Akhnoor Heritage caught in time warp

K P Singh, Col J P Singh
Akhnoor in J&K UT is a treasure trove of HISTORY. Its mythological cave, two forts; one in total ruins, two majestic bridges, ancient Harapan Civilisation, foundation site of Jammu & Kashmir (Jeo-Pota), the serenity of mighty River Chenab, temples and a gurdwara, over and above all, the remains of ancient Buddhist settlements are exceptional. Also called ‘Aankhon-ka-Noor’ by Mughal emperor Jhangir, Akhnoor is mythical Virat Nagri and is one of the most significant archaeological and historical sites in entire North India. Historic discovery of a Buddhist monastic complex close by at Ambaran, visited by His Holiness Dalai Lama, gave a strong physical proof of a vibrant Buddhist culture in Akhnoor (Jammu).
In present Pandemic time, tourism and heritage is seen as a cultural, economic and political engine of economic growth. There is lot of emphasis on promotion of Tourism in India but towards Jammu, the attitude is lackluster. It became obvious when Parliamentary Standing Committee on Tourism directly landed at Srinagar over-flying Jammu. It shows Jammu’s neglect overridden by all pervasive discrimination. Akhnoor is no exception. But that doesn’t deprive Akhnoor of mention of its pristine glory.
Akhnoor Fort
Overlooking mighty Chenab at its right, is the formidable Akhnoor Fort. Raja Tej Singh started its construction in 1762 which was completed by his successor Raja Alam Singh in 1802. Excavations around the fort by the ASI during 1991-2001 threw up relics of the 5,000-year-old Harappan and pre-Harappan civilisations. Like many other ancient forts in J&K, this fort site has also been encroached upon by the administration. Some of the original structures were altered with the construction of the Sub-division, Revenue and Police offices. Large parts of the Fort are the abode of monkeys. This two-storey Fort and Palace is under the ASI’s jurisdiction since 1982 as a protected national monument. Although renovation of the historic Fort is said to be going on but nothing much is seen having changed except on river side face of the Fort-wall. Meager grant of funds is said to be reason for the neglect of such towering heritage.
Pandav Gufa
Below the fort, on the River bank, is ancient Pandav Gufa. Decorations/inscriptions on the outer concrete wall of the Gufa give a look of a living place. When you step into the rocky entry, you have to locate the Cave, hidden behind the cemented fore walls. The Pandavs spent most of their Agyatvas in this Gufa as inscribed in the signboard. God Krishana visited Pandavs in this Cave. Dilapidated entry takes away the ‘antiquity value’ of the Cave.
Further upstream, at Ambaran, is the remains of a Buddhist monastic establishment of ‘Kushan period’. Newly built single span Chenab Bridge overlooks the historic site. According to ASI, small-scale scientific clearances in 2009-2010 exposed a spoked Stupa (Dharmchakra) and bases of other Stupas and walls of a monastery and important antiquities including large number of decorative Terracotta figures, heads, moulds of leaves and ornaments. This monastic complex not only served as important transit camp for the monks who were constant companions of traders’ caravans ferrying goods from the Indian mainland to Kashmir and further to the Central Asia, but also as center for propagation of Buddhism amongst the local hill communities. The scientific cleaning of the site, revealed another significant find that the foundation of eight spoke Stupa which gave a further proof of a Kushana period construction, the likes of which have been found at Buddhist archaeological sites like Sanghol in Punjab and Nagarjunakonda in Andhra.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, visited Akhnoor on 9 November 2011. His Holiness was very happy to see the ancient site of his religion. He confirmed the excavations as one of the monasteries of Kushan period. Thereafter Ambaran shot into limelight, especially in Buddhist countries. Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit established that Akhnoor is a place of entry of Buddhism and its wholehearted adoption by the hill and highland people during early years of Buddhism. From Jammu region before it was carried to Kashmir Valley by Majhantika during the reign of ‘Ashoka-the-Great’. (Credit for organizing His Holiness’ visit to Ambaran goes to Dr. Karan Singh, Sham Lal Sharma, then Minister and late Sh. Madan Lal Sharma, then MP). Sh. Prahlad Patel, Union Minister of Tourism and Culture visited Akhnoor heritage sites in February 2020. The minister was briefedat Jeo-Pota about its historic profile and public connect. Sh. Pravez Dewan, IAS, as DC Jammu in 1991-92 visited Akhnoor historic sites many times and took interest in their historiography.
After such high profile visits and domestic and international acceptance of the historicity of the Akhnoor, it was expected that State and Center would draw an immediate plan of action to develop Akhnoor as an important destination of pilgrimage tourism that attracted both domestic as well as international tourists. Ironically that didn’t happen. Historical importance of Akhnoor, especially in terms of spread of Buddhism from thereon to Kashmir, Ladakh and Central Asia, continues to receive the same run of the mill treatment that is meted by ASI to its numerous monuments all over the country. After 11 years since the site was first excavated, the unearthed remains of the foundations of Stupas don’t even have tin sheds to protect them from vagaries of the weather. Heavy rains take toll of the fragile remnants of ancient monastic complex which is often eroded with downhill water flow. The site is said to have been abandoned during the decline of Buddhism in the region and flooding of the area.
Further excavations in the adjacent village Ambaran in totally ruined Fort, (capital of erstwhile Akhnoor Raj) suggest four different periods of human settlements in the area, the pre-Kushan, Kushan and post-Kushan periods & the Gupta period. Many Terracotta heads and writings were unearthed there. The discovery of such relics for the first time in entire J&K has opened a new chapter in the study of history and culture of the region. Terracotta dug outs of Ambaran, are displayed in different museums of the world. These sculptures include Buddha, Bodhisattvas, worshippers, princely figures, ascetics, children, animals, decorated walls of the monastic complex.
Upon the birth of Yuvraj in 1931, Maharaja Hari Singh constructed Yuvraj Karan Singh Bridge over Chenab which came to use in 1934. It was an extraordinary engineering marvel. It got washed away on 12 September 1992, was reconstructed and inaugurated on 14 April 1994.
River Chenab, with its sprawling landscape makes Akhnoor a thriving tourist hub of Jammu. Chenab river bed at Akhnoor is ideal place for ‘adventure sports’. Ranbir and Partap Canals originate at Akhnoor.
The importance of Ambaran/Akhnoor thus lies not only being the earliest recorded Buddhist site in J&K but as a historic and religious center in Jammu that played an important role in extending Indian empire, in the national integration and cultural and intellectual revolution in Northern India. But regrettably, Akhnoor’s legacy of cultural, religious, historic and artistic richness as part of Jammu’s glorious past is yet to find its proper place in the cultural map of India due to apathetic attitude of its custodians.
We appeal Lt Governor Manoj Sinha to visit these exceptional heritage sites and see whatever can best be done to promote heritage tourism in Akhnoor. We also appeal civil society to takes up a proactive stance and put pressure on the concerned State/Central Culture & Tourism ministry officials to take up immediate steps for proper projection of our collective heritage. Unless due attention is paid right now, the archeological sites of Akhnoor are destined to suffer irreversible damage. If that is allowed to happen then a golden chapter of history of Jammu would be consigned to labyrinth of obscurity forever.
Moreover 2022 is bicentenary year of foundation of erstwhile Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh- wa-Tibet-ha. It is at Jeo Pota, Akhnoor, on 17 June 1822, emperor Ranjit Singh crowned Gulab Singh as Raja of Jammu. Bicentenary Day deserves to be celebrated with the elan it deserves. Besides historical site, Jeo Pota’s Harki Pauri is site for ritual immersion of Ashes. Site needs to be developed to meet the religious needs/sensitivities of the public.
Akhnoor has 3 Sub-divisions, 7 Tehsils, 8 BDO Blocks and 89 Panchayats. It deserves to be a District. A memorandum to make it District was presented to former LG, GC Murmu on 18 January 2020 at Akhnoor Dak-Banglow in the presence of Divisional Commissioner. I appeal civil society to take up this necessity of much needed administrative reform.
(The authors are Chairman & Vice-Chairman of Raj Tilak Divas Celebration Committee and Ambarians)