Maintaining historical sense of Srinagar City

Dr Nasir F Butt, Prof. Rakesh Sehgal
Growing up and living in a city is not just a spatial and temporal experience; it rather makes a part of our life with which we associate our personal memories, our relationships, experiences, failures and successes.
We in fact live our cities which in turn live in ourselves as a collective diachronic series of experiences extending across generations. We generally develop an emotional relation with the city we live in: Its streets, bazaars, its closely knit networks of alleys and in-roads, its buildings and monuments, domes, shrines, temples, minarets; its olfactory essences, its sunrises and sunsets, its humdrum and eerie calmness-these all become very important part of one’s existence. One often feels a deep longing for one’s beloved city. Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author and Nobel Laureate, calls this mystical love to one’s city as huzun which is a sense of melancholy or sadness one should feel for one’s city. This melancholy has a Sufi interpretation which means “longing for being not so close to God”. To Pamuk, huzun “is a sought-after state and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer distress.” This melancholic love to one’s city should therefore be so strong that one should feel it one’s responsibility to preserve the identity, culture, infrastructure, sustainability, its culture and heritage (both tangible and intangible) by every means possible.
Moreover, every city has a distinct personality-an identity, that is not just synchronic but has evolved diachronically through ages of social, cultural, political and linguistic metamorphosis. It has its memory that is remembered by its citizens collectively through centuries and millennia. That memory which we call cultural memory is spread across its parts in the form of monuments, architecture, art and craft, literature and folklore. We can therefore see our cities as a living being, rather a motherly entity that cradles her children and provides them a context to relate to in terms of identity and belongingness. We should therefore strive to maintain the sustainability as well as historical identity of our cities so that they survive longer and that they don’t get buried under the dust of neglect and destruction.
In the above context, I feel inclined to throw light on the historical identity of Srinagar city and the plans and projects to develop it into a more sustainable city-a smart city. Due to the pressing needs to alleviate the modern-day pressures of overcrowding, transportation problems, issues of adequate infrastructure in terms of medical as well as educational requirements, major cities of our country have been listed for the Smart City Mission-a comprehensive plan to develop the cities in modern ways to cater to modern needs, especially through retrofitting, Information Technology and modern infrastructure. The mission was initiated by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India. The Ministry defines smart city as a city “which is liveable, sustainable and has a thriving economy offering multiple opportunities to its people to pursue their diverse interests.” To this end Srinagar was enlisted for the development mission in the 2017 through an open competition system wherein the aspirant cities are required to compete for being enlisted in the mission funded by the Central Government. The official website of Srinagar district maintains that Srinagar Smart City project was approved in Round 3 challenge held in April 2017. Smart city project, according to the website, comprises of two parts: (a) Area Based Development with an estimated amount of Rs. 2869.24/- crores and (b) Pan city Solutions with an estimated cost of Rs. 765.03/- crores. For the purpose, Srinagar Smart City Limited has been established to transform Srinagar “into an eco-friendly, resilient and socio-economically vibrant city that celebrates its natural and cultural heritage creating harmony and opportunities for all.” The aim of the present Srinagar Smart City programme according to the District website covers the following:
* Efficient land use
* Inclusive housing facility to all
* Improving roads and pathways to organise transport and public movement
* Preserving and developing Open spaces like parks and gardens
* Cost affective and citizen friendly governance with online transparency, easy accessibility and digitisation
* Giving identity to the city by promoting its local art, craft and culture
Moreover, the proposal submitted by the Srinagar city to the Ministry of Urban Development focused on improvement in the inadequate transport system which could be augmented by developing inland waterway transportation. It also focused on the need to restore and maintain the dilapidated monuments and historical buildings-both public and private-in the city, among other aspects of development.
The historical sites, which are the soul of the city, have been slipped into neglect and poor maintenance. They need to be revived and restored without affecting their historical essence. The smart city developmental works therefore need to be balanced in such a way that the historical consciousness is preserved and propagated. Srinagar is replete not only with famous gardens, monuments and shrines, but it also is home to hundreds of private mansions which belong to the colonial period. Many such houses and mansions are either pulled down and replaced by modern buildings and commercial structures or are left to be eaten away by neglect and lack of maintenance due to high maintenance costs. Anadulu Agency in one of the recently published articles has taken a peek into the “vernacular architecture” of the city which was built according to the geographical and climatic needs of the region. The article identifies one of the myriad mansions named Jalali House (built by Agha Syed Safdar Jalali in 1863) as an example of sturdy and long lasting construction which exemplifies the anti-seismic and flood-proof vernacular architecture.
Srinagar has lived a diverse and vibrant history ranging from the Mauryan Empire to Kushanas, to Mughals, Sikhs and Dogra rule. It has witnessed various cultural and religious transformations. All this history and cultural memory is stored in the historical archives, ruins, monuments, mansions, ancient gardens and forts. To maintain the historical sense of a city is to help it keep breathing as a living entity that has a historical identity and tradition. The smart city projects no doubt cater to the modern needs of infrastructure, transportation, governance, hospitality, recreation and so on; but in cities like Srinagar, it is the long lived natural and cultural heritage including historical monuments, art and craft, cuisine, folklore and language that attracts the attention of tourists. These must not be obliterated under the extensive network of modernisation. Along with the historical monuments, language and literature, folk art and traditions should be preserved and augmented through modern technology and retrofitting. To achieve this end, it is not only the government bodies or the administration to be the author of the project, it should be also the moral and emotional responsibility of the citizens to be aware and conscious about the development as well as preservation of the city’s soul and DNA. The Ministry of Urban Development’s mission website impresses upon the role and responsibility of citizens to achieve the goal of smart cities. It says that “The Smart Cities Mission requires smart people who actively participate in governance and reforms. Citizen Involvement is much more than a ceremonial participation in governance.” We the citizens should always strive to make our conscious presence in the preservation and development of our cities and their cultural heritage, and respect the collective consciousness, shared memory, cultural history and collective identity considering them much more important than our personal or individual benefits. Only such attitude of honest and emotional regards can help preserve and sustain our city without letting its history and culture be forgotten.
(The authors are Assistant Professor Department of Humanities, Social Sciences and Management National Institute of Technology Srinagar Hazratbal Srinagar, J&K and Director National Institute of Technology Srinagar Hazratbal Srinagar, J&K)