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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.