Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Architect sees beauty of the past where others see an eye-sore of today

An architect wonders why our government does not care about protecting historical buildings, but in reality nothing is possible without public interest

( Syed Ather Qayoom Rufai, 26, was born in Srinagar, and received his initial schooling from the Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School, Srinagar, and Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. He graduated as an Architect from the Rizvi College of Architecture, Mumbai. He is currently a partner in an architect and real estate development company in Srinagar. His personal interests are reading, writing and surfing the internet.)

Vandalism of heritage buildings

Srinagar city is fast losing its traditional architectural grandeur. Almost every day there is a news report about the depleting condition of downtown or old city, more popularly known as shehr-i-khas. Be it electricity, water supply, drainage, roads, market, buildings, name anything, its graph is nose-diving. Many a times I wonder whether the word khas should be used anyway. What is so khas left there now? I started to really observe the area and imagined the grandeur of the buildings and felt that there is something really special about sher-i-khas.

Looking at some of the old pictures of the then main city, I wonder where is our building heritage heading towards? Many of the old buildings have been converted into go-downs, and many are being dismantled now and replaced with modern concrete structures. It is very surprising to know that many of the old buildings which are worth much more than today’s modern structures are being occupied by outside laborers, mainly scrap sellers. Srinagar city still possesses much of its heritage structures which most of the capital cities around the world have already lost due to the so called modernization. And looking at the present trend, sooner or later, our Srinagar city would be one among them.

Once known as Venice of the East, only East remains now and Venice we have lost. Anchar Lake has vanished, and Dal and Wular lakes are fast catching up with Anchar. Everyone knows about the state of our forests. And for all this I would not blame people so much as the government. After all what is the use of a heritage building for a common man when he has a dwindling economy. He would instead tie-up with an investor or sell it off which is worth in crores. Vandalism can be seen at its best in almost all the old buildings in Lal Chowk, Maharaja Bazaar, Hari Singh High Street and all over the downtown or shehr-i-khas. This kind of scenario is not seen everywhere.

In fact heritage buildings or in many cases heritage areas (like maharaja bazaar or Hari Singh high street in Srinagar) in some parts of India have been restored in such a manner that they still serve the purpose. The best example is undoubtedly Mumbai. All the heritage buildings and mostly that of British era have been well preserved. The street elevation has been maintained all along the old Mumbai, keeping in mind the heritage value of the area. The main reason for their preservation is that all of them are functional and there is an initiative taken from the government side too. Be it Victoria Terminus railway station, Mumbai high court, Mumbai central library, Fountain, Taj hotel, and many more, they are all functional and once functional then well maintained.

Same initiative is required here in Srinagar city too. An effort on these lines can be seen in the recently restored J&K Arts Emporium on the banks of river Jehlum. Similarly restoration of Ali Masjid in Eidgah area is a positive step taken by the government. The building housing HDFC bank on the banks of river Jehlum is prime example of how a heritage building can be maintained and well preserved if kept functional.

One of the essential requirements for the restoration of these heritage buildings is the need for specialists. At present the government lacks such technical experts. A project done by JKPCC for the restoration of Hari Parbat fort or Kohi-maran fort should be a disgrace for everyone in the state authority and for everyone related to heritage work. A clear cut comparison can be seen in the restoration work of the fort and Ali Masjid where the authority seeks the expert advice of the INTACH, an NGO dealing with heritage buildings. In accordance with the norms for restoration of heritage buildings, original building materials have been used wherever applicable in Ali Masjid and the original fabric of the building has been maintained. In contrast almost everything done in the fort has been done on modern lines using concrete everywhere and no thought has been given to the original fabric of the fort building. After all the restoration work would have been for the army in the fort, rather than for the restoration of the fort.

It will be almost impossible to impose such ideas on the common masses regarding the value of a heritage building. Instead a general awareness is needed to make people understand the need for the preservation of our heritage, be it living heritage or building heritage. The most tragic part with these awareness programs is that they all happen indoors in places like SKICC, hotels like Broadway or Mumtaz with high ranking officials and other prominent personalities exchanging ideas amongst themselves. The need is to reach out to the people.

Last year world heritage day was held on top of Hari Parbat fort attended by some prominent tourism officials. Such events should be held in public places where people would understand the importance of heritage. As a result of lack of knowledge regarding the value of heritage buildings, what we are witnessing right now is a very dangerous trend of so called modernization. Buildings like Residency Hotel are coming up in prominent places in place of old heritage buildings that do not reflect in the most remote way the heritage or traditional character of a typical Kashmiri architecture.

Even the poor old wooden horse which had become the identity of the old Pastonji building could not be accommodated in the new Residency Hotel building. Buildings like these are universal buildings. They have no character of there own nor any regional identity. Same type of buildings can be found in Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai or anywhere else. What is the difference then?

The initiative taken by the state government to setup a new museum building deserves appreciation. It will provide the much required space for the number of artifacts which could not find any display space in the present building. But there are still two things which the government did not do or at least should be looking to do. Firstly is the whereabouts of the artifacts which have gone missing from the museum over the years. After all, all of the items are the property of the people as it is our history and past which these artifacts reflect. Secondly, the old museum building should be restored which is itself a heritage structure. Over the years the building has been altered so much so that it has almost lost its original building fabric. Unless and until we do not wake up to this ignorance towards our heritage buildings, which are so important in preserving our identity, we would one day find ourselves surrounded by Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Mumbai. And then it would be too late to act for all of us.

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