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HERITAGE: GODDESS OF THE MOUNTAINS

April 01, 2018

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The ruins of the Sharda Temple -Photos by Arif Mahmood/White Star
The ruins of the Sharda Temple -Photos by Arif Mahmood/White Star

My Indian friends insist Sharda was a university in ancient times. I, however, find no reference to a school at the site. Sources only mention the temple. Nor, too, did I find any archaeological trace in the area around the temple compound.

Up in the valley of the Kishanganga (duly Islamised to Neelam) River, in the elbow where the Madhumati flows into it from the south-east, the ruined Sharda temple sits on a hill above the village named after the temple.

An impressive stone stairway leads up the hill past the military post to the remains of a thick stone wall and a ruined gateway. Though only portions of the boundary wall now remain, it is not difficult to see that it once enclosed a rectangle whose corners are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass.

The Sharda Temple in the valley of Kishanganga represents the typical features of Kashmiri temple architecture

Smack in the middle of the quadrangle stands the temple. Built of locally quarried reddish sandstone, the temple dates back very likely to the eighth century CE, in the age of the Karkota dynasty of Kashmir. The brilliant Lalitaditya Muktapida (reigned 699-735), celebrated as much for his administration and military conquests as his fine taste in raising monuments, is the likely author of the Sharda temple. The breathtakingly beautiful and magnificent Martand Sun Temple, near Anantnag, was constructed in his time and, as one looks up to the much humbler facade of the ruins of Sharda, one cannot but remark on the similarity of architecture.

A mock pillar flanks the main door of the temple
A mock pillar flanks the main door of the temple

Though Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, travelled through Kashmir in the 630s, he missed Sharda. That was very likely because the pious traveller was in India to collect Buddhist scripture and relics, and Sharda even then was sacred to the goddess of the same name and of no interest for a devout follower of the great Buddha. But four centuries later, we hear of it from Abu Rehan Al Beruni.

Al Beruni’s description, however, rests on hearsay for he himself never went that deep into Kashmir. He tells us that the temple housed a wooden image of the goddess Sharda and was a much venerated place of pilgrimage. Commenting on Al Beruni, archaeologist Aurel Stein — who surveyed Sharda in 1892 — says that the fact Al Beruni mentions Sharda right after the Sun Temple of Multan signifies that the Kashmiri temple was among the most highly regarded worship places in India.

The stairs leading to the main temple
The stairs leading to the main temple

Abul Fazal, one of the ‘Nine Jewels’ of Akbar the Great and author of his history, has another interesting yarn to add. He says that on a certain day of the year, the temple begins to shake to produce a rather extraordinary effect. He notes that this highly regarded temple was sacred to Durga or Devi.

Sitting on a square plinth, the temple is square in plan with the doorway facing west. Five steps lead to the entrance which was, at one time, under a half vault. Behind it was the trefoil archway leading into the inner sanctum. Today, the structure is open to the sky.

On the three remaining facades, we find the front elevation of the temple in relief. This was the typical decorative art of Kashmiri temple architecture that we find in all the Kashmiri temples of the Salt Range in Punjab as well as at Martand. It may be that the builders were averse to plain outside walls that they replicated the elevation on them. But it could also be that knowing the limitation and eventual decay of buildings, they copied the design so that even after the spire collapsed a beholder would still know what the temple originally looked like.

The pillars are poor copies of the Doric style
The pillars are poor copies of the Doric style

From the repetition on the facades, we can tell that the Sharda spire or shikhara was a rather plain conical feature. We also see that the capitals of the mock pillars flanking the main door and repeated on the facades were poor copies of the Doric. (A much more accomplished version can be seen at the beautiful Shivite Temple of Malot in the Salt Range.) I imagine that King Lalitaditya would have ordered this worship place as a sort of a poor architectural second to Martand for local worshippers.

From the absence of debris around the ruinous temple, Stein assumed that the building had never been completed. But since Al Beruni heard there was a much revered wooden icon of Sharda housed here, I say the building was once complete. At some indeterminate time, the spire collapsed. Given the seismic instability of the region, this is not an unimaginable eventuality. After the collapse, when there were dressed stone blocks lying around that no one intended to put back in the shape of the spire, locals cannibalised them for their own use.

The temple rests in the mountains’ embrace
The temple rests in the mountains’ embrace

As for the school or university that my Indian friends insist existed around the temple, I have to say that, having scoured the area around the site, I found no remains. I have seen remains of cubicles on the slopes below the Nandna temple (Al Beruni sojourned here, too) in the Salt Range, but at Sharda there are none.

Admittedly, Sharda is now home to a sprawling village and if there were remnants of collapsed buildings, the debris would long since have been used up in later constructions. This exactly happened at Malot in the Salt Range, too.

Whatever the case, Sharda is the finest signpost pointing to the time when Kashmir was ruled over by the Karkota dynasty of one brilliant king after the other. To add to that is its setting in a picture-perfect valley.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He tweets @odysseuslahori

Photos by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018