The souls behind the stairs of Makhdoom Sahib

Our ancestors have raised these stairs with their sweat and blood, their crumbling steps do worry us.
The souls behind the stairs of Makhdoom Sahib
Representational Pic

My father has left such a deep impact on my life that with every passing day and event – I try to recall what he told me, try to recall his advice, his forewarnings and his tales of wisdom.  He was a storyteller, an event re-caller, an oral historian and an analyst. On this death anniversary, as I was wondering what to write about him, I came over a beautiful card in my drawer with a painting by Alan Blunt (1912) depicting the Ziarat of Makhdoom Sahib.  This card was distributed through Guru Charitable Foundation and reached me through Prof. Faroque A. Khan, an acclaimed Kashmiri-American doctor in New York. It accompanied a book on IMANA (Islamic Medical Association of North America) that he had authored and I recalled another book by the same author titled ‘The story of a mosque in America’ in which the author tells the story as to how a mosque in New York was constructed – the book lays bare the effort, the determination and the struggle involved in building up of a mosque in America and actually introduces Islam to non-Muslims in America. The mosque has gone beyond what it was conceived to be and become a leading Interfaith Institute. That story I reserve for another time..

Author's Father Late Peer Abdul Hamid Makhdoomi
Author's Father Late Peer Abdul Hamid Makhdoomi

This old painting opened up an entire memory folder regarding the Ziarat Makhdoom Sahib and our association with it.  We had an old photo of Ziarat in our living room.  My father would often point to the photo taken by HRH Prince Luigi Amadeo in 1901, comment on the simplicity of the structure (shrine) which was seated in the midst of a tiny hill, with a primitive Khanqah, a courtyard of huge irregular and uneven stones and heaps of mud aligned in the form of stairs. I am thankful to Dr. Faroque for the card and the book for it stimulated me to write this article which includes the story  as to how a simple structure was transformed into the present form with its massive ‘landmark’ stairs by the community effort led by my forefathers, many great men of my father’s tribe, the influential men of Srinagar city and adjoining villages and the legendary Mirza Kamaluddin Shaida .

I have literally grown on and around the stairs leading to the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib.  I have played hopscotch there, played a scarecrow for the birds when we would lay the rice or paddy on them to dry, watched the mesmerizing Srinagar with its beauty standing on my toes at the highest step and used the stair supports (railings) as slides.  These stairs are a part of my childhood and occupy a special place in my memory.  When too small to know about faith, I would watch women with huge brooms cleaning the stairs, barbers with blades tonsuring the heads of tiny boys, water-thirsty men and women with their swinging heads and pitcher-fulls of water singing in chorus as they would move up, crying women, sighing men, giggling women and crying men.  Many moving up in hope and faith bare feet and tear-eyed, many sinking in their thoughts and many crying aloud! 

As I grew, I realized how beautiful those stairs were connecting the face of Srinagar to the seekers of solace and peace. If you wished to say fatihah to the Sufi saint Shaykh Hamzah- you would use them, if you wished just to pray in the reclusive environs of a mosque- you would use them, if you wished to perform Zikr and Fikr in the small mosque (Zakir Masjid) which Makhdoom Sahib used - you would use them, if you wished to have a scanner view of the beauty of Srinagar you would use them, if you wished to go up Kastoor Paend and enjoy the fresh breeze of Nagin lake - you would use them, if you wanted to study art and architecture you would use them, if you happened to be a student of archaeology - you would use them, if you wanted to study the philosophy of coexistence - you would use them, if you happened to be a devout Sikh - you would use them to reach Chatti Padshahi and if you were a Kashmiri Pandit you would complete your Prakram by using them. In short, whether you are a Kashmiri, a tourist, a non-tourist, a local, a non-local you would use them to reach wherever you wanted and to realise whatever was your desire. These stairs are, mind you, not restricted to one faith, one class or one section…they belong to all and in their wholesomeness lies their beauty…These stairs have owned the abandoned newborns, the hungry, the homeless and the helpless.

My bond with the stairs thus is thick and strong. Before I go back to the stairs and the effort it took to build them, it may be essential to point out a few historical aspects of management at the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib. As my father would recount - his father and forefathers were connected with Ziarat over the centuries and have been the custodians of the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib at Kohimaran. They have been involved in the maintenance, upkeep, and security of the shrine besides being related to many religious practices including Naatkhwani, Duroodkhwani and Imamat of the associated mosques. This was lineage-specific.

My grandfather Peer Hafeezullah Makhdoomi was an official in the court and the last Mutawalli at the shrine. Besides the daily maintenance, he was involved in the reconstruction and refurbishing of the structures within and around the shrine. Mirza Kamaluddin Shaida, a noted scholar and poet worked in close collaboration with Peer Hafeezullah regarding the construction activities and management of the affairs of the shrine. The first expansion of the shrine premises was done by the duo when the space of the adjoining graveyard was incorporated into the shrine. The two together envisioned the construction of stairs towards the Bachidarwaza side, which would ease the difficulties of the visitors and also help the workers involved in construction within the shrine premises. It was difficult to carry men and material up without proper stairs. Also, there was no water up in the shrine for which people had to be hired to carry the water there. Unfortunately, Peer Hafeezullah became sick and died before the mission could take off. My father was too young to get into his father’s role and thus Peer Yousuf Shah – brother of Peer Hafeezullah looked after the affairs of the shrine. In 1943 an Intizamia Committee was constituted by  Peer Sahiban under the leadership of Peer Yousuf Shah, and Mirza Kamaluddin Shaida was appointed by consensus as the chairman of the committee. The committee comprised four members from Peers hailing from Makhdoom Sahib and four from Kalashpora. Many prominent people from Srinagar and villages of the valley were inducted into it by Peer Yousuf Shah to give an appropriate representation to all the regions. This was the first democratically constituted committee much before the subcontinent became independent. The committee looked after the affairs of the shrine well. The booklet produced by the Intizamia committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Mirza Kamaluddin (1971-72) clearly mentions the pre-committee era and the committee era.

The Intizamia committee took into hand various construction projects like the construction of stairs, construction of the adjoining mosque, flooring of the courtyard, replacing the roof of the shrine, construction of the minaret and repair of windows of the shrine. This was in addition to the daily maintenance of the shrine. Imparting Islamic education to children and monthly stipends of widows and orphans was a priority work for Intizamia committee (the records are available with the family).

The Intizamia committee involved itself almost exclusively in a project that would become a lifeline for the shrine. The construction of the stairs was a major project, however, the lack of funds kept it lingering. The finest material had to be chosen, the finest workers had to be selected and a huge labor force was needed. Where would you get this all? And, who would finance it was the question that haunted the committee. However, God sent help came in the form of Khwaja Abdul Kabeer Wadera the famous contractor of his time who took a major brunt of construction on himself. He supplemented the effort with his men and machines, which was a rarity at that time. The project was big and the demand for finances was bigger and Khwaja Wadera Sahab was finding it difficult to get the project going. My father’s uncle Peer Yousuf Shah suggested to the committee that they launch a vigorous fundraising campaign for the construction of the stairs. Peer Yousuf  Sahib approached his murids, friends and acquaintances who wholeheartedly supported the project. Peer Yousuf Shah approached a few of his murid-i-khas for help - one of the prominent ones was Khwaja Abdul Aziz Mantoo who was a cloth merchant at Lalchowk. My father would recall the khuloos of Abdul Aziz Mantoo saying when Yousuf Sahab with other members approached him, he opened the locks of his ‘Safe’ (chest) and asked the members to take the amount that was desired by them. Yousuf Sahab took out 13,000 rupees, which was a great sum those days and asked him to close the ‘Safe’. This money too was exhausted soon. The prominent business families of Kashmir i.e., Draboos and Gandroos also came to the forefront for help.

Khwaja Wadera Sahab, looking at the quickly exhausting finances advised the committee members to launch a massive collection drive in villages to generate more money. He arranged a Mercedes-Benz for the committee members who went from village to village under the leadership of Peer Yousuf Shah. He arranged trucks that went from Sogam to Magam, Trehgam to Varmul and collected in bulk whatever was offered. In Harai, Ahmed Mir collected for them, in Varmul Khwaja Abdul Samad Kakroo hosted them and collected a good sum from his own ilk and his neighborhood. Wadera Sahab was impressed by the respect and regard that the people in villages and towns had for Peers of Makhdoom Sahib who were instrumental in collecting a fortune that would help him to complete the construction of the stairs. Some members of the delegation were sent to Magam where Lones’ of Magam helped and some were sent to Zehanpora where Mongas’ came forward for the help. My father would also tell me about one of the Peers who died while collecting money for the stairs and was buried in one of the south Kashmir villages.

While the construction was going on, where in Srinagar would you keep such a large labor force so that their regular attendance was ensured? Here again, Peer Yousuf Shah opted to host all the laborers, they would get food from the family kitchen and they would be provided with shelter too. This was done to ensure their regular attendance and not to lose them to any other project. At a later date as the stairs were to be decorated with lights, priceless lights were brought from an auction and they added to the charm of the stairs.

My father was a young lad while this all was happening. As he grew he too was inducted into the Intizamia committee that did a remarkable job in beautifying the premises of the shrine. Many well-to-do businessmen of the valley did a lot of work at the shrine. Prominent among them was Khwaja Habibullah Khanyari who constructed stairs from Kathidarwaza side and Kastoor pendi and upgraded Taalab. Those beautiful stairs look like the replica of the main stairs towards Bachidarwaza. Niya Shahdad has written an emotional article on Khanyari Sahab’s passion and effort at building those stairs (Greater Kashmir July 29, 2019). Khanyari Sahab’s work is laudable as he managed the Kathidarwaza side stairs and courtyard with his solo effort. When asked if he needed help, he would say ‘just pray for its completion’. Khanyari Sahab also constructed Masjid-e-Ayesha–a beautiful mosque for women in the center of the courtyard. Khwaja Ali Shah of Buchwara also has added to the interior construction of the shrine and helped wherever necessary. He was an active member of Intizamia committee who would pay from his own pocket for various developmental projects at the shrine.

The Intizamia committee took care of the library, which housed many rare books and manuscripts. A publishing wing was established that worked to translate manuscripts of Baba Dawood Khaki from Persian into Urdu. The Intizamia committee was changed from time to time and on the advice and instructions of Peer Sahiban and new members were inducted. As the construction requirements of the shrine multiplied a donation box exclusively meant for the construction purpose was kept outside the shrine by the name of Tamir-e-fund and people were given receipts against the required amount. A meticulous record was kept and this amount was spent on the upkeep of the shrine. My father had a huge collection of pamphlets, vision documents, receipt books and books related to the up-gradation of the shrine and the adjoining structures in his library. These documents are a testimony to the role that these people have played in the maintenance of the shrine. Many old maps and site plans related to Makhdoom Sahib are valuable treasures in our house.

In 1976 the autonomously functioning Intizamia committee was dissolved and it was merged with the Auqf-e Islamia Jammu and Kashmir. Auqaf took over the affairs of the shrine and never cared for it with the same passion as the local Peers did. No insider was a part of central committee. No contributors were involved in the decision making process. Now as  the Peers have been literally ousted and made irrelevant with a section calling them what they ought not to be called, I share their role in the construction of the massive stairs representing an iconic image of Srinagar. Their role is broader, their image is bigger…the iconic stairs looking for help as they are crumbling - know them well. The students of Kashmir’s history should not forget that it was their effort that kept the shrine safe over the centuries, that preserved a tradition, a rich culture. In sizzling heat, and freezing cold and disabling curfews the echoes of Allah-o-Akbar resonated from the hill to awaken those in slumber. This, without silencing the Bhajans from Sharika Devi’s Mandir or Kirtans from Chatti Patshahi.

As I look at the stairs of today they have been converted into money-generating units with their adjoining space being rent out to shopkeepers who hardly care as to what happens to the stairs. The walls have been mauled, the supports are crumbling, the tilts are apparent, dog poop is smeared all over, rats have a merry at the stairs and it is not long before the stairs will be lost. Should we not get together to save Sultan’s stairs?

Isn’t it a paradox that non- resident Kashmiris are preserving the culture and tradition of Kashmir by creating museums, publishing and distributing the material related to our tradition and rich culture and we are helplessly watching as our iconic structures are tumbling. Our ancestors have raised these stairs with their sweat and blood…their crumbling steps do worry us.

(This article is dedicated to the memory of my father Peer Abdul Hamid Makhdoomi who left this world on 13th September 2020. Most of the anecdotes put forth here have been narrated to me or my brother, by him).


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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