Chander M. Bhat
Avantipora [called Vuuntipur in Kashmiri] [Lat. 33o 55′ N; Long. 75o 00 E’] is situated at a distance of 29 km southeast on the Srinagar-Anantnag road located at the foot of one of the spurs of mountain namely Wastarwan. It overlooks the river Vitasta [Jhelum] flowing by the side of Jammu-Srinagar highway. The site still retains the ancient name, ‘Avantipur’. The place is famous not only as an ancient capital city of Avantipur founded by Raja Avantivarman, but also for its two imposing temples, now in ruins, built by him. One of these temples, Avantisvamin, a smaller one, was dedicated to Lord Vishnu, before Avantivarman’s accession to the throne. The original grandeur of these great temples has been an all that remains now are the architectural fragments strewn at their places of origin. Avantisvamin comes just before Avantipora and Avantesvara a few hundred metres away at village Jaubror, Another ancient temple built by Avantivarman was Sheer Mutt, located 6 km from Avantipora. Avantisvamin, one of the better preserved temples of the two, has a edifice, which comprises a colonnaded peristyle enclosing a paved courtyard 174′ by 148′ and 8 inches, in the centre of which is the main shrine, built on a double base with four small shrines at four corners, the only decoration of which is a torus moulding and cyma recta cornice. The base is intact, but the sanctum, 33 square externally, has almost disappeared. Avantesvara is situated in a courtyard enclosed by a massive wall, the western face of which is adorned externally with a row of fluted columns, but without any recesses behind. The gateway is the middle of the wall and is divided into two chambers by a cross wall. The base on which the shrine in the centre of the courtyard stands is 57 feet and 4 inch square and 10 feet high, with stairs, 28 feet wide, on all four sides, supported on either side by flank walls, 17 ½ feet in length. According to Lawrence, the complete ruin of Avantipora temples could have been affected by use of gunpowder by bigoted Sikander, whose idol breaking zeal procured him the title of But-Shikan or ‘Iconoclast’?
An unverified tradition attributes the foundation of Avantipora to Vinayadatta. It was called Vinayatipuri after his name which contracted into Voonti’pora. Vinyadatta’s place was some distance to the south of the famous temple. There is, however, no historical evidence in support of the tradition.2
King ‘Avantivarman’ of Utpala dynasty founded the ancient town ‘Avantipur’ in A.D.853-883. Kalhana in Rajatarangni states that this place was already a sacred center before the town was christened after Avantivarman. At Avantipur itself, Avantivarman built magnificent temples, dedicated to Lord Vishnu called ‘Avantiswami’ and other to Lord Shiva called as Avantiswara’. Both the temples follow the same plan and layout as observed at Martand temple, but they are smaller in size.
Avantisvamin temple comprises a colonnade peristyle enclosing a paved courtyard, in the center of which is a main shrine. The shrine is built on the double base with four subsidiary shrines at the corners. The entrance, which is the middle of the west wall, is flanked by a plain rail and sidewall. The surface of the walls is ornamented profusely with sculpture reliefs. Another flight of steps leads down to the stone paved courtyard. The sidewalls of this staircase are plain, but the pilasters are carved with sculptured reliefs. The space between the gateway and the main shrine is decorated with a moulded pedestal base, which appears to be the base of Garudadhvaja pillar. The central shrine is built on a double base, which is partly intact, but the superstructure of the sanctum has almost disappeared. In fact the only fragments remaining are some part of the lowest courses of the walls in the northern side.
The central shrine contained a four armed Vishnu and similar form of Vishnu is also noticed in the cells of the peristyle. The other prominent figures are the Yamuna and Ganga with their respective vahanas, king and queen consorts. Among the detached images, noteworthy is the figure of Ardhanarisvara. The tiers are flanked on either side by a partly plain balustrade. The front side of the balustrade is covered with the figures of Vishnu with Lakshmi and a six-armed goddess.
The four subsidiary shrines in the courtyard and at the corners of the main shrine show a panchayatana form of temple. Besides these four subsidiary shrines, three more shrines, two on the east and one on the south were also built. Almost all the shrines have lost their superstructures and only adhishthana has survived.
The main characteristic of the temple lies in the cellular colonnade. It comprises 69 cells. The cells in the center are larger than the rest and projected slightly forward. In front of them are erected fluted columns on plain square bases the only wall decoration on the peristyle is the fluted pilasters on both sides of trefoiled entrance to the cells.
In one or two cells on the eastern side of the peristyle are found pedestals, which show that images were also enshrined in them. The excavation carried out in the courtyard of the temple revealed that the steps of the temple were leading towards the river bank, which is on the western side.
A large number of antiquities have also been unearthed during the excavation of this temple. The most valuable are a series of sculptures, which has been placed in the S.P.S.museum, Srinagar. In the one of the large jars that has been brought to the museum, an inscription mentioning the name of Avantivarman is noticed. This record is of particular interest as being the only independent evidence for the correct identification of the site after Avantivarman.
The temple is said to have been destroyed in an earthquake which must have remained of the magnitude of plus 7 on Richter scale. During the reign of Sultan Butshikan the Kashmiri Pandits had to migrate and the temple remained in unattended position in its ruins. The time forced the structure to get buried under the clay and flash floods of river Vitasta. The temple is now an archeological monument. The main stone icon of Lord Vishnu has broken into pieces and is not now available there while as other icons excavated are in the custody of Srinagar museum. The whole structure was built with the help of big boulders and handmade cement was used to strengthen the walls built with the boulders. Number of stones used in construction of Ghats and Baradaris were taken away by the locals and used in construction. Every stone had images carved on it. Art of sculpture and masonry is un-parallel. Both the temples and Avantipur are providing tourist attraction and remind us of engineering marvels of the time of Avantivarman.