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Downtown: An essence of art, architect & craft

A noted poet and historian, Zareef Ahmad Zareef said that Srinagar was named as Sirinagri by Buddhist King Ashoka, which means sun-city. The city was confined to seven bridges from Amira Kadal to Safa Kadal. The downtown city got the name Sher-e-Khass during the Islamic period by Central Asia.

Post by on Sunday, November 21, 2021

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 Babul Iqbal Gate – the double arch made of red bricks – leads to the downtown part of Srinagar. The gateway marks the beginning of the glorious Sher-e-Khass (the special city) that boasts cultural monuments and historical buildings, crafts and craftsmen, flavors and sounds.

The gate overlooks Brari Nambal lagoon to its west, where a good number of people are usually seen relaxing and chit-chatting on the wooden spots.
A noted poet and historian, Zareef Ahmad Zareef said that Srinagar was named as Sirinagri by Buddhist King Ashoka, which means sun-city. The city was confined to seven bridges from Amira Kadal to Safa Kadal. The downtown city got the name Sher-e-Khass during the Islamic period by Central Asia. 
Zareef said, “Srinagar rests on the banks of river Jhelum and the seven bridges connect one side of the river with the other. The seven connecting bridges are Amira Kadal, Habba Kadal, Fateh Kadal, Zaina Kadal, Aali Kadal, Navakadal and Safakadal. Each area of the city had a different dialect. The people of these areas were familiar to each other as well.”
In 1415-16 the first bridge, Aali Kadal was constructed over the Jhelum. It was built by Aali Shah of Shah Miri dynasty (brother of Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen). Zain-ul-Abideen constructed Zaina Kadal in 1424, then Habba Kadal was constructed by Sultan Habib Shah of the same dynasty and Amira Kadal was made by Amir Khan Jawansher, an Afghan governor. Through the bridges, people came from one place to another. 
Moving up straight towards Bohri-Kadal which is known as the hub of commercial activities, the area is always filled with hustle and bustle. The shops selling wedding essentials to street snacks is everyone’s go-to spot for shopping.
Walking to the left will take you to Zaina Kadal, an area famous for its historic shrine, Khanqah-e-Maula. The Khanqah or Shah-i-Hamdan shrine, one of the oldest shrines, is believed to have been made in 1395 by Sultan Sikander in the memory of a sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamadan. The shrine has a wooden architecture and is decorated with colorful details of paper mâché work.
In the late 50s, Mehra, once in a week, spent her day in the shrine. She finds solace in the place and gets soon accompanied by her other fellow devotees.
She said, “I came to offer Zuhr namaz but now I will leave after praying Asar prayers. My heart finds rest here and with the other devotees, my day goes well. I can stay here all day without eating or drinking but my lord sends me food through other devotees.”
“I was a kid when I used to come here with my mother to offer prayers and would imitate what she did. I have grown old with the shrine,” she added.
Like Mehra other devotees too like to spend their time worshipping there. In between the prayers, they would talk, read the Quran and throw corn at the pigeons.
Another magnetism of Zaina Kadal are its artisans of Tilla embroidery. It is one of the most celebrated handicrafts. Tilla is done while using fine threads of copper and silver. Tilla shops are seen at a number of places on either side of the road.
One of the major business markets in the old city is Maharaj Gung. The market used to be an epicenter of trade and was set up by Maharaja Ranbir Singh. The shops of copperware, dry fruits, spices, textiles and much more are 100-150 years old.
Recently, Srinagar became one of the 49 cities worldwide to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for its arts and craft.
Talking about artisans, Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the old city was famous for its artisans. Artisans of the valley were skillful when Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen got artists from Central Asia. Those artists further refined the skills and art of local artists and also taught them some new crafts like paper mâché, tapestry, carpet weaving etc.
“Earlier, the carpets of single or double colors were woven here. Then various designs were introduced in the carpets by the artists of Central Asia. Those designs of carpets were named after the cities of Iran,” he said.
He further said that the communities of artists dealing with different skills and crafts were formed which includes Kamanger Pore (the community dealt with the making of bow and arrow), Saazger Pore (the community of makeup artists used to beautify queens of Mughal Kings), Kalamdaan Pore (the community who made pen cases), Shorger Mohalla (the community dealt with the making of crackers), Bandukhar Mohalla (the area deals with the making of guns) and Jildeger Mohalla (the area known for the binders).
“They were given incentives and a good place to live. Although the income was less, the young generation would take up the art of their ancestors and would never remain unemployed,” he added.
With time, some of these artist communities have faded while some struggle to survive.
A lot of women of the old city are associated with various skills and crafts. Women are involved in Paper mâché work and different kinds of embroideries. Apart from earning livelihood, they said, it keeps them engaged with productive work.
Fareeda is one among a number of women who does Ari embroidery which later on, are made up into crewel bed sheets, cushions and curtains. Fareeda has been associated with the craft since childhood and has taken training from a local craft training institute to hone her skills.
She said, “It’s a beautiful thing. After finishing my domestic chorus, I sit to do Ari embroidery. This is how I keep myself busy with productive work. The money I earn is used for home and for my children.”
Though the modern architecture has taken space, still many houses reflect the traditional architectural treasures. Some of the houses still have cantilevered balconies locally known as dab.
Zareef said that the vernacular architecture, mud floors and walls along with wooden doors, windows and ceiling would make up the houses that would provide the warmth during 5-6 months long winters. The houses were suitable to the weather conditions and have cultural relevance too.
The Khatamband ceiling, present in most of the historic houses, is constructed by fine artists of Eid Garh, Safa Kadal and other parts of the old city. 
Imran Ahmad Sofi carves intricate designs on the small hexagonal shaped wood pieces. The smooth wood pieces are kept near him on which designs like Panchmuraba and Chaar Phool will be made.
From nineteen years, Imran has been associated with the craft of Khatamband. To construct a Khatambad ceiling is the art of joining geometrical shaped wood pieces without the use of any adhesive. At some places, tiny nails are fitted to hold the wood pieces together.
The craft is believed to come from Persia in the 14th century. He said, “the Khatamband has got more than 60-70 different designs. The wood is known for its insulation property, and keeps the rooms warm in winters.”
The Mughal emperor Jehangir had said that Kashmir is a bowl of flowers. Some of the heritage houses had birch roofs. They bore mud on the roof which would bloom colorful flowers.
Zareef said, “Those green roofs adorned with flowers were cool in summers and warm in winters. Flowers like Tulips would bloom over the mud roofs and would present a beautiful look. Such things had no side effects.”
At Nowhatta, Jamia Masjid is one of the important mosques in the old city, built around the 14th century. The beautiful garden of the mosque circles the fountain where people perform ablution and birds drink clear water of the fountain during summers. Although the busy markets surround the mosque, visitors often find peace and serenity inside.
Zareef said that from eatables to clothes, people had everything of their own in line with the culture and climate.
“Kashmir has its own identity. The language of Kashmir is a 16,000 years old classical language. Language is the identity of the people. Kashmir was itself a nationality and civilization. It has a written history of over 5000 years in Neelmat pram and Gilgit manuscripts,” Zareef said.
For street foodies, the Khyam Chowk welcomes you with the strong aroma of barbeques and grilled Kebabs. The place known for flavors is believed to be named after a nearby cinema hall, which got shut due to unfavorable conditions in the valley. During the time, few tea stalls were running but the closure of the cinema hall gradually led to the mushrooming of food stalls.
A scene of barbecues grilling over the embers is seen outside every food stall.
A local boy working in one of the food outlets said the place is famous among locals as well as tourists.
He said, “The non-veg food and chutneys tempt anyone to come here. Tourists live in nearby hotels but dine here. During evening hours, the rush of people increases.”
An elderly man, Mohammad Amin, doesn't like the term downtown for the old city. While praising its glory, he said, “It’s Sher-e-Khass, the special place of crafts and colors where you see buzz and hear different sounds. An education hub, a business hub and above all, it’s a hub of shrines and saints.

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