In Depth

The sad story of Chattabal Weir follows Kashmir’s politics and environment

As an attendant observant born under the British era India, when Kashmir was still a princely state, Abdul Aziz Gadda witnessed how the shoddy politics eroded the charm of the Chattabal Weir where dissent erupted the moment ‘conditional’ accession took place.

Days before New Delhi flew its Dakotas loaded with soldiers to counter the marching Afridis in the contested Vale, dissent erupted at the Chattabal Weir. None had expected this revolt at the place frequented by politicians and sightseers of yore. Even Sheikh Abdullah’s Peace Brigade was taken aback when a bunch of zealots appeared and pitched slogans of freedom.

But as Sheikh’s coterie dismissed the dissent as “delusional rants” and equated it with a “storm in a teacup”, the anti-‘Ilhaakh’ slogans reverberated from the altars of the Weir, over Sheikh Abdullah’s political handshake with Pandit Nehru.

What happened at the Weir, despite Abdullah’s iron-fist dealing with his nemesis, was perhaps one of the first glimpses of the anti-India rage harboured in Kashmir, by a majority that was about to be dismissed as ‘a select few’.

Then, one boy would frequent the Weir with his playmates. As a curious child, he witnessed an interesting phase of Kashmir’s history unfolding at the picturesque place. That boy, Abdul Aziz Gadda, is now a skinny septuagenarian. Inside his spacious house in Qammarwari, Gadda recalls more than a political side of the Weir. The spot, as he remembers, had its recreational, economic, social and religious aspects, too.

Weir was the city limit, he says, beyond which no population existed on the swathes of swamp and agrarian land. His describes the place behtareen, purbahaar—brilliant, evergreen—thronged by people who wanted to refresh themselves. There were parks on its banks. People used to go there using boats, boarding them right from Amira Kadal.

Foreign tourists traveling in houseboats, on their way to the Wular Lake, would stop at the Weir gate, after leaving from Dal Gate, passing through waterways and channels, to reach Chunt Koall and subsequently to Gawkadal gate, from where they would reach the Weir point.

But years before Gadda would turn up at the Weir with his childhood buddies, to roam and play around, the spot was built by one engineer Evry, brought in by the then ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1905. For 100 years, Gadda says, Er. Evry had guaranteed, “the Weir won’t damaged”. He proved to be a Nostradamus of his own style. Exactly 100 year later, in 2005, a leak occurred in the Weir. The state responded by mobilising its men and machinery on war-footing to plug it.

By then, however, the Weir had ceased to be a visual wonder and a spot of socialization. It would no longer host those chattering assemblies of women turning up on its banks, or yarbals, every morning for washing dishes and clothes, and socialising. Gadda always knew yarbals as a meeting point for women. “There was a separate yarbal for women there,” he says. “They used to wash clothes there from 8am till 11am in the morning.”

Yarbals, as prominent Kashmiri psychologist Dr Arshid Hussain says, was one of best socializing spots for women in Kashmir, where they would pour their hearts out. “Their abrupt closure also ended that feminine cathartic social talk and escalated the mental unrest in contemporary female folks,” Dr Hussain says.

Weir, however, was much more – something Gadda, now terribly misses. He would see people from all walks of life going to Ganderbal to enjoy the 15-day Mela—fest—in Dungas, small boats from Weir. Well-to-do families from Fatehkadal and adjoining areas would hire Dungas there, before starting their occasional Ganderbal journey, as a picnic.

“Those boats would be decorated like brides,” he says. “The whole troupe used to travel from Weir to the upper reaches. People used to take Wazas (Kashmiri traditional cooks) and musicians along with them, for the 15-day Ganderbal fest.”

For Kashmiri Pandits, the Weir would serve as a picnic spot on their way to Tulmul’s Kheer Bhavani for pilgrimage. Gadda would spot them in ending May to have a good time at Weir before heading for the holy voyage. The place was equally important to Muslims, who used to pray and go to Qamar Sahib’s shrine from there. “Muslims would offer evening prayers and the annual Eid prayers at Weir,” he says, “where the reputed clerics of their times, like Molvi Nabe Saeb, would deliver religious sermons.”

But the biggest beauty of the Weir, Gadda says, was its display of peaceful coexistence of different religions. Mosques and temples would face each other on the two opposite banks, frequented by faithful through separate yarbals.

Weir housed ghats, the ration depot, too – where people would get their staple food, rice, reaching there through waterways. It was a communion on display, Gadda recalls, a reflection of a larger society, which had its legends, too.

As a teenager, Gadda claims to have spotted a ‘gaade badshah’, a king fish, during dusk hours. The fish according to local folklore, used to appear on the calm waters of Weir, followed by an army of small fishes. “I have seen it myself,” he says, “many a times.” That fish had a crown on its head, he says, and would be around 15 kg in weight.

Jumping, whirling and dancing their way, to the delight of foreigners and sightseers, those fishes had kept anglers and fishermen at bay. Fishing, Gadda says, was officially banned at Weir. Over the years, however, the old rules have been broken, albeit politically. Now, littering and encroachment—the onetime punishable offenses—are rampant. No dedicated river police squads patrol around, to check the encroachment and pollution in Weir now, unlike the past.

Between 1907 and 1971, a squad of river cops used to move in Shikaras every morning at 10 and every evening at 4 from Amira Kadal to Weir to check the present day violations. The strict ordinance originally upheld by Jammu Dogras would maintain the quality of Jhelum waters, which everyone used to drink.

In his childhood, Gadda hardly had any tap water. They didn’t exist around, he says. Only during rainfall, when its water would become muddy, people used to go to either Safakadal or Chattabal to avail drinking water from municipal taps. “But now, will people believe me if I tell them how we used to drink its water,” he says. “It’s disgusting to see what is being thrown into it now.” Weir has now become a sewage dump and a host of all drains.

Every day, senseless SMC sweepers and commoners throw loads of garbage in it, he says. Amid this onslaught, achieving its bygone glory remains far-fetched, Gadda laments. “Now, in the name of Weir, there exist only a nice garden, which remains locked. No one goes there. And why would they?” he says. “All is gone now.”

But the politics stays.

From the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah, to Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed, everyone made plans to restore the Weir. But they turned out to be just plans, Gadda says. “Nothing happened.” Late Mufti Sayeed’s government had even planned to restart the water transport. “It would have been great, but then, aren’t politicians habitual talkers rather than workers? Even Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah had his plans for the Weir. But then, we know, they are good for only creating a mess of everything, like in the Kashmir issue.”

But there is another thing he recalls when those Dakotas were yet to fly over the skies of the valley in the fall of 1947.

While playing with his mates, Gadda saw an entourage of Congressmen led by Pandit Nehru, Maulana Abdul Kalam, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Saffiudin Kitchlew and Abdul Gaffar Khan coming to the Weir through the waterways. Like all ministers and dignitaries then, the visitors also rested in a Dak Bungalow on the Weir banks.

Not far from the Weir, where Gadda was playing, the dissenters of Muslim Conference, who felt betrayed by Abdullah, turned up to greet the delegation with ‘Go back’ slogans.

Years later, as Weir faced official apathy, Gadda realized, some dissent indeed has some unseen costs.

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