Dr Ghulam Qadir Lone, a respected scholar from Baramulla feels that the old times were more colourful than the present. A staunch supporter of indigenous movement, be it consuming locally produced goods or using the locally evolved technology, like in house architecture, Lone says that whenever Kashmiris have blindly adopted, outside products or influences, they have been losers.
"In my time childhood, and even few decades back, we used to have houses built in traditional style. A peculiar quality of the house was its roof, made of usually locally sourced birch wood," said Lone. "On top of the roof was put a fertile layer of soil on which different flowers would grow. It was one of the beautiful sights during spring season."
The roof when in full glory of blossom would often catch the attention of passers by. It was like having a small garden of their own in state full of public gardens. The type of flowers and sometimes crops would often change from area to area, providing a diversity.
"Here we usually had Alish (linseed) plants grown on the roofs. The sight of bluish white and other coloured flowers was a sight to behold," said Lone.
Linseed produced flowers of multiple colours ranging from blue, white, yellow and red depending on the species.
In Srinagar one could find similar roofs but with different flowers, with Tulip being most popular.
"It was best use of locally available resources. The fine layer of soil would provide much better insulation than the present tin roof," said Salim Beg state convener of INTACH. "The flowers on the roofs would either be planted by people or they would naturally occur due to bird droppings."
"Here the city would blossom with bright red Tulips of local variety called as Gulle Lala," he further added.
Locally known as Burze Pash, the roofs were afforded by most of the middle class and higher income people. The poorer ones would be content with simple thatched roofs made of wood, grass and ears filling too.
Autar Mota, who writes a blog on Kashmir culture, writes the interesting history of the roofs in one of his blogs. "Kashmiris would spread Wooden Planks on Deodaar poles over which they would put a birch paper cover. Mud layer of a uniform thickness of about 3 to 4 inches would then be spread over these Birch sheets to make water proof roofs for houses in Kashmir. These roofs were locally called BURZ- PUSH. These roofs had vegetation as well . Even yemberzal ( nargis ) would be seen on these birch roofs in spring time. But then the house owner had a lurking fear of the roof collapse due to load created by accumulation of snow in winter . That made him to come to roof top from an opening called WOABB (in Kashmiri ) to remove the excess snow using sticks , poles or a Belcha. A special group of labourers were also moving about after each snow fall for this specific task on payment. They were called Sheen Mohniev. They would go up and start clearing entire snow from the roof top with special tools crying "HOSH- HOSH, BACHO -BACHO " lest the falling snow injure some one below.," writes Autar.
The foreigner who visited Kashmir during the era would often feel amazed at the peculiar architecture.
Walter Lawrence in his book Valley of Kashmir writes, "Sometimes in the village one finds the roofs of the larger houses and of the shrines (ziarats) made of birch bark with a layer of earth above it. This forms an excellent roof, and in the spring the housetops are covered with iris, purple, white, and yellow, with the red Turk's head and the Crown Imperial lilies. In the city nearly all the houses of well-to-do people are roofed with the birch bark and earth, so that looking down on Srinagar from the Hari-Parbat hill one sees miles of verdant roofing."
The French Physician writer Francois Bernier too has expressed similar feelings about how the rooftops in Srinagar studded thickly with bulbs of tulips and Lillies that exploded with colours in spring.
The roof would supplement the income or add to the family food produce by planting of herbs or even vegetables.
"This was one of so many unique qualities of Kashmir. The evolution of life in Kashmir gave birth to such an architecture," said Beg. "Unfortunately in the mad race for modernity we have lost its essence. We simply bulldoze the old to build what we perceive as new and modern. The link between past, present and future has been snapped."
Beg cites the example of England, despite being one of the most developed and modern countries it has tried to preserve every bit of its history. "Cotswold village is one of the most beautiful places to visit in England. One of its peculiarity is its thatched roofs. They have preserved what has been there for hundreds or thousands of years. They have turned something old, worn out into an economic opportunity. Tourism is a thriving business there due to the architecture," said Beg. "What we need here is similar continuity of past heritage. We don't advocate everybody should build thatched roofs, but preserve some of them. Our future generations would also see them and it will be tourist attraction too."
There is not even a museum where a simple roof could have been put to display. As of now there are just a few birch roofs present in Srinagar, the most famous is the Madin Saheb shrine in Hawal, whose birch roof still stands testimony to its past glory. The archeologically important structure is in need of repair and preservation.
The pace of modernity and lack of awareness of old culture, put the death knell in the traditional architecture. The movement the import of cheap corrugated tin roof started to Kashmir, starting from British, people without any thought replaced them. The panoramic look from Hari Parbat looks all year similar of tin sheets criss crossing between colours of rust and aluminium.
It was not just the common households, but shrines both Muslims and Hindus would be adored with Birch roof. Jamia Masjid, old Hazratbal shrine, Khanqah e Maula and other places of worship had beautiful birch roof complete with flowers. It is hard to imagine that haters people had written about Srinagar just few decades back has completely been lost. However the breakneck speed of modernity has its ill effects.
"There was a shortsightedness among people and encouragement of similar thinking by the people in power. We got tin, cement, foreign fruits, crops, seeds, animals etc at cheap price but for everything we have to pay a price. It is not coincidence when cement came that the backache and disease of bones started swelling. Similarly foreign eatables ranging from meat to fast food, increased stomach diseases," said Lone. "Our architecture suffered same fate."
Experts all around the world heavily criticise using tin sheets, also called CGI sheets, for roofs. Even in developed countries people used shingles instead of tin roof due to their lack of insulation. CGI sheets bring summers raise the temperature to such an extent that it can even fry an egg. This heats up entire house and puts heavy load on central cooling system. On the other hand the modernised Green roofs or vegetated roof covers are thin layers of living vegetation installed on top of conventional flat or sloping roofs, which not only provides ecological and aesthetic benefits, but conserves energy and preserves the environment too. Experts term them as living roofs and best for the society.
A green roof also provides sound insulation, acts as a protection against ultra violet degradation and expansion and contraction from temperature extremes. These benefits have been one of the reasons that the concept of living roof has considerably increased. They are spending millions on the research on these kind of roofs which once were common in Kashmir.
These roofs forced Lawrence to write, "This is the city of the sun exposed with the scalpel of the Sanitary Officer, but when the river runs high between the raised banks formed by a Musalman king from the stone sculptures and plinths of Hindu temples, when the seven wood bridges which knit the city into one almost touch the water, and the earth-roofs of the houses are covered with green herbage and flowers, Srinagar in spite of its internal squalor is one of the most picturesque places in the world."