‘Royal’ Sale

A Mughal era garden in Dal Lake’s lap is latest causality of land mafia. Sold by the Maharaja to a wealthy local, the garden is being sold in inches and foots. Shakir Mir takes a stroll through the remnants

A-side-of-the-Raghunath-bagh-that-looks-dilapidated-in-wake-of-negligenceImagine a centuries old Mughal Garden where cattle roam around offloading the filth and where household scrap springs out at every next foot step you take? Imagine its ancient walls being razed down to rubble and priceless architecture flattened to pave way for hotels and walkways?

Well, that is just happening next to your door! Welcome to the Raghunath Pora Park situation on the north-western shore of Dal Lake. Spanning over 500 kanals, the park is believed to have been built during the Mughal era.

There are tell-tale signs bearing testimony to its archeological significance: Well laid terraces, cascades, fountains and aquifers resembling in uncanny ways to the litany of Mughal architectural sites found across Valley. The terrace walls rise as high as 25 feet at many locations.

There are domes and ramparts, akin to the Akbar Fort of Agra that the Mughal armies used as redoubts against invading forces. But over decades, this garden has lost its glory. It’s centuries old boundary wall has slowly been nibbled away leaving little more than two meters of it. In absence of any up-keep, it has crumbled into ruins. It was, as some accounts mention, a jail complex when Mughal rulers locked up the “stubborn” Kashmiris who did not yield to them. In fact, it was from this very garden that Habak got its name. “Habak in Persian means prison,” says poet-historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef.

To its north, a maze of colonies has come up in violation of 1971 Master Plan of Srinagar city. A little into the park, over kanals of plots have been carved out.  Many prospective residents have casually laid the demarcation line to enfold some oldest surviving Chinars into their territories.

In 1959, the garden is believed to have been sold by then Sadar-e-Riyasat Karan Singh to two of the Srinagar’s wealthy families for just Rs 4.5 lakhs, according to locals. It is therefore a private possession currently shared amongst the 9 owners.

Then Chief Minister, Sheikh Abdullah is said to have notified the garden during his reign, effectively thwarting any prospect of letting land sharks encroach upon it. The park was also rendered into a Green Belt owning to its proximity with the Dal Lake.

In fact, until few years ago, a board installed by Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) prohibited any type of construction inside the park. Today, the board stands knocked down.

“During Dogra period, authorities turned it into an orchard,” says Ghulam Mohi-u-din Bhat, a social activist from Habak Naseem Bagh who is at the center of the battle, trying to persuade the government to acquire the land from its present owners.

“No doubt we are not aware how the land changed hands but we frankly agree that it is a treasure-trove of rare varieties of apple, pears and other dry fruits that are fast disappearing elsewhere in Valley. Therefore it is horticulturally as important as otherwise.”

Bhat has spared no efforts to push for its acquisition. For years he has been writing letters to senior government officials and ministers in hope that attention would be paid. “But to no avail,” he says.

Archaeologically significant walls of the park are crumbled into ruins.
Archaeologically significant walls of the park are crumbled into ruins.

According to Bhat, land mafia in liaison with the high-up’s is carrying out the sale of the garden in piecemeal. This has led to the establishment of residential houses is spite of the High Court orders barring any construction within 200 meters of Dal Lake. “Almost one fifth of the garden is colonized,” says Mohammad Shafi, a resident of Naseem Bagh.

Some years ago, Bhat facilitated a round of inspection by the team from India’s Forest and Environment ministry. Another visit by the team of Archeological Survey of India soon followed. But no action was taken. Then National Conference MLA Mustafa Kamal also raised the issue in the State Legislative Assembly following which it was discussed by an Estimates committee headed by Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan. The committee had submitted its report espousing the stand of locals campaigning for its acquisition.

“As it is well known fact that shortage of land in Srinagar is a very crucial problem,” Bhat says. “Government is spending crores in developing small patches of lands into Municipal parks but availability of this Garden provides government a golden opportunity to convert it into public space.”

He propounds that the park can be developed on the pattern of the Mughal Gardens found elsewhere in the city. Its refurbishment, he believes, will ensure that over-crowding at Nishat and Shalimar eases besides attracting domestic and foreign tourists. “Not only will it benefit the state exchequer. But it will generate new avenues of employment for local youth.”

Surprisingly, as many as 700 households are stated to have come up near one of its peripheries. The occupants are also digging out a sewage drain which is likely to cut through the heart of the garden, finding its way into Dal Lake.

By letting this development happen, locals say, LAWDA is imposing a lifetime of financial burden on Dal budget as it becomes obligatory for the body to connect the households with the Tailbal-Habak Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) located few meters away. “This may deal a set-back to the Dal conservation program itself,” Bhat says. “What is the point of having an STP when you allow so many waste-producing households to come up in a fragile area like this?”

Residents have dug in a drain which is likely to cut through the heart of this prestigious garden
Residents have dug in a drain which is likely to cut through the heart of this prestigious garden

LAWDA, of its part, maintained that they have made a firm stand against the encroachments. “We are not allowing any type of construction there. We haven’t given permissions to anyone,” says Sarmad Hafiz, Vice Chairman. “Whenever this report is brought to us, we send our enforcement team to bring down the illegal structures.”

Hafiz admitted though that encroachers re-start the constructions once the officials leave. “It has become a trend, whenever it’s a strike, holiday or an off, they start the constructions anew.”

A stroll inside the garden lends insight into the monumental deterioration that this heritage site has been subjected to. Encroachers have bulldozed the rare limestone walls erected by Mughals. A cavity where natural water used to spring out has been filled with concrete as part of efforts to progressively stamp out any remaining vestiges which testify to its glorious past. “This is being done so that slowly, it starts looking like an ordinary vast expanse of land suitable for being brought into the fold of urbanization,” Tahir, another local says.

Kashmir Life tried to reach out to its owners for the comment who weren’t immediately available. Bhat, however, believes that they are likely to sell it away to government provided they are given “adequate compensation.”

“We have no grudges against them,” he says. “We earnestly want government to redevelop the garden so that it remains for our posterity to see.”

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