Out of business: Maharaj Gunj, Kashmir’s erstwhile commercial hub, struggles for existence

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SRINAGAR: Kashmir’s oldest wholesale market Shri Ranbir Gunj or Maharaj Gunj in downtown Srinagar is struggling to withhold its historical significance and commercial importance.
In 1863-64, history has it, Maharaja Ranbir Singh established this wholesale market on the banks of Jhelum to pay off the debt his forefathers owed to non-Muslim traders of Amritsar since the time they had ‘purchased’ Kashmir from the British for 7, 500, 000 rupees. The traders, known as Khaetris, moved to the Valley to claim Maharaja’s offer in return of their loaned capital, and ran their businesses from SR Gunj.
Mainly, edible-oil, salt, tea, and textiles were water-transported in bulk (hence the name Gunj, which means bulk) to this market from outside the state. And from here, it was distributed to retailers across the Valley for sale.
Cut to 2014. Maharaj Gunj, as the market is known locally, stands as a ruined witness to economic, social and turbulent political history of Kashmir.
Until recently, a 20-year-old bunker, manned by paramilitary BSF or CRPF from time to time, existed close to an entrance of the market via Saraf Kadal. As a scary reminder of the Valley’s bloody recent past, the bunker was the foremost eye-catcher for shoppers and visitors to the market before it was removed last year.
Now, it is the market’s busy first lane adjacent to Budshah’s Tomb or Mazar-e-Salateen (Graveyard of Sultans) that greets visitors to its network of lanes and by-lanes.
From close to Aali Kadal (a bridge over Jhelum), it turns backwards as a parallel second street. And the two lanes together with several interlinking, parallel by-lanes constitute Maharaj Gunj minus an adjoining system of lanes that stretches up to old Zaina Kadal.
Many find it like a workbook puzzle.
“Every time I visit this market, I kind of get lost here. So many lanes and by-lanes. Structure of this market is like the ‘find-your-way-out’ puzzle we used to solve in schools,” young Asif Ali Wani of Bohri Kadal, a regular visitor to the market, told Kashmir Reader.
Primitive buildings characteristic of the Maharaja era are dotting the market. Each building has two floors made up of stones, Maharaja bricks, lime or mud; and their wooden roofs are supported by the bulky, round pillars.
At the market’s centre is a square-shaped park surrounded by primitive structures on three sides and a renovated building towards the river end. Several shops and godowns in these buildings are abandoned now, and are protected by wide, colossal wooden doors locked with long bars of iron. The buildings still bear the Suryavanshi mark—reminiscent of the religious affiliations of the makers of this place.
Khaetris, who owned almost the entire market until Partition of 1947, resided in the upper floors of these buildings; from the shops downstairs they operated their businesses.
“I was too young back then to have memories of that period,” says Sheikh Ghulam Mohammad, a local who owns a footwear shop in the market.
“My father used to tell me that all these shops and godowns were owned by Khaetris. In 1947, when Maharaja left Kashmir, most of the Khaetris gave up their businesses. The ones staying put, left when the militancy broke out in 1989. Almost all traders here now are local Muslims,” says another local businessman Tariq Ahmad.
Tariq isn’t witness to the big boats bringing in and carrying away the goods from Maharaj Gunj in good old days when Jhelum was the chief connecting link to the city. His memory is reduced to carts transporting goods to and from the market through roadways in the later years.
“I used to see them (carts) come and go in my childhood,” he says with a smile.
“In the park at the centre,” he continues, pointing in direction of the park, “traders used to gather on every Friday for auction of the wool brought from different places. It used to be one fascinating show.”
The only new structures across the market are the ones that have come up in place of their fire-devastated predecessors. Thankfully, most Muslims, who purchased or rented the commercial spaces after Khaetris left, didn’t fiddle with the buildings’ architecture.
Middle aged Meraj-ud-Din took a room on rent in a primitive building in 1976 from its Muslim owners who had in turn acquired it from Khaetris. Amused by the architecture, Meraj has been running his shawl business from the unaltered-accommodation, and preferably so.
“I have always liked this architecture, so I have left this place as it was,” Meraj said.
A dimly-lit, wooden stairway leads to Meraj’s workplace on the building’s first floor. Facing Jhelum is a wooden balcony where Meraj dies the shawls while chit-chatting with his friends who come to spend time with him.
“Nobody changed the architecture of this building. And I also believe that renovating it would simply ruin its beauty,” he says.
The market used to be controlled by a Beopar Mandal—the traders body, the office of which still exists on top floors of a three-storey building. The signboard shows 1860, written in Urdu, as its date of establishment.
It is believed to be the first ever Beopar Mandal to have existed in the Valley. Likewise, Maharaj Gunj enjoys distinction of being home to: the first branch of J&K Bank, the first police station (now a police post), the first public health centre, the second branch of Punjab National Bank, and first post-office.
The police post is located behind the Beopar Mandal office; the post office has given way to a fire station, and the former is now housed in a newly constructed building a few yards away from the police post; and the first primary health centre still operates in its initial building only inches away from Jhelum.
When Maharaja Hari Singh’s forces fired, on July 13, 1931, upon the revolting Muslims during trail of Abdul Qadeer, the injured in the incident were shifted to the primary health centre for treatment.
“It was the only health centre available and nearest to the site of incident (Central Jail Srinagar). The bodies of the 22 martyrs were taken to Jamia Masjid, and the injured were shifted to Maharaj Gunj health centre,” Zarief Ahmad Zarief, a social activist and a satirist poet told Kashmir Reader.
Maharaj Gunj also symbolizes communal harmony that has been a significant feature of Kashmiri culture. At a stone’s throw from each other in the market is a gurduwara, a temple, and a mosque. The first two date back to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s time, while the mosque is a later inclusion, says Zarief.
The corner stone mentions 1929 as date of construction of the mosque, which is divided into two halves—a vast praying space and a modified section that once housed a well and washrooms.
“The ground floor of this mosque had become dilapidated; it had almost gone underground. But we renovated it,” a local Ali Muhammad said. “We use the old washroom section as storehouse for firewood. The space at the rare of the masjid has been converted into washrooms.”
The gurduwara, on first floor on a building otherwise consumed in commercial activities, is an archetype of Kashmiris’ art and craft. From wooden door to the ceiling decorated with papier-mâché, everything inside this religious place of Sikhs gives a feel of fine craftsmanship typical of Kashmir. It has a balcony too, where, back in the days of its charm, Sikh women used to pray. But not many people come here nowadays; the place seems a forgotten one.
“It is open on all days, but the people don’t come here. The inflow dies down further during winters. We generally have gatherings on Baisakhi and Basant Panchmi,” Shahandhar Kaur, who along with her husband Bikram Singh has been looking after the gurduwara, said.
The temple is only a few yards behind the gurduwara but much ahead in dilapidation. Known to people as Ram Mandir, the temple remains closed most of the times for not many Hindus live in the Valley, and those visiting as tourists don’t often visit the old city.
If the locals are to be believed, Kashmiri Pandits “always stayed away for this religious place,” but Amarnath Yatra used to commence from here.
“Ram Mandir used to be a place of reverence for Khaetris and non-local Hindus. Kashmiri Pandits used to stay away (from the temple) because they believed that it was built by the people who took interest on loans,” elderly Ghulam Rasool recollects while basking in sunshine on the river bank.
“Amarnath Yatra used to commence from here. A few non-local Hindu priests would start their journey for the Amarnath cave from here only,” Rasool said.
Salt, edible oil, tea, and textiles are not the only good now wholesaled from Maharaj Gunj, but almost every product from eatables to wedding accessories has a stockiest in the market. Towards Budshah’s Tomb is an array of traders dealing with Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), and on the Zaina Kadal side are stockiest of many other products.
However, the market no more enjoys the central status. Since water-transport vanished and trucks replaced the carts on road, the market became an alleged victim of the governments’ negligence.
“This market has almost half a dozen entry roads, but all of them are too narrow for two trucks to pass at-a-time. How do you expect us to transport goods in bulk with such an infrastructure?” asked a trader Abdul Rashid.
“This was a central market because Jhelum provided the much needed connectivity, but the successive governments failed to provide us better roads—a prerequisite for a central market,” he adds.
An idea of the connectivity problems confronting the traders could be had from the fact that old Zaina Kadal, a vital link between market and the city centre, was closed for transport for several months for reasons of renovation. A new road is now coming up towards rare end of the market, but the traders have fingers crossed over its completion and effectiveness.