Kashmir is widely regarded as the place where Vedas were first written down. Kashmir, the incubator of intellectuals and thinkers in the realm of philosophy, art, poetry, mathematics, astronomy, architecture and a pivotal centre of Sanskrit learning.
Kashmir was once an important centre of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is still famous for its temples and architectural expertise. Kashmir also possesses a rich literary heritage that goes back many centuries. There is a vast literature in Sanskrit that was produced in Kashmir, including possibly the best and most scientific work of history that ancient India saw, Kalahana’s Rajatarangini.
It is said that, Kashmir was referred to as the land of Sharada, or Sharada Desh, before its populus abandoned Hinduism in favor of conversion to Islam. It was known as Sharada Desh because of an ancient temple of Devi Sharada located in the Neelam Valley of Kashmir Himalayas which is called as Sharada Peeth. Goddess Sharada who embodies learning, beauty and arts was the presiding deity of Kashmir in ancient times.
The Hindu pilgrimage site Sharada Peeth, dedicated to the goddess Sharada who represents learning, is situated in this town. Other historical sites in the town include the Sharda fort, and Kishan Ghaati. Sharda and Nardi are two mountain peaks overlooking Sharda in the valley.
It was a Buddhist and Hindu place of learning for centuries. The Sharada script was developed here in the 9th century. Philosophers like Adi Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya used Sharada Peeth Library for their philosophy works. The library carried some rare books of Hinduism. Ramanujacharya used a book called badarayana’s vedanta sutra from this library to write his philosophy on sri bhasya.
Where exactly is Sharada Peeth?
It is located on the banks of Neelum river in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir region which is 150 km far from Srinagar. From Muzaffarabad a road goes to the Neelum Valley and is aligned at the north edge of the river. Between Athmuqam and Dudniyal lies the confluence of the two rivers and there exists this ancient temple of Goddess Ma Saraswati (also known as Sharda).
It is said that it is one of the three famous holy sites for Kashmiri Pandits, the others are Martand Sun Temple in Anantnag and the Amarnath Temple.
History of Sharada Peeth
Although there are different accounts recorded it is evident that a very bustling intellectual community existed in and around the area where the shrine is located. ‘Sharda Peetham’ (Centre for Advanced studies) was the nerve center of learning and it was the Sharda script which was in use. The shrine did not have a deity but a very large plinth/slab and outside there was a Shivling.
There are several legends associated with the Sharada Peeth. It is said that during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, Sharada Peeth was established in 237 B.C. So, it is almost 5000 years old ancient temple and also a centre of learning which was dedicated to the Hindu goddess of learning. According to another account this temple was built during the rule of Kushans early 1st century.
It is believed and also according to Sharada Mahatmya Devi Sharada appeared before Shandilya Rishi when he performed penance at Sharada Vana in the upper Kishenganga valley of north Kashmir.
It is also said that, the rishi Shandilya performed tapasya at the base of the mountain Harmukh, to win the favour of the gods.In this period, he was served by local siddhas and gandharvas.He attained desirelessness, and acquired control of his senses and body through strict meditation. To please the gods, he performed a grand Yajna, or ritual offering, in the Sharda area, involving the local men, women and children. In the middle of the Yajna, a beautiful woman appeared and approached him, and introduced herself as a Brahmini, who had accepted his invitation to participate in the Yajna.She said that she and her companion had come a long way and wished for food.Shandilya welcomed her and bowed apologetically, saying that the rules of the Yajna forbade him from giving her the food. The Brahmini grew angry and declared herself to be the Vedic goddess and Divine Mother, and said that it was she that the offerings were being made to.
In her anger, she transformed before him into the divine Neela form of Saraswati, with ornaments, weapons and clouds in the form of a blue lotus, and declared that she would absorb the world, the humans, forests, trees and everything in the Yajna. In shock, Shandilya collapsed and died.Seeing his remorse, the goddess asked her companion to revive him with Amrita, the elixir of life.Shandilya awoke and looked around at the destruction wrought from the goddess’s fury sorrowfully, and believed himself to be responsible.
The goddess transformed into a different, graceful form of Saraswati and told him that she was pleased with his devotion and compassion and would grant him whatever he wished.Shandilya, asked her to revive the dead and restore the village and forest. Saraswati accepted, and instructed him to build his ashram at the base of the hill near the Madhumati river (present-day Neelum River). She took her abode there at Sharada Peeth and blessed Shandilya.
Adi Shankaracharya and Sharada Peeth
There are many legends associated with Adi Shankaracharya’s visit to Kashmir. One night, he suffered cold and hunger pangs, as his host gave him food, wood and water, but no fire. The next day, the lady of the house appeared before him, and simply sprinkled the water on the wood and set it ablaze, thus revealing to the great scholar that he did not know everything. It is said that the lady was a manifestation of Goddess Sharada.
Adi Shankaracharya surely thought so and it led him to compose poems in praise of the goddess such as Saudarya Lahiri, and Sharada Bhujana Stotram, where he refers to the earrings of the goddess, probably referring to the characteristic dejhoor earrings of Kashmiri women, an octagonal `yantra’ that dangles from the ear by a thread and rests on the shoulders, passed on from mother to daughter at the time of marriage.
In another tale, Adi Shankaracharya argued that the icon is mere representation and not the manifestation of the goddess, when suddenly the head of the icon started bleeding. Bleeding stopped when Adi Shankaracharya tore a piece of his garment and tied it around the icon’s head. This became the traditional taranga headscarf worn by Kashmiri women.
It is said that, After he sat on the holy stone slab at the temple, it gave him vision to compose Saundriya Lahiri in praise of Goddess Divine Mother considered excellent piece of poetic devotion after Panchastavi’. Further, ‘he adopted Sri Chakra as reverence to Goddess Sharda and was conferred honour of Sharda Peeth’.
Sharada Peeth and Kashmiris
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. Sharada is a principal deity of Kashmiri Pandits. Even muslims in that particular region worship Goddess Sharada. There is a reason for that, It is said that the muslims of the region are basically hindus who were converted to Islam. Even after the atrocities of Pakistanis, the residents have themselves renovated the Sharada Peeth and have placed a photo of Goddess Sharada.
Besides the temple, the ruins of one of the country’s oldest universities, called Sharada University also stand there. The university had its own script known as Sharada and it is said that it once had over 5,000 scholars and the biggest library. Despite the fact that Goddess Sharada or Saraswati is the principal deity of the Kashmiri Hindus, it is one of the centres for the bustling intellectual community is also why the shrine is significant to its devotees.
India and Sharada Peeth
The one obstacle to the further revival of the Sharada site is the permission which is denied to Kashmiri Hindus to visit it. There is an apparent reason for this. The Neelum Valley is one of the most sensitive sub sectors in the vicinity of the Line of Control (LoC).
The Kashmiri Pandits have also organized a committee called ‘Save Sharada’ in order to gain access to the temple. Ravinder Pandita, head of the Save Sharada Committee, which has been campaigning for access to the temple, “We fervently appeal to the PM (Narendra Modi) to accord approval for the annual Sharada pilgrimage, as well. Our demand is pending since the last 70 years.”
The only person who has been able to travel to Sharada Peeth is professor Ayaz Rasool Nazki, a Kashmiri scholar, who has also been the regional director of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
On return, Nazki even wrote about his experience ‘In search of roots’, a chapter in the anthology, Cultural Heritage of Kashmiri Pandits, edited by SS Toshkhani and K Warikoo.
Regarding Sharada being a seat of learning, Nazki wrote, “During the reign of Kanishka I, Sharada was the largest academic institution in the entire region of Central Asia.”
“Side by side with imparting education in Buddhist religion, history, geography, structural science, logic and philosophy subjects were taught to perfection. This university had evolved its own script which resembles Devnagari and was known as Sharada,” he wrote.
Hindus and Kashmiri Hindus in particular wait for the recovery of the temple. And that would begin by ending the alienation of the temple and beginning to revive the temple again. But, the Neelum valley is one of the most disturbed areas in the current political atmosphere.
Sharada Peeth and its early visitors
Sharada Peeth was visited by the famous Chinese Buddhist scholar Hyun Tsang about 1400 years ago. It was also probably associated with earlier Buddhist scholars such as Nagasena, who engaged with Milinda, and Kumarajiva whose father was Kashmiri and mother, Chinese.
Al Beruni, the Arab historian who lived 1000 years ago, refers to the temple and its icon, as does Kalhana in his historical Rajtarangini, written 800 years ago.
Ramanujacharya visited this temple before he wrote his commentary on Vedanta.The Jain scholar Hemacandra sought grammatical works archived in this temple to write his own treatise on grammar.
This year, a five-member delegation led by Dr Ramesh Vankwani had visited the Sharada Temple on June 24 with the help of Pakistan Hindu council (PHC).
There have been demands from various quarters to open a route between Jammu and Kashmir and PoK so that devotees in India can offer prayers at the Sharada Peeth, one of the eighteen Maha Shakti Peethas.
As said earlier, The Save Sharada committee is seeking the protection of Sharada Peeth and other Hindu temples and also permission to restart pilgrimage to this site, like that of Amarnath pilgrimage.
The Supreme Court of PoK last year converted a letter it received from Pandita into a petition and directed its government to protect the shrine.
The abandoned temple site was heavily damaged in the October 8, 2005 earthquake. Earlier, in 2014 and 2015, two citizens of PoK, Rehmatullah Khan and Ghulam Nabi, had approached the court seeking restoration and reopening of temples and gurdwaras.
Well, Kashmiri Pandits remain highly devoted towards this ancient temple. The place was also once a celebrated centre of learning in the subcontinent like Nalanda and Taxila.