In the heart of Srinagar, the shrine of Dastgeer sahib withstood tests of time for more than two centuries. Kashmir has now lost this monumental heritage to a fire when almost all the systems to manage such priceless heritage are available and within the means of the society and the state. A Kashmir Life report.
One of the famous shrines of Kashmir, the shrine of Dastgeer Sahab housed certain relics of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (1077-1166), the patron saint of Kurds who historically had immense following in the subcontinent despite never having visited the region. Over the decades, the shrine’s interior offered impressive spaces for worshippers in the city.
Covered with traditional khatamband ceiling from which hung a number of crystal chandeliers and its interior walls decorated with opulent papier mache` work, the decorative features of the shrine had few parallels in modern architecture. The shrine was spread over 8000 sq ft but the changes and additions over the years had impacted its physical openness.
Prof M Ishaq Khan, the author of ‘A History of Srinagar’ believes the shrine was built in 1845 by Mir Husain Qadri and the construction was completed in 1854. A philanthropist, Qadri spent liberally on shrines, mosques and the public utilities till he died in Mecca in October 1883 while on a Haj pilgrimage. The relics that were in possession of the shrine in Srinagar had been brought by a merchant from Kandahar in 1806. Khan suggests the khanqah existed earlier as well on the same spot. It was the khanqah of Mir Nazuk Qadri who, Khan says, died in 1614.
A newspaper quoting ‘Kashmir Encyclopedia’, published by the state’s cultural academy, said the shrine was built during the tenure of Noor Khan Bamzai, the then Afghan governor of Kashmir, in 1767 AD, by Syed Ghulam-ud-Din Azad, the grandson of Shah Sakhi Muhammad Fazil, the preacher responsible for introducing the Qadri order in Kashmir. The shrine was repaired and extended in 1879 after it was damaged in a fire. It was during those repairs when the pointed ball of its spire was plated with gold.
Syed Khalid Hussain Geelani, the custodian of the shrine, said the shrine housed a number of relics including a copy of Quran believed to be hand-written by Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad, in Khat-e-Koofi in the sixth century. “It is a rare manuscript and is written on the skin of musk deer,” Geelani was quoted saying. “We do not display this.” The family of Sheikh Syed Sakhi Shah Muhammad Fazil, one of the descendants of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA), is buried inside the shrine. Though the fire reduced the shrine to rubble, the relics have been saved and are currently at the house of Geelani, who lives next door.
The INTACH authored Shehr-e-Kashmir suggests that the relics were presented by an Afghan traveler to the then ruler of Kashmir, subedar (governor) Sardar Abdullah Khan, an Afghan. In turn, the ruler gave the relics in the custody of Sayyid Buzarg Shah, a local pious man. Later, as INTACH’s Salim Beg writes, a repository for the relics was constructed at Khanyar by Sayyid Ghulam-ud-din Azad in 1767 who was solely responsible for introducing the tradition of displaying the relic for multitudes of pilgrims on particular days every year.
The khanqah went through an expansion in 1877, aided by Khwaja Sanaullah Shawl, a local handicrafts merchant. Since then a number of ancillary buildings have been added on to the main khanqah, which include a mosque, a hammam and a shrine.
The original khanqah, according to the INTACH inventory, consisted of seven linear traditional taaq double height building aligned along a north-south axis. A number of ancillary buildings were added in a linear manner to the main khanqah on its northern and southern side. Immediately to the east of the double height khanqah stood the main burial chamber which contained the cenotaphs of some prominent Qadri saints. The khanqah itself was preceded by a two-floor block, comprising of a mosque and a hammam, which also adjoined the burial chamber on its northern side. All the buildings could be approached from a wide corridor, running along the entire length of the complex on its eastern side. Along the south-eastern corner of the khanqah, an open pavilion, the Noor Khana, covered with a multi-tiered roof, was reserved for the use of women. The main khanqah building and the shrine block were topped by the traditional Kashmiri style multi-tiered chaar baam roof surmounted by a wooden dome and a Stupa style spire. The khanqah block also had two octagonal hubs along the corner ends of the main western facade which was dominated by an arcade of pointed arched openings.
This shrine is one of many centers of Kashmir that impacted a change in the socio-political life of the people. It has remained witness to many ups and downs and one of the worst incidents that took place in its premises was the massacre of May 8, 1991 when the paramilitary men of BSFs 60 and 2nd battalions opened fire on thousands of people who had assembled there to bury slain militants, killing 18 civilians and leaving 44 injured. The shrine was taken over by Waqf Board in 2003.
Of late, the state government accessed the central government’s fund pool for heritage preservation and managed the approval of around Rs 49 crores for preservation of the shrine. It envisaged acquiring 115 structures besides 132 shops and 20.60 kanals of land and getting 230 plots to rehabilitate the displaced population. While part of the acquisition is over, the government invested massively in adding to the constructions on ground. This was done to accommodate more public rush. The shrine receives a trickle of people round the year but the massive rush is just on one day, 11 Rabi-us-Sani.
Suggestions were made by heritage conservation experts that instead of adding more constructions to the shrine complex, vast swathes of land around the shrine should be made a green zone so that the structure looks as majestic and distinct as it was. But the suggestion was not adhered to by the political executive of the area. One of the newly set-up mortar and concrete mosques constructed to accommodate 1000 males by the state run Projects Construction Corporation was also destroyed in the conflagration.
The shrine is adequately profiled and INTACH has studied and preserved it digitally in 2010. Earlier in 2008, the famous traveler pair Tony and Thomas who run a website www.contemporarynomad.com have created a 360 degree view of the shrine. Primarily, it was the impressive interiors decorated with colorful papier mache` art that the compelled the duo to record its panoramic view.
“The Pir Dastgir Sahib was truly unique,” Tony and Thomas wrote on their site. “We have never seen anything else like it. We are devastated by the loss. Our thoughts are with the wonderful people of Kashmir.”