January 12, 2021 5:17 pm

Why I Bemoan the Loss of Our Downtown

THE only redeeming feature of Srinagar city- an extended urban sprawl that has no coherence-  is the downtown: a unique constellation of habitats, living spaces and small business establishments. Worldwide , downtowns are places or spaces where vice jostles with virtue and the best and worst of human nature is at display. But, nay, not our downtown. It remains a space that defies conventional or even stereotypical views of downtowns elsewhere.

The reasons appear to be spiritual, sociological and cultural.  The city of seven bridges that connect downtown with the rest of Srinagar city is dotted with tombs and shrines of Sufi saints that bought Islam to Kashmir and are revered by most people here.

Photo Credit: Tooba Towfiq

The denizens of downtown have a firm belief that because of these shrines, there is a vigil over it that keeps the place clean in the spiritual senses. Sociologically and historically, the downtown was a place where , while turfs were zealously and jealously guarded , both for fun and other prosaic reasons,-fate kadal wallahs jokingly mocked the zaina kadal wallahs and so on,  everyone knew everyone.  The scope for vice and mischief is thereby very restricted. Culturally, downtown was and perhaps is a zone and a sphere unto itself perhaps best reflected in the sense of humour of its denizens.

Downtown, as I recall it , was then a large extended family defined by a high level of social capital. While it was a self-contained space economically with Maharaj Gunj as its economic and trading  centre of gravity ,  the sense of community was very strong. The Khojas (wealthy business people) owed a sense of responsibility toward the poorer downtown wallahs, neighbours in downtown looked out for each other: it was a source of embarrassment if a neighbour did not do so.

Photo Credit: Tooba Towfiq

The houses and dwellings of downtown were unique in their shapes, sizes and architecture: most houses were built from what were called maharaj seer( maharaj bricks- small rectangular bricks baked to a hardness in kilns that defied the severest of shocks, the front doors of these dwellings were small(one had to bend to enter), the walls of rooms were splattered with what was called ‘bore’- special mud mixed with straw- that staved off the cold of severe Kashmir winters. Many many years ago, the roofs of these houses were covered with clay over which flowers grew. The downtown was connected by small lanes, and by lanes called kochas dotted by cobblestones in a way whose closest analogue remains the arterial system of the human body. Drainage was and remains an issue.

Photo Credit: Tooba Towfiq

All in all, our downtown was a marvel in its own right-culturally, socially, physically and even economically. But this unique urban space of Kashmir is decaying. In fact, it is losing its character. The reasons, in the main, pertain to the population explosion in Kashmir, the attendant break down of the traditional family structure and concomitant expansion of Srinagar city. The story and saga is also one of neglect and urban decay.

Those who continue to live in the downtown either do so, partly by choice but mostly because of economic reasons.  Warped and flawed modernization has led to the demolition of the traditional housing structures of downtown giving way to ugly, concrete , incoherent blobs. Ownership of the motor car has meant that the tonga wallahs( horse driven carriages) are not even a relic; they have gone extinct. Businesses have migrated to other urban centres and central business districts like Lal Chowk or other business centres that have mushroomed within and in the boundaries of Srinagar city.

I noticed this as I wandered across, through and around our downtown. Because I am a  romantic(hopelessly so), the loss of downtown’s special character is a personal loss for me. My wanderings came to a close after days, and as dusk fell on downtown , I peered from the precincts of the Hari parbat fort- a strategic fort built apparently by the Mughal emperor Akbar on a steep hill-, downtown glistened with electricity casting a surreal hue on snow clad Srinagar.  The muezzins’ call to prayer reverberated through the city. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for my and our downtown!

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Wajahat Qazi

Masters with Distinction in International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Worked as Associate Editor of Kashmir Observer.