Tracing the legacy of fires in the valley, from ancient perils to contemporary threats
The onset of the winter season brings frequent fire accidents, as witnessed in Srinagar city and other towns during the past few days, causing heavy damage to property. Most of the fire accidents occur due to either short-circuiting of electric wiring, gas leakage, or negligence by households.
In his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir,’ Walter Lawrence, who served as the settlement commissioner of Kashmir & Jammu province in 1887, writes, “The Kashmiri always gives me the idea that he has just recovered from a fright or that he is daily expecting some great disaster, and hardly a day passes without reference being made to the curse under which the people have fallen and to the sin which gave rise to the curse.” He describes the ravages of fire, floods, famines, cholera, and earthquakes faced by the people, coupled with the menace of “begar”-forced labor and the chakdari system, where the tiller would hardly get sufficient ration to maintain his family’s yearly needs.
It is stated that “the ravages of fire are mostly felt in Srinagar where the wood houses and thatch fall an easy prey to the flames, and when once the fire has started, it is very difficult to stop it. Twice in the time of Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the greater part of Srinagar was burnt down, and before his accession, the city had been destroyed by fire sixteen times. Every man, woman, and child carry a potential instrument for a conflagration in the Kangar, and the beds of straw very quickly start a fire. I have never seen a city so liable to destruction by fire as Srinagar, nor have I ever seen a place in which it was so difficult to stop a fire, although the water of the Jhelum River is so near at hand. In the villages, houses are not crowded together, and though fires often occur, the damage done is quickly repaired.”
According to Mr. Shahid Nabi Wani, a Research Scholar in the Department of History at the University of Kashmir, Hazratbal Srinagar, “Fires have been one of the earliest disasters that Kashmiris witnessed.” The researcher investigates primary sources to know about the fires, causes, impact, and the places where these fires would frequently take place. The researcher gives a chronological description of fires in ancient Kashmir, demonstrating that fires were the result of the building material used and the cold climatic conditions in Kashmir. Sometimes deliberate human acts would also cause fires, as fire was used as a weapon. The researcher demonstrates that sources only discuss those fires which took place around the seat of power.
The sources provide information about nine major fires which occurred in Ancient Kashmir. Hassan writes that when Parvarasen settled the city of Srinagar, there were 36 lakh people inhabiting. Suddenly, due to fire, half of the city towards the north of Koh-i-Maran was reduced to ashes. According to Hassan, at present people dug (writing in the 1880s) up to a depth of 5-6 yards to obtain red-colored samples of soil. Thus, Kashmir has a long history of fires, with the prime cause being the building material used, i.e., ‘wood’ due to its easy availability and earthquake vulnerability. The sources mostly refer to fires in Srinagar city, and the vulnerable area historically known is the ‘Sheri Khas’ area. Fires have occurred in Kashmir mostly because of human interference either directly or indirectly. Being a cold area, the use of fire for heating purposes would cause fire. In the same way, in the case of fighting, wood being vulnerable would catch fire. Also, the use of fire as a weapon would cause fires in Kashmir. There was no concept of fire management in Kashmir, and once set, fires were impossible to stop, gutting entire areas.
Zulchu (Zulqadar Khan), a progeny of Halagu, burnt the city of Srinagar in 724 AH/1324 AD, killed many, and took young people as captives along with his army. During wars, wooden bridges on the river Jhelum used to be burnt by rival forces to stop armies from crossing for attack. Even in the recent past, some bridges like Safakadal and Nawakadal were burnt by miscreants to create disturbances in the peace of the city.
Fires witnessed by Jamia Masjid Srinagar
The mosque has been subject to much destruction until today due to the damage caused by fires. The Mosque was partially or completely destroyed by devastating fires thrice but was restored after every disaster. The existing construction was erected by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1672 C.E. The reconstructions and major renovations in the mosque’s history have been conducted by:
Sultan Sikandar (r. 1389–1413 CE) in 1394 CE (796 AH): The Sultan commissioned the construction of the Mosque in 1394 CE, and it was completed in 1402 CE.
Sultan Hasan Shah (r. 1472–1484 CE) in 1480 CE (885 AH): The first fire that damaged it was in 1479, and the then ruler, Sultan Hasan Shah, immediately began the reconstruction work. He died before the repair work was done, and the task was taken over by Ibrahim Magre, the Commander-in-Chief of Kashmir forces under the rule of Muhammad Shah and Fateh Shah and completed it by 1503 CE.
Jehangir (r. 1605–1627 CE) in 1620 CE (1083 AH): After facing another fatal destruction because of fire during the supremacy of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, the Mosque was reconstructed under an architect-historian based in Kashmir, namely, Malik Haider of Tsodur. The entire repair work took 17 years to complete.
Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707 CE) in 1672 CE: The third fire that distorted the structure was during the reign of Aurangzeb. It is said that when Aurangzeb heard about the accident, he only inquired if the chinars were safe, for ‘the Mosque could be rebuilt in a short time. A full-grown chinar can never be replaced.’ He got together all the bricklayers and masons of the city, and Jama Masjid was restored within three years.
Pertinently, during his reign, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (r. 1420–1470 CE) extended the Mosque and constructed a turret in the primary structure. The last restoration work was carried out under the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh (r. 1885-1925 CE). Singh enthusiastically encouraged the reconstruction of the Mosque many times and even offered financial assistance. However, all the renovations were carried out to reflect the original architecture and to retain the historic value of the Mosque that it has carried through centuries.
During the Chak period (1563-1569 AD), Khankahi Mualla Srinagar, the most revered structure of Muslims, caught fire, which was restored by the efforts of the queen of the time.
John Frederick Foster (1839-1869), an Assistant Surgeon during his stay in 1868, wrote about a Great Fire in his notes published in 1873:
August 26: There was a great fire in the town last night; three hundred houses have been destroyed. I went early to the scene of the disaster, which is on the left bank of the river adjoining the first bridge. The embers were still smoldering, and among the ruins, the heat was intense, owing to the houses having been built almost entirely of wood. Little but ashes and charred logs remained of them. Here and there, a few hot bricks retained the semblance of a wall, but the destruction has been as complete as it is excessive. The bridge has also suffered, the bank pier having been attacked by the flames, and half the railing on either side of the footway has been torn off and precipitated into the water. The latter injury was caused, I imagine, by the rush of the crowd over it at the time of the fire. No lives were lost, I believe.
A more piteous sight I never witnessed, or such wholesale destruction, the city being built almost entirely of wood. The second bridge was burnt right through, thus cutting off from the poor people in the burning quarter all chance of escape except by boat. For a considerable distance between the second and third bridges, there was not the vestige of a house left standing; nothing but a heap of smoldering ruins, including one Hindu temple and a Muhammadan mosque. Just opposite the finest Hindu temple in the city, the gale drove the flames over the river till they reached the outworks of this sacred edifice, which were burnt to the ground. They managed to save all the main body of the temple, whose beautiful silvery-looking roofs, with their gilded cupolas, escaped unhurt. The house in which Young Husband and I had interviewed the Governor two or three days ago was also burnt.
But the scenes enacted on the banks of the river were the most painful. The population seemed to have gone mad. Big strong men raving and being held down by their friends or relatives. Women shrieking and screaming, as only a Kashmiri woman can, wringing their hands and gesticulating wildly at the fire; crowds upon crowds of men, women, and children surging to and fro, one huge helpless affrighted mass, on the landing-steps all down the river; while others seemed so paralyzed with the great ruin that had so suddenly overtaken them that they had relapsed into a sort of comatose state of apathetic indifference.
The whole scene was not lacking in grandeur, although, like everything else, it had its grotesque side as well as its tragic. For instance, I saw one man, whose house was blazing over his head, calmly sitting at his open window pouring water onto some burning wood beneath him out of a teacup.
However, everything must have an end, and by nightfall, the fire was, to all intents and purposes, kept under control, so that all fear for the safety of the rest of the city was at an end. But it was no thanks to the people of the city that the fire was stopped. The natives did absolutely nothing. The fire was arrested, kept under, and eventually extinguished by Europeans, and mostly by Englishmen.
Kashmir has always been interesting and enigmatic. Charles Adolphus Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, was in Srinagar in May 1892 when it went up in flames. Read his firsthand account of the days and nights he spent in Srinagar.
May 7th: A disastrous fire broke out last night in the city, raging all night on the right bank of the river. From our camp, the flames of the burning city were so very distinctly visible that we thought at first it must be the Residency burning, so close did the fire appear to us. The whole sky, for miles around, was lit up with a lurid glare, and as it was blowing a gale at the time, we could see the flames rushing on before the wind as they ruthlessly licked up everything in their path of destruction. We went down early in a boat this morning, as the fire was raging as furiously as ever, there being no means in the city for extinguishing it.
May 9th: The damage done by the fire is computed at twenty lakhs of rupees, and 5000 houses, mosques, and temples have been destroyed.
The Kashmir valley has been affected by 859 wildfires between 2014 and 2018, which engulfed 55,357 kanals of forest area. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has a Forest Fire Management Plan that includes the establishment of fire lines, firebreaks, and fire control rooms, as well as the deployment of firefighting equipment and personnel. A comprehensive forest fire vulnerability assessment of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir has been carried out using actual forest fire incidents from the Jammu and Kashmir state Forest Department for the period 2002–2018 and correlating it with the MODIS satellite fire data (2012–2018).
Some of the recent fires in Srinagar City include:
1993 Lal Chowk fire: On April 10, abandoned bases were set on fire. The fire spread to nearby homes and businesses, and the area was put under curfew. Paramilitary forces arrived and were involved in a shootout that resulted in deaths.
2022 Nigeen Lake fire: In April, seven houseboats were destroyed in a fire on Nigeen Lake. The fire occurred on the outskirts of the city, which is popular with foreign tourists. No one was injured in the incident.
2023 Dal Lake fire: A fire engulfed houseboats in Srinagar’s Dal Lake, killing three tourists. A few days back, a 200-year-old mosque got burnt at Bohri Kadal, soon after another mosque not far off at Saraf Kadal caught fire.
ABOUT FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES, J&K
To combat frequent fire breakdowns, the Fire & Emergency Services, J&K, was established in 1893 as Srinagar Fire Brigade. Some town areas also had their fire brigades with a few men. Earlier, axes were used for hewing planks and rafters of burning buildings, and buckets were used for throwing water. This was later replaced by steam engines, which were made operational by burning firewood to heat up water and were taken to places on carts pulled by firemen. The department initially had 05 Fire Stations and 60 Firemen and is the 3rd oldest Fire Brigade in the country after Mumbai (1803) and Kolkata (1822). It is presently the 4th largest Fire Services in the country.
Some Fire Stations are located in areas where the temperature falls below 30 DegC, and the Services have the pride of having a Fire Station established at the highest altitude of 11,500 ft at Leh known as the “Roof of the World.” The motto of the Services is “We serve to save.”
The department has been renamed as “Fire and Emergency Services, J&K” vide Govt. Order No.Home-196 (Fire) of 2004 dated 08.06.2004. But with the development of new technologies, there is a lot of scope for improvement of the present firefighting system, which needs to be attended to on priority.
The writer is a former Chief Engineer and can be reached at [email protected]
Disclaimer: This article is provided for general informational purposes only. The newspaper assumes no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the content.