Once a major business centre of Kashmir, historic Maharaj Gunj market in Downtown here has lost its glory due to failure of successive regimes to revive it as a heritage market.
Before partition, Maharaj Gunj housed stock exchange-cum-business centre for the traders from Amritsar, Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and even Central Asia. The only remnants of the royal market are crumbling buildings, garbage dumps, overflowing drains and encroached roads.
"This historic place has been neglected by successive regimes," rued Ghulam Nabi, a laborer in his late 70s.
After taking a deep breath, he recounted glory of the market. "Before partition, this market used to bustle with traders from Punjab, Delhi besides Karachi."
The market was established by Dogra rulers in mid-19th century. Subsequently, Maharaj Gunj Beopar Mandal was formed in 1865. Earlier the market was named as Sri Ranbir Gunj, later it was renamed as Maharaj Gunj. Major portion of the market was allotted to the businessmen from Hoshiarpur and Gujranwala. During Maharaja Pratap Singh's rule, the market flourished as one of the major business centres of Central Asia.
As Maharaj Gunj was situated on banks of river Jhelum, water transport was used to import and export goods from Central Asia. From Baramulla, the goods were ferried in boats to Maharaj Gunj.
"Maharaj Gunj was a major exhibition market in Kashmir before partition. Traders from various places including Central Asia used to visit the market," said Prof Aijaz Banday, former director Centre for Central Asian Studies University of Kashmir.
'Trade Directory of India' authored by then prominent trader Terath Ram Sethi published in 1932 in Gujranwala Pakistan states that Maharaj Gunj figured as one of the best and biggest markets before partition.
"Kashmir is a beautiful place with large expanse of waters and agricultural fields. Many products like Pashmina shawls, blankets, vegetables, dry fruits, gold ornaments, spices, dals and wood carvings are available in Maharaj Gunj whose nearest Railway Station is Rawalpindi," reads excerpts from the directory originally written in Hindi.
"Maharaj Gunj in my childhood was the main trading centre most of the traders in this market were Hindus of Punjabi origin popularly known as 'Khatir'. I would often derive pleasure in listening to their conversation in Kashmiri with Punjabi accent," recounted noted author and columnist ZG Muhammad.
Zahid vividly remembers how this market hummed with activity late in the night. "There were scores of cloth, footwear and grocery both retail and whole shops in this market. I remember on the eve of Eid and other festivals, we used to make all purchases from this market. The trading activity in this market had started dipping just after Kashmir lost its jugular vein of trade."
The market started to lose its glory after closure of traditional trade route through Muzaffarabad. "Least authorities could do after partition was to preserve heritage buildings of this market," said Muhammad Yaseen, a trader.
Ghulam Ahmad Dar, who runs his ancestral cloth shop at Maharaj Gunj, rued deterioration of the market. "Now barely few traders and customers visit here. "This historic place will soon become history," Dar said pointing towards dilapidated heritage buildings housing shops.
In 2010, the then cabinet minister, Ali Muhammad Sagar, had stated that government was contemplating to declare the Maharaj Gunj as heritage site. During the district development board (DDB) meeting of Srinagar last year, the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had directed for upgrading Maharaj Gunj as heritage market.
"For past over a decade, many projects were formulated for revival of Maharaj Gunj, but none has been implemented so far," said Ayaz Zehgeer, chief organizer of Beopar Mandal Maharaj Gunj.
"The historic market could have been revived as a heritage market, but government looked other way," he said. '
Quoting their ancestors, the traders said Dogra rulers especially Maharaja Pratap Singh used to regularly hold meetings with traders of the market and take their suggestions for promoting their business.
"The present rulers are indifferent towards Maharaj Gunj. Our pleas to revive this market meet deaf ears. The market should be restored on the pattern of Mubarak Mandi in Jammu," Zehgeer added.
In absence of any policy to protect heritage e buildings in the markets, many traders have reconstructed their shops. "Gradually, this place is losing its glory due to official apathy. Due to congested roads, lack of parking and transport services, few people and traders visit here," said Khurshid Ahmad, president Beopard Mandal Maharaj Gung.
With considerable drop in business, several traders have closed their shops and many have converted establishments into godowns.
President All Kashmir traders federation Shaher-e-Khaas, Nazir Ahmad Shah said "government has neglected Downtown in all aspects."
"Downtown has numerous monuments besides heritage markets like Maharaj Gunj. These places have potential to be developed as heritage sites and become tourist attractions. Ironically, Downtown has been even deprived of basic facilities not to talk of reviving traditional markets," he added.
However, convener Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) J&K, Muhammad Saleem Beg, maintains that there is still scope for revival of Maharaj Gunj as a heritage market.
"We had even formulated a project for Maharaj Gunj revival in 2014, but it could not be implemented. There is need to restore historicity of the market by reestablishing its link with Jhelum," said Beg.
"Some traders have encroached upon spaces near heritage shops and also come up with new concrete buildings. It is collective responsibility of government and people to help in reviving the historic market," he added.