Srinagar : It was the hub of the city once, a place where wholesale traders did business and people flocked to visit the nearby shrines. But, in the last 30 years, the Zaina Kadal area in old Srinagar has lost its importance to the dazzle of the new city.
But old timers still miss the buzz.
The Zaina Kadal Bridge, which connects the Bohri Kadal area of old Srinagar with the Nawab Bazaar area, is the lifeline of old Srinagar and is one of the most ancient of seven bridges constructed on the Jhelum river in the city.
Built by Sultan Zainul Abidin, known as “Badshah” in the year 1427, the 90-metre-long bridge provides a grand view of the old city that has very few parallels.
The emergence of Lal Chowk in uptown Srinagar as a new central market in the last three decades has dealt a telling blow to the importance of Zaina Kadal as a trading hub.
However, Zaina Kadal retains its importance as the place to visit the Muslim shrines in the old city.
On reaching the bridge one can see the Shahi-Hamdan Masjid, where if you are lucky enough to be at the right time you might hear the resonance of ‘azaan’, the call to prayers, which rings out from the top of the masjid.
For the nature lovers, the cool breeze blowing from the gushing Jhelum river below the bridge, combined with the magnificent view of mosques and historical monuments spanning either side of the bridge, can transport you into a time capsule.
The beautiful view of the spire of the Ram Temple, and the nearby tomb of the Badshah’s mother, and the crumbling sight of the once-busy Ghats, Gadiyar Ghat and Badshah Ghat, add to the beauty of the place.
Harking back to the importance of the Ghats around 50 years ago, Muhammad Shafi, a local, said : “From these Ghats, goods would once be loaded to Khanabal in south Kashmir or to Khadinyar in north Kashmir…But now, look at their dilapidated state,” he said pointing to the desolate Ghats.
The Zaina Kadal bridge was the place where the wholesale markets of Srinagar were located. The markets on both sides of the bridge comprised wooden huts and sold garments, spices, dry fish and grains. But now they have lost their customers with many residents having re-located to uptown areas like Rajbagh, Lal Bazaar, Pir Bagh, Hyderpora and Bemina.
The bridge – the old one as well as a nearby new one built five years ago – is of cantilever design. The bridge, like many other of the Badshah’s gifts to his people, was meant to be “as important as life”.
It was built after he got cured from a very life-threatening disease by a Pandit doctor.
The doctor, Shri Bhat, treated the Sultan and in return the king wanted to know what precious gift he could give him. Shri Bhat said he wanted a gift ‘as precious as life’. Impressed by his humility, the Badshah built the bridge and did other other philanthropic works. He is also believed to have developed a soft corner towards the Hindus – which gives a glimpse of Kashmir’s deep secular ethos.
Praising the old bridge, still used by many vehicles today, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a noted poet of the Valley, said : “The skill of the bridge construction of the engineers of Badshah was marvellous. This bridge has withstood the wear and tear of about 500 years. We should preserve it at any cost.”
Zareef has launched a campaign for the preservation of the bridge as well as many historical monuments in old Srinagar.
Reminiscing the old glory of Zaina Kadal, Ghulam Muhammad Wani, 80, a resident of old Srinagar, said : “Zaina Kadal was the centre of trading in those days in Srinagar and the posh colonies you see nowadays were villages where we would be taken for picnics.”
Taking a dig at the uptown areas, he said: “My father would often joke that he had ploughed the area where Lal Chowk is.”
Many shopkeepers in Maharajganj, which flanks the old bridge, are upset with the construction of the new bridge by the PDP government in 2005. They say the new bridge has taken away their customers. The new bridge, also called by the same name, is far from Maharajganj, and has weaned away most of the traffic.
“The construction of the new bridge has had a tremendous economic impact on shopkeepers in Maharajganj,” Muhammad Ashraf, president of the Maharajganj shopkeepers association, said.
In 2011, there was speculation that the old bridge would be dismantled. However, the government decided to keep it.
“It is a historical bridge that is testimony to the engineering skills of our people. The bridge needs to be preserved for heritage,” Z.G. Muhammad, a prominent writer of Srinagar, said.
Though many well-to-do people have shifted uptown from Zaina Kadal, it still retains some of the magic of the gift that was named “as important as life”.