Central Asia

Kashmir’s heritage house losing its silk route inmates

As Jhelum quietly flows with its steady pace, the lives of the current inhabitants of the decades old Yarkand Sarai has come to a standstill. The families that reside by the riverbanks have been told to pack their belongings and leave. [FPK Photo/Zainab]

75 years after their forefathers became hostage of the blood-drawn partition lines, the progeny has been asked to vacate the erstwhile travellers’ inn in Kashmir.

Holding hem of her anxious mother’s pheran, little Fatima is trying to make sense of the disquieting din that has lately erupted from her home, Yarkand Sarai.

While the men are making rounds of the official and legal chambers for some intervention, the women are sitting in the courtyard parroting about the probable homelessness.

For Fatima, who’s yet to celebrate her fifth birthday, the commotion and chatter is getting dismal and distressing. It has already shadowed her daily playful routine.

As sun made its way down the horizon, the clothes on the ropes had dried up in Yarkand Sarai, but everyone in the courtyard was too anxious to move and make decisions. “Should we cook dinner or not?” “Should we pack or not?” “How can so much change in a night?” [FPK Photo/Zainab]


Behind the apprehensive mood is a notice served to the residents of Yarkand Sarai on March 14.

Issued by Executive Magistrate 1st Class, Tehsildar South Srinagar, the notice has ordered over fifty families to evacuate from the Sarai within seven days.

“If the families will not vacate within the time given,” the notice warned, “the legal action will be taken against them as per the law.”

Tayub and Ali, bestfriends, 7, who grew up together under the shade of the Chinar tree in the Sarai courtyard wanted to get their “last photograph” taken. “Maybe this is the last photo of us here. We might have to leave the Sarai,” Tayub said with the smile evading from his face. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


Like others, Fatima’s mother, a widow, is getting anxious about her three children and the life ahead of her.

“I’ve been living here for thirty-five years now,” the mother says.

“But now, all of a sudden, the administration is telling us to leave the place without allotting us an alternative accommodation.”

In the backdrop of the eviction notice, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, PK Pole, said that the building is declared unsafe and that the lease of twelve years granted to the families have come to an end making these families an illegal residents.

“The families after the issuance of notice with any queries can come up with their grievances and which would be looked upon,” he said.

In the Sarai, the curtains and flowers hung by the doors and windows. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


But the residents paying taxes like power bills, holding ration cards and ID proofs aren’t buying the official version.

“If the building is unsafe and its lease has expired, then how the inmates have been living here for so long,” asks Hina, a young member of the Sarai.

“I’m 29 years old; my father is 70, while my mother is 64. When my grandparents died they were above 80-years old. So we’ve been residing here for more than 60 years now.”

The few preserved photos that were saved during the devastating floods of 2014 bore witness to the lived history of the community. In this photo shared by writer and author Abdul Rashid Rahgir (Ladakhi), his family is seen celebrating a birthday party at his home in Yarkand Sarai. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


Hina’s clans-people, however, aren’t new to such official directives asking them to vacate what once was the thriving inn at the gates of the quaint river.

In past, the residents would seek the legal help to counter such directives.

But now, they say, they’re living in different times and are apparently staring at the conceivable dislodgment.

Mr. Rahgir, photographed here in his study, now in his sixties, came to Yarkand Sarai with his parents when he was a child. “I have lived here all my life. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” [FPK Photo/Zainab]


But how it’s possible to find a house in just seven days, an elderly resident asks.

“As the permanent residents of the Sarai, where will we go? I’ve three daughters of marriageable age with no financial support. The administration should think of us and make arrangements for the families.”

“We live here. And we have buried our dead here.” Khair-un-Nissa, who walked into the Yarkand Sarai as a bride decades ago, recalls how a stranger (an official) who she had never seen before ordered the families to pack up and leave their home within seven days. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


As the riverbank heritage house at Safa Kadal, the Yarkand Sarai has been sheltering these families ever since the 1947 partition snapped the Silk Route ties with the valley.

The inmates said the successive government allotted the accommodation given their special condition and the historic ties with the divided territory.

The friendships of the young and elderly had formed in the Yarkand Sarai. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


Before the partition, the ancestors of the present day inmates would come as traders and travellers from Yarkand— Xinjiang, Drass, Ladakh and Kargil.

“The Yarkand Sarai has been a trade network for the tradesmen from different parts of the world through Silk Route and mostly Yarkand for trade purposes,” said Hakim Sameer Hamdani, a conservationist and author currently doing a Post-Doctoral fellowship in Islamic Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Those traders used to come in caravans and the building has served as a resting place for them before 1947.”

Later on, due to political changes, the Silk Route was closed, he added.

“After 1947, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had invaded East Turkestan, currently known as Xinjiang, the people of Kashmir who were in East Turkestan and Yarkand as refugees returned to Kashmir were given the Sarai for residing and then relocated to different areas of Srinagar.”

Over the time, some of those families have shifted to Turkey, America and various other countries. But those dwelling Sarai are still struggling with their ‘partitioned’ identities.

“We’re still caught in the cartographic lines drawn in 1947,” says Ali, a young educated resident of the Sarai.

“It was a human tragedy. We lost our homes and then this place became an alternative address for us all these years. This is where our forefathers were born and this is where I was born and now suddenly, we’re being told to vacate it on such a short notice. This is horrendous!”

Women sat together, watching the news, and keeping a look out for any positive update that would pop up on their phone. They await their fathers, husbands, and brothers who had not yet returned from the administrative mansions where they are seeking help so that they get to keep their homes. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


While the young are expressing anguish, the elders are reaching out to the power corridors for some intervention.

“We went to the district magistrate’s office but we weren’t given any audience there,” says Abdul Hakeem, an elderly resident of Yarkand Sarai.

“We left hopelessly and came home disappointed. We’re ready to leave if given a place where we’ll live together as we’re currently living here.”

Inside and outside the Sarai, as Sping’s evening chill is taking over, people are unmoved. But whenever the inhabitants of Yarkand Sarai will go back to their rooms, they will stare at the decorated walls with a different gaze. Perhaps, to save the minute details, even the patterns of cracks or scrapped plaster, that withered bearing witness to their struggles. [FPK Photo/Zainab]


Amid this concern, little Fatima has become quiet.

The lively kid is getting paranoid of losing a space she knew as home all these years.

On the other hand, as the risk of homelessness remains, Fatima’s mother is wondering a question—“Am I going to live on the road with my children now?”


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