Conserving Mubarak Mandi

The Symbol of Jammu’s Regional Identity

Ajay Khajuria
The grand` Mubarak Mandi Palace Complex, located in the heart the old walled city of Jammu, fell into disrepair and neglect due to currents of change following the cataclysmic events of 1947 which culminated in the initiation of popular rule following accession of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India. However, with its commanding location, unique architecture and layers of history dating back to three centuries, the vast fort palace complex, also known as the Raje – di – Mandi, continues to rule the hearts of the people of Jammu even today.
It embodies the glorious traditions of the Dogras, the inhabitants of Jammu region, speaking the Dogri language or its variants, irrespective of the faith that they follow. It symbolizes the sterling qualities of Dogras as warriors, strategists and negotiators, who created the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir through conquest as well as through strategic and astute negotiation during the turbulent times of the nineteenth century. It also signifies traditions of reformist and progressive governance under successive Dogra rulers who abolished the practices of ‘Sati’ and ‘Begar’, codified criminal laws, constructed irrigation canals and power houses, and established Institutions of higher education in Jammu as well as Srinagar. It also stands witness to the encouragement given to Arts and Architecture which gave birth to the world renowned Basohli School of Miniature Paintings and gave shape to the various palaces and buildings within and outside the Complex.
It is well established that historical buildings and sites, which are an important component of the cultural heritage, have a profound impact on the lives of local inhabitants. Besides giving a sense of identity, they symbolize the best of political, economic, cultural and knowledge traditions passed on by the previous generations and, therefore, their conservation has been considered essential. Mubarak Mandi being a premier symbol of Dogra identity, there is every reason for giving its restoration the priority it deserves, for, as once famously said by Jacqueline Kennedy in this context, “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future”.
It is also quite well known that heritage buildings and sites are much sought after tourist attractions. Innumerable heritage buildings and structures across the Globe, which have been preserved to showcase the unique history and architecture of different nations, attract millions of tourists every year. In India, which is a veritable treasure house of rich cultural heritage, hundreds of heritage buildings and structures are the main stay of the tourism industry generating nearly 30 billion dollars in foreign exchange every year and also creates significant employment opportunities estimated at over 8% of the total jobs in the country. Mubarak Mandi’s historical, locational, architectural and cultural attributes makes it a potentially premier tourism destination, holding attraction for history and culture enthusiasts/scholars from across the world.
In the above backdrop the initiative by the Department of Tourism Jammu for restoration of the Complex and its reuse as a Cultural Tourism Destination, around 2007, with funding from the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India was much needed. The creation of Mubarak Mandi Jammu Heritage Society, under the Chairmanship of the Hon Chief Minister, to facilitate fast track decision-making at the highest level, followed by proactive and decisive actions by the then Executive Body of the Society, gave a flying start to the conservation work. As a result, restoration of the old Army Headquarters building stood completed by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) by 2011, and work on several other buildings came to be in progress.
Subsequently, however, the pace of progress waned as appreciation of its importance by successive Kashmir centric Governments left much to be desired till some time before the imposition of Governor’s rule in 2018 when a Jammu oriented Executive Body of the Society came to again take some initiatives. As a result a comprehensive Master Plan for Conservation and Adaptive Reuse of the Mubarak Mandi Complex, was got prepared by engaging internationally acclaimed conservation consultants, which was ultimately approved in 2019 by the then Governor who was also the then Chairman of the Governing Body of the Society, which has given a firm direction to the work of the society. Prepared in accordance with guidelines of the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the plan envisages numerous museum galleries, art and craft center, interpretation center, ethnic food courts, and other attractions like laser / sound and light shows, etc. It would also provide a repository of information to facilitate research in history and culture associated with the region and is expected to position the heritage complex as a major cultural tourism attraction in North India.
The proposed adaptive reuse of the Complex as a multi-activity cultural heritage center is expected to make this precious Dogra heritage self-sustaining for the next 100 years or more, by generating funds for meeting the recurring cost of maintenance and upkeep, as well as the expenditure on security and operations. Such ‘adaptive reuse’ of heritage buildings implies their use for purposes other than that for which they were built, while retaining their historical features and is permissible under the ICOMOS guidelines.
Adaptive reuse of Heritage buildings is widely acknowledged as a means for people centric urban rejuvenation and opens up new job opportunities for the surrounding communities. In case of the Mubarak Mandi Complex, its adaptive reuse is expected to facilitate urban renewal, rejuvenating adjacent areas like Chowk Chabutra, Jain Bazar, Pacca Danga, Pacci Dhakki, Panjtirthi, etc. by providing new commercial opportunities. Issues like vehicular access and parking for adjacent localities would also find resolution with implementation of the Master Plan. Moreover, the UNESCO Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development also emphasizes the need to adopt proactive policies to integrate culture as a core component of urban initiatives to facilitate social cohesion.
The emergence of this heritage complex as a cultural tourism destination is also crucial for the overall economic well being of Jammu city. Progressive shifting of the railhead to Udhampur and then Katra has affected the tourism industry in Jammu City adversely as it is now being conveniently bye-passed by tourists and pilgrims coming by rail. Since the carefully crafted Master Plan for conservation and adaptive reuse of Mubarak Mandi factors this aspect into the adaptive reuse plan, it is expected that a sizable percentage of the nearly 10 million tourists/pilgrims visiting the Holy Shrine of Vaishnodevi ji annually will get attracted to the complex and extend their stay in Jammu once the work is completed. Enhancement of Jammu’s overall tourism profile is also likely to place it firmly on the itinerary of international tourists coming to India. It is further expected to offset, to some extent, the anticipated effect on trade and commerce in Jammu on materialization of through rail traffic to the valley.
Having wide ramifications for the economic development of the city, therefore, the delay in commencement of further restoration work in accordance with the approved plan is cause of concern amongst its inhabitants. This is more so, when funds to the tune of about Rs 65 crores against approved works are reported to have already been released earlier and the works allotted to qualified agencies through e-tendering process. Instances are not lacking when, in the past, large and innovative projects pertaining to Jammu have been prevented from reaching their logical conclusion on one pretext or the other. To allay apprehensions among people about the Mubarak Mandi restoration project having fallen prey to machinations to prevent its successful culmination, therefore, the UT administration needs to take steps to speed up the ongoing conservation works and take the citizens of Jammu into confidence before any move to change horses in mid-stream is taken up for consideration.
(The author is a retired KAS officer and formerly Director Tourism and founding Member-Secretary (ex-officio) cum Executive Director of the Mubarak Mandi Jammu Heritage Society.)