An intern’s diary: Of downtown, epitaphs, and shrines

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The damp walls away from modern architecture capture history, culture,  and emotions – everything at once. I had only seen Srinagar’s downtown in photographs and movies. I was born and brought up in a very different geography and cultural values as distinct from downtown as the place itself. But that’s a conversation for another day.

On 14 July 2021, I walked through downtown for the first time. The streets were quiet and cars moved slowly. Unlike the scorching heat, the weather just felt right that day.

Since 1931, Kashmiris have remembered the killing of twenty-two men who died protesting against the Dogra rule on 13 July. It is locally commemorated as Martyrs’ Day. It was a day of remembrance, of history, still vivid and alive on the streets of Nowhatta. It was a day of assertion, of people’s identities and their rights.

The martyrs were buried at a graveyard in Naqshaband Sahib shrine, or ziyarat in Khawaja Bazaar. Built in 14th century, the shrine is named after Khawaja Syed Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, a sufi saint.

People sat around, fed birds, and offered prayers as the shrine stood tall and firm. When you’ve heard stories about a place beforehand, you try to map out the visuals on the streets..

These streets, over the years, have been the center of some of the biggest protests against New Delhi. From civilian killings to lynching of a policeman, the mood in downtown has not only challenged the idea of India time and again but also mirrored the youth’s divided political aspirations in general.

The epitaphs are reminiscent of the Kashmir conflict over the years. The graveyard has been a preserver of courage and a center of inspiration during difficult times for the people.

However, 2021 is astonishing; it’s a year of indifference, of ignorance and reassertion of diktats against Kashmiris. The same diktats that led to the uprising of 1931. For two years in a row after the limited-autonomy of the region was scrapped and indefinite curfews were clamped by New Delhi, the graveyard was sealed off for everybody.

After a couple of hours at the graveyard, I headed for another marvel of Srinagar, Khanqah-e-Moula. The holy shrine built in 1395 is situated between the bridges of Fateh Kadal on left and Zaina Kadal on the right side. The shrine was commissioned by Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in memory of Mir Syed Ali, a Muslim missionary who arrived in Kashmir from Persia in the 14th century.

Writings of Islam adnored the magnificent green walls; a remarkable Islamic culture thrived everywhere around the shrine.

Though I’m not religious, I’m open to witnessing it through people.

Varanasi, my hometown in the Uttar Pradesh state, currently governed by a Hindu-hardliner priest, made me look at Hinduism from a contemporary perspective. People were lost in religiosity and escaped their struggles for brief moments. It felt pure and distanced from socio-political moorings, justifications or criticism. It was about the good side of it all, away from the venomous religious politics at play in India.

I was wondering if I would witness Islam along the same vibrations in Kashmir. At the shrine, I saw the purest of Islam, right before my eyes. Faith could offer a magnificent escape from all the violence and oppression, I wondered.

By the time I got out of Khanqah-e-Moula, it was evening and I could hear the azaan again.

Heading back home, as I walked through the narrow lanes of downtown, everything changed. I couldn’t fathom the presence of government forces checkposts. Armed men in uniforms, their faces covered in a black cloth, stood at the nooks.

From religiosity and calmness, the air smelled of retaliation and an unambiguous anticipation of resentment against people’s revolution, against the idea of freedom.

I noticed defaced writings of the insurgency on shutters and walls. “Save Palestine” said one. “Reject Hurriyat … Azaadi … We want freedom.”

The ones which truly stood out to me had “Pakistan” written on it. It was defaced but you could read it.

Lost in downtown, I asked a Kashmiri for directions.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

Dastgeer Sahib,” I replied.

I wanted to say Zero Bridge but I didn’t want to leave. I was too involved, too attached to downtown, that I just wanted to see more.

And I headed for another shrine: the majestic Dastgeer Sahib built in 1806 has preserved Sufism for the last two hundred years.

At first, Dastgeer Sahib didn’t seem as magnificent to me as Khanaq-e-Moula. Nevertheless, it’s a beacon of Kashmiri admiration and religiosity.

Women, several of them sat and read holy books on Islam.

Inside a chamber, a big Quran was on display next to a grave. People came, took a glance of it from far and prayed.

I sat between them and watched them pray. Nobody had any reservations.

A chamber to the left of the Quran overlooked the Khanyar market through its windows.

Four friends, probably in their forties, were laughing and discussing their plans for Eid.

Jenab, kaha se ho aap?” (Where are you from?) one of them asked me.

“Bareilly,” I replied.

Seeing me with a camera, one of them told me that if I want to photograph, I can. “Dastgeer is really beautiful, click some photos,” he said.

Mesmerised by his tone, I pointed my camera and set its lens at them.

It is fascinating how downtown has been a witness to one of the greatest struggles for freedom in Kashmir; it is also a firm preserver of it. In the land of the graves, downtown lives.

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