The broken city – Political observations on the built environment

This article was first published in Domus, no. 967 (2013): 114-123.

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From the vantage point of a ramshackle tea stall on the south side of Hari Parbat Hill, the view over Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India—is breathtaking: eagles flying above the skyline, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and an endless sequence of sloping tin roofs, interrupted only by the towering spires of the many mosques.

Hari Parbat is in itself a remarkable summary of the city’s complexity. On top of the hill stands a majestic fort, whose construction was first conceived and initiated by Emperor Akbar in the 1590s, and then completed in the 18th century by the Afghan governor of Kashmir. Just below the fort is the Makhdoom Sahib Dargah, the tomb and shrine of the eponymous Sufi saint and one of the holiest places in the valley, revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Indeed, Hindus consider the hill to be especially sacred due to the presence of the Sharika Devi Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, an embodiment of the goddess Durga, who is both a maternal figure and a bearer of destructive male energy. On the way up to the hill there is also the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid, an abandoned mosque dating from the Mughal era. As well as having domes instead of spires, it is also one of the very few mosques that were historically built in stone rather than the vernacular wooden structure. People say that the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid has hardly ever been used for worship, and there are two versions of this story: some say it was because the place was possessed by the djinns—naughty or angry genies—while others claim that it was an act of resistance against the foreign Mughal domination.

Hari Parbat Hill is a microcosmic representation of the complex nature of the city of Srinagar and of the whole Valley of Kashmir. It is a palimpsest of layers: multiple narratives and times across religions, identities and dominations. It holds both the power of the popular imagination of Kashmir as a site of pristine natural beauty (which, as historian Mridu Rai argues, is often rhetorically constructed as emptied of people) and the controversial meanings of the idea of Kashmiriyat (or Kashmiri-ness, an essential notion of what it means to be Kashmiri) beyond religious or sectarian belonging. The physical stratification of architectural styles, religious rituals and historical sites triggers questions on how the built environment can be interpreted in order to understand intricate stories that have several, and often contrasting versions. When asked how we can link the current situation of simmering political tensions with a parallel narrative of cherished cultural cohabitation and mutual influence, Professor M.H. Zafar, the former director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir, told us that interrogating architecture is a good way to begin to understand. “Architecture does not wear its meaning on its sleeves,” he said. “It is a subtle matter that requires observation in order to understand the multiplicity of stories that it tells.” This multiplicity encompasses tales of subversion and experimentation, as well as conservative strategies of preservation.

Heritage and historical architecture, in fact, can also be appropriated and used to produce a pacified vision of controversial presents. In Kashmir, the discourse around its long-standing syncretic tradition is exemplary in this respect: contrasting parties have adopted this notion in ways that are instrumental to either communal political agendas or to comfortably preserving the precariously balanced status quo. Syncretic architecture is introduced in the discussion as physical evidence of a harmonious past in which all religions lived in peace, and it is only due to the radicalisation of their opponent—alternatively Muslims or Hindus, depending on who is speaking—that this harmony has now become compromised or even lost.

~ * ~

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 9.53.07 AMThis recollection of an ideal past is easily translated into an invitation to forget the stone (pelters) of the present and concentrate on the architecturally meaningful stones of the past. In political terms, this attitude shifts the emphasis to tourism, on the natural beauty of the Valley of Kashmir, on the richness of its cultural and culinary traditions, and becomes a clever instrument used by the Indian government to distract both visitors and detractors from the fact that Kashmir is actually one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world.

This is quite a striking detail if we consider that Kashmir is officially not a war zone.

The built environment in situations of conflict is often neglected as a possible exegetic source—it is treated as a victim, accounted for as one of the many casualties, but hardly ever addressed as a witness or a repository of memories and testimonies. This is, however, an incapacitating intellectual position that overlooks the fact that the built environment does not lie, but instead preserves the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to efface. Following the omnipresent global argument of security, and its localised version of protection of cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. It is visually revealing to take a walk through Lal Chowk—the heart of Srinagar, a busy bazaar-like commercial hub and one of the places that has historically hosted both official political events and opposition demonstrations—and from there to the Old City. The signs of military appropriation of the civil urban space do not use a subtle language and are part of the visual landscape of Srinagar’s present and recent past. By the scenic Amira Kadal Bridge, where Kashmiri women have kept the fishmonger’s trade alive despite decades of political unrest, lies the Hanuman Mandir, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god. Nowadays, the temple is manned by a Kalashnikov-wielding sentry. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who protect it from potential Islamist attacks and use the spires of its domes to stretch out washing lines to dry their uniforms. Not too far away, in downtown Srinagar, Firdous Cinema Hall tells a more hopeful story: after being occupied by the army for more than 20 years, and being turned into a security camp in 2005, the CRPF returned it to the civilian population in December 2011. Eight other cinemas, however, are still used for military and paramilitary purposes, as are a further seventy-nine hotels. According to KashmirWatch, a branch of the Europe based Kashmir International Research Centre (KIRC), in the past 8 years the army in its various capacities has cleared out of about 1,300 private and public buildings, but, as of early April 2012, 1,800 are still under their control.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the poet who more than anyone else managed to express the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley of Kashmir, wrote extensively about Srinagar. Through decades and centuries, the city’s built environment has incorporated the landmarks of cohabitation, syncretism, anger, defeat and resistance. It tells stories of communal harmony as well as tales of struggle and dissent. It carries the wounds and scars of the savage military occupation of civil public space. It echoes the words of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem A Pastoral 196:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.

This article is dedicated to Parvaiz Bukhari

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