The Architectural Heritage of Kashmir


The impact of newer building technologies on the traditional architecture of Kashmir has been devastating.

When I started attending Medical College in the eighties, I would take an architecturally attractive route via the now off-limits road between the Amar Singh Club and the official guest houses on the banks of the Jehlum, through the exquistely carved gates of the Emporium, past the Grindlays [now JK Bank] building and Lal Chowk to the double-lane Karan Nagar stretch with neat rows of colonial bungalows on either side. Karan Nagar today is a fast-developing marketplace, with modern glass-and-concrete monoliths replacing older buildings at a frenetic pace. One could be driving through Ludhiana or Patiala, if it were not for the occasional glimpse of a sloping roof. Nowadays I prefer taking the circuitous route via Baba Demb and Fateh Kadal, as much for the architecture of the old city, as to avoid traffic congestion near the Civil Secretariat.

Karan Nagar is a prime example of how Srinagar is fast losing its unique Central Asian flavour. Private commercial property builders seem to be in a mad rush to ‘modernise’ our skyline with a vengeance. Compare the timeless elegance of the Amar Singh College complex with the soulless mustard-and-grey commercial complex, topped off with what looks like a giant softy cone, at the nearby corner. Without realising it, we are falling victim to an insidious form of ‘coca cola-sation’ of our vernacular architecture.

Architects in the West seem to have realised the dehumanising effect of the stark, uncompromisingly rectangular geometry of buildings of steel, concrete and glass.

 

Our tragedy is that we are again blindly aping the west without realising that while it may be a neccessity for skyscrapers, we are not bound by this strict adherence to geometry. Some hope, however, stems from a quite unexpected source. The delicate 'brickwork and jaali' design of some new government buildings like the newly-restored Arts Emporium and the Sangarmal Shopping Complex makes them totally blend into the city, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, as in the case of the unredeemably ugly GPO building.

While modern building ‘technology’ may be unavoidable, the same is not true of ‘design’. Buildings may incorporate architectural details simply to delight the viewer.

 

Private commercial buildings may have to be given up as a lost cause given our propensity towards ‘bhed chaal’ so it is home builders who should consider using traditional embellishments for a unique, instantly-recognisable kashmiri design, rather than simple cut-and-paste jobs from western house-plan magazines. What stops our highly-talented architects from evolving a ‘Kashmiri post-modern’ architectural ethos? It cannot be very difficult to incorporate traditional elements like dub, varusi, dour etc. into our building designs. The onus is on our own architects and homeowners to maintain a link to our rich architectural past.

In this context, the building heritage survey of Srinagar carried out a few years ago by the Centre for Heritage and Environment, Kashmir (CHEK) and INTACH is an invaluable effort. Their team of researchers compiled data from over 800 properties on the basis of historical, archaeological, and architectural significance into a five-volume report. Though the design and layout and the presentation of photographs on the official website is not very impressive, it is well worth a visit for the wealth of information on our architectural heritage.

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