Epigraphs shine light on Kashmir’s rich cultural past

Inscriptions from 40 heritage sites have been deciphered and are on display at a Srinagar exhibition; they depict the cross-cultural connections that have framed Kashmir

Updated - June 09, 2024 07:34 am IST

Published - June 09, 2024 03:50 am IST - SRINAGAR

Visitors attend the week-long exhibition on architectural epigraphy in modern Kashmir held at the Kashmir Art Emporium in Srinagar on Saturday.

Visitors attend the week-long exhibition on architectural epigraphy in modern Kashmir held at the Kashmir Art Emporium in Srinagar on Saturday. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Epigraphs from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, on display at a Srinagar exhibition, shine a light on Kashmir’s past and throw up new details about the domination of the Persian language, local Hindus’ praise for Sultan Sikander, and community wells constructed by the Mughals.

Epigraphs or inscriptions, including calligraphic works, from 40 heritage sites in Kashmir are on display at Srinagar’s Kashmir Arts Emporium, where an exhibition started on Saturday. It maps architectural epigraphy from early modern Kashmir and puts a spotlight on inscriptions on khanqahs, mosques, temples, shrines and mausoleums.

Epigraphy in architecture is an important and essential part of what is defined as material culture. In addition to textual and oral histories, we are increasingly looking at the material culture to look at the past. Epigraphs have the potential to even correct the errors which have crept into our textual histories,” Hakim Sameer Hamdani, author and design director of INTACH-Kashmir, told The Hindu.

Deciphering rare texts

Dr. Hamdani’s work on the epigraphs is a rare attempt to decipher the etched writings at the historical sites of Kashmir. The weeklong exhibition, organised by the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) and the Kashmir Handicrafts and Handlooms department, brings to the fore rare devotional and literary sensibilities of the times, including the chronograms. 

“Collectively, they cover over four centuries of religious and literary writings, commencing with the establishment of Sultanate rule in Kashmir in the 14th century. Deciphering some of the rarest texts written in Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, the exhibition borrows from translations, photographs and recreated drawings offering a comprehensive mapping of our past,” Dr. Hamdani said.

Trans-regional connections

Describing these epigraphs as a framing of the ‘mizaj’ or socio-religious milieu of the period, Dr. Hamdani said that the epigraphs’ message was certainly one of religious piety but also speaks about the trans-regional connections that framed Kashmir. “Persian poetry is frequently quoted. The workmanship is again linked to calligraphic styles that you see across the Islamic world, particularly in the Persianate cultures. Two of the epigraphs record the construction of the first two temples in Kashmir after the authority was transferred to the Sikh rule. Both are not only in the Persian language but also located in Persian literary traditions,” he said.

An epigraph from Khanmoh in Sanskrit mentions a ‘maath’ foundation during the reign of Zain-ul-Abidin. “It refers to his father as the illustrious Sikander. As you know, Sikander is rather infamous as Butshikan (someone who destroyed Hindu statues). It’s a different reading that comes across from these epigraphs,” Dr. Hamdani said.

Muslim calligrapher, Hindu engraver

Another inscription from the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar highlights the reconstruction overseen by a native Kashmiri engineer, historian and administrator, Malik Haider of Chadoora area. “The inscription is from the period when the mosque was burnt during Emperor Jahangir’s time. The calligrapher was again a Kashmiri master, Mulla Murad, famous as Shirin Kalam (Sweet pen). But the engraver was a Hindu, Hari Ram, whose name is also recorded,” he added.

The exhibition evoked a healthy response on day one from art and history lovers in the Valley. “Kashmir has a rich heritage. Gardens, monuments and bridges came up in different eras. All these have foundation stones. This event is to bring the translation of these foundation stones to the younger generation to highlight the rich past,” Mehmood Shah, director of the Handicrafts and Handlooms department, said. 

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