Inside the Peer Dastgeer Sahib shrine (Photo courtesy: INTACH, J&K Chapter)
The Silk Route that connected Kashmir with Central Asia not only enriched the Valley with the trade that took place in carpets, shawls and saffron, but also gave it a multicultural aesthetic. This dynamism of economics and culture created an environment of inclusion that manifests in the architecture of the land. Be it the eighth-century Martand Sun Temple near Anantnag or the 200-year-old shrine of Peer Dastgeer Sahab, what binds centuries of history is the common thread of Kashmiri craftsmanship and syncretism.
A recent exhibition in Delhi, organised by INTACH, J&K Chapter, Department of Tourism, Kashmir and India International Centre, Delhi, displayed the “Sacred Architecture of Kashmir”, showing how spiritual traditions continued in form and structure. Drawings and photographs on panels explained how common design elements linked Buddhist and Sufi shrines to Hindu temples and Islamic mosques.
“Kashmir was a centre of Hinduism and when Ashoka arrived around third century CE, he brought in Buddhism. Even the medieval temples were different in form and space compared to the rest of India. When Islam arrived, it had a very different grammar from Iranian and Turkish architecture. It is the regional experience of Kashmir that lent it a unique identity, very different from anything in the world,” says senior architect Hakim Sameer Hamdani, of INTACH, J&K Chapter.
As part of several empires and outreach, be it Gupta, Kushan or Gandhara, Kashmir internalised the architectural and cultural experience, in a language that’s uniquely Kashmiri, says Hamdani. As he points to the panel about the Martand Sun Temple, he references the influence of Greek architectural elements in the columns, the pedestal and the arches. It’s Kashmir’s most prominent example of a peristyle (continuous porch of columns). Built by Karkota Dynasty king, Lalitaditya, its influence shows in the pyramidal top common to many temples in Kashmir. It also wasn’t uncommon to see rectangular quadrangles in the central courtyard surrounded by cubicles all around in temples.
This spatial layout seeps into the Khanqah-i-Maulla shrine in Srinagar too. This wooden Sufi hospice built in the late 14th century was constructed by Sufi saint Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani. The panel at the exhibition tells of how it resembles the Buddhist chaitya halls while the ceiling of the central chamber is supported on wooden columns, seen in temples of medieval Kashmir. The multi-tiered pyramidical roof, crowned by a spire, echoes the architectural tradition of a Hindu and Buddhist past.
Even as Islam came into Kashmir around 14th century, the kings chose to blend in and the architecture speaks of that native process. The Jamia Masjid in Srinagar went through numerous fires and restorations, though it kept to the original plan from the 15th century. Unlike any other mosque of the Islamic world with domes and minarets, the pyramidical roof surfaces here yet again. With a courtyard that resembles Char Bagh, wooden colonnades that support the ceiling, and pinja kari detailing, this architectural marvel has been preserved effectively by INTACH. “Architecture is a tool to understand history,” says Hamdani. Referring to the way buildings later took on Islamic elements of domes and minarets, he says, “People travelled and saw a different nature of Islamic architecture. It was a question of novelty. As each new mosque and new building comes up, the skyline of Kashmir will change. But how do we perceive it? How do we move ahead with a respect for the past?”
With his team at INTACH, they restored the Peer Dastgeer Sahib shrine after the fire of 2012. “We were able to replicate all of it as before, so much so the spiritual head felt that nothing about it had changed. He still worshipped by the same window as he did before the fire. The fire seemed to have been only a memory,” says Hamdani. The original katamband ceilings, papier-mache surfaces, and the brick and wood structural restoration happened alongside as prayers continued.
“We aim to show the continuity, where one faith melted into the other. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a crafts museum that honours the culture and tradition of the state. We hope the contents of this exhibition will soon turn into a book,” says Saleem Beg, Convener, INTACH, J&K Chapter.