Born in a tiny hamlet on a vast splendorous landscape surrounded by scattered villages, walking four kilometres to school on rough and rusty roads/pathways, the deterrence level increased automatically with resilience and capacity building. The rural architecture prevalent in the composite village (with religious singularity) having flat-roofed huts at the bottom of mountain, wooden houses with or without thatch ranging from single storey to three storeys would not fascinate me during childhood. However, while pursuing architectural course at MS University of Baroda (Gujarat) from 1984-89, it enabled me to appreciate the existence of mud huts of Gujjars/Paharis and wooden houses of the local inhabitants where I lived in the mountains of frontier district.
Hassan Fateh of Egypt and Lauri Baker of Kerala pioneered the modern concept in mud housing and as an architectural student, the importance of local materials in construction particularly the use of mud, wood and stones was on the agenda. These materials by are pro-climate and user friendly. But over a period of time during these forty years, mud huts are totally gone, replaced by wooden houses in the upper reaches and those who had wooden houses constructed brick houses with wooden or concrete flooring. At the end of the architectural program, I had three things in mind- one going back to valley and get into design business and second was the passion of getting into heritage conservation and third was a kind of interest in tourism related field. Unfortunately, the valley started got into turmoil & terrorism during my final semester and by the time in December 1989, the valley was deep into the political problem. So, instead of construction, there was a sense of destruction and deconstruction everywhere with hopeless situation all around. There were hardly any tourists and tourism was all time low in 90s. So, the only thing left was whether I would be able to put across my passionate point of view about heritage identification, protections, preservation and conservation.
Kashmir being a favoured tourist destination, I took up "Tourist Infrastructure" as thesis project and "Heritage Conservation" as additional subject in the final year of architecture. During the process, I was able to formulate my own view about tourism in the valley and that is how, I wrote my first article on "Tourism Planning & Development" in English language but published in Urdu Newspaper in 1990. Two important concepts were pioneered in that write up- one being of tourism as an educational tool and secondly treating tourist as a guest. A year later in 1991, a conference was organised on the former theme at Ahmedabad and one and a half decade later the President of India (Mr. APJ Kalam) on tour to valley advised Kashmiris to treat tourist as a guest.
For heritage, I was fortunate enough to meet Sir Bernald Fieldon in a workshop at Champanier (Gujarat). Fieldon is known as the father of heritage conservation. More so, the organizer of the workshop, Mr. Karan Grover, architect/conservationist was a visiting professor and later my employer. Mr. Grover being an eminent architect/conservationist at the national and international scene was able to get the Champanear project financed by Global Heritage Fund, the first Indian project financed at international level. This association with subject and the Guru, provoked and inspired me to think about architectural heritage in J & K State. After a brief stint outside valley, on my return I would try to convince some notable figures in the field to save and safeguard the heritage during the ongoing turmoil. I initiated an idea to safeguard the heritage on three pronged basis- make a documentary for local TV Station and put a project to government for still photo documentation and preparation of architectural drawings. Therefore wrote script for documentary which was recommended for financial assistance to Mandi House but regretfully returned with a comment that funds are not available. Unfortunately, the government side was also not able to take a call on the issue as political turmoil was at its peak and naturally, such subjects were on low priority.
Two notable personalities whom I am indebted to for encouragement were late Fida Mohammad Hasnain and Madam Choudhary. Both were rather happy to hear that someone is concerned about heritage preservation and protection during turmoil period where everyone else talks about bullets, killings and destruction. The former wrote a small chit as recommendation to then Principal Secretary Finance. I lost the photocopy of that chit during flood-2014 but I still remember what was written over it. Late FM Hasnain wrote, "I am meeting a young architect who thinks ahead of times and he has a good concept of documentation of heritage buildings in the state". The latter, who was Principal Secretary to Govt. Planning & Development Department was surprised when I talked to her about the issue and she remarked, "how come a young man like you is interested in such a project?" which indicated that only old and senior citizens do think about such initiatives. I cleared her doubts and queries and she advised the department of education and culture to take me on board on the project of identification and documentation of heritage buildings in the state. It never happened ultimately because the Sarkari Karmchari at the helm of affairs simply sat on the idea with red-tape all around.
Meanwhile, in 1998, I joined City Development Organization and there took steps to pursue my concerns regarding heritage. The agency also supposed to clear NOCs for existing structures to be reconstructed by the owners. I introduced the concept of certification first time in the agency whether the existing structure is of any heritage value or not. This new message was also heard by citizens and the municipal authority for the first time. Many people knew about historical monuments only but nobody cared about residential houses/other structures under private occupation. A strong message about heritage protection, preservation and conservation started getting across. The Department of archaeology was protecting a certain number of monuments and Archaeological Survey of India was taking care of some other monuments. However, majority of vernacular buildings were under private control and not all of them were identified and listed.
Then in 2002, well-known government functionaries collaborated with INTACH, New Delhi to start a chapter at Srinagar and later did commendable job of identification and listing of heritage/historical structures/building in Srinagar. So, almost after a decade from 1993, I felt relief as my efforts were paying dividends indirectly without being involved with INTACH because the seed was sown much earlier by a professional person.
In 2003, the Department of Archaeology sought my services as Asstt. Director, the case file became the victim of red-tape and had to eat dust. However, heritage being my first love, I never lost touch with the Directorate of Archaeology, Archives and Museums with a hope to get actively involved in future. The discussion and discourse continued without being directly involved in the affairs of the department or its functioning.
We need to create a culture of heritage consciousness among children and youth. The discovery of new archaeological sites/heritage buildings, the management of existing monumental buildings/sites, the conservation aspects, the heritage walks/tours, formation of cultural heritage grid within city, across regions, writing and painting competition for heritage campaign, dissemination of importance through flyers in local language, celebration of World Heritage Day/week, involvement of city development and municipal authorities which play crucial role, building of records and maintaining of archives in digital form, preservation and protection of museum objects and its display to create attraction for museum lovers. We also need to document oral history (being ambitious but worth funding) of local intellectuals, statesmen, persons of eminence without any discrimination towards religion/race, cast/creed and without gender and income bias. The oral history in digital/video form is the need of the hour.
We can dig history to manage archaeology or vice versa but let's be proud of our glorious heritage in order to make our future generations to look beyond present- deep into past without compromising future through preservation of artefacts and conservation of architecturally significant buildings/sites so that the connection retains its continuum through past, present and future in the best interest of societal evolution. We may forget past but future will not forgive us to forget history, heritage and hope together.
There is no comprehensive policy for heritage conservation, leave aside routine preservation. A strong coordination, collaboration and cooperation is needed between the custodians of state and national level monuments. Architecturally significant buildings/structures falling outside the ambit of State Archaeology Department and Archaeological Survey of India need a policy framework to incentivise the properties and schemes need to be funded for repairs/renovation and restoration/retrofitting so that owners do not feel overburdened by maintaining them without being compensated. The holistic methodology to be adopted for archives particularly digitization because of the impact of hazards like flood and fire. The museum being a store house of artefacts and artificial objects is a sort of light house for knowledge. Each city/town should have a museum at regional level and we need to create special museums on subjects/fields like agriculture, natural history & landscape, health, handicrafts/handlooms etc. A new chapter is to be re-initiated for rejuvenation and revamping of archives, archaeology and museums activities in the state with focus on inter-relation and integration of tourism, culture and heritage keeping in view the educational and leisure aspect of local and visiting population as the economic level has increased both at individual and on national basis. Our youth and children cannot become hostage to modern gadgets which make them vulnerable to cyber crime, unhealthy trends and grounded to isolated corners in their homes. Let's build museums to retain & sustain memories, libraries as knowledge hubs/initiatives, sports grounds for health, industrial/technology parks for economic boost and recreational parks for leisure. Let's not block our minds and horizons by surrounding mountains and let's look beyond "me and we" on inclusive terms. Let's come out of paradise syndrome both here and hereafter and work towards creation of facilities and faculties of high quality living environment so that every citizen enjoys life to the fullest.