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An iconic shrine too far
As part of their daily worship, Kashmiri Hindus utter the phrase” “Namastey Sharada Devi Kashmir PurVasiniTvam Ham Prartheye Nityam Vidya Danam Che De hi mey” (Salutations to you, O Sharada, O Goddess, O one who resides in Kashmir. I pray to you daily, please give me the charity of knowledge). It is only when a KP organisation organized a recent seminar and press brief on Sharda Peeth and expressed its desire to request the State Government and the Government of India to demand opening of the shrine to religious tourism that I decided to deeply educate myself on the issue. Anything one touches in Jammu & Kashmir brings an element of fascination because hidden far into the nooks and crevices of its mountain ranges are amazing theories, stories and facts.
All these years I used to fly over the Shamshabari Range, visiting Tithwal and Keran without an iota of an idea of the existence of a near derelict shrine at the western base of the Range near the confluence of the Rivers Kishanganga (known as Neelum in PoK) and Madhumati. The exact location to most will hardly gel except to hard core army men who have had the privilege to serve in this sub sector. Here is how you get there. From Muzaffarabad a road goes to the Neelum Valley and is aligned at the north edge of the river. Between Athmuqam and Dudniyal lies the confluence of the two rivers and there exists this ancient temple of Goddess MaSaraswati (also known as Sharda). It is said that Kashmir was once known as ShardaDesh and was the center of learning of Vedic works, scriptures and commentaries. Although there are different accounts recorded it is evident that a very bustling intellectual community existed in and around the area where the shrine is located. ‘ShardaPeetham’ (Centre for Advanced studies) was the nerve center of learning and it was the Sharda script which was in use. Sharda peeth shrine did not have a deity but a very large plinth/slab and outside there was a Shivling (symbolic idol of Lord Shiva). Sharda Peeth Temple had the main girdle of 22 feet diameter. It had an entrance door on the west. The other entrances had arches over them, and these arches were 20 feet in height. The main entrance had footsteps. On both sides of the porch, there were two square shaped pillars, 16 feet high and 2’6″ x 2’6″ in sectional size carved out of a solid stone block. The construction inside the temple was very plain and unadorned. The temple is situated on a hillock, on the right bank of river Madhumati. An annual fair used to be conducted here. All the information here is courtesy MrBamzai, a Kashmiri Pandit scholar who was one of the last to visit the shrine before the partition 1947.
Although the shrine and the Peethwere suppressed during the Muslim rule it was Sultan ZainulAbedin, also known as Budshah, in whose rule it received royal support. Thereafter in 1846 Maharaja Gulab Singh undertook the repairs, maintenance and sustenance of the shrine through the placement of a priest. After 1947 it is known that Hindus from Pakistan visited the shrine which was also being maintained by the Pakistan Archeological Department. The 8th Oct 2005 earthquake which affected Pakistan Occupied Kashmir very adversely also had its impact on the Sharda shrine. The status after the earthquake was not known until now when MsRukhsana Khan a Pakistani researcher has undertaken to unravel more details. It is learnt that the University of Muzaffarabad has instituted study of the shrine and the Sharda culture.
The one obstacle to the further revival of the Sharda Peeth site is the permission which is denied to Kashmiri Hindus to visit it. There is an apparent reason for this. The Neelum Valley is one of the most sensitive sub sectors in the vicinity of the Line of Control (LoC). From Kel in the North via Athmuqam and Dudniyal to Tithwal (our side) the valley is under the complete domination of the Indian fortified positions along theLoC. There is a cartographic bulge on the eastern side called the Bugina Bulge which is a swathe of territory hugging the slopes of the Shamashabari. This is the sub sector of the Pakistan side which is used for launch pads to infiltrate terrorists into the Kupwara sector of Kashmir. Strategically it is also very important because the foothold that the Pakistan Army has in Bugina Bulge is tenuous; it can be rolled aside at will by the Indian Army if the latter wishes to alter the alignment of the LoC. The Neelum Valley Road running at the valley floor is already dominated by the Indian Army and this domination will be completely reinforced should Bugina Bulge fall into Indian hands. It will impose a heavy penalty on the logistics maintenance of some of the areas north of Shamashabari held by Pakistan.
It is for these reasons that Pakistan is extremely wary of giving access to any visiting Indian media people or others to the Neelum Valley.
APMCC has been instrumental in making serious attempts at reviving ancient Kashmiri culture. One of the methodologies that they have been employing is the revival of some ancient yatras to important shrines which are tucked away in the lap of nature. Among these are the yatras to Gangabal and to Konsarnag. The State Government has been hesitant for various reasons especially due to security concerns. There is a political element to it which is also sensitive because there have been demands about limiting the foot fall of the most revered Hindu yatra to ShriAmarnathji shrine.
In the same spirit of openness in issuing visas for visits to Ajmer Sharif for Pakistani devotees or for NankanaSaheb in Pakistan for Sikh devotees; also in the spirit of the proposed enhancement of religious tourism to important shrines the Kashmiri Hindu community has been vociferously demanding permission to visit the Sharda site. The need for revival of an annual mela (pilgrim fair) at the shrine has been projected. However, the Pakistani authorities are unlikely to relent for two reasons. Firstly, Neelum Valley is strategically too important a location unless there is a convincing change of strategic climate between India and Pakistan. Secondly, unless the State Government itself promotes some of the yatras the revival proposal for Shardayatra will hardly sound convincing.
The Kashmiri Hindu community justifiably feels that with its almost negligible presence in Kashmir its rich heritage in terms of shrines and yatras would get completely diluted. It is making a brave effort towards the retention of its unique culture. The ShardaPeethYatra may as yet be a shrine too far but definitely the opening up of ancient yatras within Kashmir to a degree beyond than just symbolism would be a very positive step towards the integration of cultures.
It is to be appreciated that Muzaffarabad University and research scholars like MsRukhsana Khan have displayed much enthusiasm towards the Sharda site. If nothing else Government of Pakistan must be prevailed upon to carry out more extensive repairs of the shrine and the fort complex near it. However, physical repairs and maintenance can never match the emotions of devotees. An escorted delegation of just a few representatives of the Kashmiri Hindu community traveling via Keran (Kupwara) would pose little security risk for the Pakistan Army and would actually add to good will.
The organisation needs support and its campaign needs to be given some weight because only with such things will the reciprocal reintegration of Kashmiri society begin.
(The author is a former GOC of the Chinar Corps)