In traditional Kashmiri homes, refinements such as the Zoon Dub – or a cantilevered balcony designed to view the moon (called zoon in Kashmiri) – were common. Balconies and eaves with beautiful fret worked details known as pinjarakari, pendants of wooden chimes shaped like jhumkas are still visible, but the violence of nearly three decades combined with the terrible onslaught of modern building methods, have not boded well for the heritage.
Writing about the beauty and shared culture of the Valley pre-1989 poses a conundrum: on the one hand, a writer must be wary of romanticising Kashmir and thereby glossing over its violent history and present, yet there is also the importance of memory and the role of aesthetics in everyday life, of architecture influenced by both history and geography. Perhaps these reasons explain the significance of new museums such as the Partition Museum in Amritsar, the BBC’s Museum of Lost Objects dealing with Syrian and Iraqi treasures lost to violence, and even Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, where banal mementoes acquire a meaning because they are linked to the memory of a beloved.
In this context, both vernacular and colonial architecture in the Valley celebrate the historical skill of Kashmiri craftsmen and demonstrate how traditional homes adapt to geography by utilising local stone, wood and brick. The most typical examples of vernacular architecture are found in Srinagar along the Jhelum and in areas where mohallas developed according to occupation, as in Kralepur Zadibal (or the potters enclave) and Kagaz Saz Mohalla, or according to clan, as in Razdan Kocha.
A roof of one’s own
The abiding image of Srinagar is of its riverfront houses. Most lanes branch off at right angles to the river, as water-borne transport was once the chief mode of travel. The Pandit homes still standing along the river today are mostly abandoned and crumbling, but speak of an affluent past – they are the most imposing in size, four or five stories in height. Some houses have steps leading directly from the water to a private inner portico. The small ghats speak of a life of amity and communal harmony. This past interdependence and present divide of the two communities can be poignantly expressed in the poem Farewell by Agha Shahid Ali, who spent part of his youth in Kashmir: “In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections.”
The French physician François Bernier and writer Walter Roper Lawrence have both been struck by the verdant sight of Srinagar from a vantage point: its rooftops then were made of birch-bark layered outwardly with an insulation of fertile clay and turf, studded thickly with bulbs of tulips and lilies. Known as burze pash, these roof-lilies would explode with colour in April. Sadly, the roofs were lost once the British began supplying the Valley with cheap corrugated galvanised sheeting. Grander homes switched to shingles. Turf roofs were environmentally friendly, cool in summer and warm in winter, but almost no examples survive today.
The interiors of these roofs, the ceilings of Srinagar’s homes, were no less sublime. The false ceilings in wooden khatamband panels, of interlocking geometric shapes, traced their origins to Persian art. Made of walnut or deodar, they are known for their invisible joinery. There is a renewed demand in private homes for these ceilings today, with the artisanal labour being performed by machines for a quicker output.
Even more expensive than the khatamband panels were ceilings of minutely painted papier mache panels, executed by craftsmen who were brought to India from Iran by the Budshah Zain-ul-Abedin in the 15th century. The motifs on the ceilings bear a resemblance to Kashmiri Jamawar shawls, and sleeping under them might have enveloped residents in a similar sense of warmth and well-being. Very few ceilings like this survive today, the ones that exist are often extensively damaged.
Srinagar falls in the highest risk seismic zone V, amplified by its location on the Riasi fault. Traditional architecture, unlike the structures in vogue today, was developed to withstand even fairly severe tremors. The two forms of vernacular construction are known as Taq and Dhajji Diwari. The latter uses a structure of wooden bracing or interlacing like a patchwork quilt, with the gaps being filled with stone rubble and/or single brick. The wooden frames combined with the mud plaster are more elastic than reinforced concrete, and survive earthquakes far more successfully. Taq means window, and this form of construction has brick piers alternating with window embrasures, which are often decorated with beautiful detailing in painted stucco. Internal walls are plastered with fine clay over a coarser base of clay and straw, in a process known as livum.
The Dhajji Diwari style of construction has a strong Central Asian influence and is common all the way up to Turkey. Wooden trussed frames are filled with rubble in the ground floor, while horizontal wooden supports lead to higher floors which are made of bricks. Often, Dhajji Diwari is used to make the attics of large mansions, while the lower floors are of Taq construction. Recent earthquakes in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and in the city of Bam in Iran, flattened modern houses, while the Dhajji Diwari withstood the jolts. Wooden tie beams at plinth level known as das are known to cushion the impact of an earthquake as well.
A Kashmiri brick is special, both baked and unbaked. The maharaja brick was completely hand-made, small and very dense, used in Taq buildings, lending them their weathered patina. Today brick kilns for load bearing masonry bricks have almost completely replaced the distinctive maharaja bricks.
The vernacular forms of architecture were followed by the colonial style of half-timbered buildings which evoked, as VS Naipaul put it, a medieval Europe... with a disregarded beauty. A walk through Nowhatta and Basant Bagh is enough to see fine examples of both vernacular and colonial architecture, often accompanied by a blend of the two. Areas like Zaina, Fateh and Nawa kadal as well as Gojwara are almost completely vernacular.
The rigorous rules that govern heritage architecture and conservation, and the power of such rules in countries like the UK are something to be lauded, while architectural heritage in India loses both to the ravages of time, a preference for concrete structures and the ravages of time and violence.
Selina Sen is the author of Zoon, a novel set in Kashmir, published by Tranquebar.