Sharda Mai

D S Sodhi
Kashmir boasts of so many historical shrines of major faiths as also the composite culture (many Historical Shrines are now a part of the PoK). Some of these once revered shrines / monuments are now in dilapidated state in PoK since no one from Hindu / Sikh faith lives there. A voice is now being raised from across the borders to build bridges between the communities and help in upkeep and maintenance of these historical shrines. One could say that integration of natural and cultural heritage in the national discourse would definitely enrich and strengthen counter narrative against extremism, help bring peace and harmony through promotion of heritage pilgrimage / tourism. in this connection, Save Sharda Committee Kashmir Regd.) has taken one such initiate with regard to opening up of Sharda Temple for pilgrimage.
This ancient temple of Goddess Sharda (Maa Saraswati Goddess of wisdom, knowledge and music) is located in a small village named Sharda (also called Shardi) in PoK.  The temple is located between Athmuquam and Dudniyal where confluence of river Madhumati and river Kishanganga takes place.  It clearly emerges from various accounts that an excellent centre of advanced learning in Hinduism and Buddhism “Sharda Peetham” existed at Sharda. The Brahmins and Kashmiri pundits relate themselves with the deity and recite the phrase ” “Namastey Sharada Devi Kashmir Pur Vasini ,Tvam Ham Prartheye Nityam Vidya Danam Che De hi mey” (Salutations to you, O Sharada, O Goddess, O one who resides in Kashmir. I pray to you daily, please give me the charity of knowledge) during their daily prayer. Padmashri VR Gowri Shankar (CEO Sringeri Mutt) says that this Shloka is recited in every house hold in the southern part of India. Reference of Sharda is also found in Kalhan’s “Rajatarangni” and Nilamata Purana. The people of Kashmir often visited the temple and an annual fair was held at this place.  The last Pilgrimage undertaken was by Swami Nand Lal Ji of Tikker “Kupwara”in 1947. At the time of partition, Swami Nand Lal Ji carried idols from Sharda to Tikker and a few of these stone idols are lying at Devibal in Baramulla. Bamzai a Kashmiri Pandit Scholar was also one of the last to visit the shrine before partition.  The site was heavily damaged in the 2005 earthquake.
Sharda Peeth has the distinction of being visited by many historians and scholars like Chinese scholar Xuanzang (stayed there for two years) in 632 CE Muslim Historian, Al-Biruni in 1030 CE, Adi Shankracharya (who had set up a university there), followers of King of Gauda in 8th century and Sultan Zain-ul-abidin in 1422 A.D. The local population reveres the deity by the name Sharda Mai.
A documentary ‘In search of Sharada Civilization” by Shri TKV Rajan showcases the invaluable legacy of Kashmir valley also known as Sharda Desh as also how Sharda Peeth has been the foundation head of “Sanathana Dharam” and pivotal role played by Sharada Civilization in shaping India’s culture and civilization for the past 2000 years. Sharda Script was introduced at Sharda Peeth and the initial manuscripts of Ramayana and Mahabharta were written in Sharda. In an Interview with Rameez Makhdoomi, Dr Rukhsana Khan a senior researcher of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad Pakistan who coordinated one of the archaeological survey at Sharda in 2015, has brought out that Sharda was not only a temple but a whole Civilization.  Her research involved cultural heritage and its management in the context of socio-economic development through cultural tourism in the conflict zone, i.e., Neelam Kishen Ganga valley. An important segment of Sharda research was finding of the Saraswati Lake in Surgan valley’s higher altitude mountains. Prof. Abdul Ghani of Sharda Village, a local headmaster has authored a book “Sharda -tareekh ke irteqai marahil” in which Sharda civilization and routes to pilgrimage have been thoroughly touched. This book has been received by Save Sharda Committee head in New Delhi recently and is being translated and would later be re-launched for the benefit of Sharda followers.
A letter from Save Sharda Committee Kashmir was placed before the the chief Justice of Azad Jammu and Kashmir on 02 Jan 2018. The Hon’ble Supreme Court directed that in the cases reported as Rehmat Ullah Khan and 3 others Vrs, Azad Government and 3 others (2014 SCR 1358) and Azad Government and 5 others Vrs Ghulam Nabi Shah (2015 SCR 816) the Hon’ble court has been pleased to issue direction to the State Authorities for protection of the Religious Places and Symbols such as Temples and Gurdwaras etc.  The Hon’ble Chief Justice appreciating the efforts of the committee for humanity remarked that the committee shall not confine itself only to restoration of the places relating to a specific religion but also shall focus on restoration and protection of the Holy places and symbols of the other Religions.  It is, an established and recorded account that Guru Hargobind Sahib travelled to Jammu and Kashmir on Mughal Road. He entered through Mirpur (Chaprahar, Galoti, Garanti, Wazirabad, Mirpur , Nowshera, Rajouri, Shopian, Khanpur Saran, Srinagar, Baramulla, Kalampora, Paran Peelan , Dulanja, Nilochi  Muzzaffarabad, Abbottabad, Hasan Abdal, Gujrat, Hafizabad and Nankana Sahib).  Whereas, magnificent Gurdwaras have been built in Jammu and Kashmir commemorating Guru’s visit, the state of Gurdwaras in PoK {Gurdwara Tali Sahib & Gurusar (Chaprahar near Sialkot village Rehsma), Gurdwara Kotha Sahib (Wazirabad) and Gurdwara Chevin Patshai (Muzaffarabad)} is a matter of concern.
The efforts taken by the Save Sharda Committee Kashmir (regd) for the cause of protection, upkeep and opening the Sharda temple for pilgrimage are laudable. The response of the civil society from PoK too has been very encouraging. The Committee has put forward the request at the centre as well as state level including the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir seeking amendment to LoC Permit.  An interesting  aspect of the LoC permit is that it is issued only to Jammu and Kashmir residents who want to visit their relatives living across the LoC for valid reasons (such as attending weddings ceremonies).   It is annoying and frustrating that Domicile of Jammu and Kashmir cannot visit their own historical places of worship that exist on their land.
The scenario around the world is fast changing and a military conflict is not the solution to resolve disputes. Confidence building measures like people to people contact, religious  and heritage tourism, building interfaith bridges are the only solution to live in peace and harmony. Once we are ready to understand that, whatever our differences we are human in the first place, only then we will be able to work on a collective response that puts humanity first. There is a need to think of ways and means that would not set geographical barriers but would be open to all based on a shared vision and common values. The power of local initiatives could throw up alternatives. I hope that the Government of Jammu and Kashmir has taken note of the concerns and request of the Save Sharda Committee and initiated the process to enable pilgrimage to Sharda in the month of August as a first step. The people of all faiths of Jammu and Kashmir need to support this noble cause. It is the people of Jammu and Kashmir who can make it happen.
The author is former Commadore (NM)