‘Paint, loudspeakers, defective wiring and lighting have made our shrines vulnerable to fire’

  • Irfan Mehraj
  • Publish Date: Dec 2 2017 1:38AM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 2 2017 1:38AM
‘Paint, loudspeakers, defective wiring and lighting have made our shrines vulnerable to fire’

With the recent fire incident at Khankah e Moula, valley’s oldest shrine, the government faced criticism over its lack of prepardeness in dealing with breakout of fires at shrines and also the poor fire-fighting mechanisms kept in place. 

Kashmir Ink caught up with Saleem Beg, convener INTACH, who has been charged with reconstruction of the damaged part of the shrine, to talk about the assessment of the damage, vulnerability of shrines to catch fire, and fire-fighting mechanisms kept in place.

 

The recent fire at the Khankah shrine has damaged an important piece of Kashmir’s heritage. You have been charged with its reconstruction. How are you going about it?

We are currently assessing the damage, from the fire as well as the water used to douse the flames. At the moment, we don’t think there is any major structural damage. Broadly, the reconstruction will comprise three aspects – repair, restoration and replacement. 

 

The Waqf Board is facing a lot of criticism for allegedly failing to protect the shrines in its care. Is the criticism justified?

It is easy to criticise the Waqf Board. The fact is that Kashmiris have lost their sense of respect for sacred places. When a shrine suddenly catches fire, the entire valley rushes to condemn. But what have we done with old mohalla mosques? We have removed every footprint left by our ancestors and erected concrete monstrosities over them. I know of 20-25 shrines and mosques that have been demolished and built over. So, this is not just about the Waqf Board, it is about our attitude. Shrines are a part of the political culture of this place being as they were an expression of the political and cultural assertion of Kashmiris in the 1930s. 

Today’s generation is also building mosques, and on an unprecedented scale, but they have no respect for sacred spaces and for the philosophy behind them, or for old architecture. They are doing it in the name of reconstruction. 

The Waqf Board is a small part of the bigger problem, which is our mindset and absence of community conscience. We must address that. These incidents of shrines being damaged should jolt us awake. We have to enquire into threats to our culture, of which shrines are but one part. We must re-cultivate among our people respect for traditional architecture and for sacred spaces. 

Fortunately, the damage at Khankah-e-Moula is not extensive or it would have been impossible to salvage because it’s a unique structure. It was easy to rebuild the Dastgeer Sahab shrine in Khanyar, but that won’t be possible with the Khankah. 

 

What makes our shrines vulnerable, particularly to fire?

Our shrines have been vulnerable from the day they were constructed. Because they are mostly made of wood and because Kashmir is prone to calamities like fire. The Jamia Masjid was gutted during Aurangzeb’s rule, the Khankah has burnt down earlier as well. Because we have painted over the wood, the risk of fire has increased. Another reason for the increased risk is the electrical wiring for lights and loudspeakers. Also, decorative lights put up around shrines are usually of poor quality and prone to sparking. 

 

Some people are sceptical about lightening being the cause of the Khankah fire. What would you say to them?

If it had been caused by anything else, the fire would have started from below. But as we know, only the spire of the shrine caught fire. So, there is greater probability that lightening was the cause of the fire. The Khanaq’s spire is made of metal, so it’s likely it attracted the lightening. 

 

Have the state government and the Waqf Board put in place any mechanisms for protecting shrines against fires? If yes, are they adequate?

Some shrines have firefighting equipment, including smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. But this equipment needs to be monitored regularly and serviced regularly. And as far as I know, fire extinguishers at the Khankah were not working. I don’t think they had been serviced.

Another effective mechanism to at least limit damage from fire is to have a network of water hydrants across the city. They are installed in the ground and when there is fire, firefighters come and attach their equipment to the nearest water hydrant to douse the fire. When the Dastgeer Sahab shrine caught fire, the fire brigade had to bring water from Baba Dem, which was objected to by some people who said the water was dirty and could not be used at a sacred place. 

In downtown Srinagar where I live, Water Works Department employees would come early in the morning and see if the fire hydrants were working. Now, I don’t see them anymore. You barely see water hydrants anywhere now. 

So, two things are essential to contain a fire – fire extinguishers and water. At the Khankah, the fire extinguishers were not activated and I don’t know if water hydrants are installed there. 

Moreover, we urgently need to install fire-resistant wiring in our shrines. I am also not a fan of using too many loudspeakers; one is more than enough. Too many loudspeakers, with their defective wiring, increase the risk of fire.