In the aftermath of the floods in Jammu and Kashmir, cultural artefacts suffered heavy damage but disaster management policies do not address cultural losses.
The devastating floods of Jammu and Kashmir in September left hundreds dead, several thousand affected and caused severe damage to life and property. The cultural heritage and invaluable treasures took a hard hit too. Cultural heritage remains vulnerable not only during periods of armed conflicts but also to natural calamities like floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Significantly, although, the word “culture” appears multiple times in India’s National Policy on Disaster Management, it is only in reference to a “culture of preparedness”. The policy talks about the devastating effects of disasters, but includes no programme that would protect cultural property and treasures. Very little to no government action had been reported in the first weeks following the aftermath of the flood.
The flood fury left a trail of destruction, and the River Jhelum breached the historic Srinagar Bund in several places. Two of the most important cultural establishments, the Sri Pratap Singh (SPS) Museum in Srinagar and the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, are situated close to each other and on the historic Bund along the river. The SPS Museum is one of the oldest museums in the region, having been established by the Maharaja, Sri Pratap Singh in 1898 AD. Showcasing the cultural and archaeological collections of the region, it houses more than 70,000 artefacts and objects covering a range of themes like Archaeology, Numismatics, Art, Arms and Armoury, Paintings, Textiles etc. Located next to the SPS Museum is the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, which was established to conserve, promote, and develop the rich languages, literature, folk and performing arts of Jammu & Kashmir. Several structures were inundated with flood water leaving thick layers of sludge all over. It has been reported that irreparable damage has been caused to artefacts, manuscripts, textiles, paintings etc. Many manuscripts have been destroyed and possibly damaged forever in both the Museum and the Academy. Other institutions such as the Directorate of Stationery and Office Supplies; J & K Police Records; Central Reserve Police Force Records; J & K High Court; Bar Association Library, suffered varying degrees of damage. The over 150-year old Directorate of Survey and Land Records at Bemina was on the brink of destruction, but timely action of the staff, who shifted all the records to safety in the upper floors, have kept the records intact. In the subsequent weeks, it was also reported that several damaged objects, manuscripts etc. were retrieved and local experts were looking into restorative actions.
The flood-hit library of the Academy reported that they managed to salvage many rare books including the rarest of the rare manuscripts due to the timely shifting of manuscripts, books and paintings to the first floor. However, a large collection of books including those published by the Academy were damaged. The authorities are hopeful that ninety-percent of their collection is safe and the remaining ten percent of their collection, which is damaged, could be restored with modern techniques. In comparison, the SPS Museum reported that according to a preliminary assessment nearly ninety-percent of their artefacts was probably destroyed, especially the papier-mâché objects with intricate designs and carvings. The most precious of the manuscripts that absorbed water were the 5th or 6th Century A.D ‘Gilgit manuscripts’ discovered in 1931 which have an unmatched significance in Buddhist studies. These precious manuscripts on birch-bark are testimony to the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan religio-philosophical literature at the cusp of Southasia.
There are significant challenges to recovery after being struck by a natural calamity. Caring for people, of course, comes first, but it is also important to also assess and restore lost / damaged cultural repositories. Not only has the flood reduced to sludge a significant part of heritage and artefacts lodged in institutions, but it may also have destroyed valuable cultural artefacts owned and preserved by individuals. Rescue and restoration of this damaged heritage is a must for future generations to be able to value their past.
While Jammu & Kashmir awaits government support, a few civil society groups and NGOs have assessed the damage and launched campaigns appealing the government to immediately involve experts and take action towards the preservation and restoration of these valuables. Can private / non-governmental groups and individuals become protectors of the vast cultural riches? Several non-governmental & private bodies (both national and international) offer assistance under “Emergency Responses / Emergency Initiatives / Rapid Responses”, though the pace at which these measures are implemented might not always be as swift as required.
To address the gaps between making an appeal and receiving assistance, an effective first line of defence could be created i.e. consisting of the local and State / regional emergency units. Currently, the national and state government bodies and authorities only have guidelines for combating natural disasters but they largely ignore or make no mention of how to address loss of cultural heritage. Disaster management policies must also include strategies to address rescue of cultural heritage, including provisions for immediate assessment of assessing damage to movable and immovable cultural heritage. Disasters can occur anytime and most often without a warning. A “culture of preparedness …” under disaster management is grossly insufficient, and what national policies need to look into is preparedness to protect cultural heritage from natural calamities. A decade since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which had monumental humanitarian, economic, environmental and cultural impacts, the 2014 Kashmir floods can perhaps serve as an eye-opener to these lacunae in disaster management policies.
*Kathmandu-based Sarita Ramamoorthy is the Programme Manager, Hri
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