Thursday, April 7, 2011

Srinagar & Leh: Of domes and minarets

Srinagar: Juma Masjid
Held in the embrace of snow-capped massifs in the folds of the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, two distinct civilizations emerged within a few hundred km of each other in the Indian subcontinent to give the world an absorbing culturescape to explore. Though grouped under one province, the cold desert-plateau of Ladakh and the valley of Kashmir are chalk and cheese and a journey across their dividing mountains is a picture of stunning contrasts. Diverse geography shaped the lives of the two people and defined their architecture. Remarkably, religion too was deeply linked with societal changes and the region’s shrines present an evocative expression of that.

Buddhism and Islam are the two dominating religions and cross-cultural influences, particularly Central Asian, are evident in structures of both faiths. To a visitor, whereas monasteries and pagodas will come across as familiar in appearance it’s mosques and ziarats that make for an intriguing study, standing apart from the customary domed images.  

Kashmir: Aesthetic Central 
It’s often said, preachers and invaders have shaped the history of Kashmir. Besides a lot else, their legacy is seen in the incredible architecture dotting Srinagar, especially the older parts of town that exude a medieval air. Central Asian influence replaced Hinduism-Buddhism with Islam and also redefined its structural design. Brickwork was borrowed, timber detailing stepped in for stone, buildings became cubical and slender, and roofs emerged as the most distinguishing feature: conical or pyramidal finials atop the main structure. In some cases a few conical caps overlap, and are considered a classical European influence.

The pick amongst Srinagar’s shrines is the Khanqah-e-Moulla, a dedication to Iranian sufi Shah Hamadan who’s credited with sowing the seed of Islam in the Valley. Originally built in AD 1395 and rebuilt the third time in AD 1731, it embodies elements of Kashmir’s artistic competence. A quaint square structure in wood, its elegance is visible in the papier-mâché ceiling and distinctive latticed windows.

The Juma Masjid in Nowhatta is another significant pyramidal-roofed edifice. Fine brickwork marks it four identical gateways and the highlight of its large interiors is 370 pillars, each being a single deodar tree trunk. Almost all areas in old Srinagar have a dedication of sort. Khanyar is known for the ziarats of Dastgeer Sahib and Naqashband Sahib, two saints who did not visit the Valley but whose word spread here through their followers who brought their relics and built the memorials. These shrines are defined by a set of green conical roofs, glass windows and khatamband (square wood pieces) ceiling. Two noticeable features around most shrines in Srinagar is the space for feeding pigeons and the series of halwai shops.

Further away, at the base of Hari Parbat, the Makhdoom Sahib ziarat is another immensely revered spot. On the banks of the Dal Lake and looking distinctly different from this line-up is the domed Hazratbal.

There’s a tranquil magnetism about these shrines and in many way it’s their structures that exude a peaceful aura.   

Leh: Jama Masjid
Ladakh: Nature's Canvas 
In contrast to the fertile landscape of Kashmir, harsh and inaccessible topography determined the architecture of Ladakh. Buildings are terraced and box like with flat roofs and small windows, a design that counters severe temperatures. The material used is mud, stone, timber, all locally available and suitable for an area with scanty rainfall.

Similar to Tibet in terrain and tradition, Ladakh was most influenced by it. Central Asian influences began creeping in with Leh developing as a major trading centre on the Silk Route. As acknowledgment for their role in boosting economy, around AD 1640 land began being offered to traders, usually from Kashmir, to settle in Leh. Permission was also given to build a mosque; and Masjid Sharif in Chutayrangtak area is reportedly Leh’s oldest. Mosque façades seamlessly blended with their surroundings with subtle elements distinguishing them, as less ornate windows when compared to Buddhist structures. 

Talking about the slant towards symbolisation of Islam and its affect on local architecture, Leh-based eminent historian and author, Abdul Ghani Sheikh says, “Today the influence of Turko-Iranian elements—dome and minaret—are conspicuous in the two main mosques in Leh, the Jama Masjid in Main Bazaar and the Shi'a Imamia Masjid a little ahead. These changes surfaced in the 20th century. Prior to this there was no difference between a Muslim and Buddhist building, with both following conventional architecture. The mosques at best had a small, slender wooden crown, not as prominent as the Turko-onion domes."

Sheikh's collection of essays, 'Reflections on Ladakh, Tibet and Central Asia' (2010), is an insightful work on trans-region influences. In the chapter 'Islamic architecture in Leh' he has narrated legends of the Namgyal dynasty that ruled Ladakh and their role in the peaceful co-existence of Islam and Buddhism. "Intermarriages between Muslims from Baltistan and Buddhists of Ladakh were not considered out of place, with there being a tradition of each partner following his/her own faith. In fact this was the case till quite recently in Ladakh,” Sheikh enlightens, adding, “The most illustrious alliance dates back to the 17th century when King Jamyang Namgyal of Ladakh tied the knot with princess Gyal Khatun, daughter of the Shi'a king of Khaplu, Baltistan. Khatun remained a Muslim, but her son Senge Namgyal, became the most distinguished Buddhist ruler of Ladakh.”

Peace and preservation
There was, and still continues to be, a high level of tolerance between communities in Leh and this has a lot to do with no historical baggage of animosity despite concessions made between rulers of different faiths. “In AD 1681 when the Mongols invaded Ladakh, Mughal assistance was sought to deal with the enemy. Aurangzeb’s Mughal forces under Nawab Fidai Khan crushed the raid; and as a price Ladakhi king Deldan Namgyal granted land for a mosque to Sunni Muslims at the foot of the Leh Palace. This is where the Jami’a or Jama Masjid stands today,” explains Sheikh.

The wave of religious zeal has played a role in changing the four walls of worship. On the other hand, it’s a passion for preservation that has seen the restoration of the oldest mosque in Leh to near-original shape. Once in a dilapidated condition, the Masjid Sharif, known as Tsas Soma or New Garden Mosque, has been painstakingly restored by the Tibetan Heritage Fund International. It’s replete with Ladakhi elements as pillars, paper lamps, roof waterproofing with mar-kalag mud or butter-mud, wood floors etc.

As a connect between the two cultures stands the now-restored Shey mosque, said to be the first in Ladakh and built by Shah Hamadan. Following his decade-long stay in Kashmir, he departed for Central Asia, en route stopping in Ladakh. The mosque has both Kashmiri and Ladakhi features and gets its share of worshippers and travellers alike.

Quick facts:
Road: The Manali-Leh route is open from June to September and the Leh–Srinagar road between May to October.
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Published in JetWings, April 2011

1 comment:

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