When Sopore, the apple hub of northern Kashmir, was evolving into the epicentre of a burgeoning insurgency, a celibate, burqa-clad educationist, Atiqa Bano, conceived the idea of preserving Kashmir heritage by safeguarding the symbols of the valley's culture. She initiated this monumental task from a small, dingy hostel room of her private education college, marking the humble beginnings of a significant cultural endeavour.
Housing over 7,000 meticulously curated artefacts, Bano’s Meeras Mahal (the palace of heritage) serves as a vital repository of Kashmir heritage, offering an intimate glimpse into the life and customs of Kashmir’s past. This collection sheds light on a way of life that was an integral part of this region until the twentieth century, preserving the rich cultural legacy of Kashmir for future generations.
Early this month, Jaspreet Kaur attended the inauguration of a three-story museum building, 'Meeras Mahal,' at the Highland Colony on the Sopore-Bandipora road, in the company of a galaxy of cultural activists. The collection of artefacts pertains to the ethnography of Kashmir’s 19th and early 20th century, ranging between wood, grass, wicker, and pottery. It also contains ethnic jewellery, coins, musical instruments, rare published books, and manuscripts, mostly 100-150 years old.
“My father was associated with the construction of Jawahar Tunnel—Jammu and Kashmir’s first road tunnel of 2.85 km length through the Pir Panjal mountain between Kashmir’s Qazigund and Jammu’s Banihal towns on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, which was inaugurated in 1956. Until his death in 2021, he had a dream of making something memorable, something that would preserve the repertoire of Kashmir’s distinct culture and heritage. I decided to accomplish it,” Jaspreet Kaur told The Probe.
“I launched Span Foundation in 1997. Years later, I met the Kashmir in-charge of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Saleem Beg, who said that Sopore’s educationist and social reformist, Atiqa Bano, had laid the foundation for a countryside museum in 2002. We provided financial support to Atiqa Ji’s project through INTACH from 2008, and finally, the building was inaugurated in Sopore in December 2021,” Kaur asserted.
“But it’s still in need of massive funding if all of its galleries and stores have to be developed as per the standards of a real museum,” added Kaur, who is also busy with the documentation of Kashmir’s exquisite art and handicrafts.
Atiqa Bano (1940-2017) set up a private education college with a hostel in which 80 percent of seats were reserved for women. After holding different positions, including District Education Officer, in the J&K Government’s School Education Department, she retired as Director of Libraries, Archives, and Museums. She pursued her dream of a rural museum seriously after her retirement from government service.
Granddaughter of Sopore’s learned scholar and litterateur, Ghulam Mohammad Hanafi Sopori, Bano utilised her considerable time in identifying objects and artefacts reflecting Kashmiri life and customs, especially those putting a spotlight on Kashmir’s highly evolved rural life, agricultural practices, customs, rituals, minor arts, and traditional cottage industries.
Over the years, Bano’s commitment and perseverance became a driving force behind establishing ‘Meeras Mahal’ inside her college hostel. The collection of over 7,000 articles and artefacts came from personal contributions. “The museum is thus a result of her dogged pursuit to preserve a significant part of our cultural history, especially material heritage, which otherwise was fading fast from the landscape and mindscape of people in Kashmir,” says the website of Meeras Mahal.
From college and hostel to the museum, the entire foundation is administered by Bano’s women empowerment initiative ‘Majlis-un-Nissa,’ which runs mainly on local contributions.
“Atiqa was an indefatigable crusader for women's empowerment. She began her mission with the establishment of a typing institute, the first in northern Kashmir. In 1972, she got her ‘Majlis-un-Nissa’ registered as an educational and capacity-building society for women. Later, her forte diversified to the preservation of articles related to Kashmir’s culture and heritage, mainly of the 19th and early 20th century,” Masoodi said.
Bano’s collection included handwritten Qur’ans, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit manuscripts, period coins, and a comprehensive history of the Kashmiri cloak, pheran, besides the typical wedding trousseau of Muslims and Pandits. The museum also showcases pottery and artefacts related to the weaving of the exquisite Pashmina textile and Kani Shawl.
The terracotta collection includes items like Matth (storage vessels), Lopun (large storage vessels for grains), Daan (clay stoves), Toor, Kenz (serving bowls), Chai Pateil (tea pan), and a variety of birds.
According to Masoodi and Beg, there are no CCTVs, no proper compound walls or gates, not even the required electric fittings. Beg said that the Switzerland-based non-profit ‘Alif Foundation’ provided an amount of around Rs 10 lakh for documentation of the museum collections. Besides, an amount of Rs 90 lakh came in from Kaur’s Span Foundation. The amount was utilised for redesigning and renovation of the building, interpretation of objects, and development of a website for ‘Meeras Mahal’.
“Structural enhancements were done in Phase-I to fortify seismic resilience, including the strategic insertion of structural steel at critical areas. Retrofitting the building to accommodate expansive exhibition spaces required dismantling and replacing some walls with steel girders. Ramps and fire escapes were introduced for improved accessibility, drawing inspiration from Kashmir’s taq-based architecture for the main elevation,” Beg elaborated.
Muzamil Bashir Masoodi, President of Majlis-un-Nissa, said that airtight glasses, fireproof lockers, and other containers were required for the preservation of many articles, but the same were not available as there was no more financial support from any quarter. “If we keep the coins on display in the open, visiting children and even elders could lift and take away the same,” he added.
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict - after the 1990 Kashmir conflict - for the national and international media.
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