Kashmir’s architecture, like its political history, is complex and enigmatic. The more one digs into the place’s past, the more there is that is left undiscovered. However, the architect and conservationist Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s dispassionate, scholarly and seminal work The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir provides a fresh perspective to the politics of Islamic architecture, especially the styles of religious places from the early 14th century to the 18th century.
The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir (Early 14th-18th Century)
Routledge India, 2021
The book brings home the larger point missed so far that Islamic architecture was never linear in Kashmir. Kashmir has all along resisted imposition of style and form, even if the constructions, be it a mosque or a shrine, were by Muslim rulers. The book sieves through the influences, impositions, motivations and resistance to bring out the deep love Kashmiris have for their roots and local traditions, and how they were selective in adapting from the outside world aspects that suit the sensibilities of the place. A combination of minute architectural details and well-researched historical accounts is the highlight of the book.
Kashmir’s first mosque, built by Buddhist-turned-Muslim king Rinchina in the early 14th century in Srinagar’s Ali Kadal area in the old city, was deliberately small in scale, similar to the monasteries of Ladakh and the Hindu temples on the ghats of the Jhelum. The king made no attempt to outscale the structures of other faiths to declare the arrival of Muslim rule.
The book argues that early Muslim religious buildings are reflective of a conscious attempt by Kashmir’s nascent Muslim community to merge socially and culturally with inherited traditions. The absence of a hegemonic message in the new architecture, or a portrayal of power through the monumentalising of new religious building styles, ensured that the power or cultural force linked with Muslim rule remained rooted in local traditions.
The Buddhist period, the first organised religion in erstwhile Kashmir, is perceived to have provided the foundation of the architectural sensibilities of the place. It set the “grammar” for religious places in Kashmir by using local elements and locally available materials, mainly wood. Instead of domes, spires, wood-in-brick work and long eaves, all elements of Buddhist monasteries, remained the hallmark of Kashmir’s mosques and shrines until the Mughals arrived in the 16th century.
Politics of architecture
The syncretism in architecture comes through from the second surviving mosque from the 14th century, the Mir Masjid, located at Pampore in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. A Buddhist monastery at Alchi, Ladakh, constructed between the ninth and 13th centuries, has incorporated influences and motifs from Kashmiri architecture. Constructed in the second half of 14th century, the entrance of Mir Masjid is designed as a trefoil arched opening resting on two fluted stone columns as seen in the heyday of medieval temple architecture, and the details of wooden eaves are reminiscent of the Alchi temple.
The arrival of Mughal rule in Kashmir was marked by a disruption in architectural style. The new architecture was “imperialist”, discarding local styles. For instance, stones were used to build the mosques Pather Masjid and Mulla Shah in a cold region like Srinagar.
The stone architecture of the Mughals carried a message of the permanence of Mughal power in Kashmir. Yet it remained largely abandoned by Kashmir’s Muslim community. It lacked acceptability for the local population because of its rejection of local building traditions, as the book explains.
Local architectural styles, however, flourished between 1752 and 1847, after the fall of Mughal rule. This was the period when Kashmir had Afghan and Sikh rulers, who were willing to spend money on religious structures.
An architectural marvel, steeped in local elements with colourful papier mache work and khatamband (ceiling with geometrical designs), emerged during this period—the shrine of Khanaqah-i-Ghusiyah or Dastageer sahib built around 1805. The interiors of the shrine were inspired by the Khanaqah-i-Maula, a 14th century shrine that grew from a khanqah or hospice dedicated to Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani. (Hamdani was a saint from Persia who visited Kashmir in the 14th century.) The shrine, which had echoes of monastic architecture, was able to set for several centuries the grammar for local traditions for Muslim religious architectures.
If Kashmir’s Mughal overlords had patronised architecture that outstripped the structures of other faiths in scale and grandeur, the Dogra rulers were not far behind. Hindu religious architecture of the 19th century outstripped Muslim religious edifices in scale.
- Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir explores how building styles of Kashmir’s Muslim religious places trace the historical trajectories of the frontier province over the centuries.
- The book brings home the larger point missed so far that Islamic architecture was never linear in Kashmir. Kashmir has all along witnessed a resistance against impositions of style and form, even if it was a mosque built by Muslim rulers who were seen as outsiders.
- The book argues that early Muslim religious buildings are reflective of a conscious attempt by Kashmir’s nascent Muslim community to merge socially and culturally with inherited traditions.
- The arrival of Mughal rule marked a disruption in architectural style: the new architecture was “imperialist”, discarding local styles.