Sharada Peeth is a ruined Hindu temple and ancient center of learning located in present-day Azad Kashmir. Between the 6th and 12th centuries CE, it was among the most prominent temple universities in the Indian subcontinent. Known in particular for its library, stories recount scholars travelling long distances to access its texts. It played a key role in the development and popularisation of the Sharada script in North India, causing the script to be named after it, and Kashmir to acquire the moniker “Sharada Desh”, meaning “country of Sharada”.
As one of the Maha Shakti Peethas, Hindus believe that it represents the spiritual location of the goddess Sati’s fallen right hand. Sharada Peeth is one of the three holiest sites of pilgrimage for Kashmiri Pandits, alongside the Martand Sun Temple and the Amarnath Temple.
Sharada Peeth is approximately 150 kilometres (93 mi) from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir and 130 kilometres (81 mi) from Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir. It is about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from the Line of Control, which divides the Pakistani and Indian-controlled areas of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is situated 1,981 metres (6,499 ft) above sea level, along the Neelam River in the village of Sharda, in the valley of Mount Harmukh, believed by Kashmiri Pandits to be the abode of Shiva.
History and etymology
Sharada Peeth translates to “the seat of Sharada”, the Kashmiri name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati. “Sharada” could be also related to the proto-Nostratic terms “sarv”, which means “flow or stream”, and daw (blow, tip or rock), because it was located at the confluence of three streams.
The beginnings of Sharada Peeth are uncertain, and the question of origins difficult, because Sharada Peeth was both a temple and an educational institution. The earliest theory of its origins dates it to over 5,000 years in age, around the time of the earliest records of Neolithic sites in the flood plains of the Kashmir Valley. On this view, the site could not have been first constructed by the Indo-Aryan peoples, who are estimated to have arrived at the Ganges River around 1500 BCE. More conservative estimates suggest that it was built under the Kushan Empire (30 CE – 230 CE), and some others believe that its similarity to the Martand Sun Temple indicates that it was built by the Kashmiri king Lalitaditya (724 CE – 760 CE). A third school of thought suggests that it was built not at once, but in stages.
Some historians have suggested that Sharada Peeth was never a centre of learning, on the basis that in present-day, there are no sizeable ruins from a supposed educational site. In response, it has been said that Sharda is prone to earthquakes, and debris from a collapsed abandoned university are likely to have been used by townspeople for other constructions.
As a centre of learning
Sharada Peeth is referred to by various historians, detailing its mythological status and prominence in ancient India. Its historical development is traced through references made to it by various historical sources. Although the Sharada script did not originate in Kashmir, it was used extensively in Sharada Peeth, and acquired its name from the institution. This has fed the popular belief that the script was developed in Kashmir.
The centre of learning was prominent by at least the 4th century CE. Around that period, Buddhist scholars such as Kumārajīva, Thonmi Sambhota and Rinchen Zangpo were associated with Sharada Peeth. This coincided with the period that Buddhism was prevalent in Kashmir (3rd – 8th century CE). Kumarajiva (344 – 413 CE) was born to a Kashmiri father, Kumārāyana, and a Chinese mother from Kucha. He was sent to Kashmir at a young age to gain a grounding in Buddhism, where he studied under a Kashmiri scholar of the Sarvastivada school. Thonmi Sambhota (7th century CE) was sent on a mission to Kashmir to procure an alphabet for the Tibetan language. There, he learned various scripts and grammar treatises from learned pandits, and then devised a script for Tibetan based largely on the Sharada alphabet. Other associated scholars include the Kashmiri historian Kalhana Pandit and the Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara.
Sharada Peeth was also valued by scholars across the Indian subcontinent for its library, and stories detail long journeys they would take to consult it. In the 11th century, the Vaishnava saint Swami Ramanuja traveled from Srirangam to Sharada Peeth to refer to the Brahma Sutras, before commencing work on writing his commentary on the Brahma sutras, the Sri Bhasya. The 13th century CE (1277 – 78) text Prabhāvakacarita contains a story of the Śvētāmbara scholar Hemachandra. As Sharada Peeth was the only place with a library known to have all such works available in their complete form, Hemachandra requested King Jayasimha Siddharaja to send a team to retrieve copies of the existing eight Sanskrit grammatical texts preserved there. These supported his own text of Sanskrit grammar, the Siddha-Hema-Śabdanuśāśana.
As a temple
The earliest reference to Sharada Peeth as a temple comes from the Nilamata Purana (6th – 8th century CE). It describes the confluence of two “holy” streams, where Sharada Peeth is located: the Madhumati (today known as the Neelum River or Kishanganga) and the Sandili (after the saint Sandilya, who is said to have built Sharada Peeth). According to the text, bathing in it gave one visions of Chakresh (another name for the god Krishna, after his Sudarshana Chakra) and of the goddess Durga.
By the 8th century, the temple was a site of pilgrimage, attracting devotees from as far as present-day Bengal. By the 11th century, it was among the most revered places of worship in the Indian subcontinent, described in Al-Biruni‘s chronicle of India. Significantly, it featured not in his description of Kashmir, but in his list of the most famous Hindu temples in the Indian subcontinent, alongside the Multan Sun Temple, the Sthaneshwar Mahadev Temple, and the Somnath temple.
Reverence of Sharada Peeth extended to non-Hindus. The historian Jonaraja described a visit by the Kashmiri Muslim sultan Zain-ul-Abidin in 1422 CE. The sultan visited the temple seeking a vision of the goddess, but grew angry with her because she did not appear to him in person. In frustration, he slept in the court of the temple, where she appeared to him in a dream. In the 16th century, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, Grand vizier to the Mughal emperor Akbar, described Sharada Peeth as a “stone temple … regarded with great veneration”. He also described the popular belief in miracles at the shrine: “it is believed that on every eighth tithe of the bright half of the month, it begins to shake and produces the most extraordinary effect”.
A key source of mythological knowledge about the shrine is the Sharada Sahasranama manuscript, written in the Sharada script, and communicated by the last Purohit of the Sharada temple. It recounts the rishi Shandilya as performing a grand Yajna in the Sharda area, involving the local people and hundreds of worthy priests. During the Yajna, a beautiful woman appeared, introducing herself as a Brahmini who wished to participate. She said that she and her companion had come a long way and asked for food. Shandilya welcomed her and told her that the rules of the Yajna forbade him from giving her the food: the Yajna had to be completed, and the Purohits fed first. The Brahmini grew angry and declared herself to be Vāc, the Vedic goddess and Divine Mother. She revealed to him that the Paramatman he worshipped was the essence of the goddess. In her anger, she transformed before him into the divine Neela (or blue) form of Saraswati, with ornaments, weapons, and clouds, and declared that she would absorb the world. In shock, remorse and fear, Shandilya collapsed and died. Seeing his remorse, the goddess had him revived with Amrita, the elixir of life, and transformed into a different, graceful form of Saraswati. Addressing him as “son”, she told him that she was pleased with his devotion and compassion and would grant him whatever he wished. Shandilya, addressing her as the Divine Mother, asked her to revive the dead and restore the village and forest. Saraswati did so, instructing him to build his ashram at the base of the hill near the Madhumati river (present-day Neelum River). She took her abode there at Sharada Peeth.
An alternative account holds that Shandilya prayed to the goddess Sharada with great devotion, and was rewarded when she appeared to him and promised to show him her real, divine form. She advised him to look for the Sharada forest, and his journey was filled with miraculous experiences. On his way, he had a vision of the god Ganesha on the eastern side of a hill. When he reached the Neelum river, he bathed in it and saw half his body turn golden. Eventually, the goddess revealed herself to him in her triple form of Sharada, Saraswati and Vagdevi, and invited him to her abode. As he was preparing for a ritual, he drew water from the Mahāsindhu. Half of this water transformed into honey, and became a stream, now known as the Madhumati stream.
A third account holds that during a fight between good and evil, the goddess Sharada saved a mythical container of knowledge and hid it in a hole in the ground. She then transformed into a structure to protect this container. This structure is now Sharada Peeth.
There are two popular legends of Shardi explaining Sharada Peeth. The first holds that there were two sisters, Sharada and Narada, who ruled the world. The two mountains overlooking the valley, Shardi and Nardi, are named after them. One day, Narada saw, from her abode on the mountain, that Sharada had died, and that giants were fleeing from her body. Furious, she summoned them and ordered them to build her a tomb, which became Sharada Peeth. The second legend says that there once was a giant who loved a princess. She desired a palace, and so he began work. At the time of morning azan, he was supposed to have finished, but the roof remained incomplete and for that reason, Sharada Peeth today remains without a roof.
Importance to Kashmiri Pandits
The Sharada temple has played a significant historical role in Kashmiri Pandit religious culture. It is believed to be the earliest shrine dedicated to Shaktism, or Hindu goddess worship in Kashmir, with later shrines including the Kheer Bhawani and Vaishno Devi temples. It also advanced the importance of knowledge and education in Kashmiri Pandit culture, which persisted well after Kashmiri Pandits became a minority group in Kashmir. Kashmiri Pandits believe that the goddess Sharada worshipped in Sharada Peeth is a tripartite embodiment of the goddess Shakti: Sharada (goddess of learning), Saraswati (goddess of knowledge), and Vagdevi (goddess of speech, which articulates power). In line with the Kashmiri Pandit belief that springs which are the abode of goddesses should not be looked at directly, the shrine contains a stone slab concealing the spring underneath, which they believe to be the spring in which the goddess Sharada revealed herself to Sandilya.
During Mughal and Afghan rule, Neelum Valley was ruled by Muslim chiefs of the Bomba tribe, and the pilgrimage decreased in importance. It regained its stead during Dogra rule, when Maharaja Gulab Singh repaired the temple and dedicated a monthly stipend to the Gautheng Brahmans who claimed the hereditary guardianship of the temple. Since then, a thriving Kashmiri Pandit community lived in the vicinity of the Sharada Peeth teerth (or pilgrimage). These included priests and traders, as well as saints and their disciples. As a religious ritual, Kashmiri Pandit theologians across Kashmir would place their manuscripts in covered platters before idols of the goddess Sharada, to obtain her blessings. They believed that the goddess would convey approval of the pages of writings by leaving them undisturbed, and disapproval by leaving the pages ruffled. In addition, an annual fair would be held at Shardi village, with pilgrims travelling through Kupwara (in present-day Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir), in worship of the goddess Sharada. Kashmiri Pandits believe that the Sharada pilgrimage parallels Shandilya’s journey, and that the act of bathing in the confluence of the Neelum River and Madhumati stream cleanses the pilgrim of their sins. In 1947, the Kashmiri saint Swami Nand Lal Ji moved some of the stone idols to Tikker in Kupwara. Some of those were subsequently moved to Devibal in Baramulla. The temple fell into disuse following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948, which split the princely state of Kashmir into the Pakistani-administered territory of Azad Kashmir, and the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir. This caused large numbers of Kashmiri Pandits to migrate out of Shardi to Indian Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, Kashmiri Pandits unable to visit the shrine have created “substitutes” for the pilgrimage in places like Srinagar, Bandipore, and Gush in Indian Jammu and Kashmir.
Religious tourism to Sharada Peeth has declined considerably since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948. Most Kashmiri Pandits remained on the Indian side of the Line of Control, and travel restrictions have discouraged Indian Hindus from visiting the shrine. No Objection Certificates are required for Indians seeking to visit. Furthermore, its close proximity to the Line of Control discourages tourism from within Pakistan. Tourists to the Neelum Valley often overlook the ruins of the shrine, instead spending time in the scenic valley surrounding it. In 2007, a group of Kashmiri Pandits who were permitted to visit Azad Kashmir were denied permission to visit the temple. In September 2009, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies recommended increased cross-border religious tourism between India and Pakistan, including allowing Kashmiri Pandits to visit Sharada Peeth, and Pakistani Muslims to visit the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar.
The shrine remains politically significant, with Kashmiri Pandit organisations and leaders from Jammu & Kashmir urging the governments of India and Pakistan to facilitate cross-border pilgrimages. Senior Indian politicians have also called on Pakistan to renovate the temple, and it is discussed bilaterally as part of the Composite Dialogue between the governments of India and Pakistan. In 2019, Pakistan government opened the Kartarpur Corridor to allow Sikh pilgrims in India to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur across the border. This strengthened calls by Kashmiri Pandits to the Pakistani government to open a corridor to the Sharada Peeth site. In March 2019, Pakistani media reported that Pakistan had approved a plan for a Kartarpur-style corridor for Sharada Peeth. However, the Pakistani government has since said that a decision has not been made.
The temple is built in the Kashmiri architectural style using red sandstone. Historical records of the temple’s architecture are scarce. A late 19th century account by the British archaeologist Aurel Stein describes the temple’s walls as intact to a height of approximately 20 feet (6.1 m), and its pillars rising approximately 16 feet (4.9 m).
The compound is situated on a hill, approached on its west side through an imposing stone staircase. The facades are repetitive. Suggested reasons for this include that architects disliked plain outside walls, or that even if the spire collapsed, a visitor would be able to tell what the temple originally looked like. The design of the temple is simple, with a plain conical Sharada spire. It sits on a raised plinth, 24 square feet (2.2 m2) in area and 5.25 feet (1.60 m) in height. The walls of the cella recede 2 feet (0.61 m) from the edge of the plinth. The temple is surrounded by a quadrangle which measures 142 feet (43 m) by 94 feet (29 m). The quadrangle is enclosed by walls of 11 feet (3.4 m) in height and 6 feet (1.8 m) in width. On the north, east, and south, the walls of the cella are adorned by trefoil arches and supporting pilasters, which are constructed in high relief. Below these are small, trefoil-headed niches covered by double pediments. Although a pyramidal stone roof is more typical to Kashmiri architecture, in Stein’s description, the temple is covered by a low shingle roof. By the 21st century, the roof is no longer present and the interior of the temple is exposed to the elements. The temple appears imposing even from outside the walled enclosure, because of the plinths it is raised on to equalise the uneven elevations of the ground. The north side of the wall contained a small recess, in which two ancient linga could be seen.
The interior of the cella is plain, and forms a square of 12.25 feet (3.73 m) on each side. It houses a large slab of stone measuring 6 feet (1.8 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m). This slab covers the holy spring where the goddess Sharada is believed to have appeared to rishi Shandilya. In the 19th century, this sacred spot was surmounted by a red cloth canopy and tinsel. The remainder of the interior was filled with ornaments of worship such as conches and bells.