A composite culture

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

The Sun Temple at Martand. Like the Sun Temple at Konark, the Martand temple was one of the greatest Indian temple structures. Kashmir had some of the most important temples in the early period in India. -

The Sun Temple at Martand. Like the Sun Temple at Konark, the Martand temple was one of the greatest Indian temple structures. Kashmir had some of the most important temples in the early period in India. -

On the syncretic religious and philosophical traditions that have defined the architectural marvels in the Kashmir Valley.

IN the heart of the great Himalayas is a beautiful valley, which has been described by poets and emperors as paradise. Over the centuries, the verdant vale of Kashmir has seen the blossoming of many exquisite flowers of the philosophy of humankind. With the bountiful beauty of nature constantly around them, the people of Kashmir have always been filled by thoughts of the divinity of creation.

In the Hindu imagination, Kashmir is said to be the abode of gods. Amid these deeply forested hills, Siva is said to have narrated to his consort Parvati, the sacred Amarkatha, the secret of immortality.

In ancient times, Kashmir was known as Sarada Peeth, the seat of the goddess of learning. The Buddha himself is reported to have said that this beautiful valley would be the best place for meditation and prayer. Buddhism came to Kashmir soon after the Buddha's time. The climate of free-thinking and philosophical discussion initiated by Buddhism continued over the ages in this land of Sarada, or Saraswati.

Asoka was the first great royal patron of Buddhism in Kashmir. In the third century B.C., he created the capital of Kashmir at Puranadhishthana (now called Pandarethan) near present-day Srinagar. He built hundreds of chaityas and viharas and settled 5,000 Buddhist monks in the valley.

With the Kushans came the golden age of Buddhism in Kashmir. Chaityas, viharas and stupas were built all across the valley. Most important, the great Kushan ruler Kanishka held the Fourth Buddhist Council at Harwan near Srinagar in the first century A.D.

Scholars and learned monks converged at Harwan and stayed for six months to discuss and interpret sacred Buddhist texts. This was one of the greatest meetings of Buddhist intellectuals the world had seen. The Fourth Council was regarded as an epoch-making event in the history of Buddhism, as it was here that Sanskrit became the vehicle of Buddhist scriptures. The deliberations and commentaries composed at the Council were inscribed on copper plates and enshrined deep in the heart of a great stupa.

With the Fourth Buddhist Council, in India the Mahayana form of Buddhism gained predominant importance over the earlier Hinayana form. Instead of the ascetic religion, the new form of Buddhism was filled with the joyous beauty of life and of nature that is seen everywhere in the valley. This marked the beginning of a great spread of the Buddhist faith northwards to other countries of Asia.

Numerous Buddhist monasteries were constructed across the vast expanses of Central Asia and China, from where the faith spread to Korea and Japan. The people of these countries had a keen desire to learn the philosophy of Buddhism and they made Herculean efforts to translate Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese and Japanese languages.

The names of great scholars and translators illuminate the passages of the Buddhist history of China. The most outstanding of these was Kumarajiva of the fourth century A.D. He was the son of a Kashmiri Pandit, Kumarayana, and Princess Jiva of Kucha. At the age of nine, his mother brought him to Kashmir where he studied Buddhism for many years. On his return to Kucha, he translated more than 40 important Buddhist texts, including the Lotus Sutra, into Chinese. These are among the major texts of Buddhism in China and Japan till today. The importance of Kumarajiva was attested by the fact that the Chinese took him away when they captured Kucha and till today there are monuments and statues of him built in China.

The glorious Buddhist history of Kashmir is recorded by a flow of Chinese pilgrims who visited the valley. Huien Tsang came to Kashmir in A.D. 631. He spent two years in Srinagar and studied Buddhist scriptures under a renowned Kashmiri teacher. Huien Tsang mentions numerous Buddhist institutions with more than 5,000 monks in the valley.

In the meantime, the kings of the Tibetan plateau turned with a great eagerness and zeal to Kashmir to imbibe the faith of Buddhism. The Sanskrit script of Sarada of Kashmir was taken to Tibet to form the basis of the first Tibetan script.

In the eighth century, Santarakshita from Kashmir laid the foundations of a monastic order in Tibet. He also appealed to the eminent sage Padmasambhava to visit Tibet and to help enlighten the people about the new faith. Padmasambhava, who was teaching in Kashmir, brought with him the Cham, the monastic dance of the Lamas. With this dance, Padmasambhava is believed to have driven away the evil spirits that hindered the spread of Buddhism.

Till today, Padmasambhava is the most revered teacher for all Buddhists in the Tibetan plateau and across the Himalayas.

At the turn of the millennium, King Yeshe Od of Tibet turned once again to Kashmir to revive the Buddhist faith. He sent 21 scholars to Kashmir, over the high passes of the Himalayas. Of them, 19 young men perished on the treacherous route. One of the two who survived, named Richen Zangpo, became famous as Lohtsawa, the great translator of the Buddhist scriptures into the Tibetan language.

King Yeshe Od also invited 32 artists from Kashmir to construct and paint 108 monasteries that he built across the Trans-Himalayas. These monasteries became the backbone of Tibetan Buddhism for all time to come.

The only examples of Kashmiri painting of the ancient period that survive to this day are found on the walls of the 11th century monasteries in Ladakh, Kinnaur and Spiti. These paintings depict the glorious culture of Kashmir at the time when it was a busy crossroads of the world. Kashmir was then on an artery of the Silk Route, which connected the lands of China and Central Asia with those of Europe. In these exquisite paintings, we see a depiction of temples and other architectural structures which would have stood in Kashmir in the 11th century. There are musicians and dancers seen in these murals, as well as a Kashmiri prince on horseback, priests, ascetics and deities. These vividly bring alive the colourful culture of medieval Kashmir.

It was here in the busy marketplaces that the Chinese rubbed shoulders with the Arabs, the Greeks, the Maharashtrians and the Keralites. The rich fusion of arts and philosophy as well as lifestyles that took place here laid deep and strong foundations for Kashmir's culture, one of the most refined and cosmopolitan in the world.

IN Kashmir, visions of the lord's glory are constantly in front of us. It is only natural that the unique form of Kashmir Saivism developed here. In this philosophy there is a great emphasis on the worship of Sakti, who is the manifestation in this world of the ideal that is Siva. She is seen constantly in the beauty and grandeur of the great mountains, in crystal-clear streams of water and in the deep beauty of the still lakes of Kashmir.

In Kashmir Saivism, Siva is the ultimate reality and the essence of all that there is in the world. There is nothing else but Siva, therefore there is no subject or object. There is only Siva and we are ourselves also Siva.

The dual perception of reality is the deceptive veil of the material world. Knowledge is that expansion of the self, which comes from losing one's identity in the supreme beauty of Siva's manifestation. For the adherents of Kashmir Saivism, liberation comes about through intense meditation and a recognition of the identical nature of the individual soul and Siva.

Siva is transcendental, beyond everything, and his imminent manifestation in the form of the world is known as Sakti. Sakti is his cosmic energy that manifests itself in everything that is there in the world, in every blade of grass that grows, in every consciousness that stirs.

Indian thinkers have always seen the world around as a reflection of the beauty of God. It is believed that the feeling of ecstasy upon seeing the beauty of nature or a truly fine work of art is akin to brahmananda (the final bliss of enlightenment) itself. In that moment of bliss, the faithful sense their oneness with the whole of creation and the great beauty of God that is reflected in every aspect of the world.

It is this moment of realisation, this moment of the vision of eternal beauty - which is to be seen in every leaf, every ripple of water, every flower and every tree - that the philosophy of aesthetics aims at awakening within us. This philosophy has been developed to its highest in Kashmir. Great Kashmiri philosophers such as Abhinavagupta have written detailed and extensive commentaries on the subject.

The great Kashmiri saint and poetess Lal Ded, who deeply influenced Kashmiri thought, also spoke of the concept of the divine manifestation of God and the rapturous relationship of the soul with God.

Her philosophy was a synthesis of mystical Saivism and Sufism, which went straight to the hearts of the masses: she became Lalla Arifa for Muslims and Lalleshwari for Hindus. She is also known today throughout the valley by the beloved name of Lal Ded, Mother Lalla.

Lal Ded's philosophy of love was carried forward in the valley by Sheikh Nuruddin, also known as Nand Rishi. He was baptised by Lalla and he too lived in the hearts and minds of both Hindus and Muslims. In fact, he is known as the patron saint of Kashmir.

Love, for Nuruddin, was not only a mystical union with God, but an active and sympathetic attitude towards all living creatures. In his teaching of the brotherhood of man and the equality of all the creatures of god, he adhered to the Islamic ethics contained in the Quran. He founded the order of the Rishis, who became a powerful influence in the valley for many centuries to come. In every part of Kashmir, there were well-known Rishis whose abodes have become places of worship, both for Hindus and Muslims. In his memoirs, Jahangir wrote about the Rishis: "They restrain the tongue of desire and the foot of seeking. They eat no flesh, and always plant fruit-bearing trees in fields so that men may benefit from them."

In Bhakti, the self and all of creation are seen to be aspects of the creator. The soul is seen as constantly yearning to be one with God. In Sufism too, the believer sought a direct communion with God. He chose the path of absolute surrender and complete love of the almighty.

Sufis say that noor, or the beauty of God is reflected in the entire universe. They long to find that beauty and be one with it. A Sufi poet sang: "I tried to find Him everywhere and then I found that He has my name, that my name and His name are the same." Till today, it is the Sufi saints who are most worshipped by the people of Kashmir.

The Sufis were held in high esteem among the masses who followed their simple teachings with eagerness and understanding. Sufi saints stressed the dignity of man, for they thought that every individual should reach the highest goal of human life by his own effort. They rejected the special claim of sanctity of priests, temples, rites and rituals.

THE Valley of Kashmir has long been a paradise: not only of the verdant beauty of nature but also of the development of some of the finest and gentlest thoughts of humankind.

In architecture, Kashmir assimilated both mainstream Indian concepts and those that came from Greece and Central Asia. The remarkable and beautiful fusion that took place here is seen in the impressive remains of the Martand sun temple and at other temple sites. Some of the grandest temples of India of the early period were built in Kashmir.

Very few sun temples were built in India. These grand structures include the temple at Konark in Orissa, the one at Modhera in Gujarat and the Martand temple. The Martand temple was built in the eighth century by the mighty emperor Lalitaditya. Although the roof of the temple is no longer there, the remains display a grandeur and impressiveness truly reminiscent of the vast empire and great resources of Lalitaditya.

The temples of Kashmir had a very distinctive architectural style combining traditional Indian elements with architectural motifs from Gandhara and Persia, which were in turn influenced by Greek architecture. Very typical of the Kashmiri style were pyramidal roofs in two tiers and triangular pediments enclosing trefoil arches. These are features that are very clearly seen in the surviving 10th century temple at Pandarethan.

In the ninth century, King Avantivarman founded the town of Avantipura where he made two magnificent temples, one dedicated to Vishnu, called Avantiswamin, and the other to Siva called Avantisvara. Although the temples are not as large as the Martand temple, the sites show the remains of well-proportioned and stately structures. The many sculptures that remain in various parts of the ruins (and those that have been taken to the Archaeological Museum in Srinagar) show a continuation of some of the gentlest and finest sculptural styles of India.

The architecture of these temples reminds one of the glorious days when Kashmir was on a major artery of the Silk Route and the breezes of many lands blew freely through the valley. Deposed architects from Syria and other places would have participated in the construction of the temples.

The philosophers of the valley have had a joyous belief in the manifestation of the beauty of God, in the world that we see around us. It is a deep belief that every aspect of creation is a part of the supreme consciousness. This philosophy of love and the recognition of divine beauty were the essence of the Buddhist and Hindu philosophies of the early period in Kashmir. Islam in the valley inherited these traditions and Kashmir developed a rich Sufi culture, which continued the tradition of a deeply personal love of God.

Benoy K. Behl is an art historian and filmmaker known for his work on Indian paintings. He has spent many years researching and documenting the culture and art of Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions. Recently he made a film on the cultural history of Kashmir for the Ministry of External Affairs.

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