From Fort to Fortress: A trek to remember

The Afghan-era fort in the Old City might be sightseers’ wonder, but given how indifference has reduced it to a rundown barrack betrays the very purpose with which the tourism department had thrown it open for masses in 2016. Here, a reporter details her trek up to the fort and the ‘rot’ inside.

Inside a deafening lane in downtown, speedy vehicles intermittingly reverberate. The nearby high-walled, bustling Badam Vaer defies the stillness prevailing at the gates of Kohi Maran Fort. At the peak tourist season, the sullen scene bereft of visitors makes it a ghost town — atop which lies the rusty paramilitary camp, established by the Indian armed forces during the early nineties, in a bid to occupy strategic spots on the defiant landscape.

Since then, the lofty zone has entered into Downtown’s oral legends.

For years, the gag-weary populace thought it to be a lurking hill bunker. In those harrowing days of the nineties when war-machinery was blazing in this part of the world, the fort had permeated its own nightmares.

It’s said that naughty kids in the 90’s in Downtown would be told by their parents: Keep quiet — or, the trooper stationed at the fort would fire! 

Even before one could dismiss it as loose talk, many locals confirmed this verbal threat. “What would you do? Hostile troopers in bunkers in alleys and lanes across Kashmir would not even tolerate the child whimpering. One had to deliver those horrifying ‘threats’ to quieten the children and keep them away from harm’s way,” says Mushtaq Bhat, a Downtowner, who lives in Nowhatta.

But legends apart, many politically-sensitive locals see the walled-city and the fort as the earliest symbol of foreign-rule in Kashmir. It was established by Afghan Governor Mohammed Khan in 1808, years after Mughal Emperor Akbar constructed his capital, down the hillock. Today, the signs of that foreign-writ might be in ruins, but the fort continues to be a strategic point in Srinagar.

To witness what lies within, I trekked the hill towards the fort. I was stopped by the armed forces at the first entrance. Being habitual to such interruptions, it seemed normal.

Leading to the fort, the zigzag stairway looked breathtaking. Installed woofers played soothing music and uplifted the trekking mood.

It was early summer and the apricot bloom and yellow flowers had decorated the hill. The wild roses were awaiting blossom. The greenery perfectly synched with the season, whose scent wafted in the fresh air.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid. 

After trekking for almost 20 minutes, the main entrance showed up: A huge wooden door with iron spikes on its face. As the gate opened, it felt like heaven. But sadly, that mesmerising moment proved to be a fleeting one.

Presence of checkpoints and armed troopers act as a spoiler. Even at this elevated retreating spot, the dread of the gun lurked menacingly.

Next gate was at 5-minute walking distance. The gate opened into a vast land, dotted with small rooms and an artificial pond — all in ruins.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid. 

While the visit to the fort was fast turning disappointing, one couldn’t help recall the fanfare with which it was thrown open for the masses in 2016. The Tourism Department had organised a mega event in the renovated and luminous fort to attract footfall of tourists and sightseers.

But the old demons returned after the fort came under surveillance after the 2016 uprising. Since then, it awaits care and tourists. In absence of both, the troopers were lock, stock and barrel in the fort—where time, as a routine, ends for a random visitor at 3 pm.

After that, a graveyard silence grips the fort along with its custodians.

Photo: Yawar Nazir. 

Two years back, the last stage of the fort was not thrown open for public due to “security reasons”. But now, one can go inside and see the barracks there. The armed wardens have constructed a temple, occupied restrooms, and painted everything with white and saffron.

The heritage value of the place has faded. At various places, the wild bushes and grass had rendered its small rooms invisible.

The pond had become a home of weed. Signposts have messed with its aesthetics. The photography exhibition, the stage for music and light show and the refreshment area are in ruins.

The fort’s only cafeteria had long shut as it couldn’t pull enough crowds since its opening.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid. 

Amid all this, the fort has been reduced into a fortress, where gargling troopers roam in lungis and undershirts. This, again, has made farce of the initiative to sell this strategic zone and the peak bunker as the tourist place. In a conflict zone that is being sold as a tourist heaven, it isn’t surprising.


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