By Ufaq Fatima
SRINAGAR: Mahraj Gunj market situated in the heart of old Srinagar used to be the main commercial hub of Kashmir in the bygone years. The market is now withering in terms of its charm and popularity. Few decades earlier, every nook and cranny of Kashmir used to receive the merchandise from this bustling market.
The market located on the banks of Jhelum river was first rechristened and established by the Maharaja Ranbir Singh for the Khatris and traders from Punjab.
Noted Kashmiri scholar Zareef Ahmad Zareef said that the market was previously known as Azbabun Trag before Maharaja Ranbir Singh rechristened it in 1885. He opened the market for Punjabi Khatris who began to live there too.
He traced the handover of market to Khatris to the infamous Amritsar Treaty when Maharaja Gulab Singh bought Kashmir for 75 lakh Nanak Shahi coins. Zareef said that Gulam Singh had taken loan from Khatris for the deal and in lieu of it gave them wholesale markets in capital Srinagar.
“The other motive was to increase the Hindu population in Kashmir,” he said.
The market faced another blow when the armed struggle against Indian rule began in Kashmir. The old city was the epicenter of the armed insurgency.
“During the 1990s, people were scared of going into the interior markets because of killings and disappearances,” Zareef said.
“The area was surrounded by paramilitary bunkers. It was like a war zone and often there were exchanges of fire between the militants the Indian forces,” he said.
Noted historian and dean academics Kashmir University Prof Mohammad Ashraf Wani said “Srinagar was confined to Shehr-e-Khas in the beginning. Then new markets came into being as the population expanded. This cast a shadow over the importance of Maharaj Gunj market. The economic development of people also affected the market as people started moving out of Shehr e Khas,” he observed.
The Pandits and Khatris owned majority of the market and their departure from Kashmir was another big blow to it.
“I remember how this market was a centre of attraction for trade. My costumers have got reduced to half over time. Now people prefer Lal Chowk or Batamaloo markets and Maharaj Gunj which formed the economic base of Kashmir is shrinking day by day,” Muhammad Shafi, a trader said.
“This historic market is now at the verge of extinction. The government is not interesting in its preservation as heritage,” he said.