Stories & impact

Documenting Threatened Tombstones in India

  • Date
    August 2, 2023
  • Country
  • Project coordinators
    Mehran Qureshi & Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Jammu and Kashmir Chapter
  • Collaborators
    Whiting Foundation

Deep in the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, two graveyards dating back to the 14th century faced crises threatening their very existence. The tombstones experienced years of severe weather conditions due to heavy rains, flooding, and overgrowth of surrounding vegetation, making the sites inaccessible to its local people. Both sites hold important architectural heritage and the tombstones of influential people across Kashmir’s rich pluralistic history. They often go beyond the information on the individual person as they include verses from classical Persian poets in calligraphic styles.

We severed our ties with this world and left
We left it to the rulers of the world
We sought refuge from death’s hand
Alas! How mistaken were we!
- (Anonymous)

The epitaphs on these tombstones are of cultural value because they represent the region’s cultural and religious syncretism through the bilingual scripts used. Not only that, but these tombstones are one of a handful of tangible cultural heritage that remains from the Sultanate period. The Delhi sultanate was the principal Muslim sultanate in north India from the 13th to the 16th century (1206–1526). This makes them a valuable and untapped historic resource on a period of history that Indian communities remain close to.

Within the wider typologies of buildings, structures, and landscapes associated with Muslim culture of Kashmir, mazars (public cemeteries) remain largely unexplored and undocumented. Historically and up until recent history, these mazars served as an important source of spiritual guidance and remembrance that marks familial genealogies. The sites have also been largely used for cultural celebrations and marriages. At least once a year, on the festival of Shab-i Barat, male members used to visit the mazar to offer prayers and light candles on tombstones for the deceased, to mark an enduring link between the past and the present. Distributing cooked rice (tehar) and sprinkling the tombstones with flowers was also part of this yearly ritual, which significance has considerably eroded in recent decades.

While in the local Kashmiri culture, mazar signifies a place of burial, they also often convey a meaning similar to that of a shrine. Mazars can be broadly classified into five major categories, although today we find that the boundaries between these different categories are not mutually exclusive:

  • The Royal cemeteries (mazar-i Salatin)
  • Public cemeteries (mazar)
  • Mazars that are part of a wider shrine precinct
  • Cemeteries of the Poets (mazar-i Shoura)
  • Family graveyards (maqbara)

Although largely threatened and unexplored, it's clear that these mazars hold a great deal of heritage. In response to the threatened graveyards, Mehran Qureshi and his team, backed by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), addressed the site’s vulnerability by creating an action plan to safeguard the tombstones. Through a period of 12 months, Mehran and his team mapped and documented over 100 tombstones. The project began with an on-site study on the methods and modes of studying the site, including documentation and risk analyses. In doing so, they also cleared the vegetation around the tombstones to facilitate the documentation process and begin the site's maintenance. What was meant to be a project to safeguard 60 tombstones, quickly became 100.

It was wonderful to discover how historically important and spiritually significant these graveyards are. I deal with Kashmiri shawls and I could sense that the ethic that guides the hands of fine pashmina weavers and embroiders is the same that had moved the hands that chiseled and carved these exquisite gravestones.

Mr. Mujtaba Qadri

In addition to the work onsite, the team partnered with the University of Kashmir and IUST Awantipora for three workshops on creating awareness among local civil society, community representatives, and academia. In a last effort to create awareness of the site's cultural significance beyond those who participated in the workshops, the team created updated site plans of both graveyards with information about the individual graves collated onsite. The team also conducted a workshop with local students of architecture and design which introduced them to the cultural and historical value of these sites. From this sparked curiosity, two female students joined as interns for the duration of the project. The final workshop shared the project's best practices and significant results like drawings, plans, and translations, to the local community. The team also worked with the relevant regional mosque committees to ensure the future maintenance of the site.


This project is a significant reflection of our emphasis on the importance of navigating cultural heritage protection efforts with local people at the forefront. Not only were our partners able to document and safeguard two graveyards, but the project has also been instrumental in mobilizing the community and creating awareness about the historical and cultural significance of the sites. The community's engagement is so particularly important for these sites because of their previous inaccessibility due to heavy rains, flooding, and overgrowth of vegetation. The team made the site accessible again with their cleaning, documentation, and dissemination efforts, but also with the activation of the local community as they will now help maintain the graveyards past this project's outputs. This impact is due to the team's efforts of community outreach through a series of local workshops and educational brochures. Mehran and his team made a conscious effort to keep the local community on board at every crucial stage of the project, beginning with the inception, and later during stakeholder consultation and sharing of drawings and documentation. The extensive drawing and information-based documentation by the team has also created a long-term impact by circulating the data and the drawings with relevant quarters of civil society and experts of heritage. With this, the team's network expanded significantly; they now navigate connections with the business, craft, and journalist communities of Kashmir, as well as broader connections in the fields of art, heritage, archive, journalism, geography, and tourism.

A small parcel of land in Mazar-i-Kalan is our family graveyard and it is fascinating to discover the historical importance of this place. Accompanying the project team on their visits to this site has been a wonderful revelation!

Mr. Rouf Shaw

Lastly, this project demonstrates a diverse and inclusive approach to heritage protection. The people involved in carrying out the project came from different age groups and expertise. Although South Asian Muslim communities limit women’s access to graveyards, the team encouraged two female interns and volunteers to work on the site. To do so, the team invoked an alternative ruling to ensure women's access to the graveyards and successfully convinced the community members to accept this. This further demonstrates that by coordinating and supporting locally-led protection of heritage under threat, we are closer to making global heritage protection more inclusive and diverse.

For this coordinated and joint support in India, we are grateful for the contributions or collaboration of the Whiting Foundation. CER and the Whiting Foundation have been working since 2017 to safeguard documentary heritage that is acutely threatened by recent conflict or disaster.

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