Maha Shivratri 2024: Ancient Shiva Temples Of Kashmir

The remains of ancient Shiva temples in Kashmir hold the key to the region's Shaivite past
Inside Shankaracharya temple
Inside Shankaracharya templeShutterstock

We had driven along National Highway 44 to Awantipora, approximately 30 km southeast of Srinagar. After a quick check with a bystander, we retraced our steps and found what we were looking for—the Avanti Shovra temple, also called Avantishwara. We walked through the gate across well-manicured lawns towards the skeletal structure of what must have once been a grand edifice. Ruins are strewn all over the grounds—a section of a column here, the remains of a capital there. The ravages of time are apparent, but the still visible engravings are awe-inspiring. The garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) is bereft of any shivlinga or idols. That is the status of most ancient temples in Kashmir, and there are scores across the Valley.

An archaelogical fragment from Avanti Shovra temple
An archaelogical fragment from Avanti Shovra temple

Kashmir was a significant centre of Hinduism in the first half of the first millennium. Buddhism, too, was an important religion under the Mauryas and Kushanas. Kashmir was the base for Buddhist monks travelling into China and the rest of East Asia, and Buddhism spread from here to neighbouring Ladakh, Tibet and China. The dominance of Hinduism strengthened when a succession of Hindu dynasties ruled Kashmir, starting from the seventh century, when the Karkota dynasty came to power. 

According to Gurgaon-based Sunil Raina, a scholar of Kashmir's ancient history and religion, "King Lalitaditya of the Karkota dynasty was a Shiva worshipper, and it was under his patronage that many grand temples were constructed. He granted land to Vaishnavite and Shaivite scholars and constructed a Buddha statue at his capital city, Parihaspora." Around the 9th century, Kashmiri philosophers developed what came to be called Kashmiri Shaivism. "God and the soul were regarded as one," explained Dr. Ravi Dhar, who has spent many years researching spirituality and Shaivism.

The Bumzuva cave and temple
The Bumzuva cave and templeWikipedia

A Historical Tale

Avantivarman, the first king of the Utpala dynasty, which succeeded the Karkotas, established his capital at Awantipora, where he built two important temples—Avantishwara and Avantiswami temples. The latter is located nearby and has Vishnu as the presiding deity. Pattan is a sleepy little town on the road to Baramulla from Srinagar. The otherwise ignored town is known for its two fabulous temples built 1,200 years ago by Avantivarman's son, Shankaravarman, who succeeded him in the late 9th century. Shankaravarman shifted his capital from Awantipora to Pattan and renamed it Shankarapattana. Determined to build a few temples, he named the Shankaragaurishvara temple after himself and the Sugandhesha temple after his wife.

Remains of Sugandhesha temple in Pattan
Remains of Sugandhesha temple in Pattan

Both had Shiva as the presiding deity. As I approached the Shankaragaurishvara temple, I was taken aback by a loud banner announcing a rubaru (face-to-face) program with local youth. Chairs were being arranged on the lawns surrounding the temple, and a loudspeaker system was being set up. Crowds were milling around in anticipation. I have been to many sites managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), but this was the first time I had seen them being taken over for an activity like this. I approached the ASI staff for answers, but the young recruit seemed to have none. I decided to spare him and focus on the task at hand—exploring this ancient temple. Years of pillage have taken their toll, and the remains are difficult to decipher, though I spotted an enormous engraving on one of the walls. It's most likely a representation of Shiva, but it is difficult to say because of the mutilation it has undergone.

Cracked relic from Avanti Shovra temple, Awantipora
Cracked relic from Avanti Shovra temple, Awantipora

The Sugandhesha temple is a smaller version of the Shankaragaurishvara temple, but better preserved. Architectural fragments are scattered throughout the temple courtyard—fluted columns, bracket capitals, and broken pieces. Interestingly, King Shankaravarman is said to have started his reign well but became a tyrant, much hated by his subjects, towards the end of it. To top it all, he cannibalised the ancient capital of Kashmir, Parihaspora, to build the two Shiva temples. The legend goes that while his father's name still survives in the name of Awantipora, Shankaravarman's capital, Shankarapattana, is known just by the name Pattan; his subjects decided to erase any memories of their hated king.

"Kashmiri temple architecture is distinct from the rest of India. While some of it is inspired by the Gandhara style, there are influences of Roman, Greek, and Buddhist architecture," said Ashok Pandey, a veteran archaeologist who served in the ASI with two long stints in Jammu and Kashmir.

"Virtually all the Hindu temples of the era have a standardised design with a trefoil arch (three-lobed arch) and straight-edged pyramidal roof, along with columns and triangular pediments." An excellent example of these two architectural features is the 12th-century Bumzuva Cave Temple. A short drive from the famous Martand Sun Temple, it is located in Bumzuva village.

Tourists climb large steps to reach Shankaracharya temple, Srinagar
Tourists climb large steps to reach Shankaracharya temple, Srinagar

Of An Ancient Past 

At the base of the 50-step climb, one can spot the two smaller temples that were converted into ziarats—Muslim shrines—several centuries ago. I climbed 50 steps or so and came across the temple's beautiful façade. It is located in a cave carved into a massive limestone cliff overlooking the Lidder River. A pyramid-shaped structure and giant columns with capitals, a mix of Gandhara and Greek influences, frame the signature trefoil arch. The starkness of the garbhagriha is startling—just two shivlingas on a platform under a rough-hewn ceiling. While ASI sites do not allow worship, I noticed that one of the shivlingas has sandalwood paste markings and floral offerings. I found myself panting as I walked up to the Shankaracharya temple (Jyeshteshwara temple) in Srinagar—located atop the Shankaracharya Hill on the Zabarwan Range, about 1,000 feet above the Valley.

I would not have undertaken this trip if it wasn't for my excitement at seeing the oldest existing temple in Kashmir. The redoubtable chronicler of ancient Kashmir, Kalhana, wrote about the temple in his famous "Rajatarangini" in the 12th century and dated this temple to about 371 BC. I stopped midway near a kerbside stall selling religious souvenirs. The Sikh gentleman running the booth gave me an encouraging smile as if egging me on to keep walking. I reached the platform and washed my hands and feet before I climbed the last few stone-paved steps to the temple, which sits on an octagonal base. The sanctum sanctorum is dark, with a large shivlinga adorned by a snake. I bowed and paid my respects before I started my downward climb.

The ancient temples are ghosts of their former selves. It's as if Lord Shiva is reminding us about the impermanence of it all. However, while the man-made structures have all but perished, Shiva exists in the culture and traditions of Kashmiri Pandits. Even today, a Kashmiri Pandit wedding is incomplete without "Posh Pooja"—a ritual where the bride and the groom are covered with a cloth and worshipped as Shiva and Shakti with offerings of flowers denoting the union of two into one.

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