What binds Red Square and Lal Chowk (Letter from Moscow)

Last Updated: Tue, Dec 15, 2009 05:00 hrs

Snow-covered roads in winters, bustling crowds of shoppers wrapped in heavy woollens, beautifully decked shops, and a sense of insecurity -- there are plenty of commonalities between Moscow's Red Square and its namesake Lal Chowk in Jammu and Kashmir's Srinagar city.

Few people remember today that Lal Chowk, a bustling business hub in Kashmir's summer capital, is named after the central marketplace in Moscow -- Lal means Red, Chowk is Square.

It was a group of enthusiastic Communists in Srinagar who thought of the name Lal Chowk after Lenin seized power in Moscow in 1917.

Located in Moscow's old market place, Red Square is a sprawling meeting place for people -- a la Lal Chowk. Both, neither red nor square, resemble each other a lot although there are some stark dissimilarities.

Red Square is surrounded by the Kremlin, a department store, a museum and St. Basil's Cathedral - centres of government, business, history and religion. It also houses Lenin's tomb, a granite mausoleum of the founder of the world's first socialist state.

Socialism is what Jammu and Kashmir's former chief minister, the late Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, a legend in the state, was attracted to.

He more than readily gave Srinagar city's main centre the name of Lal Chowk.

Russian historians argue that the commonly-held assumption that the 'red' in Red Square refers to Communism is misplaced. The marketplace was established in the 15th century and was originally called Trinity Square after the Trinity Cathedral, the same site where stands St. Basil's now.

'Krasnaya', Russian for red, was attached to St. Basil's Cathedral and later transferred to the nearby square. It thus became the 60,000 sq metre shopping centre Red Square, one of the most famous places in the world.

Srinagar's Lal Chowk is not as sprawling as its Russian namesake. Amid hundreds of lined shops and street vendors, its narrow lanes and by-lanes, converging at Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) are like a labyrinth for an unknowing visitor to get lost.

But there is a brighter side to these byzantine lanes. The moment there is an act of violence, courtesy a 20-year-old separatist war, one can easily get into these lanes for a possible safer place.

At both places one feels like in a fishbowl environment. In Moscow, a common atmosphere of hushed conversations and hand symbols reinforces that belief.

While Moscow was only some 20 years ago freed from Communist rule, the sense of insecurity among the people has not totally vanished.

'There used to be extensive surveillance, particularly of foreigners, before the Communists ended,' a Russian interpretor told a visiting IANS correspondent.

Unlike the Red Square, Srinagar's Lal Chowk, where paramilitary forces abound, is a place considered not too safe because of uncertainty due to the unending guerrilla war.

Night life also differentiates Lal Chowk from Red Square. In any case, Srinagar is not as enticing as Moscow.

In Moscow, life comes alive every night and there is something for everyone: a jazz aficionado, a hardcore clubber or a liquor lover.

One cannot imagine any of these in Srinagar.

Hospitality is another virtue that strikes a similarity between Moscow and Srinagar.

A common belief is that hospitality is rooted in Russian culture. And Kashmiris believe they are no less hospitable.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at s.kashani@ians.in)

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