Secrets of Srinagar

Let’s not pretend I found out anything particularly abstruse in my few day’s sojourn here in the North but there is no doubt that a little bit of extra effort paid off. The Archaeological Survey of India sign at Awantipura may have been rusty and flaking but I could just make out enough information to lead me to the Shri Pratap Singh Archaeological Museum back in the city. Since my guide had no idea about the opening days and had to confer to find a location, I must assume that he had never received such a request before.

On the second day of trying we got to a crumbling, single storey building surrounded by bored guards and razor wire. So complete was the “enter at your peril” message that I risked tripping over broken flagstones and snagging skin or clothing on the bristling thorns of barbed wire just to gain access to the building. But inside everything changed and, as practically the sole visitor, I was given the VIP treatment. Here I found gorgeous textiles and illuminations, beautiful and properly labelled examples of sculpture from the Maurian and Kushite periods and, even more important, likeminded people.  We chatted about characters from ancient history such as Chandra Gupta and Alexander the Great amongst exquisite treasures stored in decaying display cabinets. This special region situated at one of the great crossroads of Asia has seen more history than I could absorb in one visit but, joy of joys, I was supplied with a reading list and an explanation of the “Museum Conundrum”.

Before my first arrival in 2006 I tried to digest as much information as possible (after all, I won a school geography prize for a project on India at the age of 13) and it has been a great disappointment to me to find so little interest amongst the general population. Guides and on-site museums at even the most important of historical sites are frequently disappointing, while the majority of visitors are obviously there for the selfies and the shopping. But scholarship still abounds if you know where to look for it. Apparently, Srinagar is one of the four most important archaeological museums in India, set up in the 1880’s by a coalition of Indian and British enthusiasts following on from the translation of ancient Sanskrit by Sir Charles Wilkins of the Asiatic society in Calcutta in 1785. Elisabeth and I saw the Lahore museum in 2007, the Calcutta museum was closed when I tried to visit in 2011 and Hyderabad? Well, Hyderabad is definitely “on the list”.

Our next destination was the Hari Parbat Fort, easily visible from the city but not so easily accessed. It took visits to two different government offices and a great deal of document checking, smiling, and explaining to get me the necessary permits. Interestingly, though, no money changed hands. The 19th century fort was built by Shuja Shah Durrani on the the site of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s intended Northern capital but it now seems to be run more as an Indian Army outpost. Unfortunately, visibility of the city and lake beneath was not very good but the birds were spectacular and I visited two pretty little shrines, one Sikh and one Hindu, sat side by side at the highest point. Their gaudy decorations and freehand inscription were obviously homemade; probably by the soldiers as there wasn’t anyone else around at all.

A little further down I visited the Hari Prabat Mandir where the huge, sacred rock is smoothed and rounded by countless layers of orange paint. It is obviously more devotional than the tiny shrines above it but by no means as atmospheric. This Hindu Temple is not to be confused with the much older Shankaracharya stupa on the opposite hill but there was no way I was going to be able to visit them all. After all, I still had two mosques to fit in.

The Jamia Masjid is truly magnificent. Built in 1394 Sultan Sikander Shah, it claims to have a capacity of 33,333 and is one of the most important mosques in the whole of India. Remarkably free of ornamentation, the interior is peaceful and dignified; a forest of plain, deodar wood columns rising to fifty feet in height draw the eye inexorably upward. I was charmed to be presented with a copy of the Koran on leaving (actually, I still have my father’s one at home) and selected a leaflet on the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) from the proffered selection. There was just time to fit in a visit to the contrasting Hazratbal Mosque in another part of town.

This much busier building obviously served as a community hub as well as a place of worship while it is undergoing extensive renovations following a recent fire. Sounds of hammers fought with those of worship and stacks of timber sat alongside some absolutely gorgeous decorated panels, the paint on which was scarcely dry. But the most distinctive feature of this charming building has to be the steep, multi-layered roof, such a defining characteristic of Kashmiri architecture whatever the denomination.

Back at the boat, sitting on my sheltered balcony and looking out across the rain-swept waters I decided to have a quick look at the leaflet explaining the head-covering of Muslim women:

He (Allah) knows his creation, and knows that when women make a dazzling display of themselves, with immodest clothes, perfumed bodies and made-up faces, it serves to increase the sexual deviance of the overall society.  

Oh dear, oh dear! And to think that I believed my intellect was my greatest asset.

1 Comment

  • ET says:

    I am very impressed with your persistence to gain access to museums and cultural institutions! My hat is off to you.

    And on the hijab – note that men are nowhere mentioned in your quote but the implications are clear: They can’t control their deviance and need somebody to blame it on. Why don’t we have this problem everywhere in the world? French men for example, (on average with the usual exceptions, of course), don’t seem to have a problem with dazzling and perfumed women?

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