Kashmir – Afoot In Shehr-e-Khas

Although it is Dal lake that graces most picture postcards from Srinagar, it is in fact the river Jhelum (Hydaspes in Greek and Vyeth in Kashmiri) that the city’s life revolves around. It was the principal corridor of trade for centuries preceding the advent of motor vehicles, and it is along its banks to the east of the lake, that the historic centre – Shehr-e-Khas – and much of its cultural monuments are arrayed.

We mean to begin our exploration of the old city at the Jamia Masjid or the Great Mosque in Nowhatta, but the green stupa like spire of the Naqshband shrine on the way, piques our interest. Our impulsive stop turns out to be the best possible introduction to vernacular Kashmiri architecture and it’s distinctive (and earthquake resistant) dhajji dewari construction.

The 17th century shrine, or Ziyarat, is dedicated to Khawaja Syed Bha-u-Deen Naqsaband, the founder of the (worldwide) Sufi order of Islam, but it is a disciple who lies buried within. It housed the relic of the Prophet’s hair briefly in 1699, before that was moved to the Hazrat Bal mosque on the far end of Dal Lake.

Naqshband Shrine, Old Town Srinagar
Ziyarat Naqshband Sahib, Srinagar
Naqshband Shrine, Old Town Srinagar
Ziyarat Naqshband Sahib, Srinagar
Naqshband Shrine, Old Town Srinagar
Ziyarat Naqshband Sahib, Srinagar

This is a tranquil spot, where I am invited to click photos of the interior from the doorway (unlike mosques used purely for worship, women are not allowed entry into (tomb) shrines), and I am oblivious to the fact that the 21 martyrs of a 1932 uprising against Hindu Dogra rule are interred here. It is only after my return that I discover, that the present conflict has roots going back to before partition.

A controversial monument, just off the same (Ganderbal) road, is the shrine of Roza Bal, dedicated to Youza Asouph. The simple shrine is believed by one Islamic sect, and many scholars, to be the grave of Jesus Christ, who they say, survived crucifixion and came to Kashmir in search of the lost tribes of Israel. That theory is blasphemous to most Muslims whose holy book claims Jesus was returned to Heaven alive.

An attempt to exhume the bones of the interred saint (by an alleged descendant of Christ!) has turned the local community in charge of the shrine hostile to visitors. My mounting curiosity is nipped in the bud by my virtuous husband who will have nothing to do with ruffling religious sentiments.

Jamia Masjid, Srinagar
The enormous deodar pillared central hall of the Jamia Masjid.
Jamia Masjid, Srinagar
Inner courtyard, Jamia Masjid. In the distance is the hill top fort of Hari Parbat, now an army barrack.

We reach the Jamia Masjid  at a quiet time, between prayers, and have it all to ourselves, our whispered voices echoing off the walls of it’s austere, (allegedly 33,333 capacity) deodar pillared halls. This 14th century edifice, built over the foundations of a Buddhist temple, is the principle place of worship for locals as well as for political congregations.

It is surprising to us that the mosque, even after several restorations, retains ethnic buddhist elements in the roof structure. The absence of Saracenic features in local (medieval) architecture, is attributed to a more peaceful transfer of power from Hindu to Islamic rulers, as compared to the Islamic conquests across the rest of the subcontinent. The first non Hindu to occupy the Kashmir throne is supposedly a Tibetan prince, Rinchan, who converted to Islam by accident!

The bustling bazaars around the masjid bring to mind TV footage of violent encounters that rekindle concerns about safety. Our guide suggests we walk around on our own so we can judge for ourselves. Shehr-e-Khas exudes the timelessness typical of other medieval towns in India. But it also feels more exotic somehow, more like the inner streets of Cairo, than the Chowk in Lucknow, despite a skyline devoid of domes and minarets.

Vegetable vendor, Srinagar old town.
Vegetable vendor, Shehr-e-Khas.
Heritage building in Srinagar - example of Taq architecture
An example of Taq architecture. Unlike the timber framework and brick infill of dajji diwari, this commonly used form of earthquake resistant masonry system is typified by timber runners resting along load bearing walls.
Street in Nowhatta, Old town, Srinagar
Kashmiri chillies and trotters…
Old town, Srinagar
Street in  Zaina Kadal, the neighbourhood that gets its name from the historic bridge.
Riverfront - Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
A (working) Hindu temple, a Muslim shrine and a tomb in the same frame…and the garbage choked ghats.

Three story high timber braced houses lean precariously over narrow labyrinthine alleys jostling with bearded men with white crocheted caps, and fair, light eyed women in flowing pherans. The streets are organised into clusters of craft workshops. Coppersmiths, carpet weavers, woodworkers, embroiderers.

The famed craft of Kashmir: the finest carpets, softest pashmina, intricate woodwork, the most vibrant lacquered papier mâché products were all once traded from showrooms on the ground floors of buildings lining the river. The forlorn, garbage choked river ghats (steps) before us, are telling of the current state of Kashmir’s endangered craft industry and it’s riverine trade. Much of the wholesale business, we learn, has moved inland.

We spot our first domed building at the end of a long street. The 14th century Budshah tomb, was originally built by the ‘meritorious’ Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, for his mother Queen Miran. Budshah, meaning ‘Great Ruler’, is the reverential nickname given to this tolerant son of the bigoted iconoclast, Sikander ‘Butshikan’. Budshah’s own tomb in an enclosure to the left, is completely ruined.

Budshah's Tomb, Srinagar
The odd one out – Tomb of Budhah’s mother, Queen Miran.
Traditional bakery, Srinagar old town
Czochworu, fresh from the oven.

Our guide, Mansoor, rejoins us as we turn towards the river. We directs us to a traditional bakery close to Zaina Kadal (Zaina Bridge) the oldest of eight historical bridges that straddle the Jhelum. Like in much of the middle East and parts of Africa, locals line up at dawn at communal bakeries for their daily bread. The simple Czot is served at breakfast and the slightly sweet and crusty Czochworu makes up the second round.

It’s a short walk from here to the jewel of Shehr-e-Khas, the exquisite wooden Khanqah-i-Moulla. While commonly referred to as a shrine and a mosque, the Khanqah is neither. It is a prayer hall dedicated to the Persian mystic, Shāh-e-Hamadān, who is singularly credited with the Islamisation of  the valley, and with the introduction of Persian fine arts, crafts and building skills. Non Muslims and women are forbidden entry, but photography of the elaborate lacquered khatamband (faceted wood panelling) interiors is permitted from the entrance or through the windows all covered in vibrant patterned papier mâché.

Shrine of Shah-e-Hamadan in Srinagar
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
Interior – Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
Papier mâché. facade - Khanqah of Shah Hamadan, Srinagar
Papier mâché. facade – Khanqah of Shah Hamadan, Srinagar
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar
Khanqah of Shah Hamadan- Zaina Kadal, Srinagar

The courtyard is milling with people…..praying, meditating, socialising, on what appears to be a special occasion. Amplified sermons periodically punctuate the hubbub outside. A female devotee on the steps to the shrine silently rocks to their cadence. A large samovar in a corner, dispenses piping hot Kahwa (Kashmiri saffron tea). A few women distribute fistfuls of saffron rice redolent of fresh ghee and fried onions.

I could stay here all day, but we have a lunch date at Ahdoos and I am hoping to get to Pari Hill before the weather turns bleaker. We entered through the rear, so I climb up the steep front steps to the main gate in order to capture a final visual of the colourful, festive scene, complete with pigeons in flight. The perfect keepsake from this ‘city-special‘.

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

82 thoughts on “Kashmir – Afoot In Shehr-e-Khas

  1. Yes, the architecture is very distinctive, not at all like what I saw in Rajasthan. What a fascinating place, one I’ve often fancied visiting Madhu and I’m not surprised at the reaction you received when you announced you were going.

  2. Oh my, Madhu – what a visual treat this is! So much is completely new to me – the fact that Srinagar even had an old town, the mouth-watering czochworu, the vernacular architecture that leans more towards Persian and Turkish styles… I especially love the wonderful spires atop those mosques, shrines, and prayer halls. It is so interesting to see wood being such a dominant feature of Kashmiri landmarks, as opposed to the stone monuments elsewhere in the subcontinent. And I never imagined I would ever see papier mâché being used as a cladding material. As ever, your historical accounts had me jumping all over Wikipedia!

  3. Kashmir is an interesting place. Not just because of the abundance of the beauty but because of the culture also. I would love to visit it some time. Lovely pictures 😄

  4. Beautiful post, Madhu…made me feel like I was there. I have traveled quite a bit all over India but never made it to J&K. One of my regrets. My husband went to Srinagar though and he still fondly remembers his meals at Ahdoos!

  5. I felt like walking along with you on this tour. Such a fresh perspective on Kashmir. I am yet to explore this beautiful part of India, although Supriya had been here few years back. Only if we manage to get a month off to travel to India :/

    -B

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