Speaking of Synthesis

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Ask any first time visitor to Kashmir about their impressions and you will, in all likelihood, be inundated with superlatives about the landscape, the mountains, the greenery, the hospitality, the gardens, the lakes and what not, but there is one thing that both the first timer and the old Kashmir hand rarely talk about and that is the historical monuments of the valley. The mosques, shrines and ancient temples of the valley are rarely mentioned in all this recounting. I am as much guilty of this neglect as all the others that I have met, perhaps more guilty because I have been to Kashmir scores of times.

This piece is an attempt to make amends. The sites are far too many to cover in one article so I have decided to confine myself to a handful of structures and monuments that lie scattered in and around Srinagar. Hopefully there will be more occasions to write about the others soon. Before we commence this sight-seeing tour of Srinagar, let us start with a few words about the history of Srinagar and of Kashmir.

According to Kalahan, the 8th century chronicler of Kashmir and the author of Rajtarangini, the city of Srinagri was founded by Emperor Ashoka at or near Pandhretan in the present-day Badami Bagh, south west of Srinagar.

The Srinagar of today is, however, believed to have been founded in 6th century BCE by Pravarasena-II. There is mention of the city at its present location in the chronicles of Hiuen Tsang, who visited Kashmir in 631 CE. The city was the capital of many illustrious kings including Lalitaditya Muktapida who ruled till 1339 and of Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-70 AD), great patron of Sanskrit and the arts and fondly remembered as ‘Budshah’.

Akbar captured Kashmir for the Mughals and his son Jehangir spent a long time in Kashmir and at Srinagar, as did Shahjehan and Darashikoh and all of them built monumental structures and gardens that dot the landscape of the city to this day.

The armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured Kashmir in 1819 but Ranjit Singh’s son was forced by the British on March 9, 1846, through the Treaty of Lahore to cede Kashmir and territories east of the Indus and west of the Ravi.

A large part of these territories, including Kashmir, was sold by the British on March 16, 1846, through the Treaty of Amritsar to the Dogra king, Gulab Singh. The Dogras thus secured the sovereignty of Kashmir from the British against a payment of Nanakshahi Rupees 7,500,000 and an annual tribute, in perpetuity, of “1 Horse, 12 Shawl goats of an approved breed (six male, six female) and 3 pairs of Cashmere shawls”.

This arrangement continued till a few months after Indian independence. In October 1947, Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan, led by British officers serving the Pakistan Army, invaded Kashmir. The then Dogra ruler Hari Singh, who had till then not decided to cede to India, signed the instrument of accession and Jammu and Kashmir became part of the Indian Union.

This abridged history is placed here with the sole purpose of contextualising the structures that we will talk about. The first cluster of structures that we will talk about is, however, free from the constraints of written history, because these predate the rise of kings and their kingdoms. We begin this exploration of Srinagar with the archaeological finds at Burzahom.


The Burzahom archaeological site, easily accessible from the Dal, is the earliest known Neolithic site in Kashmir. Burzahom was discovered in 1935, but extensive excavations were carried out only in 1960s. Some of the remains excavated at this site can be seen at the Kashmir Archaeology Museum located close to Radio Kashmir but across the Jhelum. Other Neolithic sites that have been discovered in different parts of the Kashmir Valley include Begagund, Gofkral, Hariparigom, Olchibag, Pampur, Panzgom, Sombur and Waztal, etc.

The people who inhabited this dried up lake-bed (Karewa) at Burzahom (or ‘the place where birch trees grow’) between 3,000 and 1,500 BCE used to live inside pits. The pits were mostly circular or oval in shape, though there were some rectangular or square pits as well. The pits were dug with stone implements and later plastered with mud. A series of small holes discovered near the top of the pits led archaeologists to conclude that these were used to anchor support for roofs fashioned out of tree branches. The houses had no doors and people jumped in and scrambled out through a hole in the thatched roof, some pits that were deeper than the others had steps for climbing in and out of the pits.

The Burzahom people were adept at polishing stone and many of their weapons were fashioned thus. A polished stone used for grinding grains and many other such implements that were found here are evidence of this skill. Agriculture was gradually growing but they continued to be adept hunters; many of their fine weapons and implements like harpoons for fishing, arrow and spear heads, daggers and sewing needles were fashioned out of animal bones and antlers, something unique to the people of Burzahom.

About 2,000 BCE, the people of Burzahom moved out of the pits and started living above the ground. The quality of their pottery also improved during these centuries and pottery made on the potter’s wheel made an appearance. They cultivated grains and some lentils; they also gathered a wide variety of wild grains. Both wild and cultivated varieties of wheat have been found at Burzahom. They had domesticated the cow, the buffalo, sheep goats and the dog. Remains of all these animals have been found buried in graves. Wolves, ibexes, deer and leopards have also been found, buried at times along with humans and at times on their own. Fairly elaborate rock paintings depicting a hunting scene were also discovered at the site. The Neolithic people of the region marked the graves of important people with huge pieces of stones called menhirs or megaliths. A few megaliths are still to be found intact along with a few pits. The place is very peaceful, tranquil and beautiful, with the mountains framing the undulating ground beneath. An ideal spot to spend a quiet hour or two; no wonder it is the favourite of the serious student as well as young lovers.

Badshuhnun Dumat

The mausoleum of the mother of Zain-ul-Abidin known as Badshuhnun Dumat or simply Budshah is located in the heart of old Srinagar near Zaina Kadal. The ASI protected monument, located inside a rather decrepit graveyard, is made of baked bricks and studded with blue tiles. The entire structure has a very Central Asian air about it. It is a unique five-dome structure with four domes surrounding a central dome. The structure stands on a grey stone foundation and going by the boundary wall of the structure and a small enclosed space nearby, it is clear that the tomb stands upon the foundation of an earlier structure, probably a temple. Maybe an earlier structure was removed or demolished to build this structure.

It is possible that Zain-ul-Abidin’s father, known as Sikandar-Butshikan (idol breaker), had started the construction of his queen’s mausoleum and it was completed by his son. Despite the rather destructive activities of the father, Zain-ul-Abidin did not inherit these tendencies and is to this day considered, by all Kashmiris, to have been the greatest ruler of Kashmir. Zain-ul-Abidin is himself buried in an unmarked grave, behind the walled enclosure referred to above. The tomb proper is considered the finest example of Shahmiri architecture and is one of a kind, primarily because all contemporary and subsequent structures of the Shahmiri style were built from wood while the tomb is made exclusively of bricks, inlaid with blue tiles. The tiles add to the Central Asian appearance of the structure, well worth a visit.

Three Shrines

I am combining together three of the four most significant shrines of Srinagar, namely the shrine of the great Suhrawardi Sufi Makhdoom Saheb (1494-1576) located on the southern slope of Hari Parbat, the shrine dedicated to the great Islamic scholar and preacher Amir-e-Kabir Shah-e-Hamdan (1314-1387) located on the bank of river Jhelum in Khanqah-e-Moulla area and the shrine dedicated to Sheikh Abd-al-Qadir Jeelani popularly known as Dastgeer Saheb (1077-1166) located at Khanyar.

The three shrines are being discussed together because of the great architectural similarities between them. Aside from differences in detail, all three of them are remarkably alike in their general appearance. The dominant building material is wood, more so at Shah-e-Hamdan than at the other two. There are no domes in any of these structures, they are all topped with sloping roofs and there are pagoda-like structures at places where one would expect a dome. The pagoda-like structures and the sloping roofs represent a continuity in the architectural traditions of the Valley that predate the advent of Islam in these parts.

These architectural traditions are informed by a combination of the climatic conditions common to areas of heavy precipitation, rain or snow, and the elements of design that developed during the time when Buddhism held sway in the region. Many other shrines in the Valley, like Charar-e-Sharif, as it existed before it was burnt down, (the new structure that has replaced it is rather different) also followed the same style.

One must remember that the adoption of existing styles of architecture aside from making sense from the climatic point of view is also an indicator of the openness of those who built these structures, unlike Sikandar Butshikan who went on a rampage of destruction, these saints and Sufis represented a more tolerant and open stream of thought and it is this that has sustained their popularity among the people across so many centuries while very few remember Sikandar, the idol breaker.

The shrine of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, popularly known as Shah-e-Hamdan, does not contain his remains. He died at Pakhli in Tajikistan and was buried at Kulab, 240 km south of the Tajik capital, Dushambe. The shrine at Srinagar is located at the place where Shah-e-Hamdan came and stayed during his first visit to Kashmir. Admission to the interior of the building is allowed only to Muslims, however the exteriors on all four sides are open to all. The carved wooden tiles and the trellis work as also the painted geometric and floral designs that cover the exteriors are to this day mirrored on carpets, namdas and papier mache works of Kashmir. Shah-e-Hamdan was accompanied by almost 700 disciples, many of whom it is believed were master craftsmen who brought with them unique styles of shawl and carpet weaving and embroidery, crafts that are today the almost exclusive preserve of the people of Kashmir. The Shah-e-Hamdan Mosque was originally built in 1395, but it has been rebuilt several times and the present structure dates back to 1732.

Not to faraway in Khanyar is Dastgeer Sahib, the shrine dedicated to Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani. The Sheikh never visited Kashmir but some of his descendents, almost a score of generations removed are believed to have settled in Kashmir and established this shrine in his memory. The Sheikh was born in the Iranian province of Gilan and was upon his death buried at the Madrassa that he founded in Baghdad. The Sheikh, also known as Ghaus Al Azam and Peer Dastgeer was the founder of a Sufi order that came to be known after him as the Qadri Silsila, among the oldest of the various Sufi Silsilas. The shrine at Srinagar that attracts a large number of devotees through the day is remarkable for two really large, ornately bound and beautifully calligraphed handwritten copies of the Qur’an, very fine trellis work in the windows and arches, floral motifs and fine calligraphy on the walls, carved pillars that support the ceiling that overflows with beautifully carved and painted wooden tiles.

On the southern slopes of Hari Parbat, right under the Hari Parbat Fort built by Akbar is the shrine of Sultan-ul-Arifeen (king among the Gnostics) Hazrat Makhdoom Sheikh Hamza Saheb, one of the most popular Sufis of Kashmir.

Of the three shrines that we are talking about in this piece, the one belonging to Makhdoom Sahib can rightly claim to be the resting place of one of the earliest Kashmiri Sufis in Srinagar. Shah-e-Hamdan was not a Kashmiri and his mausoleum is in Tajikistan, neither was Peer Dastgeer; he in any case did not even come to Kashmir. So Makdoom Sahib is probably among the earliest of the Kashmiri Sufis with a shrine at Srinagar.

Sheikh-ul-Alam Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali (1377-1438), predates Makhdoom Sahib by several decades but Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali or Nund Rishi as he is more popularly known did not live in Srinagar and his shrine is at Charar-e-Sharif, about 20 km outside Srinagar. Makhdoom Sahib is said to belong to a family of Chandravanshi Rajputs from Kangra who had settled down in Kashmir and had risen to high positions in the court of Raja Jai Chand before converting to Islam.

Makhdoom Sahib belonged to the Suhrawardi Sufi Silsila and his shrine on the slopes of the Hari Parbat in Rainawari commands a unique position for next to it is the Chhati Padshahi Gurudwara dedicated to the Sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind Singh, who visited Kashmir in the reign of Jehangir, and on the western slope of Hari Parbat is the ancient temple of Sharika Bhagwati, considered the presiding deity of Srinagar. It is believed that Makhdoom Sahib spent long hours on the slopes of Hari Parbat in meditation and it is here that his disciples built his tomb upon his death. A hill venerated by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike.

You have to climb a flight of steps, lined with almond trees to reach the shrine. Like the shrines dedicated to Peer Dastgeer and to Shah-e-Hamdan, this shrine too is green in colour, offset with white on the windows and doors, the sloping roofs and the pagoda-like pinnacle is testimony, architecturally, to its Kashmiri lineage.  Inside the carvings on the pillars, the ceilings and the trellis work on the windows are also akin to the other two shrines.

Because of its location on the slope of Hari Parbat, the shrine provides several panoramic views of the city spreading out from the base of the much venerated hill. Despite their apparent similarities, each one of these shrines has features that are unique and all are worth more than one visit.

The Mullah Akhund Mosque

As you climb the steps to Makhdoom Saheb, there is a small break in the boundary wall of the flight of steps on your left, turn in and you will see a beautiful mosque. The mosque was commissioned by Darashikoh for his teacher Mohammad Shah Badakhshani who is popularly known as Mullah Akhund. The mosque remains locked up most of the time since the archaeology department staff in charge of the place is hardly ever there. The roof above the central mehrab is topped with a beautifully carved lotus bud; unfortunately, it is falling to pieces as are several other portions of the mosque. Hopefully it will be repaired soon since the INTACH has offered its services to restore the mosque.

Mohammad Shah Badakhshani is believed to have inspired his disciple Darashikoh to start a residential madrasa where tenets of Sufism could be taught. It has been suggested that the garden resort near Chashma Shahi, now known as Pari Mahal, was where the madrasa then known as Peer Mahal was started and it was thus that probably the first ever Sufi Madrasa in Asia opened its doors to seekers of truth in Srinagar.

Hari Parbat Fort

The Hari Parbat Fort was built in 1590 by Akbar who wanted to build a new city, Nagar Nagor, inside the fort walls. The present walls of the fort are however, the work of an 18th century Pathan governer of Kashmir, Ata Mohammad Khan. The fort sits atop the hill and provides a bird’s eye view of the Dal Lake on one side and the city on the other sides. The fort has several ruins inside it and a detailed history of the fort is written on the Kathi Darwaza. It also saw some construction activity during the reign of Jehangir, and Noorjehan is believed to have supervised the construction of a garden that was given the name Noorafza by Jehangir. The fort is currently under the occupation of the army and prior permission is required from state archaeology department to visit the place.

Pather Mosque

The Pather Masjid, not too far away from Shah-e-Hamdan, was commissioned, by Noorjehan in 1620. The mosque built several decades before the Akhund Shah Mosque is in very good condition, probably because it was in the heart of the city and remained in use while the Akhund Shah Mosque was probably abandoned some time after the death of Mullah Akhund. The Pather Mosque despite being made exclusively of stone shares some details with the Jama Masjid of Srinagar, Both are enclosed mosques, the walls contain within them an open courtyard, divided in four squares, each with a tree in the middle. The idea of the char bagh so clearly identified with the Mughals could perhaps have Central Asian or even Kashmiri roots.

The main prayer hall is three arches deep; the central arch projects outwards as in many Mughal mosques; but the roof is plastered unlike most other structures. Though even here a concession had to be made to the climate and the roofs are all sloping to prevent accumulation of snow during the winter months. An interesting little building, well worth a visit.

The Srinagar Jama Masjid

The Srinagar Jama Masjid has a chequered history; it has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times. The mosque was originally built by Sultan Sikandar in 1398 and enlarged by his son, the famous Zain-ul-Abidin. The mosque was destroyed again during the reign of Jehangir, rebuilt after a period of 17 years it was destroyed once again and rebuilt during the reign of Aurangzeb in 1674. This, however, was not the end of the story. The mosque caught fire once again during Dogra rule and was repaired and restored during the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh (1855-1925).

The mosque is a brick and wood structure and clearly one of the finest examples of the combination of several styles of architecture. The four pagoda-like structures that rise, one in the centre of each of the four corridors that enclose the open courtyard, are so typically Buddhist, The arches that allow entry into the mosque from three sides are clearly of Central Asian origin as is the char bagh design of the courtyard, The sloping roofs, the use of wooden tiles and the wooden pillars are without a doubt a continuation of Kashmiri architectural tradition. The Roman arches were in all probability added during the last restoration carried out during Dogra rule.

The combination of wooden pillars and ceiling tiles, brick walls, sloping roofs, an enclosed courtyard that doubles up as the prayer ground during Fridays and on the two Eids accommodating up to 30,000 devout, the four pagodas in place of the ‘traditionally Islamic’ dome are all testimony to the role that climate, available material and indigenous traditions play in devising architectural vocabularies. They are also proof that architecture is not denominational; it is regional and cultural.  The structures that we have talked about in this piece are all living examples of this synthesis of architecture, traditions, crafts, and skills that has shaped the Kashmiri identity and Kashmiri culture. There are many more monuments to this synthesis inside and outside Srinagar that must be seen and appreciated. If this piece encourages you to go on this journey of exploration, it would have served its purpose well.

(First published in Terrascape.)

7 thoughts on “Speaking of Synthesis”

  1. Dear Sohail,

    I am sure you are aware of a quarterly journal in English called ‘Miraas’ (meaning ‘heritage’ in both Urdu and Kashmiri) which highlights the composite cultural heritage of Kashmir.
    The journal, being brought out by an NGO called Kasheer Foundation, is published from Delhi. Its brief is to work for composite culture, syncretic way of life and liberal social values in Kashmiri speaking people..

    May I request you to allow us to use this beautiful piece along with some of the images in the next issue of ‘Miraas’? It will help in putting in the right perspective the issues that we are working on..

    Please let me know.

    (Dr. ) Pankaj Bhan
    Editor, ‘Miraas’
    D-61, Gulmohar Park,
    New Delhi- 110 049
    9910970595, 26852551

  2. Nice article! You however forgot to mention that the Jamia Masjid of today was actually a Buddhist Temple with a massive Brass Sculpture of the Buddha. This was destroyed by Sikander Butshikan under the influence of Mohd. Hamdani the son of Shah-e-Hamdan (Mir Ali Hamdani)

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