In ancient Kashmir there existed "several market places and bazaars in the city of Srinagar", while the first "wholesale market" of Kashmir, Maharaj Gunj, was "lately constructed". (Gazetteer of Kashmir (1890), 772: Gunj means bulk (of stock). Sir W R Lawrence writes: There were "certain depots of trade, the chief being Srinagar, Baramula, Islamabad, Shupiyon, and Bandipur. Latterly Panjabi traders [had] opened business in these places,…..". (Valley of Kashmir (1895) page 387) He isn't specific about the name of Maharaj Gunj market, but, the reference to this trade centre is clearly appreciable from the use of the words "latterly Panjabi traders".
The market, Shri Ranbir Gunj /SR Gunj/ Maharaj Gunj, is prima facie after the name of its founder, Maharaja Ranbir Singh (1857-1885). This large quadrangle market was established by him in 1863-64 on the right bank of river Jhelum, above the Aali Kadal, or fifth bridge, by settling in it non-Muslim Punjabi traders, popularly called Khatris, from Amritsar who had lent huge money to his father, Gulab Singh, for facilitating purchase of the valley vide notorious Treaty of Amritsar of 1846 & whom he wanted to reimburse for the unpaid loans of his father. The market contained the "shops of the jewelers, silversmiths, and other tradesmen with whom European visitors usually [dealt]". (Gazetteer of Kashmir (1890), 772). The market has been since controlled by the traders' body called Beopar Mandal the office whereof is housed in & operating from, one of the buildings surrounding it & the signboard fixed there shows that Beopar Mandal, the first ever traders' body of Kashmir, was formed in 1860. (KR, 18-01-2014)
The peculiarity of this quadrangle market is that the three storeyed buildings are dotting it on all four sides with an inside rectangular park between them. The buildings are made of stones, typical maharaji bricks & lime with wooden ceilings inside of each storey. As mentioned above, the market was "formally" established by Ranbir Singh in early 1860s but there is strong evidence to show that this market in some shape, whatever, with buildings in and around it existed, even before Ranbir Singh's time. Sir William Moorcroft in his monumental work, Travels of 1819-1825 (London, 1841), in Vol. 2, at page 116 confirms it in these words:
"Between the bridges called Saraf-kadal and Kazi-kadal, and on each side of the canal, is the part of the town called Sheikh Mahal, in which are situated the best houses in Kashmir, occupied by merchants and bankers: to the east lies the principal mosque."
Few clarifications about the quote: (1) The canal in this Moorcroft quote refers to erstwhile Nalla Mar canal that ran through the down town/old town of Srinagar from Bari Nambal Lagoon to Khush Hal Sar/Lake, which (canal) was filled & converted into present Nalla Mar Road in 1970s by the then CM of the State. (2) S R Gunj market which, as mentioned above, came up in 1863-64 is located in Sheikh Mohalla which is adjacent to the vicinity of Wazpora. (3) Kadi Kadal is the distortion of Kazi Kadal.
This historical record shows that the inhabitants of the mentioned areas were, in those days, most prosperous businessmen of Kashmir. The tradition has been continued till date as there are presently also number of jewelers & goldsmiths' shops in the specified localities. It also proves that the people of these areas were better-off than other inhabitants of the small city of Srinagar those days. A well known retired geologist & senior citizen of Kashmir, Jalal ud Din Shah , says that several Muslim families of gold smiths & other merchants have lived in Ziana Kadal, Gadh Bazar, Saraf Kadal & Qadi Kadal , the areas adjacent to SR Gunj, "since centuries". The residential houses of the moneyed families of the yore, comprising Guroo, Zargar, Braru, Gada, Shawl, Gagru, Buch, Kawoosa, Banday & Qazi , which were unique in stature & structure from the then architectural point of view, till date, stand testimony to these facts. Moorcroft's above quote apparently refers to all those grandeur & palatial houses some of which lost their existence in devastating Gada Bazaar fire of 1924 & then execution of Nallamar Road project of 1970s.
On historical testimony, it may be mentioned here that the socio-economic conditions of people of other areas of Srinagar & villagers of Kashmir were comparatively appalling.
Whileas Moorcroft chronicle dates back much earlier to Dogra Rule. Its period runs between 1819-1825. Seemingly, MR Gunj does not fit in the date of this chronicle. But, since these antique buildings of magnificent architecture existed there with businesses run therein by their owners well before Ranbir Singh's time, it may be reasonably held that the market already existed there & some of the Khatri-merchants might have shifted from Punjab to this place well before, or at the time of, Moorcroft travel of Kashmir valley when it was ruled by Sikhs of Punjab (1820-1846). Those Punjabi Khatris may have built these excellent buildings of the market before Ranbir Singh's rule. Some Hindu traders from Afghanistan during Afghan rule of Kashmir may have also settled around this market. However, the formal name "S R Gunj" was given to this trade centre, in whatever shape it might have been there, during Ranbir Singh's rule.
At the time of partition, when the market was fully controlled by the Khatris, most of them fled the valley with Maharaja Hari Singh's escape on 26-10-1947. With onset of armed resistance in 1989, save few Khatri-families of Malhotras, Mehras and Gandotras who stayed put, (KL, 04-05-2010) all of them have migrated & left their businesses in SR Gunj & these buildings have been purchased by local traders who consequently & presently control & run this heritage market of Kashmir, now.