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Chingus Serai: A Story of Love, Power and Heritage

By Arka Charkarborty

India is home to innumerable historical monuments, some of which are famed for their beauty while others for their antiquity. The popularity of these monuments is, therefore, based on aspects of their identities which the observers find impressive. What most seem to unfortunately overlook are the journeys that these structures embody and the stories they tell which emerge as a result of a holistic view of the circumstances that brought these into being, the socio cultural landscapes they inhabited, the change in these landscapes and the resultant transformation of the meaning of the structures to the populations that came into contact with them. Hence, monuments encapsulate fascinating, if fragmentary, views into the story of humanity itself. Situated in the middle of Jammu and Srinagar city, the brick and rubble sarai (rest house) now known as the Chingus sarai seems like one of the countless examples of Mughal caravanserais strewn across the Indian subcontinent- a structure convenient enough for the moving court of the Mughal emperors to stay for one night. Upon closer inspection, however, the unusual name of this rest house, the odd benches installed inside, signs of uneven renovation in recent decades, the whitewashed mosque with PCC flooring and the heap of lime and surkhi that lies in the courtyard reveals a story that highlights its individual uniqueness. The Chingus sarai tells a long and enchanting tale: one of imperial stability, an emperor’s love for Kashmir, court intrigue, colonial and post-colonial neglect and national, regional and local heritage under threat. It is necessary to observe close enough to comprehend and appreciate the significance and scope of the tales that monuments silently tell us.

The Chingus sarai is located on the Old Mughal Road (also known as the Mughal Imperial Road) and can be reached by foot or by any vehicle through the NH-14A highway. It is around 154 kilometers (some sources say 130 km) away from Jammu city, 255 km (according to some sources, 202 km) away from Srinagar and 35 km away from Rajouri. This sarai was commissioned by the fourth ‘Great’ Mughal emperor Nuruddin Muhammad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi and constructed by the Iranian governor of Lahore and Kashmir Ali Mardan khan from around 1605 AD to 1621 AD. This sarai would be the fifth major stopping point for the peripatetic court of the emperor for its journey through the Mughal Imperial Road from Gujrat (now in Punjab, Pakistan) to Kashmir which would come to consist of fourteen such stopping points.

The construction of the Chingus sarai represents a specific moment in Mughal history. Jahangir’s father and predecessor Emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556-1605) had spent his long reign almost constantly warring and allying with neighboring states to turn his rather small regional stronghold into a north Indian empire which had unquestioned suzerainty over most of the subcontinent and was already making deep forays into the Deccan with the intent of outright annexation. Jahangir’s significantly shorter reign (r. 1605-1627) was characterized as having reaped the benefits of the stability the previous half century of intense activity had created. Unlike Akbar whose peripatetic court came to be known for its speed and battle-readiness, Jahangir’s court moved around at a significantly slower and more relaxed pace, the emperor himself appreciating the natural beauty around him, marveling over oddities and rare items which were brought before him from Central Asia, Europe and beyond and celebrating his Timurid lineage in every opportunity. His reign saw very few skirmishes and in most cases the emperor himself was far from the military front. His reign can also be characterized as a period of consolidating the political and territorial gains made by his father. Sarais in this case served an important purpose of making the journey of the peripatetic court (and armies, if need be) easier; hence increasing the power of the Mughal state over its provinces. The Chingus sarai was no exception. While it was an example of Mughal architecture created during an era of peace, it also served the purpose of easing the emperor’s access to the valley which Akbar had spent three attempts conquering.

The Chingus sarai and the other such sarais built on the Mughal Imperial Road did not only reflect an imperial attempt to control an important region, but was also indicative of Jahangir as an individual and his love for natural beauty. The fourth Great Mughal, like his great-grandfather Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, had a profound love for observation and contemplation and wrote down his thoughts, ideas and observations in a memoir he had started writing from the year of his accession. Naturally, the emperor was enchanted with the Vale in a way neither his predecessor nor his successors were, having visited the same thirteen times during his reign. His affection for its natural beauty, its heritage and its people became legendary and is one of the few details about him which is popularly remembered. The Chingus sarai represented a convenient place to rest during his almost annual visit. Among all the rest houses built by the Mughals in Kashmir, the Chingus sarai has become the most popular due to the fact that it houses one of the emperor’s two tombs- his heart belonged to the valley and it, in a way, became his final resting place.

The architecture of the sarai has been explored in depth by S. Khursheed Qadri and Parshati Dutta. Architecturally, the Chingus sarai differs from the standard Mughal pattern in that instead of a single-enclosure caravanserai plan, it is a composite of three enclosures. Functionally, the sarai can be divided into even more parts. The whole structure encompasses an area of 50 square meters. The innermost enclosure is a quadrangle lined with arched cells with imperial living quarters constituting of three units of standard cells enjoined by narrow arched gateways at the southern arm. Moreover, at the center of this enclosure is a mosque. The tomb of Emperor Jahangir was later added to this enclosure. A gateway at the eastern arm of this enclosure leads to a linear second enclosure also lined with arched cells. This enclosure may have acted as a marketplace or service quarters or stables. This enclosure has two gateways; one opening outside the structure to the north and another leading to the third enclosure in the south. The third enclosure seems to have served as a pleasure garden. It can be accessed from the imperial living quarters, the second enclosure and outside the structure to the west. The sarai has high crenellated outer walls and bastions at corners which can be accessed by stairs from the roofs of the cells. The whole structure was constructed with rubble and brick masonry with lime surkhi plaster.

The name of this marvelously complex and multi-functional example of Mughal travel architecture itself bears a story that draws to it the majority of tourist and government attention it receives today- a story that blurs the boundaries between history and oral tradition. Emperor Jahangir’s last visit to Kashmir (1627 AD) was not for pleasure, but for restoring his failing health. Circumstances with the empire and Jahangir himself had changed drastically from the day he had ordered the sarai to be built as a young ruler. The stability that the majority of his reign has experienced was nearly gone. The emperor’s two eldest sons were dead; Prince Khusro had died to colic or possible poisoning and Prince Parvez to alcoholism. The Safavids under the ambitious Shah Abbas had invaded Qandahar and wrested it from the Mughals. Instead of facing them with full strength, the empire’s military was divided in order to face threats from within: Prince Khurram, the third and ablest son of Jahangir who had led the most successful military movements of the empire during his father’s reign and had earned the title ‘Shah Jahan’ from him in 1621 AD had rebelled seeking more power. Although ultimately defeated and in hiding, Khurram had weakened the empire from within. Sensing weakness, the Uzbeks too had started to show aggression in Mughal borders. All this in addition to a lifetime of alcohol abuse had severely weakened Jahangir’s health and he had to visit Kashmir to recover. At Behramgala, his health had recovered a bit and he started to indulge in his favorite pastime of hunting. However, the shocking scene of a foot soldier (some sources say that he was an attendant) falling on a hillock and dying in front of his eyes led to a sudden deterioration of his health. Empress Noor Jahan, his chief wife and a powerful political figure at the Mughal court, decided to rush her husband to the empire’s northern capital in Lahore to seek treatment; but he died in the Panj sarai region on October 28, aged fifty-eight.

Noor Jahan knew that the death of the emperor would spark a civil war among possible contenders to the throne, the Mughal succession system lacking the concept of primogeniture. Moreover, she herself had been a powerful presence in the Mughal court and intended to keep being an influential figure. She had years before married her daughter from her first marriage to the emperor’s youngest son Shahryar and wanted to place him on the throne. The only real challenge to this plan was Prince Khurram who, in spite of having been defeated in his rebellion and suffering from ill health, had proven his abilities in numerous military actions and would certainly draw a large following of nobles to his side. In order to be in control of the situation, the Empress had to hide the death of her husband until she could reach Lahore. Hence, on the advice of a physician, Jahangir’s entrails and other abdominal parts were taken out and buried in Khanpur sarai in order to slow down the decaying process. The name ‘Chingus’ comes from the Persian word ‘Chingun’ or ‘Chingan’ which means intestines or entrails. Hence, what was once known as the Khanpur sarai after the village it was situated close to later came to be known as the Chingus sarai.

Noor Jahan’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and her brother Asaf Khan was instrumental in installing Khurram as the next Mughal emperor. The death of Jahangir put to an end the decades-long imperial love affair with Kashmir. While his successor Shah Jahan visited the valley a few times with his family, his own memoir was too stylistic to betray any real emotions for the Vale. As the Mughal power faded in the eighteenth century, the Chingus sarai fell into disuse and decayed. This continued throughout the colonial era. After India’s independence, the sarai was used first as a police station and then as a military base which led to a further loss of spatial, functional and material integrity. Early efforts to restore the site added to the problem as the material used to do the same (cement) was chemically inconsistent with the materials used to construct the site. Finally in 1998 serious efforts at restoring the sarai to its seventeenth century glory began under the Department of Archives, Archaeology and Museums. Since 2003, rubble, brick masonry and lime surkhi plaster have been produced on site and used to restore more than seventy cells, the walls and the imperial quarters. The only part of the sarai yet to be restored is its pleasure garden. The mosque inside the innermost enclosure is used to this day and has been renovated for modern use. While some benches have been installed within the premises of the sarai, the lack of functional toilets, food courts, information/brochure/souvenir wings, parking spaces and similar amenities continue to severely truncate the Chingus sarai’s incredible tourism potential. It remains to be an important heritage site which is yet to be discovered by the general public.

The Chingus sarai serves as a witness to the past four centuries of Kashmir’s journey. Built as a multi-functional rest house for an emperor ruling over a stable and largely peaceful north Indian military-political juggernaut, the Kahnpur sarai’s later renaming as Chingus sarai came to represent the instability of the same juggernaut just tow decades later. Throughout the colonial and early post-colonial periods, this sarai became a neglected and nearly forgotten relic of a bygone past until it was rediscovered by heritage enthusiasts. Having undergone partial restorations, the Chingus sarai now bears an inspiring potential for tourism for the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, but there is a long way to go before that potential can be achieved.


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