“Gar Firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, Hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.” “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” This was quoted by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir when he visited the Paradise on earth, Kashmir.
Kashmir flourished on the composite values of humanism and tolerance, which is known as Kashmiriyat and is rich for its cultural heritage which amalgamates the values and beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. But after the independence of India, the state of Jammu & Kashmir has always been a disputed land and is the reason for conflict between India, Pakistan, and China. Although the state has now become a Union Territory, it is still violently disputed between India and Pakistan, and with the advancement of technology and the long negligence by the government the heritage sites and the monuments some of which dating back to the 14th century have been defaced and damaged.
Kashmir is also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, etc. and little provision is made by the authorities to look after the heritage buildings. Apart from natural disasters, the heritage sites are prone to theft, burglary, vandalism, etc. But one thing that has shown resilience and has stood firm despite the test of the time for decades is its traditional architecture.
The Jhelum River is the main influencing factor which determines the settlement pattern of Kashmir, especially the settlement in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Union Territory. The streets are termed as Mohallas and the settlement pattern is either based on occupation or clan. The clan usually occupies the main town or core area of the region and the most typical type of vernacular architecture is found in those regions, as in Razdan Kocha. Apart from the dwelling units, ziarats, temples, mosques became a focal point and surrounding that worship place dwelling areas started to flourish.
Jhelum River was the only source for transportation initially which resulted in the development of Ghats which served as the landing place for the transportation and continuous array of houses with projecting wooden balconies and intricate latticework developed along the canals and the riverfronts.
Since Kashmir’s economy is predominantly dependent on agriculture and allied activities, they never had the wealth to undertake a massive rebuilding of the cities and give the cities a new dimension, especially Srinagar. So the overall image of the cities of Kashmir is still the same as it was 300 years ago and the wooden structures with gable roofs remind one of the medieval European cities, and is still alive with the cultures and traditions and lived in as it has been for centuries keeping the essence of the old Kashmir intact.
The traditional buildings are of two types based on plan- square plan and linear plan having windows on all sides and the arrangement of function inside the house distributed in symmetry, as symmetry is the basic principle for earthquake resistance structures. Each house has the Zoon Dub or a cantilevered balcony designed for the viewing of the moon (zoon). The balconies and the eaves have beautiful PinjeraKari work and wooden wind chimes shaped like jhumkas. The interior roofs have wooden false ceilings of khatamband panels of interlocking geometric shapes derived from the Persian arts and are made up of walnuts or deodar with visible joinery.
Based on the construction techniques traditional houses in Kashmir are divided into two categories—Taq construction and Dhajji Dewari. Dhajji Dewari consists of wooden frames and trusses filled with flat stones or bricks and are packed neatly into the gaps with mud or lime mortar and the remaining gaps are filled with stone flakes. To increase the strength and to secure the stones against falling out wire mesh are nailed to both sides of the wall and the wall is then plastered using mud or cement. These are more elastic than reinforced cement concrete and can survive earthquakes more successfully.
Taq is another construction method that is common in Srinagar. A Taq building can withstand an earthquake and can be several storeys high. The walls are made up of mixtures of rubble stones and bricks or sun-dried bricks laid in thick mud mortars with load-bearing piers at regular intervals. The load-bearing wall masonry has horizontal timber lacings fixed at the plinth, lintel levels, and floors. The timber floor joists are compressed between two sets of timber lacings at floor levels. And the wooden beam hence ties the floors of the structures with the walls.
With the advancement of technology the lifestyle of the people of Kashmir has also changed, the architecture has changed essentially. The houses are now built with modern technologies with the cement replacing the mud and iron replacing the timber. The traditional building techniques are diminishing and are replaced by non-indigenous cement structures. The only examples of vernacular architecture of Kashmir are seen in the traditional shrines like the Naqshband Saheb, Dastgir Sahib, etc. which are beyond outstanding.
Most of the heritage buildings have been converted into offices for government authorities and some structures have been completely demolished, like the 150 – year old Maharaj Gunj dispensary which, the Department of Archives, Archaeology, and Museum declared as a heritage building.
As an architect, we must preserve these heritage sites and spread awareness among the people. Also due to the rise in global warming and climate change we must shift our focus to sustainable building and vernacular architecture through which structures will be constructed with a green approach, the tradition and culture will be preserved and, also the locals will be able to get employment.