|The Chashma Shahi Mughal gardens in Srinagar have been loved by emperors and picnickers alike, and have now
been restored to their past glory - despite violent political unrest in the region [Picture: Basit Alvi]
Growing up in the 1980s, Saima Iqbal remembers going on school picnics and family outings to Srinagar's iconic Mughal gardens.
She has no such recollections, however, from the next decade. With an armed militancy and counterinsurgency then raging in Indian-administered Kashmir, these visits became inconceivable.
"I certainly didn't go to any of these gardens in the '90s," Iqbal said. "In the '90s, is when the gardens were crying for attention."
In the past ten years, Iqbal has returned to these gardens, but now as a conservation architect on a mission. She's part of a team working to get half a dozen 17th-century gardens built by rulers from the Mughal dynasty inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, even as uncertainty and paramilitary presence lingers in the Kashmir valley. Besides protecting the sites, preservationists say the recognition could help in restoring a sense of history in a setting where memory is dominated by the recent troubled times, as well as putting Kashmir on the world map for something other than conflict.
"We have burning issues, alright, but the day we don't have these burning issues, what do we have left?" Iqbal asked. "Do we have any culture left?"
The gardens, constructed in the 1600s by the Mughals, include Nishat, Shalimar, Chashma Shahi and Pari Mahal in Kashmir's summer capital of Srinagar; and Achabal and Verinag near the southern city of Anantnag. They are known for their pavilions, water channels, fountains and colourful blossoms set across dramatic terraces.
UNESCO entered these gardens onto its tentative list of heritage sites in December. Iqbal's team at the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a non-profit that initiated efforts for the World Heritage designation, is now developing a final dossier that must extensively detail the gardens' history and long-term management and preservation plans. The group held a conference last week in Srinagar with local and foreign historians, horticulturists, tourism officials and other experts to discuss what factors must be considered in creating the proposal. The process can take a year or more.
Once it's submitted, UNESCO officials will rigorously vet the proposal and decide whether to put the gardens up for final nomination to the World Heritage Committee to consider for inscription on the World Heritage List. The sites must exhibit what UNESCO calls "outstanding universal value".
UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams said once a place gets onto the World Heritage List, the status can bring not only prestige but also help make preservation of the site a priority within a country, and ensure more funds and support to that end. "It really does reinforce, quite critically, the protection of the site," she said.
The gardens attract visitors long into the night
Picture: Basit Alvi
Come springtime, tourists and locals begin flocking to the Mughal gardens, some carved at the foot of the mountains while others are perched higher up the slopes. Couples stroll by flowerbeds while hawkers offer to photograph outsiders in kitschy Kashmiri costumes of silver headdresses and turbans. The vantages from the Srinagar gardens offer sweeping vistas of Dal Lake and its famed houseboats below. The occasional sighting of a uniformed soldier under a tree hints at the starker political situation not apparent in these so-called pleasure gardens.
Over time, some of the structures at the gardens had fallen into disrepair, and some were marked with graffiti. In other spots, the water became murky in the waterways, which are fed by natural springs. In recent years, however, there's been a push to restore the gardens, especially in retaining the authenticity of the sites, such as using building material or landscaping in line with the original buildings and layout.
The Mughals sought refuge in Kashmir during the summers and they left behind a unique type of garden pattern there, said BR Mani, joint director general of the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi - one of the agencies that scrutinises India's heritage proposals sent to UNESCO. There many references to emperors Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, and his father, Jahangir, staying at these sites year after year - giving the gardens not only architectural importance but also historical value, he said.
"They are maintained right from the Mughal times up to the present," Mani said. "Such gardens are not in existence [elsewhere], so they are unique in their kind not only in India but also in the neighbouring countries."
In drawing up their plans for World Heritage recognition, experts in Srinagar say cultivating societal consciousness of the gardens being historic sites, not mere public parks, as well as involving the communities around the gardens will be key to preservation.
"The younger generation has to know they belong to a rich historical past," said M Saleem Beg, convener of INTACH's Jammu & Kashmir chapter. "I am also very concerned that if our generation does not address this issue the loss will be very quick, and it will be an irretrievable loss."
Beg, who recalls traveling by boat to visit the gardens as a boy, speaks of a potential loss of physical structures along with that of culture and identity. Having global validation of their history would help restore dignity and revive Kashmiris' confidence in the region's cultural depth, he said.
Another benefit the UNESCO selection could yield is the conservation of the surrounding forests and water bodies. Scientists and environmentalists have recently been sounding the alarm about the detrimental effects of deforestation and increasing pollution in the lake - alongside climate change - on the ecosystem and wildlife in the valley. The INTACH team has to delineate a "buffer zone" around the gardens that would also have to be protected if they were to become a World Heritage Site.
The longevity of the Mughal gardens has made them a constant amid the changes of the centuries and they have occupied a permanent place in the valley's poetry, according to Kashmiri poet Shafi Shauq.
Shauq, who retired as head of the Kashmiri language department at the University of Kashmir, describes the gardens as a poetic metaphor in people's minds for a "romantic escape, fresh stimulus to live and festivity on the advent of spring".
It's a notion that belies the disquiet typically bred by the precariousness of the political situation. But one that preservationists hope will endure.
"A family picnicking around a sizzling samovar in a sunny corner of a sprawling garden seeks a reassurance that they too have a share of leisure, a share of freedom and right to partake in spontaneity of nature," Shauq said. "The gardens are a symbol of the yearning for peace, prosperity and permanence."