Broadcast journalist, Iqra Akhoon who produced a rare and well-received heritage web series focusing on the life and times around the historic bridges of Srinagar, jots down the highs and lows of a challenging half-year project that helped her rediscover the city of Kashmir.
In history, each thread of the past weaves the vibrant fabric of the present, and only by unravelling its patterns can one truly decipher the beauty of existence. That is true for Srinagar, the City of Kashmir, where history has flown through the Jhelum beneath its cantilever bridges, waiting to be rediscovered. That was how Pul Se Pul Tak: Rediscovering Srinagar, The City of Bridges, was born.
I wanted to embark on a sort of poetic journey to rediscover the past using the enchanting streets of Shehr-e-Khaas and the bridges as the mute witnesses of history. I wanted to feel the heartbeats of an era gone by.
Easy said than done, creating a 13-part audio-visual series with 20 minutes each, that would demystify the folklore and tell-tales of the past was a huge challenge. Hunting a team comprising like-minded was the first challenge. I needed a researcher, fact-checker, coordinator, camera person and many more. TV usually is not a solo show. I was fortunate to cobble up the team within days. Soon, a couple of sponsors agreed to partner. Overnight, the team became a single organic unit.
The resource persons had been located at the concept stage but making the ordinary residents part of the sojourn was a much bigger tension. As we set foot in uneven streets, vibrant markets and lanes brimming with life, we carried with us not just cameras and equipment, but a profound purpose. It was a challenge, an adventure, and a poetic big to discover a time machine and get into it. It was a scorching summer.
These bridges existed in a slightly different form before the medieval Sultanate era. Historians assert that an assembly of boats would help people crossover and during tensions, these makeshift bridges would either go up in fire or be removed by the conflicting powers.
Once we set foot on the first bridge, there was no looking back. When the team hanged its boots, half of the year had gone by. Within the newsroom, it was a peculiar sarcasm that exhibited the frustration over the delay and outside it was sweating days and on-shoot on-bridge brunches that added to the hunger. From nearly 80 hours that we recorded, only 292 minutes were used!
On June 23, 2023, the response was lacklustre when the curtain-raising episode was webcast. Disappointed, I might have given it up, had there been too many stakeholders for the initiative. The first episode featuring Aali Kadal indicated that the efforts have not been washed away. It was received well and it proved a morale booster.
Constructed by Sultan Ali Shah, the brother Budshah in 1415 CE, the first bridge of Srinagar was crafted entirely from wood, this bridge is often mistaken to have been built during the Afghan period. The bridge had to be resurrected after the 1892 floods. Later, it went up in flames and rebuilt.
While filming, we encountered some amusing incidents. I remember a washer-man getting into the frame uninvited to respond to a question that I had asked for a resident. “Hey, listen, I know the answer. It was built by Ali.” I asked, “Which Ali?” To our surprise, he retorted: “Ali, the contractor, who also happened to be a washer-man like me.” The twist gave the episode its identity and a reason for viewers to burst into laughter.
This bridge is often trekked by people to purchase the authentic Harrisa, a famous Kashmir delicacy for which history’s first shop was set up. Once a bustling business hub, it was the address of history’s worst money lenders. Surrounded by shrines and temples, one has to cross this bridge to reach the city’s oldest Masjid, and Malichmar, the city’s first Muslim settlement.
Budshah has been Kashmir’s biggest medieval builder. Zaina Kadal stands as a testimony to his legacy. The legend is that Budshah suffered from a severe illness, and was treated by Pandit Ved Koul and post-recovery, he commissioned the construction of the bridge, which took six years to complete.
Located at the centre and the crowded centre of the city, the bridge holds a unique identity in the city’s lore. Business apart, it was the epicentre of rumours. Like the first whispers of the wind, these rumours, took flight here and then swirled throughout the city. Over time, this practice may have shifted to Amira Kadal for practical reasons, but the belief persists that the first rumour holds an elusive, intrinsic truth, reminding us of the city’s ever-evolving narrative and the enduring significance of Zaina Kadal in its history.
Zaina Kadal is part of folklore unlike other bridges – gaiy ho gaiy ho zanne kadal thoukh (it slipped into the depths of Zaina Kadal) is one Kashmir saying. In the Dogra era, it was the address of a phaasi koot, a gallows where the people would be hanged to convey the write of the ‘state’. During the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh, a jail emerged at Khojjeyarbal, only to be shifted to the periphery much later. It was natural to become home to the city’s first police station at SR Gunj.
The bridge that had two shop-lines on either side was destroyed many times, once in the 1893 floods. Early twentieth century, Maharaja Hari Singh dismantled it to pave the way for a new structure to meet the evolving demands of modern transportation. Post-partition it was redone.
It was the market that gave centrality to the bridge and the locality. Dynamic and evolving, it eventually became a cluster of markets- Gaadeh Koache, Maharaja Bazar, SR Gunj, Siraj Bazar, Zarab Khan, and many more. As times passed, the residents relocated to different parts of Srinagar, transforming their homes into complexes and shop lines. It is a complete market. “Send a young girl to the market and she will come out with everything that a bride requires,” I remember a resident telling me. Ghulam Mohammad Noor Mohammad, Tajirani Kutub, Kashmir’s first publisher and book retailer, still operates from this place.
Zaina Kadal was a hub of politics. It was upstairs in the bookshop, where the historic Reading Room operated. The meeting place for eminent Kashmir personalities, Kashmir’s freedom movement literally was conceived in that room.
The cluster was so political that a tailor, Ghulam Nabi Lone, who playfully referred to himself as Stevenson Ghulam Nabi Lone, wore a badge on his chest, declaring, and “Don’t discuss politics with me.” In contrast, this badge actually encouraged people to discuss politics with him only!
Almost at the centre of the city’s heritage and culture bowl, Zaina Kadal is encircled by an array of temples, mosques, and shrines. It is the address of the shrine of Sheikh Yaqoob Sarfi, Noor Jenah constructed Pathar Masjid, the elegant Budshah Tomb (where his mother and not him is buried), Mazar-e-Salateen, an exclusive cemetery for Shahmiri Sultans. Times change. Much later, as Srinagar fell victim to an epidemic, a shortage of space made people use the vacant space that dead Sultans had spared.
Folklore is that the King of China had sent a jade stone to Kashmir as a burial marker for Budshah, which would cast a luminous glow at night along the banks of Jehlum. During the Sikh era, the precious stone was removed.
The incredibly positive response to the Zaina Kadal story overwhelmed my team. People started acknowledging the hard work we put in. I remember an encounter with a septuagenarian, who came across as quite self-assured and started demanding a gold chain for answering my question. An awkward and uncomfortable situation for me was good television!
Commissioned by Sultan Fateh Shah in 1520, Srinagar’s third bridge has a fascinating history. Currently looking like an elongated caged tunnel, it originally was constructed with the finest deodar wood, regarded as the world’s best wood due to its incredible strength and durability.
Rather than its iron frame, I will remember it as a day engaging with camera-phobic individuals, who, encased by the walls of both emancipation and apprehension, hesitated to express themselves fearing any word might unintentionally objectify their personal subjectivity and might question their role in the area’s developmental journey. As soon as the camera appeared, people, mostly women discreetly concealed their faces, making it quite challenging for us to capture the essence of the bridge and the life that surrounds it.
Fortunately, however, some carefree elders filled the gap. We had the privilege of meeting a remarkable nonagenarian, an erstwhile baker. His insights resonated well with the changing environs of the belt. Using the cost of the cxot, Kashmir bread, to measure the change, he said the humble cxot priced at Rs 5, now has to compete with French pastry selling Rs 80-100. “Would it be able to compete?” he asked. “It is akin to comparing Pakistan with America – would it be able to?” My confirmation brought his interesting laughter to the camera.
The iron-grilled ‘bridge’ does not prevent Fateh Kadal from being an opulent market of showrooms of Kashmiri art and craft. Once foreign visitors would come by boats or tongas to purchase Kashmiri wood and papier-mâché products. After the 1990s, however, the area lost its glory, and the once-majestic buildings now stand in ruins, abandoned by their owners. I had the opportunity to visit a Kashmiri wood workshop where individuals over the age of 60 diligently carved intricate designs on wood. Their fortunes had taken a downturn, and they attributed their plight to the government, blaming it for the lack of support in revitalizing their business and expanding the reach of their wood-carved products, which had once enjoyed high demand in foreign markets.
The bridge serves as a crucial link between two significant localities: old Fateh Kadal and Urdu Bazar. During the Mughal era, development and infrastructure predominantly thrived on the right side of the bridge in Shehr-e-Khas. However, the construction of Pathar Masjid on the left side by Empress Noor Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, shifted the focus, attracting visitors to that area. Subsequently, Mughal armies established their presence on the left side of Fateh Kadal Bridge.
Urdu Bazar is a locality that is not restricted to Srinagar. It dates back to Kashmir’s Mughal occupation when the Bazar emerged for recreation and purchases. Mistakingly linked to the Urdu language, the fact is that it has evolved from the Turkish word ordu, which means a camp or an army. So it was sort of a garrison market.
This bridge was also devastated initially in the 1893 flood, was rebuilt by Partap Singh in 1902 and later reconstructed during Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s reign. Recently, it has been reconstructed with iron, rendering it unable to support transportation and is exclusively for pedestrian traffic. For transport, a cement-iron bridge exists.
This bridge gave me the impression that the generation gap is real. The older generation, their wisdom etched deeply in the lanes and buildings, gifted us prayers and blessings, echoing the traditions of generations past. In sharp contrast, the millennials, the new generation, with their exuberant spirit and distinctive attitudes, shouted, Eayss Gaiy Badal (we are different). This gap, interestingly, lacks a middle ground.
This locality once had the major population of Srinagar’s Pandit population and was a mixed locality, is now home to migrants from Gurez, Karnah and many other places. Residents like Mohammad Ramzan, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Ghulam Nabi, and Abdul Gafar expressed a heartfelt desire to see the return of their erstwhile neighbours.
The old building structures still stand as poignant testaments to the past, showcasing the unique style and materials used by the Kashmiri Pandits, affectionately referred to as batte makan for their distinctive style.
Habba Kadal, originally known as Habib Kadal, was constructed in 1515 CE by Sultan Habib Shah, the last Shahmiri ruler. An alternative, though unsubstantiated, account weaves a tale of romantic devotion, suggesting that Yousuf Shah Chak, during his rule, built the bridge as a homage to his beloved, Habba Kahtoon.
A cluster of temples scattered across the locality gives an impression of Haba Kadal’s not-so-distant past. Purusyar Mandir, Somyar Mandir, Drabi Yar Mandir, and Raghunath Mandir grace the vicinity. What’s particularly striking is the shared custodianship of these temples by the Muslim community, reflecting the harmonious coexistence of diverse faiths in the area, which is rarely talked about. There is also the historic Agha Hamam Masjid, a mosque made of stones and believed to be nearly 150 years old, adding a layer of historical and architectural significance to the spiritual tapestry of Habbakadal.
A relic from the past in the area, the SD Girls School is a testament to this enduring tradition. This co-ed school, mostly for Pandit students, would organise an open market on the bridge community where the students would sell their books from the previous class. For decades, this was the source of syllabus text for part of the city till prosperity changed the market. Here, people say the new generation is struggling with unemployment.
This bridge was also devastated in the 1893 floods and was reconstructed. Originally crafted entirely from wood, now only the base retains its wooden heritage, with the rest fortified with cement and iron. The old bridge underwent a thorough review in 2013, involving an investment of Rs 2.30 crore, and was reopened in 2015. Now, the historic bridge is undergoing a beautification process as part of the Smart City project.
Given different names, Nawakadal is believed to have been constructed by Noor ud Din Khan in 1666 CE. Some historical accounts differ and attribute its creation to Afghans.
Residents appeared to have fewer memories to cherish and share. Their history seemed burdened with recent troubles, leaving them with a sense of resilience and strength in the face of their collective history. We encountered a challenge when residents were hesitant to open up, making our quest to uncover the past more challenging.
With the invaluable contributions of my research team, especially Hashim Zakir, Babra Wani, and Insha Sheerazi, who delved into numerous relevant books, alongside the insights from experts like Zareef Sahab, M Salim Begh, and Sameer Hamdani, we managed to piece together some essential information about the bridge.
On the left corner of the bridge, I had a unique encounter with a woman working as a baker in a four-generation-old kanderwan. In our hour-long conversation, her eyes revealed a deeper story, and her words conveyed a multitude of experiences, encapsulating the complexities of her identity, as she transitioned from guarded silence to heartfelt expression, unveiling a river of emotions and experiences within one individual.
The lyrical echoes of Nawakadal college koota namawar, Atti paran kam kam janawar, resonated with a unique charm. In the midst of joyous wedding ceremonies and visits to Nawakadal, the college took centre stage in my thoughts, overshadowing even the bridges that defined the area. This institution, established in 1961, stands as the pioneering beacon of higher education in Shehr-e-Khas, committed to nurturing excellence and the empowerment of women through the gift of education. Perched on the river banks, it remains the sole higher education institution dedicated to women, with a remarkable journey from its modest beginnings with 19 faculty members and 50 students. Students continue to enrol in diverse courses at Nawakadal College, and a mere wall separates it from the Higher Secondary School Nawakadal, where I completed my twelfth grade in 2012, with a noticeable lack of progress in the infrastructure and facilities since my time there.
The bridge is crucial to the connectivity of historically and culturally rich localities of Jamalata, Bulbul Lanker, Narwara, Nawakadal Main, Arampora, Khandabawan and many more with some of them linked to distinct professions. Jamalata is known for the mutton traders. Once a hub of hides, the trade has literally evaporated.
Nawakdal houses the shrine of Hadrat Sharaf-ud-Din Abdul Rehman, known as Bulbul Sahib. His Kashmir arrival in 1320, during Rinchanshah rule, marked a transformative period in the region’s history.
Again, the 1893 flood devastated it. In the twentieth century, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah initiated its reconstruction in 1953, yet the project remained unfinished, and it was left to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad who oversaw its completion, albeit with a narrower width. In 1981, it went up in flames and was rebuilt.
Safakadal initially seemed uninteresting, much like biscuits without tea. However, it held historical worth as the main parking space of Silk Route traders. West Asian traders from Samarkand, Yarkand, and Bukhara traversed the Silk Route to reach Kashmir. The still-existing Yarkand Sarai bears testimony to the enormous foreign trade that Kashmir was engaged with. A local baker still bakers peculiar Yarkandi’s bread and quite a few could not go home when the region’s political geography changed.
It is now home to a few families from Ladakh. The Sarai buildings show the wear and tear of time. Yet, this cluster of buildings has weathered the storms of history, standing resilient through the devastating floods of the 1890s, the 1950s, and even the major earthquake of 2005. The inmates harbour a genuine fear. They worry that the government might someday claim the dwellings, leaving them displaced and uncertain about where to turn.
The bridge constructed in 1671, bears the legacy of Mughal governor Saifuddin’s leadership during the reign of Aurangzeb. He served Kashmir’s governor twice and was committed to the region’s development.
Historians are divided over its origin. Some firmly credit Saifuddin, an Afghan governor, while others maintain it was a Mughal-era governor who laid the bridge.
The bridge has evolved into a vital lifeline connecting two essential pathways: the SMHS and SKIMS hospitals. In its vicinity, neighbourhoods like Derishkadal, Nalmandpur, Safakadal, and Watalkadal thrive, each rich with its cultural heritage and religious landmarks.
Though the idea was to get into the history, the people there were more concerned about contemporary times. A man outside a Fair Price Shop asked me how he and his family could survive with 4kg of rice per person each month. This encounter led me to connect with Kashmir’s tomli ghats of the yore.
These ghats along the river banks were strategically constructed to make them accessible for supply from the river highway. Besides, these ghats were the yarbals, where women while washing and fetching water shared experiences. These spaces were the Facebooks and WhatsApp Groups of the yore.
There, I met an elderly blacksmith, who welcomed us with a beaming smile. He recounted stories of the past and the present, having spent 70 years in his 150-year-old workshop, his hands may have weakened with time, but his will to work remained stronger than his shoulders.
The old wooden bridge, now replaced by a broad four-lane cemented structure, is a routinely crowded space. Residents loudly talked about the bridge’s notoriety as a site where individuals come to commit suicide. Everybody asked to raise a fence on the bridge.
If Srinagar is taken as the City of Seven Bridges, then Amira Kadal is the last one. It was constructed by Afghan governor, Amir Khan Jawansher, between 1774 and 1777 CE, apparently to make Sherghari, the seat of power, accessible. The resident boatmen community has significantly contributed to its making.
Originally a wooden structure, it has served as a significant passage for all the rulers since the exploitative Afghan era. Its distinctive feature was its arched design, and was, perhaps the only drawbridge at one point in time. This drawbridge could extend and retract a pioneering concept for its time. In the Dogra era, whenever the Maharaja travelled from Sherghari to the Royal Guest House or Residency, the drawbridge was pulled back to prevent any obstructions from above.
In the 1893 floods, this bridge was also washed away and Maharaja Partap Singh rebuilt it. Much later, Sheikh Abdullah oversaw further modifications and improvements.
In the past, when small businesses thrived around the bridge, Afghan, Sikh and Dogra tax collectors would extract zar-e-haboobat.
Now this bridge to central to Srinagar as it links most of the vital localities and markets – Goni Khan Market, Hari Singh High Street, Maharaja Bazar, and Sarai Bala, Lal Chowk, the erstwhile Kaawij Bagh and the Residency Road. The Lal Chowk is central to Srinagar. A business hub, a political theatre of sorts and once the station for taking off for distant destinations, Lal Chowk connects Srinagar with Kashmir. All these localities and markets are an episode each in Kashmir’s Hazar Dastaan.
My journey was a mix of emotions at times, frustrating when work felt incomplete, and rewarding when the people warmly received us on the streets. This endeavour would not have been possible without the unwavering support of my dedicated team – Hashim and Zubair, Babra, Insha, and Aiman, and Basharat, the driver.
(Note: The series comprised 13 episodes involving 11 bridges and Nalamar. It is accessible on Kashmir Life social media platforms.)
Watch the remaining episodes of the series here:
Nala Mar’s Bridges