The valley of Kashmir forms part of ]ammu and Kashmir, the northernmost State of the Indian Union. The state covers an area of about 222,000 km2 of mountain territory extending from 32°17’ to 36°58’ North and from 73°26’ to 80°30’ East. The valley is about 135 km in length and 30-40 km in breadth, and has an average altitude of 1800 m. above sea level. To the North, East and West, the valley is surrounded by the inner ranges of the Himalaya Mountains, while to the South, it is bounded by the Pir Panjal range of the Middle Himalayas. Kashmir shares strategic borders with China, Pakistan and Russia. In ancient times, it was an important halting place along the Silk Routes joining the plains of India to Central Asia. The people of Kashmir have developed over time a mixed culture, having experienced successively, and sometimes together, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian influences. The valley enjoys a temperate climate with four major seasons and a fair amount of snowfall in the winter months. The capital city, Srinagar, records a variation in temperature from - 10°c in winter to 39°c in summer.
Srinagar is said to have been founded around the 2nd century B.C. by the Emperor Asoka. The present form of the city, spread along both sides of the river Jhelum, is a result of development in the last six hundred years. The spatial structure of Srinagar city has evolved as a close fit with the topographical features and water bodies. The two hills of Hari Parbat and Shankaracharya, the river Jhelum and the Dal Lake are the main generators for the physical form of the city - the most densely built-up portion being along the river. A network of canals extend the city structure inland from the river’s edge, and further habitation spread up to the base of Hari Parbat. Later extensions have spread to the edge of Dal Lake and the base of Shankaracharya Hill and beyond. It is the development along the river that presents the most characteristic and memorable features of the urban form of Srinagar. The main movement spine is formed by the river and parallel streets on both banks, connected across by ten bridges - seven of which are traditional wooden structures while three are of reinforced concrete built in the latter half of this century. There is a significant difference in planning principles between the old settlement extending from the first bridge downriver and the newer development upriver towards Zero bridge. In the traditional pattern, the river’s edge is defined by the buildings standing on retaining walls rising out of the water; the street parallel to the river runs behind the buildings, with narrow cross lanes going at right angles and descending in a series of steps down to the level of the water. The new development upstream, which has taken place in this century, reverses the traditional pattern by having the road on a raised embankment along the river’s edge with the buildings set back after the road.
This change has, no doubt, come about with the importation of European town-planning ideas into Kashmir, and the exaggerated importance given to automobile traffic. In sharp contrast to these new areas, the old city provides a finely woven and contextually rich urban form on a human scale. River-borne traffic alights at wide flights of steps (known as ghats), regularly spaced along the banks, rises up through the cross lanes which give entrance to the houses through private open courtyards and gardens, and meets up with the parallel streets which have shops lining both sides and which distribute the traffic by vehicular modes to the rest of the city. The ghats along the river’s edge become major community open spaces where the daily activity of bathing and washing takes place associated with the houses, temples and mosques on the river-front. Each community or individual identifies with a particular ghat which they patronize, and there is hardly a river-front which is left unused or neglected.
Thus, the main artery of the city follows the path of the river; the vehicular street is not built at the edge of the river but enclosed by buildings on both sides for protection from cold and wind. The activities along the riverbank are related to the ghats which are at many places only a building’s width away. The linkage with the ghats and the provision of river transportation at frequent intervals make these streets the major commercial axis, with important bazaars and other business activities flourishing along them. The junctions of the various bridges with the main spine provide the hub of such commercial activity and thus become important landmarks on the urban scene.
A unique feature of the Jhelum river-front is the housing for low-income families in boats, moored along the river’s edge. These boats, called doongas, have an all-wooden superstructure with several rooms in a linear arrangement. Rooms are all multi-functional except for the kitchen at one end, which is function-specific. The walls are of timber panelling inserted between frames. Some sections of the panelled inserts can be slid out of the frames to serve as windows. Roofs are gabled and covered with wooden shingles, with the ridge running along the length of the boat. Some sections of the roof are hinged along the ridge and can be lifted up along the eaves by means of a short wooden pole. This serves to ventilate the inside as well as to exhaust the smoke from the kitchen and other charcoal burning stoves which are used to warm the interior of the doonga. Better-off families sometimes have two-storeyed doongas. The river’s edge is thus defined in a number of ways - by the continuous line of doongas moored along it and clustering especially around the ghats; by the ghats with their flights of stone steps widening out from the narow cross lanes as they descend to the water; and by monumental stone retaining walls rising straight out of the water, making a stable and unified pedestal for the variety of delicate timber-framed-and-brick buildings fronting the river. The buildings are interspersed at intervals by gardens hanging over the edge of the retaining wall, providing colourful punctuation in the built fabric. The gardens are an important element in the open space pattern between buildings. For smaller houses, which cannot afford the luxury of a garden on the river face, there are small courtyards around which a number of dwellings will be grouped and which provide the entrance from the cross lanes linking the shopping street to the riverside ghats. Thus, there is an intricately woven and well-sheltered open-space structure which gives access as well as light and ventilation to the tightly clustered buildings.
The dense pattern of the built fabric is further enriched by a mixing of activities and functions. Houses, temples, mosques, schools, shops and even showrooms for handicraft products are all accommodated within the structure of streets, ghats and river’s edge. The patterning of the built form is remarkable for being able to integrate the different functions in a shared discipline, becoming an example of community architecture at its best.
The buildings are generally three or four story high, with basements contained within the retaining walls along the riverside. The facades on the river-front form the primary expression of the character and status of the house owners. There is an almost endless variation in the treatment of the facades, reflecting the heterogeneity of the residents - from the wealthy land-owning families to rich merchants and traders to middle-and lower-income people. Even the itinerant boat-dwellers lining the river’s edge at the base of the retaining walls form an integral pan of the riverside facade, giving added variety and a human scale to the long length of the river-front.
The houses, both large and small, follow a similar pattern of internal organization. The plans are generally squarish, so that a minimum of external wall is exposed to the elements and heat is conserved in the long cold winter. The rooms are multi-functional with the ground floor serving more public uses, more intensively so in the summer months. The upper floors are more private and tend to be used more in winter. The steeply sloping roofs allow for a large room in the attic with dormer windows, which gene rally occupies the entire floor and is used for family gatherings and festive occasions.
The predominant building material is wood, which has always been in abundant supply in the valley. The earliest houses have a timber-frame superstructure with brick-tile infill, which is plastered and painted. More recent buildings use load-bearing brick masonry for the superstructure, and foundations in both cases are of the local grey-coloured quartzite. Buildings along the river-front are constantly being renovated and sometimes rebuilt, and in the last twenty years or so reinforced concrete has also begun to be used for the structural frame and foundations. The roofs are always steeply sloping, often in several different directions, to throw off the snow. Until the early years of this century, the roofs were constructed of wooden planks laid over with sheets of birch bark to make them water-tight and a layer of specially prepared soil or earth was spread over the birch bark to keep it in place and for insulation. White and violet lilies and red tulips grew on these roofs, creating a most colourful roofscape in the spring. Unfortunately, now all this has been replaced by corrugated galvanised-iron sheets which of course require little maintenance but have hardly any insulation value and certainly not the aesthetic appeal of the traditional roofing technique.
Kashmiri craftsmen have developed their skills mainly in working with wood, and this is evident in the architecture of the river-front. The predominant and characteristic use of timber in these buildings is one of the main reasons for the stylistic coherence of the entire river-front development. The façade of each building has its own particular treatment, yet when viewed from the river the overall effect is one of proportional harmony. This is all the more remarkable considering that the buildings were built at different times and there are no written rules of elevational control. Undoubtedly, the artisans and craftsmen who built these buildings are pan of a cohesive and traditional com munity of builders who have worked over generations according to commonly understood codes of construction.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the houses are the bay windows cantilevered from the main faces and suspended over the river. These are constructed by the simple and direct technique of extending over the floor joists and enclosing the three-sided or five-sided alcoves with windows all round. These alcoves form window-seats in the main rooms of the house, and the exterior face is enlivened by the pattern of boldly arranged projections. The roof forms, sloping in different directions and sometimes having small pavilions projecting above the main roof, add to the visual excitement of the whole ensemble. The interiors of these buildings also have details in woodwork which have been maintained consistently over generations. The typical false ceiling in wood is a prime example. Made of small slats of wood, joined together in a manner reminiscent of weaving, set in geometric patterns of remarkable complexity and beauty, these ceilings are the principal decorative elements of the for mal rooms in a house. The decorative quality and skill of the craftsmanship is perhaps best revealed in the delicately carved wooden-latticed shutters, used with traditional windows. Keeping the windows open and the latticed shutters closed, a woman can sit in the privacy of the rooms while being able to see through the latticed screen into the busy street or the river below.
This great resource of traditional craftsmanship is now, sadly, disappearing quite rapidly. Many of the houses on the river-front are not being maintained in a good state of repair as families move out to detached houses set behind high compound walls in the suburbs. The pressures of modernisation have unfortunately produced distortions which obscure the traditional urban values which found elegant expression in the river-front development. It is, however, clear that this development is one of the more beautiful examples of community architecture and urban planning that still exist in India.