Monumental occupation

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View of fort of Mughal Emperor Hari Parbat also known as Kohi Maraan in Srinagar Photo: Bilal Bahadur

From troopers to traders, monuments in Kashmir are encroached by one and all. HAROON MIRANI reports on the plight of heritage sites facing rapid decay under occupation.

Most of state’s ‘protected’ monuments are facing encroachments in one way or other. At places these are occupied by troops, at others there are local traders inching their way in.

In 2007 when the Hariparbat fort on the Kohimaran hillock overlooking Srinagar city was briefly opened, officials were shocked to see new constructions raised in the fort. The CRPF deployed at the fort had unaccountable command over the place.

“A new temple was made and some repairs with cement were done that proved more harm to the fort made with lime and mortar,” says Salim Baig head of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a non-profit organization set up in 1984 to protect and conserve natural and cultural heritage.

Troops deployed at heritage sites have either erected constructions or misused parts of the monument.

At the Parimahal, the CRPF stationed in its periphery have turned a part of this historic observatory into a Kitchen.

View of historic Pari Mahal in Srinagar Photo: Bilal Bahadur

The Mughal Sarai, largest in the state, in Thanamandi Rajouri is completely occupied by Army. At many such places, the extent of damage is not known due to denial of access into the monuments.

The plight of occupied monuments does not end with the vandalizing by troops. Local government and people are equally responsible.

The crowded market in the compound of 400-year-old Jamia Masjid in Srinagar is known for its hustle and bustle. As popular as the Masjid itself, it apparently gets much more visitors than the Masjid.

As per the Ancient Monuments Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, the area within 100 meters of the monument is prohibited for construction. In extreme compulsions like space problem in a commercial area, the limit can be reduced to 50 metres. At the Jamia Masjid, the market is well within the compound that was once popular as Muslim park.

The aura associated the park around the majestic masjid is gone. The Muslim Park has been completely occupied by people choking the breathing space for this large structure.

According to Salim Baig, INTACH’s Kashmir Chapter head, “the historic buildings like Jamia Masjid and Pather Masjid have become part of modern commercial enterprises. One feels at a busy market-fare when visiting these historic masjids.”

Like the Jamia Mashid, the Pather Masjid built by Mughal Empress Noorjahan in 1620, is populated by shops and other buildings. Rampant constructions around the monument have destroyed the sublimity of the monuments.

Shopkeepers are also inching in at the Budshah Tomb (tomb of the mother of Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen (1420-70) in old city) where the compound walls appear part of the market today. The monument with a big dome, unique in Kashmir for its architecture, is situated on the right bank of the river Jehlum near Zaina Kadal. Contrary to the wooden structures of the Shahmiri period, Budsah Tomb is a wholly brick structure.

“It is not only the monument but the entire campus including the wall around the monument which is of historic value,” says Baig. “Unfortunately in case of Budshah tomb, the wall is almost gone.” Shopkeepers have carved shelves out of this wall and they are constantly moving in.

At many places, traders encroach with consent of officials. In the Dhara Shikoh Masjid near Maqdoom Sahib Shrine, a gym operated till recently. The Waqf Board had given them permission and they were further encroaching into the masjid.

In cases where the Waqf or the local management gives permission for commercial activities around the monument, traders are encouraged to encroach further.

“After being permitted by Auqaf for setting up a shop they know that nobody can remove them without compensation or rehabilitation,” says Baig. “Thus encroachment is further encouraging the encroachment.”

Encroachment is also rampant at Maharajgunj and Malkhah. Besides destroying the aesthetic value of the monument, encroachment also reduces its safety level.

Poet and social activist, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, attributes the apathetic attitude towards heritage to inefficient upbringing and commercialisation. “In the mad rush of commercialisation, we are converting into commercial enterprises, be it our homes or any heritage building,” says Zareef.

“There are hundreds of heritage buildings which have been destroyed by encroachers and people alike,” says Zareef. “The troopers inside Hari Parbat fort during their stay pulled the historic Deodar windows and made a bonfire of them in winters.”

“Same has happened with Kalai (wall around the fort) which has been converted into supporting walls, shops, or even bathrooms by the people residing near it,” he further adds.

He blames present education system and politics for the mess. “Our entire education system is alien to us and teachers too are no good at describing the importance of heritage,” says Zareef. “That is why heritage was conserved by illiterates in the past and destroyed by knowledgeable persons in present”. Encroachment has not spared graves of important personalities either.

“After destroying the residential house of Poet of Kashmir ‘Gani Kashmiri’ we have even lost his grave,” says Zareef. “One person first took out the tombstone from the grave and then built his house on it and nobody complains.”

The unique wall around the Hariparbat fort is a glaring example of encroachment. The five km long wall or Kalai around Hariparbat fort, which is longest in South Asia, is breathing its last largely due to people who reside around it. The problem gets compounded as the wall itself is not included in the protected site and only two of its gates are.

Some historic buildings are directly under official occupation. For instance, Noor Mahal in Nowshera Jammu houses a complete revenue department. Similarly a Tehsildar office operates inside Samba Fort.

Examples of encroachments removed from monuments are few. The most famous being the relocation of 21 offices from Mubarak Mandi in Jammu where the restoration work is in full swing.

There are 69 Centrally Protected Monuments in Jammu & Kashmir. In addition, 13 monuments in Kashmir division and 14 in Jammu division are protected by the state government.

The state government has been dilly dallying a Heritage conservation bill promised by successive governments to safeguard the 5000 year heritage. Experts say that even if the present laws were implemented in letter and spirit, heritage would have been conserved efficiently. Zareef, however, says that the situation can improve only when people change their attitude.

“We have to take it up to ourselves. What our elders left us, we consumed, now the question is what are we leaving for future generation,” says Zareef.

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