The destruction of the Dastgeer Saheb in a blaze underlines the need for a comprehensive plan to preserve Kashmir’s historic khanqahs

Kashmir’s shrines, mosques and khanqahs are the milestones of the Valley’s spiritual environment, transcending the barriers of time. Their influence and resilience in the face of the hostility, and of natural and political upheavals lends the Firdause-e-Bareen, or the Paradise on Earth, its other enduring sobriquet of reshi waar — “the garden of saints.” These spiritual centres of millions of Kashmiris can be seen arguably as the most vibrant and visible manifestation of their faith. For Kashmiris, these also serve as a reminder of the inspiration, creative genius and building technologies of their ancestors who relied on local materials and skills and created these marvels of wood, brick and stone.

Many styles

While spiritual requirements remained the core consideration, architectural styles of the Buddhist and the Hindu periods were treated as a common resource in creating these monuments. Thus the numerous shrines and khanqahs dotting the landscape of Kashmir represent a uniquely syncretic architectural style incorporating local features, elements from sub-continental plains, as well as from the larger Central and middle Asian cultural landscape — from as far as China, Iran and Mawrau-nehar.

Besides their archaeological and architectural significance, they are an intrinsic part of the Islamic heritage. Associated with numerous Sufi orders in the land, they attract devotees from all religions and shades of different faiths and beliefs. Urs organised at these shrines are a remarkable synthesis of worship, prayer and festivity. They also serve as a rich representation of the local cultural ethos and the enduring influence of various Rishi and Sufi orders.

Spread all over the Valley, the shrines also serve as a unique example of Kashmir’s ornate wooden architecture — monumental or vernacular. Given its urban character and political pre-eminence, it is no wonder that the capital city of Srinagar has the largest concentration of these monuments. These include the historic khanqahs of Mir Sayyed Ali Hamdani, Naqshband Saheb, Makhdoom Saheb, Dastgeer Saheb, Madeen Saheb, Jamia Masjid, Aali Masjid, Imambara Hassanabad and many others.

The story of the over 200-year-old khanqah of Dastgeer Saheb starts much earlier with an Afghan traveller in Kashmir. There are historical references to him presenting the then subedar (governor) of the State, Sardar Abdullah Khan, with a holy relic of the renowned 11th century Sufi saint, Sayyid Abdul Qadir Jeelani.

The subedar gave it into the custody of the local Qadri saint Sayyid Buzarg Shah. Later, a repository for the relic was constructed at Khanyar by Sayyid Ghulam-ud-din Azad in 1767. He introduced the tradition of displaying the relic for multitudes of pilgrims on particular festivals every year.

The khanqah went through an expansion in 1877, aided by Khwaja Sanaullah Shawl, a local handicraft merchant. Since then a number of ancillary buildings have been added on to the main khanqah, which include a mosque, a hammam and a shrine. Other relics preserved in the repository include a manuscript of the Koran believed to be penned by Hazrat Imam Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad, in Khat-e-Koofi in the Sixth century.

Reverentially known as Dastgeer Saheb and Gaus-ul-Aazam, Sayyid Abdul Qadir Jeelani, in fact, had never visited Kashmir or any other territory in the Indian subcontinent. He was born south of the Caspian Sea in today’s Mazandaran Province of Iran on March 18, 1077, and died in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at the age of 88 on January 15, 1166 A.D. He succeeds the spiritual chain of Junaid Baghdadi and has been one of the most revered saints for his devotees in Kashmir over the last eight centuries. Many from the Valley visit his tomb at the grand mausoleum in Baghdad.

Spread over an area of more than 8,000 sq.ft, Dastgeer Saheb’s shrine was a unique representation of the Kashmiri building traditions and the associated crafts depicted in various decorative and ornamental elements. Given its location on a key tourist path, the shrine also acted as a major urban landmark that had, over a period of time, carved an image for itself — as a visual representation of Kashmir in travelbooks, magazines, calendars and postcards.

The structure

The original khanqah consisted of seven linear traditional taq double height buildings aligned along a north-south axis. A number of ancillary buildings were added in a linear manner to the main khanqah on its northern and southern side. Immediately to the east of the double height khanqah stood the main burial chamber which contained the cenotaphs of some prominent saints associated with the Qadri order. The khanqah itself was preceded by a two-floor block, comprising a mosque and a hammam, which also adjoined the burial chamber on its northern side. All the buildings could be approached from a wide corridor, running along the entire length of the complex on its eastern side. Along the south-eastern corner of the khanqah, an open pavilion, the Noor Khana, covered with a multi-tiered roof, was reserved for the use of women pilgrims. The main khanqah building and the shrine block were topped by the traditional Kashmiri style multi-tiered chaar baam roof surmounted by a wooden dome and a stupa style spire. The khanqah block also had two octagonal hubs along the corner ends of the main western facade which was dominated by an arcade of pointed arched openings.

In its destruction in a blaze on Monday, this khanqah joins a long list of others that have perished similarly: the Khanqah-e-Faiz Panah of Shah-e-Hamadan at Tral, the shrine of Rishi Moul Saheb in Anantnag, and the world-famous shrine-cum-monastery of the 14th century saint and founder of Kashmiri’s Rishi order, Sheikh Noorud-din Noorani, at Chrar-e-Sharief.

Issue of protection

It seriously brings to the fore the issue of the preservation of Kashmir’s hallmarks of faith and cultural heritage. History is replete with threats to these structures from nature as well as man. Despite a chain of devastating incidents, neither a foolproof security system nor a preventive and quick reaction fire fighting system has been in place at these highly vulnerable sites.

As most of these heritage and pilgrimage sites are located in densely occupied downtown Srinagar, their protection requires a number of measures. A comprehensive preservation plan needs to be put in place; houses and land in the crucial radius shall have to be acquired; addition of new structures must be stopped to maintain both adequate breathing space and the skyline; the preservation plan must include a safety audit for assessment of fire and structural risks. Present maintenance and management practices at khanqahs are abjectly lacking in expertise and basic awareness of disaster management and mitigation.

A vigilant, round-the-clock team of volunteers, preferably from the khudams and the local community, with participation and overall supervision of the Wakf Board needs to be set up. There has to be an emphasis on fire prevention rather than fire fighting. The laissez-faire attitude at the shrines is shocking — any devotee can add or alter an electric or architectural fixture without any consideration to safety issues. Just 10 days ago, it came to our notice that some fire extinguishers have been installed at the most significant shrine of Shah Hamadan in Srinagar, nominally declared as a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Nobody in or around the shrine knows how to operate these extinguishers in the event of an emergency. Management systems have to be put in place so that all protection and prevention issues are tackled in a coordinated manner.

Coming back to Dastgeer Saheb, the Waqf Board and the State Government have announced that the reconstruction of the gutted shrine shall be undertaken immediately. One would hope that during the reconstruction of this historic shrine, the original character of the site and its architecture will be given due consideration.

(M. Saleem Beg is Convenor INTACH in Kashmir and former Director-General of Tourism in J&K).

RELATED NEWS

A Sufi message from a Pakistani President April 9, 2012

More In: Comment | Opinion