered history. It had already been converted into Chief Minister’s residence by Ghulam Nabi Azad in 2006. Interestingly in 2004, the Mufti Mohamad Syed government had also decided to shift SPS Museum to Hari Niwas which at that point in time was under the possession of the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s intelligence organisation. In 2006, Azad suddenly decided, presumably at the suggestion of security agencies, that Hari Niwas should be converted into Chief Minister’s official residence. He did compensate for this change by sanctioning a new building for the SPS Museum, however. The new building was hurriedly constructed at the SPS museum site and the museum got new premises.

Another side detail of this drama is that Azad lost his government even before he could shift in this new building. The haunted history of Hari Niwas came to light when it was revealed that Maharaja Hari Singh who had initially got this building constructed for his use in 1946, lost his Riyasat just when all preparations for his shifting to the building were put in place.

Back To Old Era

The next candidate in line for setting up of a full-fledged cultural centre, not by the old name of Tahzeeb Mahal, is the Shergarhi complex. As of now, this seemingly is happening as the complex has been declared a protected monument under the erstwhile Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 2010 in June 2017. After the issuance of the notification, offices within the complex were shifted out from the notified buildings. 

Subsequent to this and as a follow-up measure, a decision was taken in December 2019 that the facilities for an elaborate cultural centre will be provided at the Shergarhi Complex.

Shergarhi is a historic precinct and a complex that is ideally suited for this purpose and one wonders why this could have not been done in the first instance. This complex befits the centre as it links Kashmir with its recent past.

The words Shergarhi literally translates into tigress fortress. This inspiring complex was originally erected as a fortress by Amir Khan Jawansher, the Afghan Governor in 1772. It is said that the stones for the fortress were collected from a Mughal Garden in Srinagar. In the present context, this would be deemed as vandalization of a monument but it was the order of those times to collect material from an existing monument for construction of a new one. This site is known to have been the royal palace of King Ananta who ruled Kashmir in 1062-63. 

A Visitor’s Record

by William Wakefield

Situated on the left bank, it presents to the river, which flows along its eastern side, a long loop-holed wall, with bastions rising between twenty and thirty feet above the general level of the water, surmounted by roomy, but lightly-built, houses. Its southern and western sides are protected by a wide ditch; the Kut-i-Kul canal bounds it on the north, and in its interior are grouped a number of dwelling-houses for the officials of the court, government offices, and barracks.

Guards outside the Maharaja Palace, a picture of 1870

On its wall, facing the river, and perched upon one of the bastions, is a large double-storied house, the abode of the Dewan or Prime Minister, and just below his residence is a long lofty building, the government treasury, containing shawls, pushmeena, coin, and other valuable property.

A curious-looking wooden building comes next, the Rang Mahal or ‘audience hall,’ a part of the royal residence, which is just below it, styled the Baradarri, and which is unquestionably the most important modern structure in Srinagar. It is a large irregular building of a peculiar style, for while partly of native architecture, one portion, with a large projecting bow, partakes somewhat of an European character.

A flight of wide stone steps leads up from the water’s edge at the angle of this building, and conducts into the palace. Adjoining is the temple frequented by the ruler and family, called the Maharaj-ke-Mandir, the domed roof of which is covered with thin plates of pure gold, which glitters in the sunlight, causing it to be plainly perceptible a long distance away.

To reach the interior of the palace, one ascends by the before-mentioned steps, which at all times of the day appear thronged with people, some waiting to prefer petitions to the sovereign or his ministers as they descend to their boats, others to obtain a hearing or justice, which is here administered in open court daily by the governor. To the more private portion of the palace they have no access; for, guarding the gateway at the top of the stairs which leads directly into the royal abode, stands a sentry, a warrior belonging to the Kashmir army and near-by is the guard-room, what we should call in our service the main-guard.

(Excerpted from his book The Happy Valley: Sketches of Kashmir & the Kashmiris that was published by British Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington in 1879)

A statue of Gulab Singh at Amar Mahal Palace, Jammu.

After Afghans, Sikh rulers used it as the seat of their administration till 1846, when the English sold Kashmir.  Subsequently, it became the seat of power and the palace of Dogra rulers till 1947. During the Dogra period, it underwent massive changes and was renovated in Greco-Roman style with Grecian columns. The palace served as the formal residence of Dogra rulers and most of the interiors were redone to suit their requirement.

The residential part of the palace stayed there till 1925 after which it was shifted to the banks of the lake. However, the state administration and the Assembly continued to function from there.

The Maharajas would conduct public hearings at a place where later the legislative complex came up. The Basant Bagh ghat, just across the palace, and the Royal Ghat lie on both sides of the River Jehlum. The petitioners used to ferry to the palace premises from Basant Bagh ghat where a chabutara was built that served as the waiting space for the petitioners. A huge bell hung over the chabutara on a Chinar tree to call the petitioners. The palace has a private temple, Gadhadar temple for Maharaja where he would offer prayers before meeting petitioners. 

Dr Arthur Neve, a Christian missionary whose contributions to Kashmir’s health care are next to none, has described the palace like this: “the Shergarhi within the city contains city fort and palace, 400 yards by 200 yards; its walls are 22 ft high; the inner space contains the state apartments, government offices, and barracks. The modern buildings of Shergarhi are in contrast with the rest of the city and diversified in style.”

The entire complex, now in the possession of the Department of Museums, Archives, and Archaeology, comprises of the Durbar hall building (erstwhile legislative assembly building), the Secretariat, Archives building, Gadhadar temple, the Ghat, and the Ceremonial Corridor linked to the hall.

The December 2019 government decision envisages setting up of a museum, art gallery, craft museum and a city museum. The space, location, and architectural style at the site is ideal and most suited for a cultural centre that represents the best that Kashmir has to offer in terms of its creative arts, artefacts, and knowledge systems existing in its wealth of manuscripts and literature. The present dispensation whose knowledge and view of a vernacular culture of Kashmir is at best scanty seems to be delivering an infrastructure whose dream remained only in the realm of proposals of the popular Governments for the last about forty years.

Eein saadat ba zori-bazoo neest

(The author is Convener INTACH and former Director General Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir)


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