Kashmir construction story—the rise of a new city center

A panormic view of Srinagar city from a vantage point. [FPK Photo/Amir Bin Rafi.]

A stretch that once was a swamp is now a thriving shopping center in Srinagar, but how it became a commercial hub is no more an urban legend.

Cooling his heels for a cab, an old man has his gaze set on a new shopping complex in Srinagar’s Munawarabad area. It’s a subzero December day and the deafening marketplace din is sending busy vibes around. The elder’s stare and the commercial commotion ostensibly highlight the conflict of a commoner over the uber-urbanization of the heritage city.

The stare ends on a smirk and a whisper. Next to the elder stands a boy eating corn and waiting for a ride. Without exchanging eye-contact, the old man tells the young man: “It’s fascinating how this place has changed so much in these years.”

The comment invokes chronicle of a commercial wave that swept the swampy stretch in early 2000 and made Munawarabad Srinagar’s new shopping street. 

Many call a bygone popular hangout as the center of this change. A decade of closure and dragged-on discord had then set a new stage in that entertainment theatre. Eventually, as Khayam Cinema became Khyber Hospital during the “healing touch” era, the shift sparked a new footfall seeking remedy for their malaises. 

And soon, Munawarabad became the city’s commercial fairytale — witnessing rise of showrooms, complexes, guest houses and restaurants. 

“The commercialization was majorly fuelled by the strategic site of the place,” says Samad Wani, a local trader. “As an important link road between Downtown, Dalgate and Lal Chowk, the area acted as a confluence point for the new urban development. Unlike the old city’s heritage skyline, the area became a mini-model of a modern day bazar.”

Numero uno of this change, many reckon, was the Paris Automobiles. The two-wheeler outlet became a first stark sign of the lively market image in an otherwise lifeless street where a baker’s smoke outing had ended up on his death. A sentry in a hotel-turned-encampment pulled a twilight-trigger and sent the entire neighborhood into deep mourning and rage for days. 

Barring that case of “mistaken identity”, the stretch remained still and witnessed an uninterrupted developmental drive. Unlike a dissent pocket beyond Baba Dawood Bridge, Munawarabad was comparatively calm due to its commercial nature making it Srinagar’s new city center. 

In fact, says Shiraz Ali, a native resident, Munawarabad acted as a valve for Srinagar in many pressure-cooker situations. “It gave a much-needed breather to strife-weary population during some crippling times,” he says. “It became a go-to place where offices and stores multiplied due to a relative respite.”

A stretch in Munwarabad.

Over the years, as many upscale showrooms cropped up, the fraught place got its new commercial address. “The change was gradual,” Ali says. “It was dented by intermittent explosive phases in the valley and blockades, but the development wheel never stopped here.”

The wave of commercialization benefitted the locals who progressed through small ventures – like hotels, retail shops and restaurants. Many of them are now movers and shakers of the trade hub.

“A decade ago,” says Rafiq Baba, a local pharmacist, “I decided to shift my store from Downtown to Munawarabad. I proved to be a wise decision.”

Back then, Baba recalls, the locals would travel two kilometers from Munawarabad to do shopping either in Downtown or Lal Chowk. But now, the pharmacist says, people from other places come to Munawarabad for shopping. 

The pendulum shift was also propelled by the proximity of the place with old and new Srinagar. As a bridge between the two, Munawarabad became an ideal shopping center in the city and got traction and traffic from both the two sides, unlike the Sangarmal—the SDA (Srinagar Development Authority) run shopping complex that started with a bang and ended with a whimper. 

“With new shopping complexes now,” says Muhammad Tahir, a local educator, “the area is only becoming bustling by the day.”

Many believe that the catalyst for this commercialization is the eatery business having a sizeable clientele in the area. The culinary change started from barbeque outlets near a filling station. The ‘branded space’ provided by these ‘smoke houses’ not only ended Kashmiri society’s reluctance to relish the roasted meat, but also challenged the dominance of Khayam’s classic barbeque points. 

In the evolving eatery ecosystem of Srinagar, Munawarabad was now second to none.

“These eateries helped local businesses to grow and gave opportunity to many people to open up different ventures,” says Usman Azad, Director of Hotel Downtown. “The food chain improved economic status of the local residents whose property prices have gone up.”

At the bus-stand, the old man is yet to board a cab. He’s still wondering about the ‘complex story’ of the erstwhile slushy stretch. 

“Barring one or two swamp sites now, the rest is now a thriving shopping street,” the old man says. “It’s incredible how this place has become an urban success story in such a short span of time.”

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