Srinagar: Once an epicentre of trade in Old Srinagar, Maharaj Gunj wholesale market now fails to appeal even to its old clientele.
Located close to Aali Kadal, a cobweb of lanes and by-lanes forms this oldest market, also known as Shri Ranbir Gunj.
The market currently houses around a thousand shops including 150 wholesalers struggling to peddle their wares.
The market’s first lane next to Budshah’s Tomb or Mazar-e-Salateen (Graveyard of Sultans) is similar to opening a Pandora’s Box of delights: you can walk and explore meandering sub-lanes while thumbing through an array of goods displayed at the quaint wholesale shops.
From intricately designed copperware to cylindrical jars full of dry-fruits, aromatic spices, edible oil, different varieties of tea, textiles, wedding accessories and eatables occupy the even rows of shops.
Maharaja Ranbir Singh set up this wholesale market in 1863-64.
It was constructed on the banks of Jhelum to pay off debt his forefathers owed to non-Muslim traders of Amritsar since the time they had purchased Kashmir from the British for Rs 75,00,000.
The traders, locally known as Khaetris, shifted to the valley to claim Maharaja’s offer in return of their loaned capital and began trading from Mahraj Gunj.
Goods from all over the world began to be traded here.
“My grandfather used to tell me how goods from Central Asia were brought here on tongas,” recalled Tariq Ahmad, a textile trader. Khaetris owned the market until Partition of 1947. Even today, many old buildings stand witness to their influence over the era. With the end of Dogra rule, however, their monopoly over the market waned, and thus started a gradual decline, which now strikes an observer forcefully at the first glance.
The old stories are crumbling or have already crumbled. Several godowns and shops in these buildings have been bolted shut for years now. A sense of gloom and doom overwhelms the eye.
The symbol of this decay is the Tomb of Budshah. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin popularly known as Budshah, built this tomb in the 15th century. The tomb located on the banks of Jhelum serves as the final resting place of Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin’s mother.
The driveway leading to the heritage structure is obstructed by a water tank and a concrete mixer.
The graveyard around has become a hub of stray dogs, gamblers, and drug-addicts. Dampness has seeped into the walls of the monument and the cracks are clearly visible. The whole atmosphere bodes a sense of “gloom and decay.”
According to the shopkeepers, the tomb has fallen to “encroachments on its three sides”.
It still doesn’t find a place on the tourism map. The restoration work of the monument had started three-four years back, but the work seems to be dragging on with no end in sight.
The shopkeepers lament: “All you can see is dug up the earth, construction material and stray dogs roaming around. Nowhere have we seen this method of preserving so-called “heritage sites.”
“We even submitted a memorandum before government, but to no avail,” they complain.
Budshah’s tomb is not the only structure that has become the victim of state negligence.
The primary health centre housed in a heritage building in the vicinity faced the same fate. A major portion of the heritage structure was demolished last year by the Roads and Building Department of Kashmir.
The Chief Minister’s grievance cell took cognisance of the media reports of demolition and ordered Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to design a new blueprint for conserving and restoring the building.
With such apathy, the footfall of tourists and locals alike has declined drastically.
“This market would earlier attract tourists from different foreign countries. Now hardly anyone bothers to come here let alone non-locals,” lamented trader of decorative items, Farooq Nawaz.
The shopkeepers look expectantly at every passer-by hoping they turn out to be their potential customers.
The lack of parking spaces compounds the issue. Haphazardly parked vehicles make walking through the narrow lanes difficult, as many shops get blocked from view.
The lack of “proper transport facility” is a major deterrent for the shoppers who find it “inaccessible”.
The area features nowhere in the traffic department’s plans of easing traffic congestion. No roadside parking has been identified unlike that of uptown.
“People find it difficult to shop here. With narrow lanes and no place for parking vehicles, how can you expect a huge rush of customers?” asked Farooq Ahmad Baba, a middle-aged trader dealing with copperware.
The market awaits a healing touch, and one hopes it is provided sooner than later.