on the bus
department of Azad Kashmir bills it ‘the great university of Sharda’.
Their brochures and several other write-ups on the internet attribute this
report to Abu Rehan Al Beruni, the 11th century scholar.
Now Al Beruni visited
Kashmir circa 1020 and when he was in Srinagar, he wrote, “In Inner
Kashmir, about two or three days’ journey from the capital in the direction
of the mountains of Bolor, there is a wooden idol called Sarada, which is
much revered and frequented by pilgrims.”
That is all Al Beruni
writes. It is clear from his words that he did not visit Sharda; he only
reported from hearsay. Nevertheless, the reckoning he gives us is true: from
Srinagar, Sharda is indeed a journey of three days by foot and in the
direction of Bolor (Gilgit-Baltistan). But since the culture of Pakistani
bureaucracy is to attempt to build tourism (as well as everything else) on
supposititious glory, they had to stuff the lie about the great university of
Sharda in Al Beruni’s book.
Later, in the 16th century,
Abul Fazal notes in the ‘Akbar Nama’ that the Sharda temple was dedicated
to goddess Durga and was much venerated. He also tells us, again from
hearsay, that on certain nights of the bright moon the temple “begins to
shake and produces the most extraordinary effect”.
But my guide to Sharda, the
one closest to our time, was the unbeatable archaeologist Aurel Stein. The
Notes to his masterful translation of that delightful book ‘Rajatrangini’
(Chronicle of Kings [of Kashmir]); he has a whole chapter on Sharda. The
highly-revered goddess, he tells us, had three separate manifestations and
that the temple was much visited by pilgrims. He too makes no mention of the
ruins of a university.
Though the university myth
was shot to pieces, I still had visions of extensive ruins as I made my way
through the busy bazaar of picturesque Sharda village in the Neelam Valley.
Aside: the real name of the
river is Kishenganga. This is the name that we find on maps published in
Pakistan until the mid-1970s. Then suddenly someone woke up to the need of
converting the river from Hinduism and we got Neelam from a village of the
same name not very far from Sharda.
At the top of the bazaar, a
friendly store-keeper said I should go past the gate of the army unit and I
will not miss the ancient staircase leading up to the temple. The stairs
constructed of large dressed stones were steep and ended at what was once an
elaborate gateway to the temple compound. All that now remains of the gateway
is a pillar listing dangerously to one side.
In a spacious quadrangle
that was once walled, the temple building stands on a square plinth. A
pillared entrance leads to the cella which is bare of any sign of an idol. In
the Kashmiran-style of temple architecture, the façades replicate the
external design of the building. Though the roof is missing, each façade
other than the entrance has a representation of the temple complete with a
shikhara or steeple that would have crowned the top.
Stein records the tradition
that at some stage when this area was under the Muslim rulers of Karnav, the
temple was used as a gunpowder magazine. And as gunpowder is wont to explode
of its own volition, it did, to blow off the top.
This cannot be true because
such an explosion would have demolished the entire building. The steeple
therefore was either never built or, more likely, lost because of natural
causes. The prime suspect in this case would be the disastrous earthquake of
the 1580s which was no less in severity than the one we saw in October 2005.
Constructed of red and grey
sandstone, now badly eroded, Sharda is a sort of a poor cousin to the famed
temple of Martand in Anantnag on the Indian side. Now, Martand was built in
the middle years of the 8th century by the brilliant king Lalitaditya
Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty. I thought therefore Sharda would date to
about the same period. But going by “certain peculiarities in its
dimensions and decorative features”, Stein was disinclined to attribute
“any great antiquity” to it.
The master had spoken. I
felt a little deflated when I returned home and reread his report. But even
if it did not go back to the
8th century, Sharda was still old enough for me because it had existed in the
11th century for Al Beruni to make a note of it.
Done with the temple, I
asked the man who had come around to check me out about the ‘university’.
He said it lay on the far side of the stream. I remembered from my reading of
Stein that this little rivulet that joins the Kishenganga at Sharda was
called Madhumati and suspected that it being a Sanskrit word would no longer
be in use. I asked the man and sure enough, he said the stream had no name.
Across the bridge I walked
with a crowd of chattering girls returning home from school. What I found
there was certainly no university. It was the remains of a small fortified
billet for soldiers. Looking at the timbers in the surviving turret even my
untrained eye could tell that this was very recent and likely from the 19th
century when the Dogras ruled over Kashmir.
But no amount of quizzing
threw up the ruins of the fabled university. It had never existed. It was
only something conjured up by semi-informed bureaucrats to glamourise a land
so beautiful that it needs no deceitful glamour. This is the very same way as
tour operators and bureaucrats teamed up to bill the Karakoram Highway as the
Silk Road in order to lure unsuspecting tourists to Pakistan.
But university or not,
historical Sharda temple sitting in a right picturesque village, was a
worthwhile destination for me. And this was not my first and last visit. The
‘Rajatrangini’ records a battle fought in 1144 by King Jayasimha of the
second Lohara dynasty at the castle of Sirasilakotta about four kilometres
from Sharda. That lures me back to the Kishenganga.
Usually the last
row on a bus is the most uncomfortable. Any minor crack in the road, which
goes un-noticed for the rest of the passengers, becomes an amplified
experience for you.
This bus was no different.
The only good thing was that I was sharing this entire row of about five
seats, with one other passenger; a Sikh from Hassanabdal.
I tried talking to him,
eager to get his views on this new policy of signing an affidavit before
crossing the border stating they would return to Pakistan. “I am an England
national. I only live in Pakistan because I want to spend the time at the
Gurdwaras here. You think I want to live in India?” he answered on my
persistence and went back to reading his pocket Granth Sahib.
In the past few years, ever
since there has been an increase in Hindu pilgrims from Pakistan taking
refuge in India, the interior ministry has arbitrarily come up with a new
policy of making every non-Muslim Pakistani sign a statement that they would
come back to the country when they travel to India. I realised that any plans
to engage my Pakhtun friend in a conversation would be in vain so I started
reading my book.
While we were leaving from
the Indian Customs, beginning to undertake our 10- hour journey from Lahore
to Delhi on a bus, travelling on the historical Grand Trunk Road a young
police officer in a khaki uniform entered the bus, holding an AK 47 to his
chest like an insecure mother holds on to her baby in an alien environment.
From his perspective we were all the same; a bus full of Pakistanis,
potential terrorists, extensions of Ajmal Kasab, and whose security he had
been assigned against his political point of view.
He came and sat next to me
at the end of the bus — stern, uptight, eager to maintain his distance from
the ‘Pakistani tourists’. He sat quietly while I read my book.
This was my first time to
Delhi by bus and I was excited. I had earmarked all the important cities that
we were to pass through: Kartarpur, Sirhind, Kurkshetra and, leaving my book
aside, I stared out of the window expecting history to unfold in front of me
as I passed through these historical cities.
But what I witnessed was a
history of a different nature. The entire highway is a reflection of the
‘modern’, ‘shining’ India, with extension works in progress
throughout, while air-conditioned dhabas dotted the route. I made an attempt
to talk to the police officer sitting next to me.
After a few single syllable
answers, when I was able to convince him that I was not a terrorist trying to
glean information from him for possible security lapse, he and I ended up
having a rather long conversation that went all the way to Delhi.
“I don’t really talk to
other passengers on the way. No one really talks to me like you do,” he
His name was Anil Kumar and
he is a constable at Delhi Police. Twenty two years of age, he belongs to the
State of Rajasthan which was clear from his accent. “You know the Rajasthan
State has passed a new law recently to give a scooter to all girls who pass
their matriculation exams. They want to promote education, especially amongst
girls like that.”
Our conversation gave me an
insight into the concept of nationalism prevalent in India. On my other
visits to the country, I have experienced doses of it but here was this young
police officer teeming with love for his country. I found his nationalism to
be particularly interesting because one usually doesn’t find this sort of
patriotism among lay people in
Pakistan. National identity is contested here, torn between different
interpretations of religion, ethnicity and international politics. India, on
the other hand, is much more diverse and therefore to forge a uniform
national identity becomes a much more daunting task and that is also what has
been her strength. The Indian nationalism celebrates its differences of
ethnicities, nationalities and religion, whereas in Pakistan these
differences are viewed as a burden, which is particularly why the kind of
nationalism instilled in an average Indian is much stronger than an average
“What sort of jeeps are
given to the police?” asked my friend, in a deep pride, clearly expecting
an answer not as good as the two jeeps leading and following us, whose siren
we would hear occasionally. “Well actually, our police have better jeeps.
They have hilux. You don’t have them in India but they are stronger than
your jeeps,” my answer clearly offended him.
I could see the confusion
on his face, the answer not making sense to him. How could Pakistan being a
smaller and economically weak country have better police cars than India, was
written on his expressions. I wanted to explain to him that Pakistan being a
security state actually has better arms and its forces are well-provided than
India, but I refrained, slightly enjoying his agony.
“Delhi police has better
jeeps. They are the most efficient force in the country, completely
corruption-free. The state police jeeps (which were chaperoning us) are not
as good as Delhi police’s,” he said, trying to satisfy his hurt pride.
“How is the Pakistani
film industry?” he followed up with a fatal blow.
“Well there was a time
when it competed with its Indian counterpart but now it’s pretty much dead.
Nothing compared to the Indian film industry.”
The smile of pride on his
face emerged again having recovered on national superiority score.
Almost prophetically at
that moment our driver decided to play a song by Muhammad Rafi, born and
raised in Lahore of what is now Pakistan but bloomed to success in Bombay of
what became India. We both started singing along, consciously, taking pride
in owning up as heritage that particular song. He did that as an Indian
national, whereas I did so as belonging to the same city as the iconic
“Do you know Rafi is from
Lahore?” I asked him. He nodded silently ignoring my comment.
In his silence, I felt as
if he was trying to tell me it doesn’t make a difference any more. The song
is from the Indian film industry; his nation and even if I knew the lyrics
better than him, it still remained his.
Insecure, I started singing