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Children of the Chinar Season 3, Special series on young achievers in Kashmir, the Downtown-wallahs

Downtown Legacy Tour is a curated tour that helps the travelers to see the hidden beauty of Kashmir - the downtown area of Srinagar. It is a unique experience which lets you explore the history, culture and rich heritage of Kashmir. The curator of the tour, Chinmai Verma, spoke to Akasha Usmani.

Chinmai Verma (extreme left) on a tour of downtown Srinagar.

Akasha Usmani (AU): Can you please tell us about how this initiative was started?

Chinmai Verma (CV): As a part of the larger ongoing process of initiating heritage tourism, amplifying the local economy by modernizing traditional livelihoods and authentic community engagement, Aab e Rawan has started Downtown Legacy Tour in collaboration with the Department of Tourism, Government of Jammu and Kashmir.

Our goal is to show the true essence of Srinagar city through its artistic, cultural, culinary and architectural traditions. Aab e Rawan (AR) is a not-for-profit organization working holistically towards an alternative form of societal development via an eco-systematic approach targeting cultural, environmental, and educational domains.

If I speak from an organizational point of view, the primary motive was to showcase the cultural traditions of Srinagar and to be able to create a space for the community to engage with the tourists. It is a conscious drive towards development of the space in a non-intrusive and non-violent way; it is an attempt to design a way where the benefits of tourism footfall percolate down to the community level in the relatively ignored pockets of the city as well. It is to bridge the increasing gap within the community which has been a by-product of selective exposure.

There was also this deliberation with regards to what one wants to showcase to an outsider as the authentic side of Kashmir and specifically, Srinagar. Up until now, Srinagar has been portrayed as the city with the Mughal Garden and Dal Lake, but it is also so much more than that. Srinagar has existed before Boulevard became what it is today, it is a city with its own history and heritage.

The city has been officially recognized by UNESCO as a heritage city, and so there is a renewed interest in what was about to be lost. Sometimes perhaps we need the outsider to remind us of what is important, but at the same time there was an internal drive as well. We tried to come up with a way where experiential tourism (which albeit is a niche sector) can merge seamlessly and effortlessly with the existing and popular tourism structure of the valley; to be able to present heritage experience in a way that doesn’t alienate or intimidate the tourist but also attracts the traveler, if we can at all draw such a distinction.

Apart from providing guests with curated city tours and heritage walks—a perfect blend of modernity and traditions, we also wanted to create a safer space for solo female travelers and tourists by engaging with young educated tour advisors and capable guides belonging from the local community.

AU: What motivated you to choose the downtown area to be the focus of your tour? What is the importance of this region?

CV: Downtown area of Srinagar is the oldest part of the city - where the foundations were laid in a sense. So, it becomes integral from an educational perspective, for example if you want to explore the culture/ heritage of Delhi you’d go to Old Delhi.

Similarly, it’s the case with Srinagar. Shehr e Khas is the old city in Srinagar. Tourists are usually only provided with an itinerary focused on the uptown part of the city (Boulevard, Foreshore Road) so it’s an initiative for people to understand the real culture of Kashmir. Downtown has long been overlooked as a space worth exposing to the outer eye. There is a perception regarding safety as well. This image gets reinforced by the existing narratives which are again influenced by market forces and commission structures.

Kashmir has the distinction of having a multifaceted and unique cultural blend, making it distinct from the rest of the country. Kashmir has also been an embracing point of the advent of spirituality, bringing in its fold finest traditions of Central Asian civilization. Its different cultural forms like art and architecture, fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, language and mountains, embedded in an ageless period of history, speak volumes of syncretic culture. Srinagar is but just a snapshot of that, and it couldn’t wait any longer than it already has.

AU: How can one experience the true culture of Kashmir in the downtown area as compared to the most famous places in Kashmir?

CV: Boulevard area stands for modernity and capitalism whereas downtown is about history and warmth. The popular tourist places tend to pander to the needs and desires of the outsider, it is more of a supply-based demand in the sense that the experiences have been curated in a way that would match the taste of the tourist. In the clash between tradition/resistance and opulence/compliance, the latter tends to win.

Ali Kadal Zaina Kadal stands as testament to the otherwise that there still remains a place in this world of affection not distance of ingenuity not deception and this is not to berate or rant against the bigger capitalistic structures but to figure out a way of coexistence. Do we put ourselves across in the way the other wants to see us, or do we also express who we really are?

In other spaces, tradition has been made into an artifact, something that you store in museums for generations to come, purchase a ticket and see. It's difficult to see it being practiced. There's also a certain disconnection from the authentic experience, say, when Kahwa is served in the finest porcelain but not in the traditional cup. You can have the most powerful and sophisticated heater inside your houseboat (which is becoming more and more commonplace, unfortunately) but to sit with a kangri is also something that you wouldn't find anywhere else.

You may find Harissa in a fine dining restaurant at 9 pm at night but to be able to stand in line on early winter mornings and to sit around the warm pot and eat is a different experience altogether. But it also depends on individual perspectives and inclinations, I guess. There is no one size fits all we are merely trying to find a size which you wouldn't get anywhere else so easily. That size is not in mass production. It’s relatively rare.

AU: According to you, how has the conflict affected the heritage of Kashmir?

CV: I think it would be pretty astounding to find any single aspect here in the valley that has not been affected by conflict. And that is true everywhere in the world in the sense that conflicts permeate into the subconscious and unconscious of a community who undergo violence.

So, there is one way of saying that because of the conflict the tourism industry has been affected a lot. But another question is whether the people of the valley are also over-dependent on tourism as a provider of livelihood because of the fact that there have been disruptions all along the way in education, in industries, in the lives of people.

While tourism has been a soothing balm, a solace after violence for some it has in itself created cracks within the community. We are interested in exploring those spaces and finding some harmony, especially in the current global atmosphere of divisiveness and animosity.

A second opinion could be that why do we need to separate conflict from heritage.

Sometimes conflict is a part of heritage and the point is to acknowledge it not run away from or ignore it. So can we also start looking at the history of Kashmir as a region that has seen much resistance and oppression but also what imprints they leave even today from a sociological perspective. There is also a conscious effort on the part of the community to repair the so-called image of Kashmir as an unsafe space. Basically, we enter the larger discourse of public opinion versus objective truth and it’s a philosophical stand that we have taken for the latter.

AU: How do you think the downtown heritage tour will change the perception of tourists about Kashmir?

CV: The perception thing is definitely one part of it. There is a certain portrayal of downtown as an unsafe and volatile space but maybe that is not necessarily true. In my experience, it has been completely different, if not totally opposite. No matter where you go in our country, you are bound to come face to face with conservative boundaries and resistance to modernity but it is not to the extent where it becomes a hurdle in the way of personal expression and freedom. It is always a negotiation between the two, and I think more exposure into these spaces will be beneficial at both ends.

Firstly, the outsider can debunk the myths for themselves. Secondly, the community of downtown will also feel included in the bigger travel industry that surrounds them and permeates their lives at the moment they are mostly spectators and so perhaps it is understandable if one feels hard done by. The point is to ensure that the benefits permeate to the community level in as many spaces as possible.

Coming back to the original point, an integral part of this entire initiative is about perceptions, and whether new elements can be added to it. So for example, what the tourist misses out on is the authentic sense of warmth and hospitality that would be difficult to emulate or imitate in even the most luxurious of hotels. And this is not to criticize the hospitality sector which has been catering to so many people, but about providing choices alongside.

When as a tourist, you get a chance to immerse yourself within the culture which is not merely a relic of the past—but in its living breathing form through the diverse ways of living that are being practiced, it’s a different kind of experience altogether. To be able to see how the common Kashmiri people navigate their daily lives and prepare for the challenges certainly alters the perception of a place and its people. It also makes us take a step back and think about ourselves; so it’s a chance to step out of our lives and our worldviews (entrenched within material comforts) and see otherwise.

An exchange of cultural nuances takes place, which has been so integral to the progress of civilization and we have tried to design the tour in that way. Interact with the common person, watch the artisans and craftsmen at work, take a walk in the local market, indulge in a slice of daily life of Srinagar, and there’s a relationship you’d want to come back to, time and again.

AU: What type of response do you get from tourists keeping in mind that the downtown areas have seen violent clashes?

CV: When the outsider plans a trip to Kashmir valley, they are dependent on the public opinion with regards to what construes as safe and what does not. Due to a lack of access to insider knowledge or experience, there is bound to be a skewed perception of the space.

Again, perhaps it is a very generic thing that there are certain perceptions about Goa and Himachal as well, so to speak, but then what you end up experiencing might turn out to be completely in contrast to what you have heard or read. The point is to see it for yourself. And it's not just about tourists but there is a larger culture of compliance that is being built or promoted slowly to not question what is being shown or told. So there is a reluctance to research for themselves. Everyone wants a hassle-free travel experience, and safety is an aspect no one wants to compromise on, quite understandably so.

So, the resistance that we face is not from the tourists themselves, but it is a fight with the general perception that is being built or is being reinforced time and again. So far, we have not received any such questions from the tourist end (with regards to safety, especially) and the feedback has been really wonderful.

In fact, we have had nearly as many residents of Srinagar as our tourists as we have had outsiders, which tells a story in itself. You can create stories in your head and you do not even need to be a thousand miles away. We create perceptions about our own neighbors until up to the point where we haven’t met them or known them. Fear emanates from a lack of knowledge about the other; familiarity breeds comfort. This is about creating a doorway into that world of knowledge and thus emerging with a space of comfort.

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