Kashmir’s lone Shri Pratap Singh Museum is known as a treasure trove for art lovers and history enthusiasts as it houses rare artifacts and items of historical significance, showcasing the cultural heritage of the state. Situated on the banks of river Jhelum in Lal Mandi area, the museum was established in 1898 AD by then Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Pratap Singh, in his summer guest house, largely based on collections transferred from the state ‘Toshkhana’ (palace treasury). A century later, the museum got a new building adjacent to the old one.
Though it has not been completed yet, the museum has been thrown open for public recently owing to widespread demands from different quarters. The foundation stone of the new building was laid in 2008 by then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and the construction project was handed over to the Police Housing Corporation (PHC), which was scheduled to complete it in two years’ time.
Approximately 80,000 artifacts and objects ranging from archaeological items, sculptures, numismatics items, decorative art, weapons, paintings, anthropological and natural history items and textiles are housed in the museum.
The three-storey building has 10 major galleries – archaeology, numismatic, decorative art, jewellery, culture and society, arms and armoury, textile, painting, manuscript and natural history. It provides a multi-layered history of the cultural heritage of the state. The ground floor exhibits the antiquity of a man in Kashmir followed by the developments that gave rise to the settlements around 5,000 years ago.
“The work of art in terracotta, as old as second century BC, stone and bronze showcases the archaeological development and the vastness of the cultural heritage of the state,” said Mohammad Shafi Zahid, director – archives, archaeology and museums, Jammu and Kashmir.
Zahid said the new museum complex is designed in a way that a visitor starts his journey of Kashmir’s history corresponding to the start of 5,000 years. The visitor then follows the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other eras.
“The archaeological gallery narrates the history of a man in Kashmir from around two million years down up to 5,000 BP (before present) when he settled down and built villages to introduce farming for sustenance and invented arts and crafts. The terracotta gallery is exhibiting the works of art from first to eighth centuries that mostly remained associated with the Buddhist faith in Kashmir,” he said.
The museum has sculptures of various Hindu deities from eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, carved in single stones. The bronze sculptures from ninth century exhibited in the museum belong to various religions. The numismatic gallery in the museum has been arranged in a way that shows a visitor the evolutionary development of coins starting from third century BC.
“Punch-marked coins, Greek-era silver coins, Mughal, Afghan and Dogra-era coins are on display in the museum and narrate the evolution of currency at different stages along with the political and economic situation of the country,” commented Zahid. The museum, the director said, has one of the richest artifact collections in India. “There are many unique and rare collections in the museum. For instance, the Gilgit manuscripts with painted covers of the seventh century regarding Buddhism, a rare bilingual birch bark document in Shardha and Persian of the 16th century relating to the purchase of land and a copy of Shahanama Firdausi (world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet),” he said.
While most of the galleries have been transferred to the new complex, there are some like the painting, manuscripts and natural history galleries which are still housed in the old building. “Once the construction is over, we will shift all of the items to the new building which offers healthy environment for prolonging the life of the collections,” informed Zahid.
The new building has large open spaced reserves and new display techniques for dissemination of knowledge. The new complex is disabled-friendly, has children’s discovery rooms, auditorium and a seminar hall. The museum also provides guided tours to the visitors.
The director said that while there was some damage to the organic items like paper-machie in the 2014 floods, the inorganic items are completely safe. The new museum complex has a 65-feet-deep foundation, and is quake and fire resistant, damp-proof and secure. It has been designed by local architects and the exteriors depict the traditional Kashmiri architecture even as the interiors have state-of-the-art facilities.
Zahid, however, added the museum lacked a backup generator in case there was power outage as well as human resource like sweepers etc.