Kashmir Ki Kali: Srinagar's Famed Shalimar Bagh Has Been Restored

Kashmir Ki Kali: Srinagar's Famed Shalimar Bagh Has Been Restored

20 October 2013
DNA
Gargi Gupta

Srinagar: In a television interview, conductor Zubin Mehta proclaimed that despite the controversy about the concert, Kashmir now had a beautifully restored garden, fountains, flowers et al. Many agree. “Zubin Mehta’s concert was the best thing to happen to Shalimar Bagh,” laughs Sheikh Irfan Qadir, assistant executive engineer in the Roads & Building department of the Jammu & Kashmir government. Qadir should know - he’s been working at Shalimar Bagh since early this year, deputed by the state government in its race-against-time to restore the 17th century gardens laid out by Mughal Emperor Jahangir, in time for Mehta’s concert with the Bavarian State Orchestra held on September 7. German ambassador in India Michael Steiner and Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah took close interest in the repair works, visiting the site several times in the months leading up to the concert. After all, this was a high-profile event, hosted by the German Embassy in India, attended by dignitaries and broadcast on high-definition to millions of viewers across the globe. “When the German ambassador first came here,” says Qadir, “Shalimar Bagh was in such a bad state that he looked around and despaired at having the concert here.” Describing the state of ruin, an October 2012 report in British newspaper Daily Mail bemoaned that the ‘fountains have long stopped working and the walls are peeling at every corner’. Photographs accompanying the article, showed the water channels silted up and covered in vegetation. Strangely, Shalimar Gardens, or any of the other 15 Mughal Gardens in Kashmir, is not protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, or its Kashmir circle. It is the floriculture department of the state government that looks after these gardens, which attracts lakhs of tourists every year. “The last ‘sensible’ conservation effort took place in 1941,” informs M Saleem Beg, convenor of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which has overseen the current restoration exercise. The committee prepared a detailed conservation plan for Shalimar Bagh in 2005. That, says Beg, came about by sheer accident. “In 2004, Jagmohan, then tourism minister, allocated Rs1 crore for reconstructing the Mughal wall in Nishat Garden. Appalled, I met him to point out how inappropriate ‘rebuilding’ a historic wall was. He told me to come up with a conservation plan for the gardens and asked me to name the budget. I had rattled off a figure of Rs5 lakh. We ended up spending Rs9 lakh.” Much of the work at Shalimar, says Beg, entailed undoing earlier unscientific, ill-considered conservation efforts. For instance, the water channels were covered in concrete. “We removed thousands of kilos of cement,” says Qadri. The channels, measuring 1,000 ft x26 ft, were relaid with crushed stones, then covered with lime concrete. “We had to source lime concrete, which is what the Mughals used, from Amritsar. The material takes much longer to dry than cement, but we were determined to do it the right way,” he says. “The stage for the musicians was laid out over these channels, but they did it very carefully, placing it over small metal stools so as not to leave a single mark on the grass,” says Qadir. The stones that lined the rim along the water channels, the foot-bridges across them, niches along the walls and terraces had become loose or were displaced over time; these were carefully taken out, cleaned and refixed. The pavements too were re-laid with local devri stone. The Pink and Black Pavilions were restored with new shingle roofs and their walls covered with a 20mm coat of lime plaster. “We have not yet touched the ceilings,” says Qadir, pointing to the richly-painted panels, which are a more recent addition, probably the time of Kashmir’s Dogra rulers. Nearly Rs3.5 crore was spent on Shalimar Bagh’s restoration. The fountains are working; the channels are clear; a Mughal-era hammam (public bath house) on the premises has been opened to public and there are better public conveniences. Of course, the problems too are visible, the most being the buildings outside that have been built too close to the Mughal-era boundary wall. Perhaps, the only long-term hope for Kashmir’s Mughal Gardens is in securing a World Heritage Site status. Six of the better-known gardens did make it to the tentative list in December 2010. But despite several representations to the culture ministry, the elaborate dossier that is required for their final application, has not yet been prepared.