Shortly before the termination of his rule in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Hindu ruler of Kashmir, was known to have toyed with the idea of converting Sonawar, a quarter of uptown Srinagar, into a lake to accord a unique peculiarity to his palace, Talay Manzil (Abode of Fortune) of sitting between two lakes, the other being the famed Dal Lake. There was a wetland at the eastern-southeastern extremity of Sonawar close to the meeting necks of the two hills of Takht-i-Sulaiman (Shankaracharya) and Beaswan, visited by thousands of migratory birds every winter, which the Maharaja sought to expand and turn into an artificial lake. Unfortunately for him, Hari Singh could not hold on to his throne long enough to realize his dream and had to leave his Abode of Fortune, as well as Kashmir, in haste to save his life in the face of the 'Tribal Attack'. The wetland has since been filled and converted into a residential colony.
Literally meaning the Alcove of Gold, Sonawar is the civil lines of Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir. It is nestled between the Takht-i-Sulaiman and the Jhelum River, four kilometers to the east of the city center. The area extends from the Burn Hall School adjacent to the mausoleum of Syeed Yaqoob popularly known as Syeed Sahib's Ziarat in the west to the erstwhile Broadway cinema, few hundred meters short of Batwara market, in the east. Once comprising three segments of Sonawar, Palpora, Bonamsar, it has since expanded eastward with the addition of new settlements like Iqbal Colony, Indira Nagar and Dar Mohalla on the either side of the Srinagar-Jammu Highway that runs through the area.
The story of Sonawar is old but it is difficult to say how old. We find a mention of Gopadari (Gupkar), an important segment of Sonawar and a foothill stretch from the office of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to the Talay Manzil, in a 12th century text where Gopaditya, a king of ancient Kashmir, is said to have brought Brahmans form outside Kashmir and settled them here. For Aurel Stein, the 19th century explorer, Gupkar was "a considerable village" while Walter Lawrence, Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir during the Dogra rule, too records Sonawar as a "village" as late as in 1895. On 1 April 1938, Maharaja Hari Singh, through his Command No. 93, defined the limits of the Badami Bagh Cantonment which included Sonawar, Bonamsar and Palpora. All civilian constructions were banned and repairs of existing buildings allowed only with prior permission of the Cantonment Magistrate. Later, Bonamsar was transferred to Srinagar Municipality, now Municipal Corporation. People have unpleasant memories of that period when if somebody wanted so much as to drive a nail in the wall of his house the hammer was wrapped in a cloth lest its sound attract the attention of an official of the Cantonment Authority. People were scared of even mud-washing their modest dwellings. At one point in time, Khawaja Ali Mohammad raised this issue in the Praja Sabha seeking an answer from the Government why the Military Department was "strictly prohibiting" inhabitants from building houses when several officers constructed their bungalows there recently. In response, the Government only gave assurance that the complaint would be forwarded to the Military Department.
Sonawar of yesteryears was a captivating landscape – dense groves of chinars and willows, a prominent hill with an ancient temple on its summit in the north and a calm and lazy Jhelum flowing in the south with a walking mall – the Bund – along its right bank cycling on which was strictly prohibited. The Bund was a favourite track for morning and evening walkers and the elite who loved strolling along the river bank under the cool shade of chinars. Downstream from Shopore above the curve of the Jhelum near the Bakhshis to the Zero Bridge, beautifully decorated houseboats were lined up along the river bank and with flower pots tastefully spread in the frontage and on the decks. Being somewhat aloof from the hustle and bustle of the city, Sonawar was thronged by foreign visitors who preferred staying in houseboats on the Jhelum here or pitched tents in open area along the river bank. The Jhelum's water was clean and potable.
The families whose houseboats were moored at Sonawar included Chapris, Buddoos, Badyaris, Tundas, Kalwathoos, Siahs, Darazs, Kolos and Khars. The Chapris have a long history in houseboat industry. The family patriarch, Muhammad Ibrahim Chapri, had a houseboat named Europe as early as in 1872. From then onwards, the different houseboats they owned included Lizard, Helen, Rowallan, Hiawatha, Haifa and Neil Armstrong. Among the prominent visitors to their houseboats were Sir Alexander Bull, the then Governor of Canada, Zulfikar Ali Bhuttoo who as a student visited Kashmir, bird watcher Robert Filming and Sushila Nair, Mahatma Gandhi's close aide. Muhammad Ali Jinnah also visited the Chapris and had tea there. So did actor Balraj Sahni. Other houseboats included Miss England of Kalwathoos, Dawn, and Merry Dawn of Tundas, Prince of Kashmir of Siahs, Ritz of Badyaris and Catherine of Kolos. Kashmir's first double-story houseboat, Viceroy, also was moored at Sonawar. British scholar, and archaeologist, Percy Brown is said to have stayed in the Catherine. Legendary film actor Dilip Kumar too has stayed in a houseboat of Kolos. Houseboat Star of Zanjibar was owned by an African. There was another houseboat of J. J. Flaycart, former British naval officer nicknamed as Kokar Sahab for raring chickens and selling eggs. He stamped each egg with the date it was laid, and had several hencoops on the river bank. An English lady, Miss O'Connell who always ate fish in the breakfast, had obtained on lease a building and some houseboats which she rented out to foreign tourists. Another European lady living on a houseboat of Patloos was known as Kuk Meem.
During the Dogra rule, the expanse of open area along the Jhelum for which Sonawar was known and also mentioned in official record as Sonawar Bagh, was used as a camping site by visiting English officers and entourage of rajas and nawabs. A part of the area which now holds the Army's Holiday Home was also used for celebration of Maharaja Hari Singh's birthday where, after a public reception, he would ride a large State boat known as paranda for a river procession downstream to Chhatabal. Across the road, a large open field known as Looel Bagh, later taken over by the Army, was the playground where youth of the area played football and cricket. It was also the venue for a major entertainment event in 1965 when Farooq Khan exhibited his skills of non-stop week-long cycling — eating, bathing, changing clothes and performing different stunts while driving his bicycle on a defined circular track. During the event, Mohammad Subhan alias Subil Bachhi recited the famous Naat 'Wo shama ujaala jis ne kiya chalees baras tak garoon mai' before crossing over to Muzaffarabad where he later attained stardom as a singer.
The bazaar was modest – a single story shop line with humble stock of provisions unlike today when shops are filled with merchandise. Till 1960s, there were few grocery shops, two mutton shops, one or two vegetable shops, a pharmacist's shop, a cloth shop, a mustard oil shop, two bakery shops, a cobbler's shop and a cycle mending shop. Abdul Aziz Rather was the prominent shopkeeper and the postal address of everybody in the area. Each letter in Sonawar would arrive "care of Shopkeeper Abdul Aziz Rather". In 1960s, he successfully fought election of the Cantonment Board. The celebration of his victory was an event long remembered by people of Sonawar.
Abdul Khaliq Hajam, or Woste Khaeliq as he was known, possessed sharp wit and understanding of current affairs. His saloon was the busiest meeting place where local and international politics was heatedly debated by senior citizens of Sonawar and the Kashmir problem resolved on daily basis by hukka smoking participants. Tragically, he fell victim to a bomb blast at Lal Chowk where he had gone to sharpen his shaving razors. Syed Hussain Shah Madni was a gentleman shopkeeper who commanded respect. Children would buy candies from his shop and addressed him as Peer. He wore a Rumi cap and an elegant look. Janki Nath Saproo's was among the earliest photographer shops of Srinagar situated close to the Madni's. Akbar Mir's bakery, especially puffs, cream rolls, ginger biscuits and pastries, was a class of its own, both in quality and taste. Jia Lal, the pharmacist, was har marz ki dawa when it came to small medical emergencies. He was a cricket lover and introduced the game in Sonawar by encouraging local youth to participate in the matches he organized at the Looel Bagh. Wali Mohammad Bhat, Mohammad Kamal Sofi, Amiruddin the butcher, Ghulam Qadir Lone, Abdul Khaliq Dandru, Ghulam Rasool Bhat and Ghulam Mohiuddin Gaani were other shopkeepers who had made Sonawar bazar a lively market.
There were mischievous people also ever present in the bazaar who did pranks, mostly with passersby. If one day it was directing a stranger to a cobbler, instead of a barber, for a haircut, the next day it was dropping few embers in a sack of dried cow dung strapped to the back of a village man going to the city to sell it as fuel. The poor guy after marching a few hundred yards would suddenly feel heat and, to his shock, observe fire raging on his shoulders while shopkeepers and shoppers amused themselves at his expense. One day, a man was passing through the bazaar with newly purchased calf when he stopped at a shop to rest a while. He tied the young animal with the shop front and sat to have few puffs of the hookah the shopkeeper had offered to him. Some other people came and stood in front of the shop, obstructing his view. Few minutes later, the shopkeeper asked him where he was heading for with a stray dog. "What dog?" he asked in astonishment and the shopkeeper pointed to the animal. Good Heavens! There actually was a fat dog with a rope round its neck tied to the shop front. The man nearly fainted. It so happened that while he was busy with hookah someone untied the calf, pushed it into a side alley and replaced it with a nearby resting lethargic dog.
The Sonawar bazaar had a peculiarity of always hosting a majzoob or moat (ascetic) and when one left the area another would take his place. People believed that they were spiritual guardians of the area given different assignments and were posted and transferred like the Government does in case of its employees. So, between 1940s and 1990s, we had in succession Subhan Moat, Nabir Moat, Pathan Moat, Mohiuddin Saeb, Noor Moat, Gande Aelve, Habbe Moat and Oblah Saeb. During the Indo-Pak War of 1971, Habbe Moat was Sonawar's resident majzoob and caused traffic jams on the highway during his frequent spells of wajd (spiritual ecstasy). At one point in time, a lady majzoob, Jaane Maetch, graced the bazaar. Her favourite line was a movie number 'Man dolay mera tan dolay meray dil ka geya qaraar re', that she often sang loudly. Around 1989, when Kashmir was in turmoil, a non-local ascetic appeared in the bazaar and became its permanent feature for many years. He spent chilling and snowy days and nights on a shop front literally without any shred of fabric on his body. Nobody knew his name or where he had come from. One day, in a rare tranquil mood he told Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, a local resident, that his name was Tauqir Ali Khan and was earlier engaged in manufacture of aluminum utensils. He belonged to some north Indian state, most probably Uttar Pradesh. One day, he quietly disappeared and since then Sonawar bazaar did not have any permanent ascetic although some would occasionally pass through the market. Hassan Sahib and Bakht Sahib were Sonawar's two spiritual healers, much sought after by people seeking divine blessings to recover from ailments or cope with difficult circumstances. The former was also the Imam of Palpora mosque.
People were generally simple and modest. Among the respectable persons include centurion Muhammad Sidiq Parray who lived through the reign of the last two Dogra rulers and was a witness to 100 years of Kashmir's turbulent history, Abdul Gaffar Chapri and his son, Muhammad Iqbal Chapri who were frontline houseboat owners of Kashmir and were victimized for their political views which ran counter to the politics of the National Conference, Muhammad Sidiq Wani, Abdus Samad Bhat, Ghulam Ahssan Bhat, Haji Habibullah Wani, Muhammad Sidiq Dar, Abdus Samad Mir, Abdul Ahad Malik, Khalil Muhammad, Major Mohammad Akbar, L. N. Dhar, Muhammad Ramzan Guroo, artist S. A. Rehman, mountaineer and tourism promoter Muhammad Yusuf Chapri, footballer Muhammad Ismail Chapri, Doctors Ali Muhammad Rather, Nisar Ahmad Wani, Muhammad Yususf Bhat and Muhammad Shafi Bhat, Engineer Ali Muhammad Mir, trekker and educationist Prof. Abdul Hamid Bhat, writer Umar Majid, teachers Master Ghulam Qadir, Abdul Aziz Bhat, Adil Bashir, Ghulam Mohammad Mir, Ghulam Mohammad Wani, Ghulam Mohammad Rather and Ghulam Nabi, former General Secretary, Kashmir Motor Drivers' Association, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, geo-scientist M. I, Bhat, and civil servants Abdur Rashid Bhat, Ali Mohammad Bhat, Zafar Ahmad and Muhammad Rafi.
Some well-known people who came from different parts of the city or elsewhere and settled in Sonawar, especially during 1940-60s, include Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad and his siblings, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Durga Prasad Dhar, Justice Janki Nath Wazir, Mrs. Khosla – an Indira Gandhi lookalike social activist – and her famous broadcaster daughter, Uma Khosla or Nikki Aapa as she was known, dentist Dr. S. L. Soni, businessman Tirath Ram Amla, founder of Kashmir's first cinema hall, Bhai Annat Singh Gauri, historian S. S. Gregan, former bureaucrat Ghulam Nabi (Nabji), Prof. Syed Ali Shah Masdar, playwright Ali Muhammad Lone and former President College Teachers' Association, Prof. Laiq Ahmad Quraishi. The Bhats, living on the river bank, is a family known for administrators, doctors and academics among its progeny. Also known by the sobriquet of Guzarwan (The Octroi People) for once administering an octroi post outsourced by the Dogra Government, one of the family members, Muhammad Subhan Bhat, possessed fair knowledge of astrologyand had written a book on the subject during the early 20th century.
To ordinary inhabitants of old Srinagar, Sonawar was not a familiar place until 1965 when the Broadway cinema was built and it caught their attention. In 1970s, when a public meeting of the then Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Molvi Muhammad Farooq scheduled at the Municipal Park near the Polo Ground, was dispersed by police after resorting to cane charge and firing tear smoke canisters the followers of the Molvi took to their heels and few with gasping breath reached Sonawar Bazaar. Unaware of the area and in utter desperation, one of them told others, "Taavan ha pyov aes ha waet Udhampur" (We are doomed, for we have reached Udhampur (an important highway town, 274 km south of Srinagar)". At one point in time, the State Road Transport buses would ply to Batwara via the Gupkar road skipping the Sonawar bazaar, a routine later abandoned. The fare from Sonawar to Lal Chowk, the city center, was 15 paise.
The landmark sites and institutions situated at Sonawar include besides the shrine of Syed Yaqoob and the office of UNMOGIP, State Guest Houses (East and West), Circuit House, Burn Hall School, All Saints Church, GB Pant Children Hospital, Kashmir Nursing Home, Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, Institution of Engineers and Amar Singh Club. The official residence of the Prime Minister till 1963 situated close to the mausoleum of Syed Yaqoob, is now that of the Chief Justice of the State High Court. Most of the State's top bureaucracy and ministers also live at Sonawar.
The mausoleum of Hazrat Syed Yaqoob is a popular shrine visited by a large number of people. The spiritual personality is one among hundreds of central-Asian preachers who came to Kashmir during the 14th-17th century to propagate Islam. Legend has it that Syed Yaqoob had come to Kashmir along with six siblings, reverentially all known as Syed Sahibs. One of them is identified as buried within the army cantonment at Badami Bagh and the other at the Emporium Gardens. Strange though it sounds, one does not find Syed Yaqoob's mention among the 1,000 odd saints whose lives were documented by historians Hassan Khoihami and Muhammad Azam Dedmari. Mulla Ahmad Bin Abdus Saboor Kashmiri's Khawariqus Salikeen mentions Syed Yaqoob as "a spiritual personality of higher achievement and a disciple of Baba Dawood Khaki" who in turn was a prominent follower of Kashmir's patron saint, Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom. The reference is too sketchy to conclusively suggest that it is about the saint buried at Sonawar. The annual urs at the shrine is observed on 17 Rabi-ul-Thani (the 4th month of the Islamic calendar). A spacious mosque was built within the shrine precincts recently and many under-threat pro-India politicians find it safe to offer Friday and Eid prayers there. Other shrines at Sonawar include Shurayar Mandir on the right bank of the Jhelum and the tomb of Syed Sahib in the interiors of Sonawar.
There are many buildings and spaces at Sonawar linked to the history of Kashmir. Of these, the office of the UNMOGIP, ever since its establishment, has drawn large demonstrations of people protesting against denial of the UN mandated right to self-determination and alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. On 1 March 1990, a million protesters marched to the office. The Amar Singh Club, a vibrant social spot in the past, was built by Hari Singh in 1933 and named after his father. It is the first club of Jammu & Kashmir. During his last visit to Kashmir, Muhammad Ali Jinnah attended a garden party here hosted in his honour on 28 May 1944. He also attended a reception hosted by Kashmir's Old Boys' Association of Aligarh Muslim University.
The Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, formerly the Munshi Bagh, is the ground on which cricket in Kashmir was born — literally. Here, both Pratap Singh and Hari Singh are known to have tried their hand at the bat. About the latter it is said that if his bat touched the ball the fielder instead of stopping would kick it towards the boundary and spectators cheered Maharaja for hitting a four. The stadium has hosted many Ranji Trophy matches between the teams of Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Railways and the Services. On 13 October 1983, a cricket match — the first international game at the Stadium — played between India and West Indies — turned into huge embarrassment for the Government when thousands of spectators booed Indian players while clapping and bucking up those of West Indies who won the match. Following the incident, the Stadium was withdrawn from international itinerary until 9 September 1986 when a match was played between India and Australia under heavy security. No international cricket match has been played in the Stadium since.
Maharaja Pratap Singh had set up at Gupkar a wine manufactory named Gupkar Distillery. However, in view of sharp fall in sale, the manufactory was abolished during the year 1913-14 and the stock gradually disposed off. Another prominent building at the Gupkar was the Masonic Lodge or Jadu Ghar (House of Magic) as the locals called it. On the recommendation of the British Resident in Kashmir, the Government, on 3 November 1904, allotted 47,250 square feet land for construction of the Lodge. There was always an element of curiosity in the minds of local people about the building as nobody other than the Freemasons who assembled there once or twice in a week, notably on Tuesdays, were allowed entry. Abdul Samad Mir, a local resident, was the caretaker of the Lodge who, as Merajuddin Bhat, another local resident, recalls, wore butler's uniform when the weekly meeting was held there. Late Master Abdul Aziz had seen "a few skeletons hanging on the walls" of the building — reason perhaps for the Lodge being named as Jadu Ghar. The premise of the Lodge was used as Charse Takyi, cannabis smokers' situate, for many years. In 1938, Hari Singh allotted about 20 kanals of land at Sonawar for Parsee cemetery which, however, did not come up due to some disagreement between the Revenue Department and the Special Land Acquisition Officer following which the notification was cancelled.
Sonawar was one of the areas of Srinagar worst hit by the Flood of 2014 and remained submerged for about three weeks. Other calamities visiting the area include severe inundation during the flood of 1950 when the right bank of Jhelum breached at Batwara, and a major fire incident in 1956 when 50-60 residential houses were reduced to ashes.
(The author's latest book 'KASHMIR: A Walk Through History' has just hit the stands).