Author: Jana Kaul
A view of Srinagar, 1872 is a painting by Bishan Singh.
In 1872, the masterpiece painting shown above was created by a renowned Sikh artist from Amritsar, Baba Bishen Singh. Using opaque pigments and gold on paper, he has brilliantly tried to depict the religious, socio-economical, and cultural life around Zaina Kadal in Srinagar, Kashmir. This historical painting shows a snapshot of life around downtown Srinagar, Kashmir during the period when Raja Ranbir Singh, a Dogra Hindu king, ruled Jammu and Kashmir from 1856 till his death in 1885.
The painting provides an insight into the life and traditions in Kashmir on a typical summer day around Zaina Kadal, a bridge originally built in 1427 and named after the Muslim ruler Zain-ul-Abideen Budshah (AD 1420-70). This wooden bridge is one of the most ancient of seven bridges constructed on the Jhelum river. This river is referred to as Vitastā in the Rigveda and Hydaspes (Greek: Υδάσπης) by the ancient Greeks. In Kashmiri, it is called vyeth derived from its original name Vitasta. According to the major religious work, Srimad Bhagavatam, the Vitastā is one of the many transcendental rivers flowing through the land of Bharata, or ancient India. Hindus celebrate the birth date of Vitasta River as ‘Vyeth Truvaha’ and the celebrations take place at Om Vethvathur in Verinag, a district in Jammu and Kashmir.
On the right side of the bridge, stands the famous 14th century mosque Shah-e-Hamadan also known as Khankah-e-Moula. This mosque was built by Sultan Sikandar Shah Miri, famously known as Sikandar Butshikan. Butshikan means “destroyer of idols”. This mosque is believed to be built on top of the ancient Hindu Kali temple. Kashmiri Hindus continued to pay their obeisance to the goddess Kali as the saffron-marked wall is what is left of the Kali temple and it remains under lock within the premises of the mosque.
According to the historian Fergusson, the masjid of Shah Hamadan, although small, “is interesting, in the first place, because its roof is probably very similar to that which once covered the temple at Martand, and the crowning ornament is a reminiscence of a Buddhist Tree (the umbrella-shaped finial of a Dagobah) very much altered, it must be confessed, but still not so very unlike some found in Nepal, as at Swayambunath, for instance and elsewhere.” At the behest of Sayyid Ali Hamadani, his son Sayyid Muhammad Hamdani came to Kashmir in 1393. Sultan Sikandar had let loose a reign of unprecedented terror against the Hindu population. “To him”, writes the author of Baharistan-i-Shahi, “goes the credit of wiping out the vestiges of infidelity and heresy from the mirror of the conscience of the dwellers of these lands”, adding that “immediately after his arrival, Sikandar Shah Miri submitted to his religious supremacy and proved his loyalty to him by translating his words into deeds”.
From the painting, it is apparent that Hindus freely and openly prayed during the Dogra rule, compared to the restrictions during the earlier Muslim rule. The scene depicted in the painting looks like a typical morning at the ghats (river banks) of Vitasta. The openness and the ease of practicing Hindu faith, wearing traditional gear, and embracing dharma paint a happy picture showing religious freedom for Hindus.
One of the men on the river bank is seen doing tarpan, which is a Hindu ritual of offering water to one’s deceased ancestors while reciting mantras. Another man is seen applying the traditional tilak on his forehead. This was typically done during or after performing the morning prayers. Another man is seen sitting on the ghat, perhaps praying or practicing pranayama. He is wearing the traditional loincloth (Shrann-patt) attached to a string (aet pann), worn along the waist to symbolically separate the body into “pure” & “impure” portions.
On the river banks (ghats), some commonly used but unique Kashmiri clothing and footwear can be seen. The footwear is of two types: wooden sandals known as khraaw and slippers made of grass & twigs known as pulhour in Kashmiri.
The Hindu women are seen wearing long cloak-type garments called pheran (derivative of the Sanskrit word pravarn) worn with an inner lining made of white cotton called potch. The pheran used by women had wide sleeves, overturned and fringed with brocaded or embroidered stripes. Women in the picture are seen to be wearing Taranga (female headgear), which symbolizes the decorative hood of the celestial serpent (nag) with a flowing serpentine body tapering into a double tail almost reaching the heels of the wearer. It is made of a cap called Kalaposh, and a delicate cloth topped by embroidery motifs called zoojye. The taranga headgear comprises three narrow and continuous wraps around the head; the final wrap has moharlath, which is starched and glazed over with an agate-stone, crystal or a soft giant shell. In the painting, women are also seen wearing their traditional ear accessories called Dejehor, the golden hexagonal pendants suspended via gold chains or silk threads which have traditions in the Tantric Shaivism.
Many men on the ghats as well as on the bridge are seen wearing the traditional headgears or turbans. The turbans worn by Muslims & Hindus were not too different except that Hindus did not wear a skull cap inside.
Some people can be seen busy with their daily morning chores on the bridge. A lady is seen carrying a wicker basket apparently full of Kashmiri haakh (collard greens). Another person, perhaps a washerwoman, is seen carrying a bundle of clothes, and another person is seen carrying firewood & twigs. There are people overlooking a Shikara boat, which is most likely carrying a tourist foriegn couple.
The beautiful view of the spire of the Ram Temple, the nearby tomb of the Badshah’s mother, and houses overlooking the river, add to the beauty of the place.
This picture shows life to be happy during Raja Ranbir Singh’s rule. There is a Kashmiri saying that goes “Vyeth rozi pakkan”. It means Vyeth will continue to flow. Much water has flown since this painting was made. Rulers changed, cultures evolved, people changed but Vyeth kept flowing and will continue to flow.
Note: SAHF does not endorse all the views of the author, and the author does not endorse all views of SAHF.