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Atiqaji’s refurbished Meeras Mahal brings Sopore on heritage map

Ehsan Fazili/Srinagar

Unmindful of the turmoil and violence that Kashmir and especially her town was going through, Atiqa Bano of Sopore, North Kashmir, had started collecting ‘heritage items’ that could soon vanish from the life of common Kashmiris and housed them in a museum she named Meeras Mahal (The heritage palace).

Sixteen years after the passing away of Atiqaji, as she was popularly called, in 2017, her family continued her mission. As a result the renovated Meeras Mahal was recently thrown open for students and heritage lovers even as its formal launch is slated for April.

Today, the museum has over 7000 items of heritage importance, thanks to the Kashmir Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Span Foundation, an NGO engaged in the preservation of cultural heritage. 

Atiqa Bano inspecting some of the collected items in Meeras Mahal

It may be mentioned hat Sopore was once a hub of terrorism and violence and is also famous for its apple crop. 

The two organizations have scaled up educationist Atiqaji’s efforts during the past two years.“We have been working for more than two years to get it renovated and preservation of the heritage items……the lack of space to accommodate all the items within the single premises continues to be there”, said Muzamil Bashir of Meeras Mahal.  The number of items housed in what is Kashmir’s only private museum grew from 5,000 to 7,000 in a year.

He told Awaz-the Voice that it was difficult to “accommodate all the 7000 items…..some of which could be put on display while others have to be kept in store”. He said the museum requires more space.

Atiqa Bano launched her project in 2001 by collecting items from rural Kashmir that would soon go out of fashion.

Muzamil Bashir said the museum’s soft opening was done given the rising pressures from students and heritage lovers. “Groups of students come to visit the museum even when the museum was closed for renovation. we couldn’t disappoint them”.

Kanz: a stoneware used for pounding spices at the museum

Saleem Beg, Convenor, INTACH, Kashmir Chapter, wrote on Facebook: “Finally a project of passion and a huge cultural statement that brings to life past lifestyles, minor arts, and occupations is dedicated to the people. The interpretation and significance of the objects have a huge educational and cultural value. Besides being a tourist attraction, its ownership by the community establishes a link and connects us with our past”.

Atiqaji’s idea has today been translated into capturing, collecting, preserving, and translating the rich heritage of Kashmir Valley into the Valley’s first ethnography museum.

Many objects of the museum have been placed for registration with the Department of Museums and Archaeology. The organizers said registration of most of the items will be completed shortly, the organizers said.

Izband kangri

“We have started the job and we hope that this little beginning will get transformed into a Hub Centre for heritage lovers, as well, as for education of the future generation, with the present bunch of collections in the Museum which have been divided in different sections”, the mission statement of Meeras Mahal says.

The Meeras Mahas statement says, “We hope that our Museum artifacts will ultimately help the world to have a better understanding and feel of Kashmir and they will appreciate the rich and diverse culture of the people. It will also add to the authentic pleasures of the public in general and will be a training field for the future curators and conservators”.

It also hopes be become a place of interest to tourists.

Atiqa ji, it is said, would utilize her time besides teaching, in identifying the objects and artifacts reflecting our life and customs, especially those putting a spotlight on Kashmir’s uncaptured but highly evolved rural life, agricultural practices, customs, rituals, minor arts and traditional industries”.

A woodwork exhibited at Meeras Mahal

The museum houses more than 7000 artifacts that provide an ethnographic lens into the rich cultural heritage of the Kashmir valley, especially its hinterland. Most of these artifacts are items of everyday use that were a common sight in Kashmir until the end of the 20th century. These are to be considered as repositories of objects of cultural value that are required to be preserved and interpreted. The collections may be as old as a few years ago to a few centuries ago.

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The museum assets include the land and building donated by her family to the Meeras Mahal, registered as a trust in 2009 with Atiqa Bano as the Managing Trustee. The collections comprise terracotta, woodwork, items made of wicker and dried grass, stone instruments, textiles, books, manuscripts, traditional costumes, jewelry, utensils, musical instruments, and other related objects.

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