In the run-up to the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor, Kashmiri Pandit groups were demanding a similar arrangement for pilgrims to Sharada Peeth, an important temple across the Line of Control. In fact, mainstream political parties like People’s Democratic Party (PDP) too have been voicing this demand. Now, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been quoted as saying that his government “can consider other proposals including opening up travel for the Sharada Peeth in Kashmir…”
The ancient temple of Sharada (also spelt Sharda or Sarada) and the adjacent ruins of Sharada University lie in Neelam Valley, 160 km from Muzaffarabad, and right across the Line of Control in a small village, Shardi or Sardi, where the river Neelam (Kishanganga) converges with the Madhumati and Sargun streams. The Save Sharada Committee, which has been spearheading the campaign to allow Kashmiri Pandit pilgrims access to the Sharada temple, says it has members on both sides, and has petitioned the central government, and also written to the Pakistan Prime Minister.
“And now as I hear, he (Imran) has talked about it, it has given us a lot of hope,’’ said Ravinder Pandita, who heads the Committee. “We have a cross-LoC permit in force since 2007… but this is only for J&K residents to meet their relatives. We want an amendment; we want religious pilgrimage added so that we can visit Sharada.”
Pandita described Sharada as “our kuldevi, the principal deity for Kashmiri Pandits”. He said that while there are three or four traditional routes, “we are only asking that we should be allowed to use the present permit system. We will go via Muzaffarabad.”
Besides the temple, there are also “ruins of one of India’s oldest universities there”, he said. “(At) a time when Hinduism was on the decline and Buddhism was on the ascendant… the revival of Hinduism started after Adi Shankaracharya’s visit to the university,’’ Pandita said.
Pandita claimed it was because of the efforts of his Committee that the Supreme Court in Muzaffarabad ordered the preservation of this heritage site in January this year.
“I have never been there. We aren’t allowed. But I am hopeful,’’ he said. “After the Kartarpur Corridor was opened, we hope we are also allowed to go for pilgrimage to our holiest site.”
Although Sharada has been out of bounds for Kashmiri Pandits since Partition, the demand for allowing a pilgrimage gained momentum in 2007 after a visit by Prof Ayaz Rasool Nazki, a Kashmiri scholar and former regional director of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. He says he found the temple floor covered with soil. “I was the first person from the Indian side to visit Sharada. I took pictures and a video which I subsequently exhibited,’’ Nazki said. “Although Kashmiri Pandits had always been aspiring to visit this holy place of great importance, Sharada is important for every Kashmiri because of our common roots and ancestry. After my return, there was a revived interest in the demand for opening up of LoC for pilgrims to Sharada.”
Nazki said Sharada is the most revered religious place for Kashmiri Pandits. “The legend is that when there was a war between evil and good, goddess Sharada saved the pot of knowledge and carried it on her head to these mountains where she dug the earth and hid it. Then she turned herself into stone to cover this pot carrying knowledge. Thus there used to be only a rectangular stone covering the floor of the Sharada temple.”
Nazki had written earlier: “Sharda in Kashmir has been described as the Shakti embodying the three separate manifestations i.e. Sharda (the goddess of learning) Narda (the goddess of knowledge) and Vagdevi (the goddess of articulation). This is the beauty of Kashmir’s philosophy and its thought system… Sharda thus encompasses knowledge, learning and articulation and confers upon Kashmir and Kashmiris the distinct scholarship and wisdom associated with them.”
In the chapter ‘In search of roots’ in the anthology Cultural Heritage of Kashmiri Pandits edited by S S Toshkhani and K Warikoo, Nazki wrote: “During the reign of Kanishka I, Sharada was the largest academic institution in entire Central Asia. Side by side with imparting education in Buddhist religion, history, geography, structural science, logic and philosophy was taught. This University had evolved its own script, known as Sharada… At one point, there were five thousand resident scholars and it had the word’s biggest library also.” This, he said, “is the second aspect why Sharada is important”.
Nazki said local villagers still referred to Sharada as a university. “The structure is a thousand years old.. There isn’t much visible, other than large bricks. The temple site hasn’t been encroached upon or vandalised in the last 70 years. The stone structure is intact. But it needs care.”