November 27, 2021

Many centuries, many faiths

Standing in silent awe in the midst of the Martand temple ruins, I find myself wondering how this has managed to remain hidden for so long. My reverie is broken by a raspy voice in Hindi demanding to know if I had seen the song sequence in the movie Haidar shot here. After all, isn’t that why tourists have suddenly started paying attention to Martand, the lone guide in the temple complex adds.

And that is what it has come to: a stunning heritage site reduced to a film location. Built by King Lalitaditya Muktapida in the 8th century and destroyed by Afghan invader Sikandar Butshikan nearly seven hundred years later, the Martand temple dedicated to Surya, the sun god, remains forgotten and forlorn just outside a small village near Anantnag.

Kashmir’s Sufi shrines are well researched and documented, and Sufi saints who travelled to the region from Central Asia are revered by both local Muslims and Hindus for their message of peace through spiritual progress. Shrines like the khanqah of Shah Hamadan and Maqdoom Sahib in Srinagar are a testament to the fact that Sufi mysticism remains alive here in Kashmir. It is not for nothing that the kingdom was once known as Pir Waer, the alcove of saints.

In my visits to various parts of Kashmir, what I have come to see is the way religious pluralism and code of tolerance held it all together over the ages. However, this land where Muslim shrines, Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples have co-existed for centuries, has been enmeshed in strife for too long now. It is a struggle driven by a quest for not just religious identity, but also ethnic. The inclusiveness seems to have been forgotten.

When I visit around noon, Martand feels open and exposed, the limestone pillars in Greek style still holding up the broken walls and high arches, intricate carvings of gods and goddesses, musicians and dancers, flowers and creepers on the outer walls, and the overall design meant to ensure that sunlight fell on the main idol through the day. A few tourists trickle in and after a desultory glance at the ruins, walk away in disappointment. Perhaps to them, the place looks much better on screen than in real life.

A couple of days later, I head to Awantipora, more commonly known as Avantipur. Due to its vantage location between the two popular destinations of Srinagar and Pahalgam, there are more visitors here, although most of them are immersed in the ubiquitous act of selfie-taking. And perhaps encouraged by this, the Archaeological Survey of India seems to have lavished care on the ruins of this 9th century temple. The gardens near the entrance are in full bloom with roses and dahlias, while the fir trees lining the path towards the main temple structure seem trimmed and watered.

There are really two temples here, one dedicated to Shiva as Avantishwar and a larger, more popular one to Vishnu as Avantiswami. Unusual names, I think, until I hear from the guide that they were built by King Avantivarman of the Utpala dynasty. Indeed, there is even a stone relief of the king and his queen along with their special attendants on the walls of the core temple area. Talk of hubris.

Wandering among the ruins, I can see that some of the pillars and walls are in fairly good condition, as are the wall carvings, although there are no idols anywhere. Like Martand, the main temple structure is built on a raised platform, in the Nagara architectural style. But it turns out that unlike Martand, this temple was reduced to rubble by an earthquake, way before Butshikan set his sights on the kingdom. It was excavated by the British just a couple of centuries ago, and statues that were recovered almost intact, including the main Vishnu idol with its precious stones, were taken to the UK. A few others have managed to find their way to safety in the Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar.

Back in Srinagar, after ticking off the usual boxes like the floating vegetable market on Dal Lake and an overnight houseboat stay on Nigeen Lake, we want take a day trip to Gulmarg on the last day in the hope of catching the last snow of the season. But a local friend has other ideas and suggests Naranag, in the manner of one imparting a valuable secret.

Indeed, Naranag is the stuff of picture postcards. Just over an hour from Srinagar, on the route to Sonmarg, the ruins of the Shiva temples lie scattered in a valley surrounded by snowclad peaks and bordered by a pristine glacier-fed stream. The temples are believed to be contemporaries of the one at Martand, built by the same ruler (although some estimates date them as far  back as the 1st century).

From the deserted parking lot, we walk down a rough path for a few hundred metres when the spectacle suddenly unfolds: the ruins of temples created with massive granite blocks stacked almost carelessly on top of one another. They are all lacking complete roofs or walls, while a lone Shivaling still stands intact in the inner sanctum of one. If Martand and Awantipora felt secluded, then Naranag comes across as even more of a recluse, without a single ASI signboard with information or the usual stern warnings to vandals, to indicate the presence of something so marvellous .

Walking along the precarious platforms around the ruins, we come upon a bunch of local children playing a quiet game of cricket. My husband and friends, along with the kids in our group, join in and the game soon turns boisterous. In a few weeks, when the weather turns warmer, trekkers will come along this route on their way to Gangabal Lake or Gadsar Lake. But for now, we have the place all to ourselves.

I am not entirely sure if that is a bad thing, leaving these ageless ruins to themselves. After all, even in their state of neglect, they manage to tell their stories eloquently enough to those who really care.

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