We were actually heading to Pahalgam but as we had instructed, our driver stopped the vehicle in front of the Avantipur temple ruins which were on the way. In one of my earlier posts, I had mentioned about a visit to this place which is around 30 kilometres South East of Srinagar and the attraction being the ruins of a 9th century temple. My friends were intrigued for they had known about one Avanti in central India, sometimes misunderstood as being the ancient name of Ujjain. On the lines of the Greek city states, India during its classical age had 16 republics known as Mahajanapadas known to us through ancient literature and religious texts. Avanti or Avantika was one such region. One of its capitals was Ujjain or Ujjaini. Avantipur on the other hand was once a capital of Kashmir.
The imposing ruined structure was before us. A watchman posted there advised to procure tickets from the counter at the left. We obeyed the instructions and found a Sardarji (Sikh gentleman) sitting there. There was a notice board which contained the entry fee payable. Additional levies were prescribed for still cameras and video cameras. Before I could tender the cash, Sardarji enquired “yes sir, where are you from”. We told them that we are tourists and are interested in taking some photographs. His next anxiety was to learn about me as to my vocation and if I am employed. I said I am no more in service and casually (or may be to establish my credibility) told him that I am an amateur archaeologist. Perhaps my words were music to him as he instantly said Sir, you need not buy any tickets. For you it is free. I apprised him that we are in all 10 to which he countered, so what?. My next query was what about the cameras we are carrying. He said in a typical Punjabi tone “who prevents you”. Thereafter I called in all the people who were still tied to their seats in the vehicles.
During the 12th century there lived a highly learned sanskrit scholar and poet in Kashmir whose name was Kalhan. He was the author of a work known as Rajatarangini (a history of ruling dynasties). He states that Raja Avantivarman (855 – 883 AD) of the Utpala dynasty founded the city of Avantipura in an area known as Vishwaiksara where Hindus performed religious rites for the salvation of their dead. The jhelam river (ancient name Vitasta) was also nearby. Such a presence of a water body is not only ideal, is also necessary for the religious rites. We could infer that the place was considered to be a holy one much before the establishment of a City named Avantipura. Avantivarman, the King, was a follower of Vaishnava cult ( a Vaishnavite – worshippers of Lord Vishnu) and he continued to be so till his death. It was he who got a grand temple constructed for his Lord during the 9th century. The central deity installed in the Sanctum Sanctorum was christened as Avantiswamin. The King had a minister named Sura who was very dear to him but Sura was a worshipper of Lord Shiva. Therefore Avantivarman got another equally grand temple constructed for Lord Shiva just a kilometre away. The temple is known as Avanteeswara which is also in ruins. Unfortunately we were not aware of its existence at such a short distance and we missed it.
Sultan Sikandar Butshikan, the 14th century ruler of Kashmir hailed from Afghanistan. To appease a spiritual leader Syed Ali Hamadani in that country, Sultan Sikandar engaged himself in a crusade and ended up in the massacre of Kashmiri people and destroying their holy places ruthlessly. All kinds of stage plays including music and folk songs, folk dances etc. were banned. Consumption of wine/liquor was made an offence. People were compelled to embrace Islam for fear of life. It is said that in the entire Kashmir only some 11 Hindu families escaped. We could perhaps draw a parallel with the Talibans of Afghanistan. Along with other temples, the Avantipur Vishnu temple was also not spared. However, it is said that the construction was so strong that it took over a year to have it demolished, part of which still remains to tell us its past glory. Sultan Sikandar’s title “Butshikan” itself means a destroyer of Idols. Incidentally his second son Jain-ul-Abidin (1423 – 1474) was tolerant and considerate towards Hindus. He came to power after his brother proceeded to Mecca for a pilgrimage. However by the time Jain-ul-Abidin came to the scene, none of the Hindu temple structures had survived.
There was a well laid out pathway leading to the main entrance. The huge door, made of lime stone blocks approachable through a flight of stairs stood majestically. The upper portions were in a broken condition together with the tall massive columns with ornamentation. The intricately carved main entrance would have been a sight to behold. Apart from the destruction it was subjected to, weathering has also played its due role. Many of the sculptures are now difficult to be recognised. The temple is rectangular with a huge courtyard measuring 170.6 x 147.6 feet. After entering through the main entrance we need to go down for being in the courtyard. There is yet another elevated structure at the middle with stairs leading to the sanctum sanctorum. There is an array of cells arranged around the periphery of the paved courtyard similar to Buddhist Viharas. We are not certain as to the purpose of those small rooms/cells. Could only presume that either they were used for meditation facing the central shrine or for placing large sculptures.There are remains of four smaller shrines at the four corners of the courtyard.
During the early part of twentieth century excavations were carried out by a team headed by D.R. Sahni resulting in the reclamation of the temple ruins up to the floor level. The excavation yielded a rich crop of antiquities including 121 coins issued by Toramana, Sultans of the Shah Miri dynasty, Durrani Afghan rulers etc. Sahni also excavated the quadrangle of the Avantisvara temple and brought to light a small earthen jar having 108 copper coins issued by various rulers, fragments of birch manuscripts containing accounts of articles of worship, inscribed earthen jar etc. The sculptures from this site are presently displayed at Srinagar Museum.
Temple architecture is supposed to have reached its zenith during that period with some sprinklings of Gandhara and Greek styles.
The Avanteeswara temple, a kilometre away and the Martand Sun Temple 8 kilometres away from Anantanag (Islamabad) built by Lalitaditya in the 8th century, though in ruins, are similar in style and construction. However, we were not fortunate enough to visit them.