In the heart of Downtown Srinagar's Nowhatta area, where narrow lanes whisper tales of history and tradition, dozens of heritage houses stand resilient, fighting for their existence. While modernization sweeps through the city, replacing traditional structures with contemporary dwellings, a few families hold on to the legacy woven into the timeworn walls of these architectural gems.
One such family is the Sofis, with Ghulam Hassan Sofi, a 60-year-old resident of Nowhatta, dwelling in a three-storey house crafted by his grandfather six to seven decades ago. The house, adorned with 10 rooms, 2 washrooms, and a small lobby, stands as a testament to the architectural prowess of its time. However, the third storey, scarred by the 2005 earthquake, bears witness to the challenges faced by these heritage houses.
Most of these structures, dating back to the mid-19th century, are constructed from timber wood, mud bricks, and stones. Despite the cracks and challenges, families like the Sofis resist the temptation to demolish and rebuild, driven by a deep-seated love for the historic architecture embedded in these homes.
In 2005 an earthquake shook the valley, causing significant damage to many of these ancestral houses. Fearing safety concerns, numerous houses were demolished in Nowhatta. Despite the adversities, families like the Sofis remain steadfast, emphasizing that these houses offer everything modern homes do and are perfectly suited to Kashmir's climate.
Nadeem, Ghulam Hassan's son, highlights the resilience of these heritage houses, echoing sentiments that these structures are not just relics of the past but living testaments to a bygone era. However, the changing times have not left the heritage houses untouched, and the younger generation is contemplating the idea of constructing new homes.
Mohammad Abdullah, an 85-year-old resident, reminisces about a time when Downtown was renowned for its unique houses throughout the valley. However, today, it seems to be overshadowed by shutdowns and the gradual disappearance of its heritage structures.
Ghulam Mohammad Khan, a 54-year-old resident in Khanyar, still resides in his ancestral house, despite witnessing cracks due to the 2005 earthquake. However, he contemplates the inevitable need for a new house, acknowledging the changing times.
Amidst the struggle to preserve these heritage houses, locals like Khan express concerns over the loss of numerous houses to fire incidents. He said the unique wooden architecture found in these houses is a treasure that must be preserved for future generations.
Beyond the struggle for heritage houses, Downtown Srinagar remains a treasure trove with its Sufi shrines, the Mughal era Jamia Masjid, and the tomb of Sultan Budshah’s mother, standing proudly on the banks of the Jhelum, bearing witness to centuries of history.
Syed Imran, a Ph.D. scholar of History subject at AMU told Rising Kashmir that preserving and safeguarding the Old City, considering it a cradle of culture and tradition worldwide. In the 1990 road widening operation spanning from Nawa Bazaar to Zaina Kadal, Nowhatta to Gojwara, Rajouri Kadal to Hawal, and Khanyar to Nowhatta road was a grave mistake. It resulted in the loss of numerous precious and priceless heritage houses, he said.
Now under the Srinagar Smart City project, the heritage is being preserved and rejuvenated in the City. CEO of Smart City Srinagar, Athar Amir Khan says SSCL project is committed to the extensive restoration of Srinagar's cherished heritage.
He expressed his enthusiasm for the ongoing work in Downtown Srinagar, emphasizing the comprehensive nature of the endeavor.
"Work is in full swing in our old city, Downtown Srinagar! Urban Renewal and Heritage Conservation are at the forefront of our efforts. Soon, residents and visitors alike will have the pleasure of enjoying leisurely walks and immersive visits in the heart of our old city. This will be an opportunity to experience the charm of heritage markets, witness traditional crafts, marvel at vernacular architecture, and soak in the warm hospitality of Sheher-e-Khas!" Khan said.
Khan said this project, coupled with various infrastructure improvements in Sheher e Khas, is not merely about revitalizing buildings; it's about breathing new life into the very spirit of Srinagar's heritage.
In a sweeping effort to infuse new life into Srinagar's treasured heritage, a multitude of projects now encompass numerous historic areas. From Nowhatta to Malaratta, Naqshbandi Sahab to Saraf Kadal, Rajouri Kadal to Gojwara, and Jamia Masjid streets to Maharajganj, Zainakadal, Alikadal, Nawdakadal-Nawbazar, Pather Masjid, and beyond—these endeavors span across the city, weaving a tapestry of revitalization that promises to breathe fresh vitality into every nook and cranny.
Another official at Smart City said the restoration process involves a delicate balance between preserving the original charm and incorporating modern amenities. "We want these heritage houses to become not just tourist attractions but living spaces that seamlessly blend tradition with modernity," he said.
The Srinagar Smart City project is not without its challenges. The intricacies of restoring centuries-old structures require careful planning and execution. These projects have emphasized the importance of involving local communities and experts in the restoration process, ensuring that the unique identity of each heritage house is retained.
As the Smart City initiative unfolds, it brings a renewed sense of hope to families like the Sofis and Ghulam Mohammad Khan. The prospect of seeing their ancestral homes not only survive but thrive in the contemporary world fills them with a sense of pride and gratitude.
The transformative efforts extend beyond physical restoration. The initiative aims to create cultural hubs within the heritage houses, hosting events, workshops, and exhibitions to showcase the rich tapestry of Kashmir's history and traditions. This approach ensures that the heritage houses become dynamic spaces that contribute to the cultural and economic fabric of Downtown Srinagar.
In addition to the Smart City project, there is growing recognition among the younger generation about the importance of preserving cultural heritage. Initiatives such as heritage walks, storytelling sessions, and educational programs are gaining popularity, fostering a sense of pride and responsibility among the youth towards their architectural heritage.