It is a 19th-century royal gift, reflecting Kashmir’s connection with the British Empire. In other parts of the world, it would have been looked after given its historical importance. But here it is rusting, decaying and ended up in a parking lot. Some even consider it a huge dustbin.
The royal steamboat gifted by the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria to Maharaja Ranbir Singh is rotting and almost forgotten at the compound of SPS Museum, Srinagar.
The royal boat is around 30-feet long and about eight feet wide and has an engraved plaque: ‘Presented by H.M. Queen Victoria to H.H. Shree Maharaja Ranbir Singh Ji Bahadar’.
The initials mentioned in the text – H.M. – meant ‘Her Majesty’ as the Queen of the United Kingdom was called and H.H. meant ‘His Highness’, then attributed to the dynastic heads of the major princely states.
Queen Victoria, who was crowned in 1838, remained Empress of India from 1876 until her death in 1901. Ranbir Singh, a Dogra Maharaja, ruled Kashmir from 1857 to 1885.
As per museum records, the boat was transferred to the museum from Tosh Khana, the treasury of Kashmir's erstwhile monarchs.
The locals say the historical boat has been turned into a rusty dustbin and is lying uncovered in the compound of the museum.
Mohammad Alam, 52, local from Jawahar Nagar area said since his childhood this boat has been lying unattended in the museum premises.
Despite assurances from the government, Husain said, over the past 40 years “nothing has changed on the ground and the government has forgotten this great gift.”
“If the government fails to preserve the boat, then what is the fun of investing crores in the museum building over the past 12 years,” he said.
Sajad Ahmad Mir, who owns a chemist shop outside LD Hospital said the historical boat is lying unattended and is rusting in the open compound of the museum. “Due to rain and snow, now it has been turned into the dustbin.”
“No one pays attention to this boat as it is lying open here for decades. It can be used to attract local as well foreign tourists but no one is paying attention to it,” he said.
Mir said before 2019, each year hundreds of tourists would visit the SPS museum, but no one paid attention to this historical boat given its present condition.
However, Mushtaq Ahmad Beigh, Assistant Director Archives Archaeology and Museums, Kashmir said the issue of restoration and preservation of the boat has been taken up with the government.
“It would be put in a proper showcase, covered with fibreglass and will be set up on the ground floor of the new museum building.
“The Detailed Project Report (DPR) which has been formulated is yet to get approval following the financial crunch over the past 2-3 years,” he said.
Beigh said the plan of preserving the Victorian era boat is in pipeline and once the DPR gets approved it will be framed at SPS Museum like the wooden temple of Kerala that has been kept on display outside National Museum, New Delhi.
“Present museum building will undergo further changes, so that all things will be put in the right manner,” he said.
Beigh said it is a unique gift of Queen Victoria to Maharaja and meant especially for water transportation from Baramulla to Srinagar.
“Apart from this Queen’s gift, we have a huge collection of precious things in Archaeology section, including bronze frame, which is a unique frame across the world.
“We have 24 incarnations of Lord Shiva, which is known as Dashavatara in other parts of India,” he said.
“In rest of India, there are only 10 incarnations of Lord Shiva and we have 24, that is the highest bronze collection across the globe,” he said.
Beigh said the remains of centuries-old stone art and bronze art, terracotta art are unique and they are trying every possible effort to preserve these exclusive things for posterity.
The SPS Museum Srinagar was established in 1898 AD by then Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh, in his summer guest house, largely based on collections transferred from State Toshkhana.
Approximately 79,595 artefacts and objects like Archaeology, Numismatics, Decorative Art, Arms and Armoury, Paintings, Textiles etc are housed in the museum.
Noted Kashmiri poet, writer and satirist, Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the steamboat gifted by Queen Victoria was usually meant for Maharaja's guests to take a tour of river Jhelum.
“Basically, the place where the museum is located was a guest house of Maharaja Pratab Singh. In 1899 when the Queen had to visit Kashmir, there was no guest house here.
“Motor launch (Aghan Boat in Kashmiri) was specially meant for their travel in Jhelum,” he said.
The Jhelum or the Veth is navigable from Khanabal, 55 km upstream of Srinagar, all the way up to Baramulla, a total distance of about 110 km. The depth of the river rarely exceeds 13 feet during the dry season.
In Srinagar, once called the city of canals or the ‘Venice of the East’, boats were a popular means of transport until its waterways were sealed up to make way for roads.
Zareef said following the historical significance of the ‘Aghan Boat’, the government failed to preserve it. He said during the time of Maharajas there was a passenger ghat located on river banks to board the guests of the royal family called ‘Sanghi-Siya’.
The Maharaja usually used to sail in his long specially designed single storey boat called ‘Paranda’ and Chakwar in Kashmiri language.
“The need of the hour is to preserve this historical ‘Aghan Boat’, so that it can be one of the attractions to visit the museum,” Zareef said.
(Other things in SPS Museum )
No. of Sculptures: 1992
No. of Paintings: 680
No. of Manuscripts: 2399
No. of Weapons: 356
No. of Textile items: 333
Anthropology/Ethnographical Items: 60
Natural History items: 620
No. of Decorative Art items: 1096
No. of Numismatic items: 71131
No. of Geology & Mineral items: 900
No. of Jewellery items: 28