Some time back, I had shared on social media a photo of a canal in the city of Utrecht (Netherlands) which had been recently restored after parts of it had been concreted over in 1970’s. The canal (actually a moat) called the Catharijnesingel, dating back to 11 century, had been concreted over in the 70’s to accommodate a 12-lane motorway in order to provide better access to the city’s shopping district.
More than 40 years later the town, after holding a referendum which voted for waterways instead of roads, restored the 900 year old canal and now the town of Utrecht celebrated the revival of the canal. Since I had captioned my post as ‘Resurrection of Nallah Mar?’ many friends started wondering whether our Nallah Mar could actually be revived.
Soon after the post I came across the ‘Technical Report on Development of Nallah Mar Area’. This document was preserved in the personal collection of Er Ghulam Hassan Khan, Retired Chief Engineer. Er Khan, a graduate of Harvard University, USA, was amongst the first engineering graduates of Kashmir valley. He was known for his engineering acumen and had been responsible for design, engineering and execution of some of the prestigious engineering projects (including SMHS Hospital, Srinagar) in Kashmir valley.
Given that people were still interested in knowing more about Nallah Mar, the reasons for its filling, the construction of Nallah Mar road and the possibility of it ever being restored, like the Utrecht moat above, I thought it only proper to pen down a set of write ups on the Nallah Mar which while capturing its various aspects would also attempt to answer some of the controversies surrounding this highly debated project.
The Nallah Mar
One of the major infrastructure interventions by the government in the old city that particularly irks the elderly Srinagarites, even after almost 50 years of the intervention, is the loss (or filling) of Nallah Mar.
The Mar, as it is locally remembered, was a water channel, said to have been constructed by Zain-ul-Abidin in 1500’s. The waterway connected the lagoon of Baba Demb to Khushalsar lake and to Jhelum near Waniyar, Noorbagh on the western fringe of the old city. The old city of Srinagar actually has grown on a couple of miles on either side of the Nallah Mar.
Over these past six centuries the Mar had become a part and parcel of the life in the Shehr-Khas. In absence of adequate vehicular transport in the city, the Mar was used for water transport; for moving grain, goods, construction material etc to ghats (shops), as well as by people, for movement and for pleasure.
It was also used as a floating vegetable market with the fresh produce from the Dal lake being sold from the boats floating in the Mar. The waters of the Mar were also used for drinking, bathing and ablution. The ghats along the Mar were popular gossip centres.
The Mar was very popular with the tourists as well who would go for a boat ride on it to explore the old town and do their shopping. People including tourists used to travel from Brari Numbal lagoon to Ganderbal (and even to Wular lake) via Anchar lake. Kashmir pandit pilgrims used this water transport to go to Kher Bhawani Mandir in Ganderbal and Muslim pilgrims used it for attending Urs of Qamar Sahib near Ganderbal.
Many of the tourists have painted pictures of Mar and later, after the advent of camera in 19th century pictures of Mar were taken by Europeans who visited Kashmir. One of our family stories mentions French visitors coming in a boat up to Narwara near Iddgah to buy pashmina. So, in a way the Mar was an integral part of the daily life of the people of downtown or of Srinagar itself since the town then was restricted to the old town only.
The Start of the Decay of Nallah Mar
There are several reasons which in different ways are responsible for the decay and demise of Nallah Mar. All was well with the Mar till the early 1950’s when the then government, in order to release the flood water of 1950 flood from Dal lake into Anchar lake, made very deep excavation (cut) in Nallah Amir Khan. As a result of this deep cut in Nallah Amir Khan, the water level in Dal dropped quite below its standard operating level. This resulted in surfacing of land mass all along the peripheries of Dal and Nagin lakes.
This land mass was immediately encroached upon and the then government succumbed to the pressure not to fill back the cut in Nallah Amir Khan so as to raise the water level in Dal to pre flood level. Thus, the water level in Dal lake was retained at a level much lower than its standard operating level.
As a consequence of the lower level of water in Dal lake, the difference in water level between the Dal, Bab Demb and Nallah Mar was reduced. With this reduced difference in water levels, between Dal and Bab Demb, the velocity of water and thence the discharge into Bab Demb lagoon was substantially reduced.
Consequently, the discharge into Nallah Mar was correspondingly reduced and that is the main reason for the decay of Nallah Mar. This politics of appeasing a certain section of the voters, by maintaining the low water level in Dal lake, can be considered the single most important factor responsible for the decay of Nallah Mar.
Also,, with improved road connectivity and the rapid increase in vehicular transport, the Mar started losing its usefulness as a popular mode of transport. The reduced discharge in the Mar only made matters worse for the Mar with the navigation in it becoming very difficult. Eventually, water transport through the Mar was gradually abandoned.
Another development which impacted the health of the Mar was the introduction of the modern sanitary system. The old city had traditional pit latrines where the night soil, which was in great demand because of its rich nutrient content, was regularly taken out by scavengers for use in the malyari (vegetable) land.
With the diversion of malyari land for housing, coupled with introduction of sanitary toilets and easier availability of fertilisers, the demand for the night soil dropped. Septic tanks and soakage pit concept was yet to catch up and instead these latrines discharged into open storm water drains which, in absence of a sewage network eventually emptied into the Nallah Mar.
The Mar soon became a very convenient place for dumping of garbage, disposal of raw sewage and sullage. Soon encroachments of the banks of the Mar started taking place. With passage of time and without anyone realising it, the Mar turned from a freshwater channel into an open sewer.
In the two decades, from about 1950 to late 1960s, the condition of the Nallah Mar only deteriorated rapidly. During these two decades it was transformed from a freshwater channel, which people, including tourists, used for drinking and boating into a stinking toxic sewer.
It is said that the stink and foul smell was unbearable for people living on or around the Mar. Particularly, during summer, those living close to the Nallah Mar would not be able to even open their windows for the fear of stink: and it was getting worse with every passing day. There were serious apprehensions that if left unattended, the Mar could end up spreading an epidemic in Srinagar city.
To be continued…
The piece was first published on Greater Kashmir.
Iftikhar Drabu is a published author, a Civil Engineer by qualification, and a student of history.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected].