Sharda Peeth

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An iconic shrine too far

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain,Sharda Peeth:An iconic shrine too far "Daily Excelsior" 17/1/2016

Sharda Peeth in ruins

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)

Sharda Mai

DS Sodhi , Sharda Mai "Daily Excelsior" 13/5/2018

Kashmir boasts of so many historical shrines of major faiths as also the composite culture (many Historical Shrines are now a part of the PoK). Some of these once revered shrines / monuments are now in dilapidated state in PoK since no one from Hindu / Sikh faith lives there. A voice is now being raised from across the borders to build bridges between the communities and help in upkeep and maintenance of these historical shrines. One could say that integration of natural and cultural heritage in the national discourse would definitely enrich and strengthen counter narrative against extremism, help bring peace and harmony through promotion of heritage pilgrimage / tourism. in this connection, Save Sharda Committee Kashmir Regd.) has taken one such initiate with regard to opening up of Sharda Temple for pilgrimage.

This ancient temple of Goddess Sharda (Maa Saraswati Goddess of wisdom, knowledge and music) is located in a small village named Sharda (also called Shardi) in PoK. The temple is located between Athmuquam and Dudniyal where confluence of river Madhumati and river Kishanganga takes place. It clearly emerges from various accounts that an excellent centre of advanced learning in Hinduism and Buddhism “Sharda Peetham” existed at Sharda. The Brahmins and Kashmiri pundits relate themselves with the deity and recite the phrase ” “Namastey Sharada Devi Kashmir Pur Vasini ,Tvam 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) during their daily prayer. Padmashri VR Gowri Shankar (CEO Sringeri Mutt) says that this Shloka is recited in every house hold in the southern part of India. Reference of Sharda is also found in Kalhan’s “Rajatarangni” and Nilamata Purana. The people of Kashmir often visited the temple and an annual fair was held at this place. The last Pilgrimage undertaken was by Swami Nand Lal Ji of Tikker “Kupwara”in 1947. At the time of partition, Swami Nand Lal Ji carried idols from Sharda to Tikker and a few of these stone idols are lying at Devibal in Baramulla. Bamzai a Kashmiri Pandit Scholar was also one of the last to visit the shrine before partition. The site was heavily damaged in the 2005 earthquake.

Sharda Peeth has the distinction of being visited by many historians and scholars like Chinese scholar Xuanzang (stayed there for two years) in 632 CE Muslim Historian, Al-Biruni in 1030 CE, Adi Shankracharya (who had set up a university there), followers of King of Gauda in 8th century and Sultan Zain-ul-abidin in 1422 A.D. The local population reveres the deity by the name Sharda Mai.

A documentary ‘In search of Sharada Civilization” by Shri TKV Rajan showcases the invaluable legacy of Kashmir valley also known as Sharda Desh as also how Sharda Peeth has been the foundation head of “Sanathana Dharam” and pivotal role played by Sharada Civilization in shaping India’s culture and civilization for the past 2000 years. Sharda Script was introduced at Sharda Peeth and the initial manuscripts of Ramayana and Mahabharta were written in Sharda. In an Interview with Rameez Makhdoomi, Dr Rukhsana Khan a senior researcher of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad Pakistan who coordinated one of the archaeological survey at Sharda in 2015, has brought out that Sharda was not only a temple but a whole Civilization. Her research involved cultural heritage and its management in the context of socio-economic development through cultural tourism in the conflict zone, i.e., Neelam Kishen Ganga valley. An important segment of Sharda research was finding of the Saraswati Lake in Surgan valley’s higher altitude mountains. Prof. Abdul Ghani of Sharda Village, a local headmaster has authored a book “Sharda -tareekh ke irteqai marahil” in which Sharda civilization and routes to pilgrimage have been thoroughly touched. This book has been received by Save Sharda Committee head in New Delhi recently and is being translated and would later be re-launched for the benefit of Sharda followers.

A letter from Save Sharda Committee Kashmir was placed before the the chief Justice of Azad Jammu and Kashmir on 02 Jan 2018. The Hon’ble Supreme Court directed that in the cases reported as Rehmat Ullah Khan and 3 others Vrs, Azad Government and 3 others (2014 SCR 1358) and Azad Government and 5 others Vrs Ghulam Nabi Shah (2015 SCR 816) the Hon’ble court has been pleased to issue direction to the State Authorities for protection of the Religious Places and Symbols such as Temples and Gurdwaras etc. The Hon’ble Chief Justice appreciating the efforts of the committee for humanity remarked that the committee shall not confine itself only to restoration of the places relating to a specific religion but also shall focus on restoration and protection of the Holy places and symbols of the other Religions. It is, an established and recorded account that Guru Hargobind Sahib travelled to Jammu and Kashmir on Mughal Road. He entered through Mirpur (Chaprahar, Galoti, Garanti, Wazirabad, Mirpur , Nowshera, Rajouri, Shopian, Khanpur Saran, Srinagar, Baramulla, Kalampora, Paran Peelan , Dulanja, Nilochi Muzzaffarabad, Abbottabad, Hasan Abdal, Gujrat, Hafizabad and Nankana Sahib). Whereas, magnificent Gurdwaras have been built in Jammu and Kashmir commemorating Guru’s visit, the state of Gurdwaras in PoK {Gurdwara Tali Sahib & Gurusar (Chaprahar near Sialkot village Rehsma), Gurdwara Kotha Sahib (Wazirabad) and Gurdwara Chevin Patshai (Muzaffarabad)} is a matter of concern.

The efforts taken by the Save Sharda Committee Kashmir (regd) for the cause of protection, upkeep and opening the Sharda temple for pilgrimage are laudable. The response of the civil society from PoK too has been very encouraging. The Committee has put forward the request at the centre as well as state level including the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir seeking amendment to LoC Permit. An interesting aspect of the LoC permit is that it is issued only to Jammu and Kashmir residents who want to visit their relatives living across the LoC for valid reasons (such as attending weddings ceremonies). It is annoying and frustrating that Domicile of Jammu and Kashmir cannot visit their own historical places of worship that exist on their land.

The scenario around the world is fast changing and a military conflict is not the solution to resolve disputes. Confidence building measures like people to people contact, religious and heritage tourism, building interfaith bridges are the only solution to live in peace and harmony. Once we are ready to understand that, whatever our differences we are human in the first place, only then we will be able to work on a collective response that puts humanity first. There is a need to think of ways and means that would not set geographical barriers but would be open to all based on a shared vision and common values. The power of local initiatives could throw up alternatives. I hope that the Government of Jammu and Kashmir has taken note of the concerns and request of the Save Sharda Committee and initiated the process to enable pilgrimage to Sharda in the month of August as a first step. The people of all faiths of Jammu and Kashmir need to support this noble cause. It is the people of Jammu and Kashmir who can make it happen.

The author is former Commadore (NM)

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