Kalahana in Rajataragini mentions about the five most famous things of ancient Kashmir. The first among these is the learning. Kashmir was known throughout the world as an important centre of learning. Almost all foreign explorers who visited Kashmir in ancient times have mentioned about the intelligence of the local people. Kashmiris were reputed to be intelligent, good looking, hard working, and good foot walkers.
An important centre of this learning in ancient Kashmir was the Shrine of Sarada, now referred to as “Sharda Peeth”. This was considered to be the temple of Sarasvati, the Goddess of learning. Sir Aurel Stein, the translator of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini has devoted an entire chapter on the discovery of this shrine by him.
He mentions that the great Jain scholar Hemacandra was commissioned by King Jayasimha of Gujrat to compose a new grammar. He requested the King for being supplied with eight old grammars, which could be found complete only in the library of Goddess Sarasvati in Kashmir. Jayasimha immediately dispatched some high officials to Pravarapura to obtain the manuscripts. These were brought by envoys and delivered to Hemacandra, who after perusing these composed his own great grammatical work, the Siddhahemacandra.
It has not been confirmed whether these manuscripts actually came from the Shrine of Sarada but this much is established that the fame of the Shrine as a seat of learning had spread far and wide. There are many other references about the Shrine in ancient chronicles. Kalhana mentions about the visit of King Gauda of Bengal to Kashmir during the reign of Lalitaditya for specifically visiting the Shrine of Sarada. Even Alberuni has mentioned about the well known Shrine of Sarada very much venerated and frequented by pilgrims, which according to him, housed a very famous wooden idol of Sarasvati.
The famous Kashmiri poet Bilhana ascribes the patronage of learning claimed by the city of Srinagar to favour of Goddess Sarasvati of Sarada. The Goddess is said to, “Resemble a swan, carrying as her diadem the glittering gold washed from the sand of the Madhumati stream which is bent upon rivalling Ganga. Spreading lustre by her fame, brilliant like crystal, she makes even Mount Himalaya, the preceptor of Gauri; raise higher his head (his peaks) in pride of her residence there”.
Kashmir has claimed from early times to be the land beloved by Sarasvati-Sarada, and consequently the designations of Saradapitha, Saradamandala have been commonly used to describe it. These designations have helped in attracting universal attention to this Tirtha. Reference to Sarada Temple is also found in Jonaraja’s Chronicle wherein the visit of King Zain-ul-Abidin to the Shrine in 1422 A.D. is mentioned.
The King is supposed to have accompanied a regular pilgrimage to the Shrine. According to Abu-L-Fazal’s notice in Ain-i-Akbari, the temple of “Sharada” enjoyed considerable reputation even in sixteenth century. Thus, this ancient Tirtha which Kalahana refers as “Saradasthana” was one of the most important in Kashmir, and it was definitely famous far beyond its limits. The highly disturbed political conditions of the Upper Kishenganga Valley in the later Mughal and Afghan rule resulted in the neglect of this Shrine. Because of these disturbed conditions which continued even in Sikh rule, the pilgrimage to the Shrine did not have any attraction for the peace loving Brahmans of Kashmir.
In the time of Stein (1892) it had almost become unknown to the Pandits of Srinagar. Stein consulted a number of ancient chronicles and references to trace the route to this famous but unknown shrine. Saradamahtmya, Abu-I-Fazal’s Ain Akbari, and Alberuni’s mention of this ancient shrine helped Stein to arrive at the approximate direction to the spot where the shrine was supposed to exist. His journey to the shrine is most exciting and adventurous.
In September, 1892, he went on a tour of north Kamraz to ascertain the exact position of the Tirtha. Narrating his travel he mentions, “The first reliable information regarding it I obtained from Pandit Sant Ram, a Purohita resident at Sogam, Lolav. He described to me accurately enough the route followed by the pilgrims. Confirming a surmise I had already previously formed, he indicated to me the village and “Ruins” of Sardi, shown on the map at the confluence of Kisanganga and Kankatori Rivers, as the place of Sarada Shrine”.
Stein then describes in detail his journey to Sardi where the Shrine is located. He relates his first view of the Shrine, “At the turn of the path the fort of Sardi and the ancient temple of Sarada come conspicuously in view, with a magnificent amphitheatre of high peaks behind them. The Kisanganga which issues only a short distance above Sardi from a long and a narrow chasm in the mountains, flows here with comparative smoothness”.
Description of the temple is quite exhaustive.
“The temple of Sarada rises in a prominent and commanding position above the right bank of Madhumati on the terrace like foot of a spur which descends from high pine-clad peak to the E. Immediately below this terrace to the N.W. is the spot where the waters of Madhumati and Kisanganga mingle. There, on a small sandy beach, pilgrims perform their Sraddhas. From the height of the staircase, which forms approach to the temple from the W., an extensive view opens. To the S.E. the valley of the Madhumati is seen narrowing gradually into a gorge between precipitous spurs through which passes the direct route to Kashmir via Kroras. In the N.E. from where the Kisanganga issues, successive ranges of steep barren steep mountains with snowy peaks behind them, seem to close all passage. To the N. a narrow chasm in the rocks marks the debouchure of the Sargan River, the Kankatori of the map, which flows from the mountains towards Cilas and falls into the Kisanganga a short distance above Madhumati. It is the Sarasvati of Kalhana’s description, still known by that name to local tradition. To the W. the view extends to the high ranges which rise in the direction of Khagan”.
After 1947, the Shrine which falls in the Pakistan Administered Side of Kashmir got completely cut off from the valley. In the early 2000s, it was visited by some journalists from Jammu. It is stated to be in ruins and totally unattended. Recently there has been some talk about establishing a Sarada Peeth in Kashmir. Setting up another University or a seat of learning under an ancient name will not give it the same value and stature as the original institution enjoyed. However, it would be more useful to get the ancient Shrine restored as it has immense historical value for Kashmir. It could be one of the confidence building measures between the two parts of Kashmir. If it is possible to renovate some Hindu temples and Sikh Gurudwaras in different parts of Pakistan, why not this ancient Shrine which has a tremendous association with ancient Kashmir?
Mohammad Ashraf, a retired IAS officer, was the Director General Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir. His 30-year-long career in Tourism is full of accomplishments though he considers his greatest achievement the pioneering of Tourism in Ladakh.