Exploring the forgotten urban architecture

Over the decades Kashmir valley has not only lost its traditional architectural heritage, but its architectural trends, designs, styles, plans and materials have also been changing with change in building materials.

In fact the distinctive and unique feature which once symbolised the traditional grace and splendor of our classical secular architectural heritage has also almost disappeared.


This has also badly affected the heritage look which once the old markets, lanes and by lanes of historic cities and towns, particularly the olden city of Srinagar, have been carrying. These have been the attractive spots for western and eastern tourist as well.

Till eighties tourists were seen moving in streets of Downtown Srinagar with their cameras in hand and engaged in taking market shots. The wonderful architectural buildings and historic lanes and bylines were the splendor of old city, which has now almost disappeared. Neither that historic grace is visible, nor those foreign tourists any more seen in the historic streets.

The historic cities had got a classical architectural tradition which was not seen in other places of the land. It was very much advanced than what was seen in our villages. The plan and construction of houses throughout the cities and towns has been better than the village houses.

The earliest mention of that graceful architectural heritage is not only mentioned in our indigenous historic literature, but in foreign travelogues as well. Mirza Haider Daughlat, a 16th century central Asian researcher, while describing the olden urban architecture buildings of Kashmir writes in Tarikh Rasheedi, “ in the town there are many lofty buildings constructed of fresh cut pine.

Most of these are, at least, five storey high; each storey contains apartments, halls, galleries and towers. The beauty of their exterior defies description, and all who behold them for the first time, bite the finger of astonishment with the teeth of admiration (translated script).”

Usually the old urban houses had been multistory and with almost the same plan that of village houses. Although there was difference of material but in style and in plan there was hardly any difference. The houses were commonly kept rectangular in plan and rarely square.

Surprising, almost all houses built in 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century have their faces towards south and sometimes towards east, but never towards west and north, while the mosques and khanqahs usually faced to east and never to west.

The Muslim Sufi shrines also strictly faced towards south. Contrary to Muslim mosques and shrines, the Hindu temples faced towards west. Interestingly, the main structures whether religious or secular had got low entrances of wooden gates, and to enter into the main structure one has to down his head towards down words.

This type of architecture was quite indigenous which not only suited well to the local climatic and geographical conditions but to the local social and cultural beliefs as well.

Stone, wood and brick have been preferred. The plinths were formed of chiseled stones, other features were the same. Urban houses were built of baked bricks that too of smaller size, called Badshah bricks. These houses were better decorated than village houses and exhibited wooden lattice-work designed windows and roshan dans.

These houses were covered over by brich bark roofs and rarely thatched. These houses were multi-story. Some of the houses were two to seven stories. Several such classical structures are still seen in the old cities and towns of Kashmir.

Many such houses are still seen in the old cities of the land. A variety of these olden houses are visible at Bijbehara, Shopian, Sopore, Baramullah and the downtown of Srinagar city. Jalai House in the Shahri Khaas and Saathpur house at old Anantnag city are among most famous classical houses of Kashmir.

P N K Bamzai, a 20th century local historian has also described urban architecture of Srinagar city in his History of Jammu and Kashmir, where he writes; “the houses are mostly of two to four storey high and sometimes even more. The roofs which are slopping to throw off snow constructed of planks lay over with sheets of birch-bark to make them water light.

A layer of loose earth is spread over the birch-bark to keep it in place, white and violet lilies and red tulips grow on these roofs, presenting a lovely sight in spring.” Most of the brilliant houses are seen on the river sides of the city.

Bernier, the European traveler has also seen such houses and he writes; “in the city, better class houses are situated on the river banks with beautiful gardens attached to them.”

Sir Walter Lawrence, in his monumental book Valley of Kashmir writes, while referring to old-Srinagar; “in the city nearly all the houses of well to do people are roofed with birch bark and earth, so that looking down on Srinagar from the Hariparbat hill sees miles of verdant roofing.’

Apart from these wonderful monumental houses Srinagar city has few such structures which can purely be said as copy of European residential houses. These are mostly square in plan with open verandahs. The most remarkable feature lies in their raised roundish minarets with pointed steeples. These houses are believed to have been built in early 20th Century.

Such houses may reflect the influence of the church architecture. However, things have been changing very fast. A movement of reconstruction has emerged everywhere, where old gets replaced by new structures. This cannot be questioned because it is a developmental phase which shall continue with more vigour.

This modern and ultramodern architectural phase with new architectural trends evolved here from late 20th Century onwards. These can be said as foreign architectural styles which hardly carry any local influences. These are concrete structures with metallic roofs.

These structures are square in plan and formed of bricks, tiles and concrete columns. These houses have been laid in cement plasters and depict somehow the European styles. The innovations in the structures still continue and much more advanced and air conditioned styles are fast progressing in this valley.

The olden and classical architectural trends have been discontinued even by villagers and they have also imitated the citizen’s architectural styles. This have given rise to new marvelous edifies in distant villages.

The olden houses have become now the artifacts of the past which attract the tourists and the visitors. They have turned as wonderful monuments which speak of olden glorious architectural traditions.

The olden and classical architectural monuments are fast disappearing. Still few such multi story houses are seen in Srinagar city, and in few olden towns of the Kashmir valley, which symbolise the grace of traditional architecture of Kashmir.

Most of these structures have already been identified and documented by Srinagar chapter of INTACH, but as most of these structures are a private properties so cannot be taken from its owners.

However, if government intends to preserve this heritage it can provide expert advices, conservation facilities and financial aid to these house owners, so that proper preservation and maintenance of these heritage prosperities is ensured.

The contractors, architects and engineers involved in new constructions shall also provide a certain space to the local plans and designs. Indeed the modern technologies and building materials cannot be dispensed with, but while adopting it, the local environment, geographical, climatic conditions and local culture shall also be taken into account.

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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