During its heyday, it used to house the ‘stock exchange’ of Kashmir, but the historic Maharaj Gunj market in downtown Srinagar could soon fade away from the collective memory of the people, courtesy official apathy.
The once bustling market, which attracted buyers and sellers from every nook and corner of the valley even as far as central Asia, is now perhaps characterized by the crumbling tomb of the 14th century Kashmir king, Budshah’s mother nearby and the worn out grave of the king himself and his companions.
The historic market was established by the 18th century autocratic ruler of erstwhile J&K state, Maharaja Ranbir Singh, who employed traders from outside the valley mostly from Hoshiarpur, Gujranwala in Pakistan and Amritsar there given their hold on language, noted Kashmir historian, Dr Abdul Ahad said.
The immigrant traders, who were locally known as “Khaetirs”, went on to become an indispensable part of the historic Maharaj Gunj market, Ahad said.
“As Kashmir’s national language was Persian at the time, there was no one who could write or speak Urdu. Other princely states had Urdu speaking populations and the official language also was Urdu. To fill this communication gap, the Maharaja had to employ the traders from outside,” he noted.
Apart from surface trade, water transport also flourished into and out of the historic market given Maharaj Gunj’s location on the banks of river Jhelum as vegetable and fruit sellers from the city outskirts and even from other districts located along the river banks including Baramulla thronged the market in shikaras laden with the merchandise during dawn hours.
Food grains, aromatic spices, textiles, edible oil, copperware engraved with intricate designs, appealing wicker items- you name it, Maharaj Gunj had it all.
The once bustling market, which used to be the epicentre of trade, is now on the verge of becoming a thing of the past with authorities depriving the old city area of almost every basic essential service including a fire brigade, public transport and a historic dispensary not to talk of developing the place as a heritage market.
The Maharaj Gunj Dispensary adjacent to the Budshah tomb, where renowned doctors of the likes of Dr Ali Jan and Dr Hafizullah used to treat patients in the past, is operating from a makeshift shed for the last six years in the name of “renovation”, which as per locals, has not happened.
The crucial fire brigade has also been shifted from Maharaj Gunj to Nawab Bazar making the congested locality abound with wooden heritage structures vulnerable to fire incidents, which has in fact been demonstrated by the recent incidents wherein property worth lakhs of rupees was gutted.
As per 62-year-old Sheikh Ghulam Qadir, who has been running a dry fruit shop at Maharaj Gunj for the last 40 years, shifting the fire brigade from the area has led to “massive damage” to property over the years.
Sheikh said that a fire incident of December 2019 damaged a major portion of the 120-year-old Kanali Masjid which later had to be repaired at a cost of Rs 50 lakhs. “Had the brigade been nearby, the damage would have been reduced to a large extent,” Sheikh said.
According to Sheikh, the historic Maharaj Gunj market has been neglected by the successive regimes, who, he said, had not provided the area with a parking area for the visitors.
“People who come in their own vehicles have to park their cars far from the market keeping them worried about their vehicles, so they don’t prefer to shop here,” he said.
Sheikh said that the local copper vendors and dry fruit sellers were the only reason the market is surviving. “If it wasn’t for them, this market would have turned to ruins way back”.
Vikas, who runs the 150-year-old garment firm ‘Tirath Ram and Company’ at Maharaj Gunj, echoed Sheikh, saying the historic market has been deprived of basic necessities including electricity, network connectivity and washrooms for the general public. “It doesn’t feel like we are living in the 21st century. The lack of basic facilities here makes us wonder if we are living in the Stone Age,” he said.
Vikas, whose own firm has received the brunt of a fire incident, questioned the logic behind shifting the fire brigade from the congested area more importantly when the area houses old heritage structures made of wood, which are all the more vulnerable to fire.
Abdul Hamid, a local from Maharaj Gunj blamed the authorities for the downfall of the historic market saying successive governments had done nothing on ground besides lip service to revive the pristine glory of the market.
Locals from Maharaj Gunj also rued the dearth of public transport in the area saying the proposal under the ‘Smart City Project’ to augment public transport in Srinagar had failed to take off even after three years of its announcement.
Under the Srinagar Smart City project, one of the proposals included “promoting a variety of transport options-Transit Oriented Development (TOD), public transport and last mile para-transport connectivity.”
However, the administration has failed to resume the said public transport service on the route connecting city center Lal Chowk with Gaw Kadal, Habba Kadal, Fateh Kadal, Khankah-e-Moula and Bohri Kadal area of downtown Srinagar.
More recently, the Regional Transport Office (RTO) Srinagar had on 18th January 2020 issued a notification about the introduction of electric rickshaws under the ‘Smart city’ project to help people in travelling around the city with ease, at a cheaper cost and also keeping the environment greener.
However, more than a year into the notification, the e-rickshaws are nowhere in sight with Assistant Regional Transport Officer (ARTO) Srinagar, Ikramullah Tak saying that two manufacturing companies of the vehicles had been caught in a legal tussle to bag the project.
“Once the dispute between the manufacturers is resolved, we will start the e-rickshaw service in Srinagar including the downtown areas,” Tak said.
But more than any “smart” interventions, it is important to decongest the Maharaj Gunj area, widen the roads, set up parking spaces and augment public transport service in general in downtown Srinagar, President of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF), Mohammad Yasin Khan suggested. “This will help to revive the Maharaj Gunj market and boost the economy,” Khan said.
For now, the majority of the shops at Maharaj Gunj have been turned into godowns due to the drastic reduction in the footfall of visitors, said Bilal Ahmad, a local shopkeeper. “If it goes like this, the few shopkeepers left will also turn their shops into godowns and the once flourishing market will vanish soon, ” Bilal lamented.