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The Maarak and the tradition of imambadas in kashmir.

MUHARRAM, THE FIRST MONTH OF THE MUSLIM CALENDAR, MARKS A SERIES of mourning ceremonies (majalis), processions (jalus) and prayers witnessed at the Maarak, the historic imambada of Kashmir. Over the centuries this imambada became a symbol of the Shi'a identity of Kashmir. The singularly chequered history of the Maarak marks both the rise and fall of Shi'a power in the region as well as the continuity of an architectural tradition that evolved in Kashmir for the first time in the 16th century.

Traditionally, the building of the imambada and the rituals enacted therein represent a synthesis of a universal pan-Islamic culture and folk traditions relating to the theme of death and remembrance prevalent in Kashmir. Historically, till its reconstruction in the 20th century, the building also marked an enduring visual link between a past and a rapidly changing urbanscape in the city of Srinagar (figure 2).

The First Imambada in Kashmir

It was during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah (r. 1517-25 ce) that his powerful Shi'a Prime Minister, Malik Kaji Chak (d. 1545) built the Maarak, the earliest imambada in Kashmir, at Zadibal in the capital Srinagar. (1) Historically the imambada at Zadibal can be seen as one of the first such buildings to be constructed on the Indian subcontinent. The etymological origin of its more widespread name "Maarak" is said to be the Persian word, marika (lit. battlefield). (2)

While a nascent Shi'a community had existed in Kashmir since the beginning of Muslim rule, it was only in the 15th century that members of the community started acquiring political power. This new quest for power and conversion was mostly based on the missionary activities of the Nurbakshiya saint, Mir Shams-ud-din Iraki (d. 1525) and the rising clout of the Chak clan, whose members had been converted to the Shi'a creed by Iraki. The marriage of ideology and power epitomized by the Nurbakshiya order and the Chak dynasty would soon result in the setting up of Shi'a rule in 1554 under the Chaks. (3) The building of the Maarak marks the beginning of a transition in the history of the Shi'a community of Kashmir, from the periphery to the centre of power and patronage.

The imambada was constructed in an area that served as the nucleus of the Nurbakshiya activities in Kashmir. Both the khanqah (meditation hall of a Sufi order) as well as the shrine of Mir Shams-ud-din are a part of this mohalla or locality of Srinagar. Located on the banks of Khushalsar Lake, between Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin's (r. 1420-70) erstwhile capital of Naushahr and the more historic older parts of Srinagar city, Zadibal with the Maarak at its heart has since then served as the focus of Shi'ite cultural and religious activities in the region. As with most Islamic religious buildings, the imambada was created as an endowment (wakf) whose maintenance rested with a branch of the powerful Iraki family (figure 1). (4)

Architectural Vocabulary

Till its reconstruction in 2001 the Maarak at Zadibal retained its position as the oldest historical imambada of Kashmir. Though it had been rebuilt numerous times previously, it is evident from the imambada as it stood prior to its demolition in 2001, as well as from oral traditions preserved within the community, that each of these previous reconstructions adhered strictly to the original plan dating back to the 16th century. Forming the prototype for all major imambadas built in Kashmir, the building was based on a courtyard plan historically associated with the Iranian mosque--a plan in which a central open court is surrounded by prayer halls (iwan) on all four sides. This was a form that had been adopted in Kashmir for the design of the principal mosque of the region, the Jamia Masjid (c. 1402) at Srinagar. Given the impressive scale of the Jamia Masjid (117 x 115 m) and the deep cultural links between Kashmir and Iran, one can assume that the courtyard plan weighed heavily on the builders while constructing Kashmir's first imambada (figure 3).

Unlike a mosque with its need to accommodate linear rows of worshippers and the resulting rectangular shape, the square form associated with the courtyard plan was functionally in tune with the ritual of enacting the Kashmiri elegy (marthiya). In Kashmir the marthiya is recited by a zakir (the lead vocalist) and his troupe of reciters (peskhawn) along with the whole assembly of mourners who may number in thousands, comprising both men as well as women. In both private as well as public congregation, the mourners sit on the floor in concentric rings, with the central circle (dhia'ra) of the peskhawns acting as the focal point of the entire assembly. The zakir himself remains standing, moving amongst the crowds of mourners from one end to another, theatrically instilling in the entire congregation a deep feeling of sorrow and sadness. The more elaborate ceremonies enacted in the imambadas have fixed times and spots for different zakirs, a practice which is in vogue even today virtually unchanged (figure 4).

The architectural form of the imambada also suits the recital of marthiya amongst the mourners. A slightly raised and covered central square courtyard (pokher) easily accommodates the concentric rings of the main assembly. The pokher is in turn demarcated by a parallel ambulatory space running on all four sides, for individuals as well as processions to move without disturbing the assembled mourners. This ambulatory space, known as ghulam gardish, is in turn surrounded by a two-storeyed block of galleries or dalans. Traditionally the ghulam gardish is never covered with a roof. The dalan on the ground floor serves as an open gallery looking onto the pokher (figure 5). Generally it is raised on a slightly higher plinth than the pokher so as to provide a clear line of vision into the main assembly. The dalan with its varusi-like feature, comprising an open wooden arcade with delicate wooden cusped arches, imparts a sense of light and openness to the pokher. The gallery on the upper floor overlooking the pokher is reserved for women and is screened off from public view by wooden pinjrakari (latticework). Overall the effect is that of a centrally planned square (the pokher) with all other spaces opening into this part of the building.

At the old Maarak which dated back to the reconstruction of 1872, the outer dimensions of the building were 22.86 x 22.86 m (see figure 3X5 The roof of the pokher (15.24 x 15.24 m) was supported on 36 wooden columns 7.6 m in height, a free-standing wooden structure, in itself an architectural marvel. The ghulam gardish was 2.1 m wide while the most conspicuous feature of the surrounding dalan was an array of 113 ornamental wooden columns supporting a low ceiling. To provide for a better view of the pokher, the 3.6 m wide dalan was on two levels with a step.

The building had four principal gateways (deedhs), centrally located along the four cardinal directions. Overall the various entrance doorways to the building were as much associated with specific ritual paths as with the surrounding urban morphology based on community and family linkages. Originally the main entrance doorway to the building was from the rear, on the western side facing the qibla (the direction of Mecca), at a place which would traditionally in a mosque mark the mehrab niche. The reason for this unique location of the main entrance door was that until the mid-20th century public access to the building was from the western side along the Khushalsar Lake. Also historically, unlike many other imambadas, the Maarak was generally never used for the purpose of congregational prayer (nimaz-i-jamat). Individuals desiring to perform nimaz would normally do so in the central pokher.

A second doorway on the southern side facing a narrow street was used exclusively by women (see figure 2). Given the deep prevalence of purdah within the Shi'a community of Srinagar, the singular use of this doorway by women also ensured complete segregation of the sexes during the enactment of a highly public ritual drawing a large number of devotees. A double-storey small annexure on this side added during the early 20th century was used as a taziya khana (housing the taziya or relics), and the staircase was in this part of the building. This room was screened off from the rest of the building by a delicate varusi (wooden screen). The zawiyya, another part of the dalan, on the opposite side facing the taziya khana, was used to house the standards (alam) and a strand of sacred hair (moi-i-pak) said to be of Imam Hussein.

Traditionally the northern deedh was mostly used by members of the Maarakdar family--a privilege enjoyed by them in their capacity as custodians of the imambada. The gateway, on the eastern side was added to the building in the 20th century when a number of houses belonging to Maarakdars in the vicinity were acquired and added to the forecourt of the building (sahn). Since then this gateway has served as the principal entrance to the building.

The interiors of the Maarak, like most other shrines and mosques of the region, were not permeated with natural light. In fact, there was a marked contrast between light and shade as sunlight filtered through the narrow pinjrakari wooden shutters with their intricately detailed geometric patterns (figure 6). This interplay of light and shade in imambadas was at times heightened by the contrast between the richly coloured papier-mache ceiling, the dark tone of the forest of wooden columns and the sombre earthy colour of the mud-plastered walls (see figure 5). Before the wooden columns and the varusi screens of the Maarak were painted in the post-Independence period, the woodwork with its rich tones imparted by age must have added to the grandeur of the interiors. Also reflected is the preference of the builders for the traditional Kashmiri colour palette broadly comprising pastel shades with a predominance of greens and blues, referred to as "sufiyana rang" as opposed to the vibrant reds and yellows which are simply termed "teez rang" or fast colour. This colour preference is also seen in the interiors of some of the older residential buildings of the city elite, wherein floral and geometrical patterns in hues of blue and green are painted on the earthy background of brown mud-plaster.

Unlike Iranian mosques where the side halls (liwans or dalans) comprise arcades of masonry pillars supporting the domed or vaulted ceiling, the Kashmiri builders adopted a trabeate system wherein a flat wooden ceiling is supported on wooden beams and columns. This feature is found uniformly in all religious buildings associated with Islam in Kashmir. Given the abundance of wood as a building material and the warmth associated with it, the use of complicated and time-consuming masonry vaults and domes never found favour with local builders.

At the Maarak the wooden columns supporting the ceiling depicted a multiplicity of forms; octagonal plain columns were as much a part of the order as were the more ornate baluster columns which owed their origin to the Mughal period (17th century). The multi-cusped arches in the wooden varusi also traced their roots to the Mughals and had become a regular feature of Kashmiri architecture by the 19th century. Ornamental wooden column bases, dual capitals, as well as composite pillars were a part of this rich architectural vocabulary which also included decorative khatamband and was-talav work in parts of the ceiling. The former comprises small pieces of wood fitted together in geometrical patterns; the latter a more basic arrangement of wooden joists and ceiling planks enriched by carved wooden mouldings.

The ceiling of the double-height pokher was decorated in papier-mache (figure 7) with a wooden khatamband dome in the centre. Historically the papier-mache craft (kar-i-munaqash) was exclusively associated with the Shi'a community of Srinagar. The papier-mache work at Maarak was probably the finest representation of this art form used in the decoration of a building and prior to the demolition would have been the oldest extant example in Kashmir. (6)

Externally the building facade was based on a uniform arcade of two rows of small arches in brick masonry, an element that all imambadas share (see figures 2, 10 and 11). Interestingly this feature also traces its roots partly to the Jamia Masjid of Srinagar. The roof of the courtyard (pokher) was a multi-tiered pyramidal structure surmounted by a square wooden pavilion. The steep spire, the most conspicuous feature of Kashmiri wooden architecture which normally surmounts the pavilion, had been damaged and replaced with a more modest pyramidal roof. The surrounding dalans were also covered with a double-pitched hipped roof at a level lower than the main roof of the pokher. Overall the outer appearance of the building was that of a self-contained, low-lying, earth-hugging horizontal composition, screening (much like the pinjrakari in the window openings) the architectural richness of the building interiors.

Of Wazirs, Sultans, Merchants and Patronage

Following its construction by Kaji Chak, the Maarak was burnt down in 1545 by the Mughal conquistador Mirza Haider Dughlat, during his quasi-independent rule of Kashmir. (7) The fall of Dughlat at the hands of a Chak-led insurgency led to the reconstruction of the imambada during the premiership of Dawlat Chak (1551-54). (8) Thereafter the building was repeatedly burned down due to the prevailing political instability and sectarian tensions in the region. (9)

Unfortunately, not much is known about the people who were responsible for the reconstruction of the Maarak during Mughal rule in Kashmir. Though a number of Shi'a nobles in the Mughal court served as subedars (governors) of Kashmir, no historical record of their involvement with the reconstruction of the imambada exists.

Prior to the commencement of Mughal rule in Kashmir, the Shi'a community had been mostly engaged as soldiers while the vast majority of the merchant and artisan classes were Sunni. (10) With the establishment of Mughal sovereignty and changing political circumstances in the region, the Shi'a community increasingly took to trade, literature and the arts, something in which they made their mark. In the absence of royal patronage it was mostly this new-found mercantile wealth, centred on the highly lucrative shawl trade, that supplied the patronage for repeated reconstruction of the imambada.

In the 19th century (1830) the reconstruction of the Maarak was financed by Hakim Mehdi Khan, (11) the Kashmiri Prime Minister at the court of the Shi'a Nawab of Awadh, Nasir-ud din Shah (r. 1827-37). With the formation of the Awadh state a number of Shi'a scholars and men of letters had migrated there, and occupied high positions at the court. (12) Maintaining their links with Kashmir, the Shi'a diaspora at Awadh and in other parts of the subcontinent continued to be deeply involved with community activities in Kashmir. In his reconstruction of the Maarak, Hakim Mehdi utilized the services of a Srinagar-based Iranian merchant Hajji Baqir who had married into the family of the Maarakdars. Sharing a common faith, other Iranian merchants engaged in the highly lucrative Kashmiri shawl trade also provided financial support to local community activities. At the end of Sikh rule in Kashmir, during the governorship of Sheikh Ghulam Mohyi-ud-din (d. 1845), another Iranian merchant Hajji Aabid financed repairs to the imambada. Similarly, prominent Kashmiri shawl merchants Hajji Safdar Baba and Mirza Muhammad Ali were involved in the repairs of 1858. Mirza Muhammad Ali also organized the first mourning procession (jalus) on the day of Ashura, from his haveli at Namchabal to the Maaralc. (13)

The Maarak and the Ritual of Azza

The procession of Ashura commemorating Imam Husain's martyrdom on the tenth day of Muharram marks the high point of the Muharram ceremonies. Traditionally during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the event used to commence after morning prayers and was initially limited to a sombre, small event that passed through various parts of the older city before culminating at the Maarak. Gradually the procession started imbibing external influences, mostly introduced by Kashmiri shawl traders who used to travel to Awadh, Peshawar and Calcutta. The addition of taziyas, Zuljinahs, (14) alams and nohas (short elegies) to the procession trace their roots to the culture of Awadh (figure 8).

At the Maarak, daily majalis and recitation of marthiyas are a routine during the initial ten days of Muharram. Processions starting from adjoining localities with definite dates and routes culminate at the imambada. Aside from the Ashura two major events at the Maarak take place on Chelum and As'ad, on which days hundreds of thousands of people from different parts of Kashmir arrive at the imambada for daylong majalis. Majalis are also held on the death anniversary of the Prophet and various prominent Shi'ite imams.

Aside from these major ceremonies are the daily rituals linked to community life. The tying and untying of pieces of cloth or sacred knots (daashi) undertaken as vows is as much a part of this daily ritual as distributing cooked turmeric rice (tehri), feeding pigeons or lighting candles and incense sticks. Reading the Quran, performing prayers or simply beseeching God with raised hands and wailing voices are scenes that can be observed here, as at other major shrines in Kashmir.

The Maarak as the Historical Prototype

In 1858 Mirza Muhammad Ali, the shawl merchant who was engaged in repairs to the Maarak, developed differences with the custodians of the imambada. Piqued when his request favouring a zakir was turned down by the custodians and the community elite, he decided to construct an alternative chamber of mourning, a new imambada. (15) While there were many small neighbourhoods spread throughout the city that were inhabited by members of the Shi'a community, his choice fell upon Hassanabad.

Located on the banks of the Nadiyar water channel, this mohalla, which had been named in honour of the Nurbakshiya saint Baba Hassan, had developed as a secondary centre of the Shi'a community in Srinagar. A lchanqah, shrine and sarai (resthouse for travellers) had been constructed here by the Chak sultans, though all traces had been lost by the 19th century. During Mughal rule, the Shi'a subedar Zaffar Khan Ahsan had also constructed a garden at Hassanabad, (16) where Muharram majalis used to be held in tents specially erected for the purpose. An attempt to construct an imambada here had fallen foul of the Afghan rulers, who had burnt down the semi-built structure in 1788. (17)

The imambada (29.1 x 29.1 m) that Mirza commissioned at Hassanabad resembles the Maarak in all its essential features. The central pokher (15 x 15 m) like that of the Maarak is supported on an array of deodar-wood columns and surrounded by a 2.6-m-wide ghulam gardish (see figures 3 and 5). Centrally located gateways on the southern, northern and eastern sides provide access to the building, while a mehrab is to be found on the western facade, the only significant departure from the Maarak. The side galleries with their wooden columns, papier-mache ceilings (figure 9) and varusi screens resonate with the architectural language as employed at the Maarak. On the outer facade the most significant departure lies in the presence of a wooden dome in place of the more traditional spire over the pokher, a feature which is not coeval with the original construction but dates to repairs that were carried out in the 20th century (figure 10).

The construction of an imambada at Budgam (27.5 x 27.5 m) in 1897 forms the first such development that took place outside of Srinagar city and the last major construction in this genre that was undertaken in the 19th century. (18) The building, which witnessed considerable reconstruction in the 20th century, again follows the same architectural vocabulary as at the Maarak. The only major deviation at the Budgam imambada would be the practical replacement of the doorways from the middle to the corner of the building, which were consequently chamfered out. This basic modification resulted in the creation of uninterrupted linear galleries overlooking the pokher running along all four sides. The papier-mache work on the ceiling also employed a bolder colour scheme, not seen previously (figure 12). Yet, in spite of such variations, the overall form and the atmosphere of the building mark the structure as an integral part of the imambada genre best represented by the Maarak.

The construction of a major imambada at Ahmedpora (36.5 x 30.5 m), as well as many other mohalla-level imambadas in the post-Independence period, was again based on the design of the Maarak, marking the permanence and success of a design that had evolved four centuries before (figure 11). The quintessential Kashmiri character of this genre of buildings was rooted in the collective memory of the land itself, its way of mourning and its traditions of building crafts.

Contemporary Trends

The tradition of Kashmiri imambadas as represented by the Maarak may be seen as a physical manifestation of a syncretic culture based on community patronage and preference, which in the end ensured its survival even in the face of an adverse political climate.

Yet the historic Maarak with its forest of wooden columns, exposed masonry walls, papier-mache ceiling and latticework was demolished in 200119 to make way for a modern cement-concrete building with dome and minarets--features alien to the architectural vocabulary of the region. The new design with its pan-Islamic image is unlike any Kashmiri experience, yet it is also reflective of a fast-emerging trend wherein older historic buildings (especially religious structures) are being demolished. In most cases the new structures that come up are reflective not of Kashmiri architecture but are designed on Mughal, Iranian or even Arabian models. Given the prominence and scale of many of these structures, what we are increasingly witnessing is the reworking of the physical landscape of the region in an architectural idiom lacking any historical continuity or contextual connection with the surroundings.

In a world of rapid globalization and changing values, with the introduction of new technologies and newer materials, the past sometimes gets condemned too easily as being "unmodern". Given the significance of major monuments such as the Maarak, and their continuing emotional and cultural linkages with the community, any act of "change or alteration" at these sites contravenes the principle of the preservation of our built heritage. Such a "change" also highlights the prevailing indifference of the community to the destruction of our culture and heritage. This was a phenomenon witnessed for the first time with the reconstruction of the Hazratbal shrine in the 1970s. Reflecting a new and modern non-Kashmiri image, it also showcased the appeal of a more widely recognizable "Islamic" building, an appeal which became more and more widespread with every passing decade. The pre-eminence of the Hazratbal shrine as the principal shrine of Kashmir drawing devotees from all across the region added to wider propagation and dissimilation of this new architectural style. Today ongoing construction at the Maarak serves as a dim reminder of what happened at Hazratbal and the effect it had on the architecture of the region.

An interesting phenomenon related to the Hazratbal as well as Maarak reconstructions is the impression spread amongst the local community that the new design is based on revered Islamic buildings. The generally held belief at the time of reconstruction of the Hazratbal shrine which still lingers on was that the building resembled the design of Masjid-ul-Nabvi at Medina. Similarly widespread credence was given to the idea that the new imambada at Zadibal was based on the design of Masjid-ul-Aqsa at Jerusalem. Though the actual design of both the buildings belies any such belief, these associations helped to ingrain the new buildings in the minds of the community.

Unfortunately, the loss signified by the demolition of the historic Maarak is increasingly emerging as an indication of the future that we the people of Kashmir are bestowing on our future generations. In such times as we live in today, we may well ponder on how our misplaced and uninformed zeal will deprive our descendants of the treasures of our sacred past. Some day, surely, they will sadly say, "See what our fathers did for us."


(1) H.G. Safdar Hamdani, Tarikh-i-Shiyan-iKasbmir (Srinagar: Imam Husain Research Centre, 2013), p. 288.

(2) In many Muslim communities of the subcontinent which have imbibed a degree of Persian cultural influence, the event of Karbala is also referred to as "maarika-i-karbala" (the battlefield of Karbala) or simply as "maarika".

(3) See Shahzad Bashir, Messianic Hopes and Mystical Visions (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003).

(4) It is because of their association with the Maarak that over a period of time they came to be referred to as Maarakdars.

(5) Mohammed Yusuf Teng, ed., Kasbur Encyclopedia, Vol. I (Delhi: J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, 1986), pp. 35-36. The reconstructed plan of the Maarak is based on the measurements given in the Encyclopedia, the personal recollections of this author, Engineer Mir Mohammed Iqbal and Aga Sayyid Zaffar Maarakdar, and available archival images.

(6) Of the various motifs employed in the papier-mache ceiling, that of paisley (locally known as "shawl tarah", as it is a common motif on Kashmir shawls) was the most prominent.

(7) Hamdani, Tarikh, p. 288.

(8) Ibid.

(9) This happened in 1635 (1045 ah), 1682 (1096 ah), 1719 (1132 ah), 1745 (1158 ah), 1762 (1175 ah), 1800 (1216 ah), 1830 (1246 ah) and finally in 1872 (1289 ah). Ibid.

(10) Alexander Rogers, trans., Tuzuk-i-Jehangiri, Vol. n (Delhi: Low Priced Publications, 1999), p. 149

(11) Hakim Mehdi's father, Khwaja Sakhi Tabrezi, was an Iranian shawl merchant who had settled in Kashmir, where Hakim was born and raised.

(12) See Jaun Cole, Roots of North Indian Shi'ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).

(13) Hamdani, Tarikh, p. 289.

(14) Zuljinah or Dhuljanah is a horse taken out in Muharram processions, which symbolizes the steed of Imam Hussain at Karbala.

(15) Ibid., p. 290.

(16) It was known as Bagh-i-Ihsanabad.

(17) Hamdani, Tarikh, p. 288.

(18) Ibid., p. 270.

(19) The rebuilding was spread over many years with the old structure remaining partly intact till 2004.


Unless otherwise credited, images courtesy Hakim Sameer Hamdani.

Caption: 1 Mughal document relating to the wakf of the Maarak, bearing the seal of the Qazi of Kashmir, circa 17th century, glazed paper (kashur kaghaz). Courtesy Maarakdar family.

Caption: 2 The Maarak and the facing street, southern side facade, painting by Masood Hussain, 1999, watercolour on paper. Courtesy Masood Hussain.

Caption: 3 Plan of Jamia Masjid, Maarak and Hassanabad imambada, each reflecting the underlying courtyard plan.

Caption: 4 A lead zakir in traditional white costume amongst the mourners, Maarak, 2004. Courtesy Mubashir Mir.

Caption: 5 View towards the pokher from the dalan, Hassanabad imambada, 2014.

Caption: 6 Latticework (pinjrakari) in the varusi with baluster-shaped wooden columns, Maarak, 2004. Courtesy Mubashir Mir.

Caption: 7 Papier-mache ceiling with posh-i-tarah (flower motif), Maarak, 2004. Courtesy Mubashir Mir.

Caption: 8 Zuljinah procession on its way to the Maarak. Courtesy Burhaan Kinu.

Caption: 9 Papier-mache ceiling with shawl tarah Hassanabad imambada, 2014.

Caption: 10 Imambada at Hassanabad, eastern facade, view from the Mughal cemetery, 2014.

Caption: 11 Imambada at Ahmedpora, continuing a form that had evolved at the Maarak, 2014.

Caption: 12 The bold colour scheme used in the papier-mache ceiling of the imambada at Budgam, 2014.


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Title Annotation:FOCUS
Author:Hamdani, Hakim Sameer
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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