Bait-ul Meeras Srinagar's Heritage House
By Sayan Lodh
Museums play a major role in preserving the intangible heritage of a community, country, and other groups. They grant the visitors an insight into a bygone era, which will never return and can only be experienced in a few artefacts, objects, and pictures. Bait-ul Meeras (literally ‘The House of Heritage’ or ‘The Heritage Home’) is one such Museum in Srinagar aiming to preserve the centuries old Kashmiri cultural heritage through donated artifacts. It is the second-largest privately owned museum in Jammu and Kashmir after Meeras Mahal (literally ‘The Heritage Palace’) in Sopore. The museum is situated in a four-storey mansion overlooking Jhelum river at Ael-Kadal in downtown Srinagar.
The building erected during the rule of Dogra King Maharaja Pratap Singh (1885- 1925) depicts traditional Kashmiri wooden architecture with narrow stairs. The mansion
belonged to the Kaul family, who were illustrious merchant-cum-moneylenders back in the day. Under Ram Joo Kaul, their house served as a hub for the religious, political, and social
gatherings of Kahsmiri Pandits. Mufti Mohammad Shah Saadat’s chronicle Waaqah-i Kashmir
(‘Events in Kashmir’) also mentioned about the house. Later the building also served military
purposes. (Ahead 2022)
J & K Human Effort for Love and Peace (HELP) Foundation was established in 1997 by Nighat Shafi (chairperson, HELP Foundation) to aid the Kashmiri women and children who
had been the most affected by themilitancy. From then, the foundation has helped change the lives of about 15,000 children. (Hameed, Baitul Meeras: Housing centuries-old heritage in Shaher-e-Khas 2022) The HELP Foundation acquired the building in 2021, and began its renovation in August. Due to the efforts of the Project Coordinator Hakim Javed, and other members of the HELP foundation, the building was restored within a few months.Finally, the museum opened its doors for the public in February, 2022. (Hameed 2022) The delay was mainly due to the difficulty and various problems in procuring antique items, and artifacts for display at the centre.
Initially most of the collectibles were family heirlooms of Nighat Shafi, and businessman-cum-jeweller Mubashir Kathwari (fourth-generation owner of ‘Kabir Joo and Sons’ in Zainakadal area of the city). (Khan 2021) Other members of HELP Foundation, and their acquittances also contributed their artifacts for the same. Some of the donated items were lying unused in one corner of their houses. The century old Shahi Masnand(royal ceremonial chair) was brought by Shafi’s great grandfather Abdul Aziz Mir Bow from Rajouri, previously used by her family during special occasions like marriages, is currently on display at the museum. (Yattoo 2022) Anyone is open to donate, or temporarily showcase their family artifacts at the museum. (WION 2022)
The sidewall by the stairs leading to the museum on the second floor is covered with paintings, and photographs retelling Kashmir’s rich past. Some of the pictures depict the daily lifestyle, and festivities of a plural multi-ethnic Kashmiri society. The displayed artifacts range from ornaments, pashminas, handmade tools, traditional ethnic clothes, stray mats, wood and copper utensils, sandals among others. While some vintage electronic items like old televisions, geysers, telephones, and turntables or gramophones are symbols of keeping pace with the technology of changing times. Ornamental teapots (preparing the kahwa and other varieties of Kashmiri tea), and hookahs(hubble-bubble)occupy the cavities within the walls.
Besides the main museum depicting artifacts, the second floor also contains HELP Foundation’s office, a workshop for Pashmina (fine Cashmere/Kashmiri wool obtained from Changthangi Kashmiri goat) and carpet craftsmen, and a library. Besides containing books on history and culture, religious scriptures, and literature, the library hosts books for competitive exams. It is open for public. The library was started from scratch after the 2014 floods destroyed most books in the library of HELP Foundations’ old office at Jawahar Nagar. The artisans and craftsmen at the workshop display their skills and the process of making shawls and carpets to the visitor. The presence of a live workshop along with skilled craftsmen lends uniqueness to Bait-ul Meeras.
Traditional objects of daily necessity like ganjbana (tiffin box)and bate baan (hot case) which have been replaced by their more modern versions- lunch boxes, and hot cases, are found here alongside old technologies like gramophone, exquisite telephone, and old black and white big-sized television. The museum also displays items used by businessmen even a few decades ago including weights called gurus mundun and parmaan, which have now been replaced by digital scales in most shops. There are some artifacts belonging to the erstwhile famous theatre group Sadaf Band that entertained people with their performances. These artifacts showcase the rich theatre industry in Kashmir before militancy set in in the late-1980s. According to Art Researcher Wiqar Bashir, the museum represents ‘different aspects of Kashmiri tradition under a single roof.’ (Khan 2021)
Hakim Javed observed, ‘There is no better time for this library to come into existence
because our newgeneration is completely unaware of their history and identity and to
strengthenthe roots of children is the sole motive behind opening this place.’ For instilling a
sense of responsibility in the children, the foundation has taken an initiative Shuer Panchayat
(give meaning), under which children sit together and discuss about the happenings in their
neighbourhood in the evening. Since the establishment of the museum, about 500 kids have
registered for this initiative and visit the museum after school. Javed has involved some of the children in stage plays at state and national levels. A few of them have even bagged prestigious awards. Seeing their kids learn, and proper many parents continue sending their children to the initiatives, and inspire others to do the same.
RJ Rafiq of Red FM J&K stated that he saw a new world (ek nayiduniyaan) while
being inside the museum, to the extent of comparing the place to heaven (jannat).
According to him, it is a sanctuary of the diverse Koshur (Kashmiri) lifestyle. Rafiq recommended people to visit the place with their families to know about the unknown history of Kashmiri lifestyle.
Nighat Shafi opined that Bait-ul Meeras is an attempt to retrieve artifacts and other
objects of daily and festive use from a bygone era, which have disappeared from Kashmiri
cultural landscape due to the onslaught of modernisation. (Yattoo 2022) Besides the locals, Bait- ul Meeras has also become popular among the tourists visiting Srinagar. Museums like Bait-u Meeras can play a major role in reconnecting the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to their roots, especially in the present times when the effects of disturbances since the 1990s have been subsiding and people are coming out of their cocoons. Hence, these museums will act as a perfect bridge between tradition and modernity.