Srinagar: Shah-e-Hamdan, Jamia Masjid, Hazratbal, Flood Damage and Free Tour Guides

Good morning everyone,

This morning we’re going on a visit to a number of Srinagar’s beautiful mosques – the Shah-e-Hamdan, the Jamia Masjid and Hazratbal.  We’ll talk about the flood damage a little bit and also about a “free” tour guide at Hari Parbat Fort.

First, Shah-e-Hamdan, located to the west of Dal Lake at the edge of yet another very tight market area.  Jagdeep is an expert at navigating a vehicle through these markets now.  His skills at finding space are amazing.

When we pulled up in front of Shah-e-Hamdan, there were two beggars on the road.  Neither was pushy or aggressive, seated on either side of the entry gate.  I gave them each some rupees and wished them blessings.

Inside the gate I greeted people with “Asalam Alaikum” and was pleased to see how many friendly people returned my greeting with big smiles and “Alaikum salam“.   The environment here was warm and pleasant.

There have been several Muslim saints who visited this valley in Kashmir.  Among them was Syed Jalal Uddin Bukhari, Bulbul Shah, Syed Taj Uddin, Yousuf and Syed Hussain Samnani.  Shah-e-Hamdan was on of the most prominent.  His name was Ali Amir-e-Kabir, but was also known as Ali Sa’ani, Ali Shah-e-Hamadan and Ali Mir.  He was Persian from Hamadan in Iran and would have travelled to Kashmir three times between 1365 and 1383 A.D.   It is said that Mir Syed Ali Hamdani converted some 35000 Buddhists and Hindus to Islam through his preaching before dying on his last trip to Kashmir in 1385 A.D.  Shah-e-Hamdan is his shrine, constructed by Sultan Sikander who reigned from 1389 to 1413 A.D.

The Khankah has two relics of the Prophet Muhammad inside – a standard flag that the Prophet used and also a tent pole that belong to him.

The building was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1480.  Sultan Hassan Shah, the ruler of the time, reconstructed the shrine in 1493, in its two-storied form.  It was almost completely destroyed again in 1731 and later reconstructed by Abul Barkat Khan.  It was also damaged somewhat by the recent flood and was being worked on and restored during my visit there.  Unlike many mosques, the Shah-e-Hamdam’s roofs are in the form of pyramids rather than domes and are a little reminiscent of pagodas.  There are bells hanging inside (I did not take pictures inside as I did not have permission and I did not want to disturb the people offering prayer and doing work inside).  The trip inside though is well worth it.  Beautiful.  Do NOT miss this sight if you come to Srinagar.  It is one of the most ancient shrines in the area and is beautifully constructed.  You will need to remove your shoes if you are going into the shrine building itself and cover your head.

You may be asked for a donation for the upkeep of the shrine on your way in or out.  Donations are just that – there is no set price and no entry fee.  Given the amount of work that had to be done on these buildings, I was giving where ever I could to do some small part to keep this history alive.

Our next visit was to the Jamia Masjid, also under some work due to the flood but mostly cleaned up and ready for visitors.  My camera does nothing to pick up the beauty of this place.  Again, remove your shoes and cover your head out of respect for the holy place that you are entering.  It is a functioning mosque, so also cover up a little (leave the shorts and halters for the beaches in Goa).  The general rule is knees and shoulders should be covered.  Also leave the food and drink outside.  Mosques are holy places so you should also leave any other questionable items outside – drugs, paan, paan masala, alcohol and tobacco especially.

There was no division wall in the prayer hall between the men and women and I saw several people offering their prayers together.

The mosque itself is beautiful, fully two stories, supported by hundreds of polished wooden pillars.  It sits roughly in the middle of the old town of Sringar and can hold more than thirty three thousand observers offering prayer at any one time, with more people able to offer prayer in the garden and halls outside.  It was built in 1400 A.D. by Sultan Sikander.  Three times during its history, the mosque was damaged by fire and was restored each time.  It seems to have escaped the worst of the damage that might otherwise have been caused by the flood.

The roofs on this mosque are in the pagoda style as well, which I am told is rather unique to this particular valley and unlike anything else I would see anywhere in the world.

I was also told that Shah-e-Hamdan himself offered prayer here and sometimes stayed here during his visits.  However, it was built in 1400 and the saint died in 1385 so… the young man must have been speaking about someone else, perhaps a son or grandson of the saint.

Hazratbal on the shores of the Jelum river was our next visit, so back through the busy, tight markets we went.  I was really looking forward to seeing this mosque but unfortunately it was under a great deal of work while I was there, having been also affected by the flood waters.  Also, the call to prayer had begun and I was not going to disturb that many observers while they were offering prayer.  I took a walk through the mosque and its grounds but avoided taking pictures to avoid disturbing the observers.

This mosque’s name means “respected place” and inside it contains what Kashmiri Muslims believe is a hair of the Prophet Muhammad.  In December, 1963, the relic was reported disappeared and protests filled the streets.  Prime Minister Nehru made a national broadcast seeking recovery of the relic that January and by January 4, 1964, it had been recovered and is back in its place at Hazratbal.

In some of the pictures, taken between the markets around Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal, you can see some of what remains of the flood damage.  Dead trees, in particular.  In the markets, most of the shops lost all of their inventory and many are still now closed.  Those houses and shops that haven’t been repainted yet have high water marking, some on the second story of the building.  In a few spots, debris lines the streets from demolition or clean-up of lots.

I was told that it was unsafe for me, travelling alone to enter any of the areas away from the main roads in the old town and for everyone’s sake, I didn’t go there.  I am also told that these areas were the worst hit by the flood damage and slowest to recover.  Shocker that the poorest places end up being the places left at the end of the list of things that need to be done. Can you read my sarcasm there?  Governments all over the world have issues with how the poor are treated, it’s not just India (and I don’t know what the solutions are so I’m not able to criticize that much) but it sure is evident there – not much subtle about it.

There are very few animals in the streets as well.  Stray dogs, cattle, they are very small in number compared to other locations in India.  To be fair, I have no idea how many animals would normally be in Srinagar’s streets.  All over Kashmir, the numbers are lower than in Punjabi cities, Himachali cities and Rajasthani cities… so maybe the numbers should be this low.  I don’t know.  Most likely, the numbers have been reduced somewhat by the devastation of such extensive flooding.

I was very impressed with how much work was actually done however, to clean up the mess and do repairs.  I’ve seen the photos and videos from the disaster and the change is remarkable.

Tourism from in-country and abroad is an important part of the economy here and most of the hotels and houseboats were up and running, the streets were clear and in good repair and the docks and jetties were clear and in decent repair as well.  Although so many shops were closed, there were also many, many open and ready for business.  The taxis, autos and rickshaws were out on the streets, the monuments and other attractions cleaned up or on their way to being cleaned up.  The amount of work that has been done here is obvious.  So impressive.

Now on the Hari Parbat Hill (not really worth the trip).  First, it is an active fort, occupied by the Indian Army.  You need permission to go up there (though they don’t tell you that until you get to the gate).  Permission is had from another office in another location.  Though, in my case, the free tour guide at the gate said something in Hindi to the officers (I heard the words “doctor” and “media”) and I was suddenly ushered in and the guide was suddenly in the car with Jagdeep and I.  Jagdeep handed the guy a cigarette and started talking to him in Hindi.  Okay… (Jagdeep knows he can smoke in front of me – I’m not going to judge just because I’m Amritdhari).

When we got to the top, the “free” tour guide walked me through a load of Indian soldiers, using the word “doctor” and “media” a lot.  Once inside the fort he then sat down to eat his lunch.  He just sat there and ate his lunch out of a tiffin, while I sat there wondering “what the frack??  What did this guy just get me into?? What did I get myself into??  What is going on??”  Then some of the young soldiers came over and talked to me about the fort, its history, where I’m from, where they’re from, how they like Kashmir, how hot it gets in the fort in the summer… I think they felt bad for me because my official, “free” guide had abandoned me for his food.  They were pleasant though and good company and after all the climbing I did that day (including up to the temple earlier and the climb from the parking area to the fort entrance), I was more than willing to sit for a few minutes.

Guide then asks for my camera to take a picture of me in one of the fort windows.  Okay.  He took that one and a couple of more and then refused to return my camera, out of earshot of the soldiers, until I paid him a guide fee of Rs. 500.  What?!?  Extortion?  Really buddy?   I gave him his Rs. 500 mostly because I was alone with him at that point and didn’t really know what else I could do.  I wasn’t willing to get into a physical fight with the guy.  Thinking about it know, I should have just taken the camera back or called the soldiers for some assistance.  Or, as you’ll see soon, shouted for Jagdeep who was just down the hill a bit in the parking area.

In any event, if you have lots of time in Srinagar, get your permission slip and see the Hari Parbat Fort, or don’t.  Other than the views that you can get from so many other places in town, there is not a lot to this working fort.  It’s rather small and is a long, hard hike if you have any sort of heart or lung condition.  It’s definitely not worth dealing with the extortion and sleaze of the guides that were there that day either.  Sorry, but there it is.  The government (which is actually the military here in Kashmir) ought to do something to clamp down on guys like this.

Once back in the car, with the guide right there, I told Jagdeep about it.  The guide became furious and was yelling at Jagdeep.  Jagdeep though became very calm but spoke in a voice that I’ve never heard come out of him before or since.  It was a little menacing.  The guide, maybe wisely, decided to leave the car and walk down the long hill back to the gate.  Jagdeep then turned to me and said that I could shout out for him at any time and he would come.  I shouldn’t worry about asking him for help.  My trust in him is well-placed I think.

And also, as if I haven’t said it enough, this is part of the reason you need to watch out for these tour guides, especially if they claim to be “free”… sigh.  New rule:  Never, ever give up your camera to one of them even to get a picture of you in the site.

At the bottom, at the gate, the other guides there asked where our guy was, so we told them.  They opened the gate and let us go, saying something to Jagdeep which raised that menacing voice again for a moment.  I didn’t worry about it, Jagdeep obviously had this and we were on our way.

Until next time… where will we be?

Peace and love all,
Himmatpreet

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