Srinagar’s old city (known locally as ‘Downtown’) is a fascinating area to wander around. Once the manufacturing and trade hub of Kashmir, each mohalla (neighbourhood) had its own speciality, such as carpet weaving, goldsmithery and woodcarving. It was said that you could find even the milk of a pigeon in the thriving bazaars and its traders grew rich, building themselves impressive brick and wood houses, in a style that is a charming fusion of Mughal and English Tudor.
In the north of the Old City, on the southern side of the Hari Parbat hill, the Makhdoom Sahib shrine is dedicated to Hazrat Sultan and affords wonderful views of the city. The actual shrine is off-limits to women and non-Muslims, but you can peek through the ornate, carved screen from outside and marvel at the fabulous array of chandeliers.
From Makhdoom Sahib take an auto-rickshaw (or walk 15 minutes) to the Jama Masjid (1674). The mosque is notable for the 370 wooden pillars supporting the roof, each is made from a single deodar tree. The building forms a square around an inner courtyard, with a beautiful fountain and pool at its centre. Its four entrance archways are topped by the striking, pagoda-like roofs that are an important architectural characteristic of the valley’s mosques and shrines. The mosque is famed as the place where the sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammed was kept before being moved to the Hazratbal Mosque.
About 10 minutes’ walk, to the southeast lies the 17th-century tomb of Naqash Band Sahib, a sufi saint. Next to the shrine lie the graves of the ‘martyrs’ who died in the 1931 uprising against the Dogras. They are claimed as heroes by both the state government and the separatists – one of the few things both sides agree on.
Continue further in the same direction and you will reach the Dastagir Sahib shrine, which houses the tomb of Abdul Qazi Geelani. The papier mâché decoration in this friendly shrine is delightful and there is a 300-year-old, giant, handwritten Qu’ran. Watch what you wear; perhaps hailing back to a more permissive age, a sign at the entrance requests visitors “not to enter the shrine naked”!
A minute’s walk away is the peaceful Rozahbal Masjid, which claims to contain the ‘tomb of Jesus’ (Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived in India recounts the legend; also see http://www.tombofjesus.com). Head west, towards the river for the Shah-i-Hamdan Masjid, the site of Srinagar’s first mosque, built in 1395 by Mir Sayed Ali Hamadni. The original building was destroyed by fire, the current structure dating back to the 1730s. The entrance is worth seeing for its exquisite papier mâché work and woodcarving, but non-Muslims are not allowed inside the shrine area.
Facing Shah-i-Hamdan, across the river is the Pattar Masjid (1623), built for the Empress Nur Jahan and renamed Shahi Mosque. Further up the river, on the same side as Shah-i-Hamdan lies the tomb of Zain-ul-Abidin, a sultan of Kashmir. The area, Zaina Kadal, is interesting to walk around – carved copperwork is still produced here and you can see the craftsmen at work. It’s the best place to buy your souvenir samovar....
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