Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The real Sharda

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The tourism department of Azad Kashmir bills it ‘the great university of Sharda’. Their brochures and several other write-ups on the internet attribute this report to Abu Rehan Al Beruni, the 11th century scholar.

Now Al Beruni visited Kashmir circa 1020 and when he was in Srinagar, he wrote, ‘In Inner Kashmir, about two or three days’ journey from the capital in the direction of the mountains of Bolor, there is a wooden idol called Sarada, which is much revered and frequented by pilgrims.’

That is all Al Beruni writes. It is clear from his words that he did not visit Sharda; he only reported from hearsay. Nevertheless, the reckoning he gives us is true: from Srinagar, Sharda is indeed a journey of three days by foot and in the direction of Bolor (Gilgit-Baltistan). But since the culture of Pakistani bureaucracy is to attempt to build tourism (as well as everything else) on supposititious glory, they had to stuff the lie about the great university of Sharda in Al Beruni’s book.

Later, in the 16th century, Abul Fazal notes in the Akbar Nama that the Sharda temple was dedicated to goddess Durga and was much venerated. He also tells us, again from hearsay, that on certain nights of the bright moon the temple ‘begins to shake and produces the most extraordinary effect.’

But my guide to Sharda, the one closest to our time, was the unbeatable archaeologist Aurel Stein. The Notes to his masterful translation of that delightful book Rajatrangini (Chronicle of Kings [of Kashmir]); he has a whole chapter on Sharda. The highly revered goddess, he tells us, had three separate manifestations and that the temple was much visited by pilgrims. He too makes no mention of the ruins of a university.

Though the university myth was shot to pieces, I still had visions of extensive ruins as I made my way through the busy bazaar of picturesque Sharda village in the Neelam Valley. Aside: the real name of the river is Kishenganga. This is the name that we find on maps published in Pakistan until the mid-1970s. Then suddenly someone woke up to the need of converting the river from Hinduism and we got Neelam from a village of the same name not very far from Sharda.

At the top of the bazaar, a friendly store-keeper said I should go past the gate of the army unit and I will not miss the ancient staircase leading up to the temple. The stairs constructed of large dressed stones were steep and ended at what was once an elaborate gateway to the temple compound. All that now remains of the gateway is a pillar listing dangerously to one side.

In a spacious quadrangle that was once walled, the temple building stands on a square plinth. A pillared entrance leads to the cella which is bare of any sign of an idol. In the Kashmiran style of temple architecture, the façades replicate the external design of the building. Though the roof is missing, each façade other than the entrance has a representation of the temple complete with a shikhara or steeple that would have crowned the top. Stein records the tradition that at some stage when this area was under the Muslim rulers of Karnav, the temple was used as a gunpowder magazine. And as gunpowder is wont to explode of its own volition, it did to blow off the top.

This cannot be true because such an explosion would have demolished the entire building. The steeple therefore was either never built or, more likely, lost because of natural causes. The prime suspect in this case would be the disastrous earthquake of the 1580s which was no less in severity than the one we saw in October 2005.

Constructed of red and grey sandstone, now badly eroded, Sharda is a sort of a poor cousin to the famed temple of Martand in Anantnag on the Indian side. Now, Martand was built in the middle years of the 8th century by the brilliant king Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty. I thought therefore Sharda would date to about the same period. But going by ‘certain peculiarities in its dimensions and decorative features’, Stein was disinclined to attribute ‘any great antiquity’ to it.

The master had spoken. I felt a little deflated when I returned home and reread his report. But even if it did not go back to the 8th century, Sharda was still old enough for me because it had existed in the 11th century for Al Beruni to make a note of it.

Done with the temple, I asked the man who had come around to check me out about the ‘university’. He said it lay on the far side of the stream. I remembered from my reading of Stein that this little rivulet that joins the Kishenganga at Sharda was called Madhumati and suspected that it being a Sanskrit word would no longer be in use. I asked the man and sure enough, he said the stream had no name.

Across the bridge I walked with a crowd of chattering girls returning home from school. What I found there was certainly no university. It was the remains of a small fortified billet for soldiers. Looking at the timbers in the surviving turret even my untrained eye could tell that this was very recent and likely from the 19th century when the Dogras ruled over Kashmir.

But no amount of quizzing threw up the ruins of the fabled university. It had never existed. It was only something conjured up by semi-informed bureaucrats to glamorise a land so beautiful that it needs no deceitful glamour. This is the very same way as tour operators and bureaucrats teamed up to bill the Karakoram Highway as the Silk Road in order to lure unsuspecting tourists to Pakistan.

But university or not, historical Sharda temple sitting in a right picturesque village, was a worthwhile destination for me. And this was not my first and last visit. The Rajatrangini records a battle fought in 1144 by king Jayasimha of the second Lohara dynasty at the castle of Sirasilakotta about four kilometres from Sharda. That lures me back to the Kishenganga.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 21 May 2014 at 09:35, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

History needs no fables......It rectifies the facts sooner or later.

At 21 May 2014 at 11:54, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So KKH is really not the Silk Road ?

At 21 May 2014 at 12:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No Sir! KKH is no Silk Road. This was a minor link between Hunza and Kashgar.That is all. No long-distance trade passed this way. The route lay miles away to the east over the Karakoram Pass.

At 22 May 2014 at 09:53, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

It is amazing to note how the 'architectural style' has traveled from Kashmir to the Salt Range. I was comparing it with this:

At 22 May 2014 at 14:24, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What a find. I love your blog. I haven't seen any other blog with this kind of rich content. You have me a new reader.

At 22 May 2014 at 15:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

SAJ, the Hindu Shahya temples of the Salt Range are all built in the Kashmiran temple architectural style. Hence the stark similarity. The Sharda temple is probably mid-9th century while our Salt Rang ones a few decades later.

At 22 May 2014 at 15:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Nice to have you here and very happy that you are enjoying this ride.

At 23 May 2014 at 11:37, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Loved this article more. You find and write the best of Pakistan sir. Pakistan, after all is a good place.

At 23 May 2014 at 14:02, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you so much, Nayyar! Very kind of you.

At 23 May 2014 at 20:18, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Only few writers has the quality to make the story interesting, you are one out of them sir. The basic ingredient of kashmir valley construction are defence,light and ventilation. These are quite evident throughout.

At 27 December 2014 at 13:54, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharda indeed is mentioned as a seat of higher learning in the ancient hindu chronicles. The most commonly cited contribution of this place is the Sharda script from which a number of scripts were derived namely; the indigenous Kharosthi script of Kashmiri language and the Taakri; of Jammu(& much of AJK) and Punjab hill states(himachal) and Sidh matrika(very similar to taakri) of Punjab plains; used by Naath(or Sidh) yogis until as late as the15th century, even after a few centuries of shahmukhi use in Punjab as a result of the turko-afghan invasions. Which then evolved into what is known as Gurmukhi today, under the patronage of Sikh writers form then on. So, the indigenous script of Punjabi language still in use today comes from Sharda.

At 5 April 2015 at 18:45, Blogger Pegasus said...

Rashid Sahab.....the temple of Sharada was the seat of highest learning in ancient was indeed a much so...that Shankaracharya had to travel all the way to Kashmir to defeat the well known Pundits of various theologies of was supposed to have four entrances...each entrance was for each of the four branches of Hindu philosophy..namely Sankhya, Nyaya, Mimamsa and the fourth one was for Vedanta....he defeated all renowned scholars there and led to rejuvenating the rigid n decadence of Hinduism....
This webpage has a few more details.....

At 6 April 2015 at 15:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Peagasus. I did not agree with the accepted thesis because I found no signs of any ancient remains. If there was a university there should have been something to recall it. Nandna was a school in the Salt Range that died away perhaps in the 13th or 14th century. The ruined temple is still there, same age as Sharda, and the slopes of the hill are amply covered with ruins. I would like to see some ruins at Sharda. Could it be that there was another Sharda of the university?

At 4 March 2016 at 14:17, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are no literary records of a "Sharda" university in Kashmir like for instance Nalanda or Taxila. Sharda was a famous temple dedicated to the goddess of learning. It is quite possible -- as many of the temples in India also functioned as repositories of manuscripts or archives if you like -- that the Sharda temple may have been a particularly important store of manuscripts, which scholars from all over India used to come to. Over time the tradition or memory of an archive or library got mixed up with that of a university.

At 5 March 2016 at 09:47, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. You are right about how the notion of the university may have arisen.

At 27 June 2016 at 15:41, Blogger anonymous said...

I am very glad to have read this article. i have been researching Sharda university, which was once prevalent. what bothered me that it had been compared with Nalanda and Takshila and that it was more important in terms of academia( implying that it was bigger than either one), and yet I had never even heard about it until the research happened. and most sites I went to were commissioned by some Kashmiri cultural/religious institute(one of which actually has been cited in one of the above comments) and yet I cant see any pictures of the ruins or remains that would ascertain the claim. So i am not sure if it is mere politicization or a tourism thing or misinformation or misinterpretation of manuscripts. I wish you could throw a little more light on the Sharda script and its origins.


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