Discover Kashmir’s Avantiswami temple…
You’re driving southeast of Srinagar on the road to Jammu, silently applauding the unmatched spectacle of nature. Towering mountains, frothy streams, leafy canopies, juicy apple orchards and golden haystack fields…paradise has a permanent home in this blessed valley. An hour and 30 kilometers later, you arrive at your destination on the right bank of Jhelum river. Here stands a huge pit, at least 20 feet deep. The skirting of a modest row of tin-roof houses against a wallpaper of the lofty Himalayas is incongruously striking. But its not a pit…its a 1913-dig of crumbling ruins. Fragments of a broken puzzle from the recesses of the past, which only an imaginative eye can piece together.
Renowned 12th-century Sanskrit scholar and Kashmiri poet, Kalhan would have vouched for the original grandeur of the site of the majestic Avantiswamin Temple. Apart from Avantivarman (855 – 883 AD) himself, the first king of the Utpala dynasty, who founded the city of Avantipura as a capital of Kashmir and built this massive temple in honour of Lord Vishnu. But the ancient, monumental architectural wonder was ill-fated. Battles against massive earthquakes, destruction by 14th-century Afghan crusader Sultan Sikandar Butshikan and repeated floods…one unanticipated disaster after another was on the cards.
Sweet incense once perfumed this air. Soul-stirring Vedic chants echoed in the holy atmosphere. A glorious deity graced the precious sanctum sanctorum. A venerable priest commanded over the proceedings. And throngs of ardent worshippers walked barefoot in search of solace on these solid stones. But what was once a holy, revered house of God is now a lonely, desolate archeological monument. Centuries later, artistic finesse still clings to the chipped sculpture and engineering marvel still clutches at the shaved-off masonry. Defying the cruel ravages of time.
Standing on the gravelly path that leads inside, instinct is enough to confirm how brilliant an example of Indian temple architecture this was, once upon a time. The imposing Praveshdwara (gateway) well justifies the impressive scale of the main shrine, which stands on a massive, raised platform…over 50 square feet wide and 10 feet high. Two sets of staircases, front and back and four small shrines at four corners complete the grace of the design. You try to imagine the central sanctum…it has almost disappeared over the centuries. All that left is an empty space, resounding with silence.
Get microscopic and discover how Gandhara meets Greek in Avantiswami. Gandhara School of Art, which flourished in the Indian subcontinent during 1st to 5th century BC, was a result of the culmination of Greco-Roman, Chinese, Iranian and Indian art forms. Its main theme was Lord Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Apparently, Gandhara art influenced Kashmiri temple architecture too and the evidence is clearly laid out in Avantiswami. Observe the large stone-paved rectangular courtyard enclosing the main shrine…it has a colonnade of 69 cells. Each cell (resembling Buddhist Viharas) stand on a raised base and looks like a small temple in itself. There must have been small deities in each of these. A layout very typical of Gandharan-Buddhist monasteries. The columns in front of the cells are almost Doric in shape. The Greek touch is distinctive in the intricate geometrical, floral and bird motifs. What a fascinating interplay of cultures…their world was more probably more global than ours! They flew much higher, even without the wings of communication and technology.
From your elevated position on top of the oversized flight of steps, visually recreate those broken pillars, using an imaginary dotted line to the skies. Mammoth slabs of stone lie scattered all over the courtyard, as if the construction team had fled in sudden haste. A fleeting glimpse of the ancient Delphi temple in Greece? A one-legged demi-god vainly flaunts his stature despite the odds. Mythical creatures peek from cracked reliefs. An elephant fights a giant horned bird with ferocity. A divine eagle proudly adorns an emblem. Pretty rosette motifs add elegance to the roughness of the stone slabs.
And as you pan around for one last look, you notice the refined sculpture of six-armed Kamadeva (God of love) with two bejewelled consorts on the northern wall of the Adhisthana. Fine Kashmiri artistry reflects in his long garland, bow and floral-arrows. Your head inclines and you purse your lips in admiration. Avantiswami Temple may be broken in structure, but not in spirit. 1100 years later, its splendour has survived.
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