Spotlight | Art

Kashmir’s sacred architecture combines Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic influences

The Great Khanqah in Srinagar.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Intach

Talking of Kashmir, everyone heaps praise on its postcard-worthy scenery, its houseboats and apple trees, but not much is known about its syncretic traditions of sacred architecture. The region has long been a melting pot of cultural practices that include Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The 14th century, in particular, is considered a watershed in Kashmir’s history, when different traditions of art and architecture came together — this can be seen, for example, in the ubiquitous pagoda-style construction of mosques such as Khanqah-i-Maulla (Great Khanqah) or Madin Sahab.

A recent exhibition in New Delhi, put together by M. Saleem Beg, convener of INTACH’s J&K chapter and the former director-general of J&K’s Department of Tourism, tried to bring out these aspects. The khanqah, for instance, is one of the best examples of traditional Kashmiri wooden architectural forms. INTACH literature describes it as being made entirely of solid wooden blocks used as headers and stretchers with brick infill. The central space on the ground floor of this 14th-century shrine has a double-height hall with a series of seven small cloisters on both sides, meant for spiritual retreats.

The layout resembles a Buddhist chaitya hall, while the ceiling of the central chamber is supported by four wooden columns — also seen in the temples of medieval Kashmir. The whole structure is surmounted by a multi-tiered pyramidal roof with an open square pavilion (brangh) in the centre. The brangh is crowned by a spire, formally establishing the continuity of the Hindu and Buddhist building traditions. This architectural style can be seen in all the Sufi/ Reshi shrines that dot Kashmir’s cultural landscape.

Unique features

Or take the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. While it was originally built in 1402, the mosque was damaged by fires in 1479, 1620 and 1674. The mosque, says INTACH, does not visually “resemble any of the great mosques of the larger Islamic world”. This is because the domes have been replaced by multi-tiered pyramidal roofs with a central pavilion and spire, a uniquely Kashmiri addition.

The Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.

The Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy INTACH

The mausoleum-shrine complex of Shaikh Hamza Makhdum, who was a leading Suharwardi saint of Kashmir during the 16th century, is considered a unique combination of vernacular design with Mughal elements. It was commissioned during the reign of Akbar in 1600 and was renovated in 1703. The shrine incorporates building techniques like taq and ornamental devices like naqashi, and the main chamber is surmounted by a three-tiered pyramidal roof. However, in a clear Mughal borrowing, the roof is topped by a chhatri surmounted by a small open wooden dome. .

Former professor of history Narayani Gupta points out that art and architecture are expression of human creativity, and as such a creative enterprise. “Classifications such as Hindu architecture, Rajput architecture and Muslim architecture do not exist,” she says.

History of amalgamation

Beg talks of how the three-decade-long conflict in Kashmir has overshadowed everything else about the region, including its culture, heritage, art and architecture. Beg points to Kashmir’s long heritage of syncretic architecture that uses amalgamation and assimilation.

A restored Shiva temple at Manasbal.

A restored Shiva temple at Manasbal.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy INTACH.

Beg stresses the need to build on these traditions and practices so that the essence of this rich cultural past can be retained. “The continuity of the built form by each successive faith has been a way of appropriating the sacred space,” he says. And this provides a historical narrative away from textual readings, and preserves the unique identity of Kashmir.

Beg also underlines the need to look at geography, and oral and literary traditions beyond the political contestations, and refers to the Sanskrit texts Nilamata Purana and Rajatarangini, in which Kashmir is imagined as a sacred space created by divine intervention. As he points out, this philosophical setting was carried forward in Persian by Muslim historians and poets in historical texts and literary works, in which they continued the idea of the Valley’s sacredness by describing the land as jannat (paradise) on earth. Which is what Amir Khusrau recalled when he famously wrote: Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, hameen ast-o, hameen ast-o, hameen ast. (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 11:35:59 AM |

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