The Khanqah-e-Moula stands on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar’s old city. It is one of the oldest mosques in the city, built in 1395 in the memory of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, who is credited with spreading Islam and infusing Persian culture in Kashmir. On the night of November 14, as rain broke the dry spell in the Valley, the mosque was struck by lightning and its spire was licked by flames.
The fire that started around 12.30 am was not put out until 5am, say the shrine’s caretakers. “There was chaos immediately,” said 77-year-old Mohammad Yasin, one of the caretakers. “Youth arrived on the spot, the fire service and the police came in. Fortunately the shrine was saved by everyone’s efforts.”
Others are not satisfied. One of the shrines senior caretakers, Haji Shamsudin Hamdani, blamed the incident on “security and fire services lapses”. “The fire engine stationed in the area is more than 10-15 years old,” he said. “It did not even start when it was needed. That is why the whole spire was damaged.”
The shrine’s security staff, he added, was callous. “The entire security staff was sleeping and no one bothered to come out. Only one person came out later and pleaded helplessness,” he said. “Now some people are saying that everything is fine, that the shrine is saved but they are only favouring the government and the waqf board. In fact the responsibility lies with the waqf board, which has ignored this shrine.”
Private donations were used for recent works inside and outside the shrine, Hamdani said. “We had done carving work worth Rs 7 lakh inside the shrine and then pleaded with the waqf board to get it varnished. But they stalled us for two years and we finally got it done on private donations,” he said. “The waqf board is only minting money.”
After the fire, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, ordered a safety audit. According to a government handout, Mufti chaired a high-level meet and directed the wakf board, the fire and emergency services, the Power Development Department, the police and the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, among other departments, to jointly conduct a safety audit of all shrines and to frame a list of precautionary measures.
However, caretakers of the shrine do not have high expectations. Nafees Hamdani, another caretaker, said that several safety audits had been carried out. “But in the end nothing came of it,” he said. The orders failed to translate into measures on the ground. “We requested CCTV cameras on priority but they have not been installed,” Hamdani said. “We need better fire-fighting measures.”
Fire extinguishers alone, he said, would not be sufficient. “The spire of the shrine has has copper on top of it,” he said. “It is a conductor, hence it needs earthing as well. We suggested that the administration take up such measures.”
The government’s record in previous cases is not heartening. In 2012, a fire gutted the 245-year-old Dastageer Sahib shrine in another part of Srinagar, leading to tensions in the city. Hurriyat leaders who visited the shrine immediately after and called for a shut down to protest against the fire were beaten up and had their faces blackened by angry crowds who claimed they only pursued their own interests.
Omar Abdullah, who was chief minister at the time, had ordered a fire safety audit of all major heritage Sufi shrines in the Valley. The state finance minister had said that an action plan for the protection and preservation of the shrines would be prepared. None of these measures showed results.
Khanqah-e-Moula has watched over centuries of the Valley’s history. Mir Syed Ali Hamdani arrived in Kashmir from Hamdan in Persia, along with 700 disciples. He died in Kanar, in present-day Pakistan, in 1384, and was buried in Tajikistan. But Jammu and Kashmir has four shrines in Jammu and Kashmir dedicated to him: one in the Ladakh region and two in South Kashmir’s Anantnag and Tral districts. The Srinagar shrine was built by Sultan Sikander of the Shah Miri dynasty.
The square wooden structure with a pyramid roof and extended balconies blends features of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic architecture. The beauty of the shrine lies in its intricate woodwork, eaves and hanging bells. Inside, it is decorated with rich papier mache work and antique chandeliers.
According to S L Shali’s Kashmir: History and Archaeology through the Ages, the shrine was twice destroyed by fire. The first time was in 1479, after which it was repaired by Sultan Hassan Shah. The second fire broke out in 1731, after which the deputy governor of the Mughals, Abul Barkat Khan, repaired the mosque. The spire that was gutted in Wednesday’s fire was also reconstructed a few years ago. Now only its original-weight bearing column remains standing, quite charred.
Nafees Hamdani, whose family has been caretakers of the shrine for generations, said it was only partially damaged in the earlier fires. Luckily, “it was never fully damaged”, he said