Sharada Peeth: PoK’s Abandoned Temple of ‘Kashmir Puravasini’

Namastey Sharada Devi Kashmir Pur Vasini Tvam Ham Prartheye Nityam Vidya Danam Che De hi Mahi

(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).

This is a prayer that Kashmiri Pandits say as a part of their daily worship to pay obeisance to Goddess Sharada, commonly known as Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge. However, the revered shrine of their kuldevi (principal deity) – Sharada Peeth – now lies abandoned in the valleys of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Sharada Peeth was one of the three principal shrines of the then Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), along with the Martand Sun Temple and the Amarnath Temple, before the Partition of India and Pakistan. After the 1947-48 war between the two countries over J&K, the shrine was abandoned as it fell into PoK.

The shrine, religiously and politically significant, lies close to the LoC in Sharda village atop Mount Harmukh.

While demands from Indian pilgrims to allow visits to the shrine have been made in the past, the echoes have become louder after the two bitter neighbours decided to pave way for the Kartarpur corridor leading to Gurudwara Darbaar Sahib Kartarpur in November. Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, too, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to consider the demands of the Kashmiri Pandits to visit Sharada Peeth.

Here are a few aspects that make the religiously significant shrine politically relevant:

Kashmira Puravasini: Religious and Spiritual significance

Sharada Peeth literally translates to “the seat of goddess Sharada/Saraswati.”

Sharada Peeth literally translates to “the seat of goddess Sharada/Saraswati.”

Considered to be religiously and spiritually significant by Hindus and Buddhists, Goddess Sharada is considered by Kashmiri Pandits as their kuldevi (principal deity). She is also referred to by many as Kashmira Puravasini (resident of Kashmir).

Scholar Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Nazki told India Today that Goddess Sharada hid the container of knowledge here during the fight between good and evil.

Location, Routes and Geographical Significance

File image of the Neelum valley. The temple is situated along River Neelum, also known as Kishan Ganga.

Located in the valley of Mount Harmukh in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the temple is at an altitude of 1,981 meters above sea level. It is situated about 150 kilometres from Muzaffarabad, the capital of PoK.

During the 1947-1948 Kashmir war between India and Pakistan, the site came under the control of Pashtun tribespeople who invaded the region. Control was then passed to the newly formed government of PoK.

Ravinder Pandita of the Save Sharada Committee said that there are two routes to travel to Sharada Peeth from India.

"“From our side, there are two designated routes to travel across – one is via Uri-Muzaffarabad and another is via Poonch-Rawalkote. Uri-Muzaffarabad is mostly being used because it’s the valley people who are mostly traveling. It’s at a distance of about 70 kms from Uri.”" - Ravinder Pandita

The temple is situated along River Neelam, also known as Kishan Ganga.

Sharada University: The Learning Centre

Renowned scholar Adi Shankaracharya is said to have studies at the Sharada University.

The temple complex also once housed the Sharada Unversity, one of the country’s oldest universities with over 5,000 scholars and a library.

According to Pandita, it was one of the most prominent centres of learning till the 12th century with scholars like Adi Shankara, Kalhana and Virotsana.

"“During the reign of Kanishka I, Sharada was the largest academic institution in entire Central Asia. Side by side with imparting education in Buddhist religion, history, geography, structural science, logic and philosophy was taught. This University had evolved its own script, known as Sharada… At one point, there were five thousand resident scholars and it had the word’s biggest library also.”" - Cultural Heritage of Kashmiri Pandits edited by S S Toshkhani and K Warikoo

Destructions and Restorations

Maharaja Gulab Singh appointed a royal priest to undertake the maintenance of the temple.

One of the accounts of construction of the temple says that it was built during the rule of Kushans (early 1st century). Many accounts also claim that Buddhists had a strong involvement in the Sharada region till Adi Shankaracharya took over the reins back then.

Strategic Analyst and Author Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, while writing for News18.com said that the temple received royal support in Sultan Zainul Abedin’s rule, also known as Budshah. In 1846, Maharaja Gulab Singh appointed a royal priest to undertake the maintenance of the temple.

After 1947 the shrine which was also being maintained by the Pakistan Archeological Department.

The earthquake in PoK on 8 October 2005 adversely impacted the shrine. The University of Muzaffarabad has instituted study of the shrine and the Sharada culture.

The Pilgrimage Demand

The temple has been largely abandoned since the Partition and is currently in a dilapidated state. It has been a long standing desire of the Kashmiri Pandits to visit the temple across the border. The Save Sharada Committee has been demanding for a while that pilgrims be allowed to visit the shrine across the LoC.

According to The Indian Express, the demand for allowing pilgrims to the temple from the Indian side gained momentum in 2007, following a visit by Kashmiri scholar Prof Ayaz Rasool Nazki. He is the former regional director of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

After the launch of the Kartarpur corridor project in Pakistan on 29 November 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked whether his government could consider opening a route to the Sharda Peeth.

"“As far as Hindu pilgrims are concerned, we will make their visits easier. We are also working to attract Buddhist pilgrims. We have discovered a 40-feet sleeping Buddha north of Islamabad… We are trying to increase religious tourism. There are Hindu sites in Pakistan like Katas raj… so we will certainly help.”" - Imran Khan as quoted by The Wire

Since then, voices lobbying for a similar route across the Line of Control to access the Sharada Peeth have resurfaced.

Pandita said that the only demand is the amendment in the existing permit system for J&K residents to visit PoK even if they do not have relatives there.

“We are only asking that we should be allowed to use the present permit system. We will go via Muzaffarabad,” he said.

On Saturday, 1 December, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him for similar steps to be taken for the pilgrims wanting to visit Sharada Peeth.

“Though it generally connects the people here with their cultural and intellectual roots, for the Kashmiri Pandits it is an important place of pilgrimage which was frequented by them till independence,” she wrote, as quoted by The Wire.

She said the hope was strengthened by lmran Khan’s offer to allow it along with pilgrimage to Katas Raj.

Congress leader and former Union minister Saifuddin Soz called on the governments of India and Pakistan to open both the Kargil-Skardu road and the route to Sharada Peeth “to honour the aspirations of the people of Kashmir and the people of Ladakh region.”

“The demand of Kashmiri Pandit community for opening road to ancient Sharada Temple is very genuine and it would be a great gesture to respect the aspirations of the people to open this temple for devotees,” said Soz, as quoted by The Wire.

Traveling to PoK: The Biggest Hurdle

Pandita said that unlike Kartarpur, where one could travel with visas in the past as well, Sharada Peeth lies in PoK which is the reason of primary dispute between the two nations.

“There is a document called LoC permit in force since 2007, under a treaty between India and Pakistan after Musharraf-Vajpayee meet, for people to travel across LoC and meet their relatives. The LoC permit is only for the residents of J&K who wish to visit their relatives on the other side. We are also J&K state subjects but we don’t have relatives there. So we are not allowed to go. We want to travel on the same LoC permit, but with some amendments to allow us to go and visit Sharada peeth,” said Pandita.

Pandita further explained that the India-Pakistan relations, specifically on the issue of PoK, have worsened the prospects of piligrims to visit Sharada Peeth.

“We cannot travel on visas. Because if the government of India issues visas, it would mean recognising PoK to be a part of Pakistan which India doesn’t favour. The embassy of Pakistan also doesn’t issue visas to Sharada Parth. They reject it immediately. So the only mechanism is to travel by the LoC permit. That is our demand,” he said.

"“The issue is, even Pakistan doesn’t fully control PoK officially. India doesn’t recognise PoK, so who will take the step? If we go to UN, for human rights violations considering Sharada Peeth is like Mecca for us, UN has different strategies about J&K altogether. While talking to us, they call it PoK, while talking to Pakistan, they call it IoK (India occupied Kashmir). So even a third party intervention cannot happen.”" - Ravinder Pandita, Save Sharada Committee

Syed Ata Hasnain, while writing for News18.com, explained the strategic hurdles in the area from a militaristic point of view. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“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 the LoC. 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.”

(With inputs from News18.com, The Indian Express, India Today and Deccan Chronicle)

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