Kashmir’s Islamic Architecture

Kashmir has produced a lot of literature on ancient architecture involving the Buddhist and Hindu period. The deficit about the medieval Muslim era was filled by Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s book, The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir that was published by Taylor & Francis Group Company, Routledge recently

Masjid at Bijbehara near the shrine of Baba Nasibuddn Gazi. Pic: H Sameer Hamdani

Kashmir’s architectural traditions linked with Islam have mostly been studied as part of the Orientalist projects of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Most of these works, mostly in the latter period briefly touch the subject and are weak in the documentation and theoretical approach, lack the objectivity and rigour of a proper academic analysis and interpretation.

That is where Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s book The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir (Early 14th–18th Century) fills a historic gap. It investigates the historicity of a transcendent Kashmiri identity within the framework of Islamic religious architecture in the region, arguing that this genre of architecture transcends the established non-native building traditions linked with the Muslim faith, traditions that were adopted in designing Muslim religious buildings outside Kashmir in the wider geographical swathe of the subcontinent, in a time period contemporaneous to the establishment of Muslim rule in Kashmir.

Its major argument is that the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir is representative of a process by which the cultural manifestation of Islamic principles –functions were realized in a syncretic idiom of the existing Kashmiri identity. The book offers a new framework of syncretism and identity within which the understanding and appreciation of Kashmir’s Islamic religious architecture acquire new dimensions and possibilities.

In investigating the genesis of a transcendent Kashmiri identity, the book argues that the Islamic religious architecture is a vernacular expression of Islam exploiting the hitherto existing formal and material vocabulary of the syncretic past of Kashmir’s building tradition. Kashmir’s Islamic religious architecture critically and creatively engaged with the historical traditions and the forms of Buddhist and Hindu architecture while simultaneously articulating a unique Islamic identity and material culture. This genre of architecture subtly rejects the established non-native building traditions that were adopted in designing Muslim religious buildings outside Kashmir in the wider geographical swathe of the sub-continent, in a time period contemporaneous to the establishment of Muslim rule in Kashmir.

The uniqueness of Kashmir’s cultural identity, and consequently of the Islamic architecture, was further reinforced by the mountainous frontiers and the accompanying physical isolation of the land. This geographical predicament provided Kashmir with enough space to carve out its own architectural image, an image, which retained its cultural cohesiveness while assimilating outside influences that came with demands of the Muslim faith. In addition, this architecture was respectful of the cultural and religious landscapes of Kashmir and developed in a close affinity with the ‘place character’ of the previously existing ensemble of religious architecture.

The book has successfully attempted at a conceptual reading of the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir and in doing so has contextually located itself in the medieval period of Kashmir history spanning the entirety of Muslim rule in the region from the early fourteenth to mid-eighteenth century. Methodologically it has approached the understanding by examining buildings linked to this tradition and evaluated textual references against available archaeological data.

Masjid Malik Ahmed Yatoo, Srinagar. This mosque is an early example from the Sultanate period.

First Monograph

The book is the first such monograph devoted to the Islamic religious architectural traditions of Kashmir. It is a vital addition to any section dealing with the broader cultural and historical study of South Asia in the general and the architectural and spiritual history of Kashmir in particular. The book provides a detailed overview of the origin and development of Islamic sacred architecture of Kashmir on a scale not attempted so far, covering the entirety of Muslim rule in Kashmir during the medieval period, focusing on both monumental as well as vernacular architecture.

In doing so, it evaluates the entirety of buildings associated with this genre, in the changing historical and cultural context of the land. Richly illustrated with images, drawings and sketches, the book will is a timely addition to the expanding knowledge of Islamic architecture, especially the various regional trends associated with this architectural genre.

Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s book on Kashmir’s Islamic architecture manages a historic deficit

There is no recent book or monogram that provides an in-depth dedicated study of the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir.  This book only lists major historic buildings of Srinagar including those linked with Muslim religious architecture and does not provide any detailed analysis of the architectural development associated with this architectural genre.

The book provides a wealth of new data and illustrations which will be of use to a large audience, not only in art and academic circles but also for tourists, visitors, hobbyists, students and academics, historians, architects, artists, designers, the wider public, etc. More importantly, the book tries to articulate a theoretical framework within which the transition of Kashmir to Islam in general and the evolution of the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir can be better understood and appreciated. For the discipline of architectural history and other allied disciplines, the book proves to be an indispensable library resource, apart from also being of interest to professional institutes, public libraries, museums, cultural and heritage bodies and other similar bodies. The new research provides a wealth of new data and illustrations.

Masjid-i Sayyid Muhammad Madni, Srinagar. It has been constructed around the mid-fifteenth century.

Filling The Gulf

The book is of interest to the professionals, academics and students from Kashmir, India and Pakistan as well as the general public interested in the architectural and cultural history of South Asia in particular and the Muslim world in general. Books on Islamic religious architecture devoted to regional trends and variations have largely been missing in the market. It is particularly true for the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir as well.

Though the pre-Islamic artistic and cultural legacy of Kashmir, mostly involving Hinduism-Buddhism, has been widely studied even during the recent past, the same is not true for the art and architecture linked with Muslim traditions of the region. So this makes the book an interesting addition that fills a major academic deficit.

For the discipline of architectural history and other allied disciplines, the book will eventually prove to be an indispensable library resource, apart from also being of interest to professional institutes, public libraries, museums, cultural and heritage bodies and other similar bodies.

A Brief Outline

The book starts with a detailed narrative about how historically, Kashmiris’ have seen their land and described its uniqueness, drawing from ancient texts to writings in the medieval period. It is this uniqueness, reinforced by the geography of the land and its frontiers that has helped in framing the tradition of inter-determinacy between the land and its people giving rise to a shared feeling of sameness.

It provides an overview of how by the time Muslim rule commenced in Kashmir in the early fourteenth century, Islam the religion had already acquired a recognizable architectural image, an image which was also seen with the establishment of Delhi Sultanate, the closest major political centre to Kashmir.

The Muslim Rule

The establishment of Muslim rule in Kashmir in its formative period laid the ground for cultural syncretism. A detailed chapter examines the archaeological traces from this period and illustrates how rather than standing apart from the prevailing society by creating victorious monuments to faith, the Muslim Sultans of Kashmir tried to blend in with local customs and architectural practices.

From the initial decades of the formative period, the book expands in the subsequent chapter, to the late fourteenth-fifteenth century when the Sultanate of Kashmir expanded from its natural boundaries, drawing contact with surrounding lands and attracting attention of missionaries from the wider Persianate world.

Shrine of Sayyid Qasim, Khan Saheb (Budgam). It belongs to early nineteenth century with unique Kashmiri terracotta Brangh (Spire).

In analyzing the period the focus remains on how even though new ideas, materials and crafts were introduced in the region, yet local building traditions continued to be promoted by both the court as well as patrons outside the court. The chapter focuses on the role of native Kashmir Sufis linked with the Reshi order who effectively promoted the preservation of pre-Islamic cultural symbols, in face of an orthodox view emanating from non-native Persian speaking Sufis.

Besides, it examines the iconoclastic campaign that was launched by these non-Kashmiri missionaries in their efforts to remake Kashmir in a more orthodox image and the role of the Reshis in helping to assimilate past traditions within the boundaries of expanding Muslim community of Kashmir. How this process of assimilation was advanced within the boundaries of architecture is exhibited through a case study of cave shrines of Kashmir linked with the Reshis.

Mughal Kashmir

The fall of Kashmir to the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century resulted in two centuries of Mughal rule in Kashmir.

The book has dedicated a complete chapter to examine how the Mughals viewed Kashmir as a terrestrial paradise to enjoy and embellished the land with their architectural undertakings. Built in stone, the architectural outpourings of the Mughals in Kashmir marked the projection of an image of permanence of Mughal power and hold over Kashmir as well as their munificence in creating new spaces of worship for the locals.

Focusing on the various mosques and a shrine that the Mughal constructed in Kashmir, the work examines how these buildings were used to portray the durability of Mughal rule in Kashmir, yet were mostly abandoned by the Muslim community of Kashmir. The narrative argues that the architectural tonality of Mughal architecture in Kashmir, its rejection of local established building traditions was the reason why this architectural phenomenon lacked public acceptability.

An 1890 photograph of Khanqah and its adjoining homes taken from the banks of Jhelum.
An 1890 photograph of Khanqah and its adjoining homes taken from the banks of Jhelum.

The unenthusiastic reception of Mughal religious buildings amongst the Muslim community of Kashmir is contrasted with the reconstruction of the Khanqah-I Shah Hamadan during the closing years of Mughal rule in Kashmir. An analysis of how the reconstruction was undertaken in the native Kashmiri idiom at a time when central Mughal authority had collapsed in Kashmir helps in establishing the actual architecture of the building within the socio-cultural realities of its construction. The book expands on the theme of image, official patronage and local community involvement and the resultant shape that the reconstruction took.

Authority Declines

Continuing with the theme of the decline of central authority located outside Kashmir, yet another chapter analyzes how the local image linked with the designing of mosques, khanqahs, shrines and imambadas were re-established in the region, drawing on from community patronage, following the collapse of Mughal rule in Kashmir.

Hakim Sameer Hamdani

The chapter focuses on how under adverse socio-political conditions linked to Afghan and Sikh rule in Kashmir, the Kashmiri Muslim community remained the source of patronage for both preservations as well construction activities of Muslim places of worship. Expanding on the theme of a resurgent native architecture, the thesis posits that the community-based patronage of native architectural enterprise is both a testament to the existence of a real ‘community identity that the research associates with Kashmiri-ness as well a celebration of its syncretic culture. A culture that encompasses not only the architecture but also the entirety of the shrine traditions linked with the Muslim community of Kashmir.

The Conclusion

In conclusion, in order to show the contemporary relevance of this architectural tradition as well the cultural meaning behind it, the book offers an overview of the Islamic religious architecture of Kashmir in the twentieth century Kashmir, drawing on issues of traditions, change, identity, image, conservation and changing perceptions about past.

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