The Supreme Court of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir recently admitted a petition by the Delhi-based Save Sharda Committee and directed the government to protect the revered Hindu Sharda Temple near the Line of Control in Neelum valley.
Sharda Peeth, where the temple is located, is known as once being the highest seat of learning in the region.
This is a significant development as the case was taken up at a time when guns are blazing at the border. The phenomenal ceasefire of 2003 has been set aside by both countries. Azad Jammu & Kashmir’s Supreme Court’s order has generated debate not only in support of protection for the ancient temple but also in favour of opening all blocked routes between the two sides of the erstwhile J&K.
Save Sharda Committee, headed by Ravinder Pandita, has been campaigning for the safety of the temple and opening it for pilgrimages. Curiously, Muslims across Jammu and Kashmir also support this. The chief justice asked the petitioner to pursue the demand for pilgrimage to Sharda with governments in both countries.
The documented inscriptions from Sharda Neelum Valley apparently resemble rock inscriptions found in Gandhara, Chilas, Gilgit-Baltistan
While one can understand the concern a Kashmiri Pandit may have for such a historic place of worship, the demand to protect it also came from two ordinary citizens in 2014 and 2015: Rehmatullah Khan and Ghulam Nabi Shah. The AJK SC Chief Justice cited their two previously submitted petitions to restore and reopen the temples and gurudwaras: Rehmatullah Khan and three others versus the AJ&K government and three others (2014 SCR 1358) and Ghulam Nabi Shah versus AJ&K government and five others (2015 SCR 816).
In 2004, the then minister for archaeology, Mufti Mansoor, had told me that Kashmiri Pandits were welcome to visit Sharda. “We have started renovation of Sharda Temple along with other religious places,” he had said during a visit to Muzaffarabad. “There were 10 places of worship in Azad Kashmir. They were many gurdwaras as well. The renovation work could not be taken up in the last decade because of continuous shelling from the Indian side.” They had earmarked Rs10 crores for the renovation.
Not much has been done over the last 13 years. Today the abandoned 142-feet long and 94.6-feet wide Sharda Temple lies in ruins. Even at the height of an animated atmosphere of peace on both sides from 2003 to 2007, the pilgrimage to Sharda was not on the agenda. The temple was virtually abandoned after the India-Pakistan crises in 1947 and 1948.
It is located at the confluence of the ancient river Madhumati, River Neelum (Kishanganga) and Sargun in Sharda tehsil. The archaeological site of Sharda Temple and its associated sites, including the siege of Gautama Tashjian, Khel Patt are considered sacred places. Sharda Temple, Ganesh Ghati, Saraswati lake and Sericella fort were mentioned in the ancient text of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (11th CE).
Not much has been done over the last 13 years. Today the abandoned 142-feet long and 94.6-feet wide Sharda Temple lies in ruins
The oral history of Kashmir recognizes this site to be a Buddhist center of learning. However, its construction features are similar to that of the Martand Temple (8th CE), which was built in Srinagar during the reign of King Lalitaditya. The temple has pyramidal Shikara, trefoil recess arches and is raised on a high platform.
Besides the Sharda Temple, there are ruins of a gateway, which appear relatively older than the temple. No signs of renovation have been observed on this outermost structure. The construction technique of this entrance gateway structure is different from that of the main temple.
The field survey and salvage excavation of the areas adjacent to Sharda Temple revealed that a grand structure or complex existed there before the construction of the temple. “The unearthed terracotta pipes, bricks, coins, pottery fragments confirmed that the area was inhabited by distinct populations in different periods of time,” says Dr Rukhsana Khan, a scholar of archeology. “Silvan Bahik and Kroras Valley routes approaching from Kashmir Valley to Neelum Valley descend directly to Sharda along the Madhumati stream. This route was also used by the King of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin, in the 14th century, to visit Sharda Temple.”
The Sharda of Neelum Valley is also recognized as Sharda Peeth, a center of learning and the Sharda script is strongly associated with this place. Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang writes that Kashmir is a place of learning where Buddhist literature is produced in Sharda Brahmi, Sanskrit and Kharosthi. Sharda script originated in Kashmir between the 7th to 8th centuries CE and was extensively used in upper South Asia. The documented inscriptions from Sharda Neelum Valley apparently resemble rock inscriptions found in Gandhara, Chilas, Gilgit-Baltistan.
In the 2005 earthquake, the site suffered massive damage but there was little restoration and even today it is threatened not only by the vagaries of weather but encroachment from all sides. Some heritage sites are occupied by the Army. The presence of security forces on one hand keeps the site safe from encroachment by the civilian population but on the other hand their significant presence in close proximity and a helipad a few hundred yards away renders it rather difficult to protect and renovate the site, say experts. Notwithstanding all this, the temple remains in good shape.
The directions from the AJK SC will go a long way in protecting the temple site. But a uniform approach is needed to facilitate pilgrimage on both sides. For Kashmiri Pandits also, the demand to open this site should not come in isolation. They must also support all other Confidence-Building Measures that are aimed at uniting the tens of thousands of people on both sides. The bus service and trade has created a huge space to fill the gaps created with the partition that was thrust on people. But it is now time that the communities started pressuring the governments to compensate for this loss.