Shriya Bhatt: the 15th-century Kashmiri physician and social scientist

Kashinath Pandit
Kalhan Pandit brought his celebrated history Rajatarangini from early times down to CE 1149 covering part of the reign of Raja Jayasimha. For nearly 270 years after Rajatarangini, we have no historical record available for tracing the flow of events. In the words of eminent Sanskrit scholar, late Pandit Trilokinath Ganjoo, either no history was written during those 270 years or histories were scripted but were destroyed under the orders of fanatical Sultan Sikandar, the Iconoclast. We are told that to meet the wishes of Sayyid Muhammad Hamadani, the son of Sayyid Ali Hamadani, this zealot ruler, a huge quantity of Hindu scriptures and Sanskrit literary funds was buried under mounds of earth to raise an embankment across the Dal Lake. Historical accounts produced in the post-Kalhan period also perished in the holocaust.
However, the tradition of writing Kashmir history was resumed during the reign of Sultan Zainu’l Abidin (Budshah), CE 1420 – 1470, the sixth in line after Sikandar the Iconoclast. The person who initiated the resumption of writing the history of Kashmir during the reign of this ruler was an enlightened soul who needs to be brought out of the debris of history with honour and dignity. He was Pandit Shriya Bhat. It was he who induced the court historian Jonraja to undertake the great task of continuing Kashmir historiography in the footprints of Kalhana. Jonraja writes mukhachachhi shiryabhattasya prapyagyamnavgay (I, Jonraja, was given instructions by Shirya Bhatta of continuing to write the history of Kashmir, which I couldn’t decline).
Thus Jonraja brought the history of Kashmir from the reign of Raja Jayasimha where Kalhan had left it (CE 1149) down to the year 1339 which fills almost a period of two hundred years.
In CE 1420 Sultan Zainu’l Abidin, the sixth in the line of the Shah Mir dynasty ascended the throne of Kashmir. After bringing the history of Kalhan down from AD 1150 to the times of Zainu’l Abidin, including 39 years of this Sultan’s reign, Jonraja departed from this mortal world. He named his history Zaina Rajatarangini. After Jonraja, his student Shrivara continued his master’s historical work from AD 1459 to 1486.
Shriya Bhatt
Jonraja has given his name as Shirya Bhatt, which the Kashmiri Hindus have been pronouncing as Shri Bhatt/ Shriya Bhatt and the Muslims pronounce it as Shir Bhatt. A locality at some distance from Hawal towards the north of Srinagar was given the name of Shirbatun by the local Muslim population. It means “the locality of Shir Bhatt”. Bhatt/Bhatta, of course, is the abbreviation of Bhattarika, the epithet often used for learned Brahmans of Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims generally call Kashmiri Hindus Bhatta. Bhatt, a sub-caste is also derived from the same root. The sub caste is common to Hindus and the Muslims of Kashmir.
We are told that at the beginning of his reign, Sultan Zainul Abidin was not a secular-minded person. He was as staunch in his faith as his forefathers were. This point has been very emphatically explained by Jonraja. It was the influence of the dynamic and impressive personality of Shirya Bhatta (or Shri Bhatta) that brought about a total reformation in the thoughts and policy of the Sultan.
As long as Sultan Zainu’l Abidin (called by Kashmiris Budshah meaning the Great King) continued to go by the sane advice and considered guidance of Shriya Bhatt, he reigned in peace and tranquillity. But after the demise of Shriya Bhatt in CE 1459, the remaining 20 years of the Sultan were rather painful and highly disappointing for him. These years were beset with court intrigues and conspiracies. The reason was that the sane and expert advisory support from Shirya Bhatt was no more there and the Sayyids, originally from Iran, had gained a strong foothold in Delhi’s power structure and were playing a menacing role in Kashmir.
When Shriya Bhatt contemplated re-consolidation of the battered Hindu society of Kashmir of his day after it had gone through a cataclysmic period under the reign of Sikandar Butshikan, he could identify three main aspects that needed to be addressed. The first was how could the ritual of giving water (tarpan) and pind-dhan be made for those Hindus who had perished along with their clan and gotras leaving behind no trace owing to the genocide let loose against them by the new governing structure. This has to be understood from the way the ancient Hindus of Kashmir had developed their millennia-old philosophy. This led to the confirmation of gotras among the Kashmiri Hindus which we can observe even today. The second area which Shriya Bhatt wanted to address was of recreating a castless Hindu society out of the remnants that had survived the onslaught of civilizational transformation. He proposed the inclusion of all the Kashmiri Hindus in the category of Brahmans. This was an example of great foresight and in fact, can be considered a landmark in the democratization of the Hindu society of Kashmir of his times. Thus what the various Hindu reformation movements in India like the Bhakti movement, the Brahmo Samaj movement, the Arya Samaj movement or Vishwa Hindu Parishad tried to do was undertaken by the visionary Shriya Bhatt way back in the middle of the 15th century.
The third issue which he tried to tackle was the reconstruction, restoration and protection of Hindu shrines, temples and viharas and providing adequate means for maintenance. It speaks a lot about the vision and foresight of Shriya Bhatt.
Dr Ganjoo thinks that Shriya Bhatt very wisely advised his community members to learn Farsi, the official language adopted by the Muslim rulers after discarding Sanskrit. Kashmiri Hindus followed his advice and Bhatt Avtar is the person who had some Farsi works to his credit which are no more extant.
Perhaps our readers will like to know how Shriya Bhatt attained access to the court of Sultan Zainu’l Abidin and how he could increase his influence on the Sultan.
Jonraja tells us that a carbuncle appeared on the chest area of Sultan Zainu’l Abidin which caused him terrible pain and restlessness. Court physicians became helpless in curing the king. Someone spoke to him of Hindu physicians being well-versed in curing dangerous carbuncles. It was decided to find one and bring him to the royal court for the treatment of the ruler.
Here Jonraja gives a poignant insight into the ground situation of the Kashmiri Pandit society of the day. Because out of fear and intimidation unleashed by the earlier Muslim Sultans, the Kashmiri Pandits had got thinly scattered and disintegrated and it was difficult to know the whereabouts of a well-known physician in their community. Jonraja says that just as a fresh flower is not visible anywhere in Kashmir owing to heavy snowfall in winter, similarly a Kashmiri Pandit was not easily found anywhere. Somehow, the sleuths of the royal court managed to find one Hindu physician living somewhere in the locality of Gunjavihara (present-day Gojwor) and brought him before the Sultan.
On this find, Jonraja writes: “After conducting a serious and fulsome investigation, the royal secret agents came to know of a Hindu physician, a yagya and havan (prayer and offering to the deity) performing expert in gurood shastra (the science of treating carbuncles) named Shriya Bhatt in the same manner in which travellers of deserts suddenly find a well of cool water in the way. He was brought before the Sultan.”
Jonraja writes that although Shriya Bhatt was a past master in the medical profession yet he had some hesitation in treating the Sultan. Keeping in mind the massive destruction that his community had to face at the hands of previous Sultans and their administration, Shriya Bhatt was apprehensive lest miscarriage of treatment happened and the consequences would be unbearable for the distressed and moribund community of the Hindus of Kashmir. The Sultan understood his psychology and called him to his presence and assured him of no dire consequences if the treatment did not succeed.
On feeling convinced, Shriya Bhatt took up the surgical instruments supplied to him and began the surgery of the carbuncle. He opened the boil and squeezed out the poisonous pus precisely as a female elephant uproots and throws away a poisonous herb. The Sultan was cured and praises flowed for the great physician abundantly. It portended a good time for the beleaguered Hindu community.
After fully recovering from the wound, the Sultan called Shirya Bhatt to his presence and expressed his desire to reward him adequately according to his choice. But the wise and great humanist Shriya Bhatt, aware of the plight of his community under repressive regimes, submitted to the Sultan that he would not ask for anything for his person but the community based on humanism and justice. He said that the members of the community, who were forced to go into exile under previous regimes, especially the learned men, should be recalled and rehabilitated in their places in Kashmir. On Shriya Bhatt’s persuasion, the Sultan ordered the resumption of scholarships to the students of the Hindu community whose studies were suspended and whose seminaries were closed down during the reign of Sikandar the Iconoclast. Again, on the request of Shriya Bhatt, all temples and shrines that were demolished under the orders of Sikandar were rebuilt and restored to their previous glory. Another notable contribution of Shriya Bhatt was that he persuaded the Sultan to abolish the jizya meaning poll tax imposed on the Hindus by Sikandar. He succeeded in getting this taxation abolished. From one verse in Jonraja’s history, which late Dr Trilokinath Ganjoo has quoted in his booklet, we are informed that on the behest of Shriya Bhatt, the Sultan imposed a ban on cow slaughter and beef could not be sold at all. He impressed upon the Sultan to allow the Hindus the freedom of visiting their temples, shrines and tirthas and offer prayers as per their tradition. He also ordered that the lands and endowments of the shrines of Hindus forcibly grabbed during the reign of previous Sultans should be restored to their original Hindu owners.
Jonraja says that with the patronage of the Sultan, Shriya Bhatt opened pathshalas meaning seminaries in each pargana where students would enrol themselves to acquire traditional learning of Hindu religion and philosophy.
It is an irony that historians have presented Shriya Bhatt only as a surgeon who treated Sultan Zainu’l Abidin and restored him to health. The huge social work of reviving the Hindu culture and its manifestations in the shape of temples, viharas, mathas, tirthas, stupas, and shrines from the destruction caused by Sikandar, Shriya Bhatt has rendered unforgettable service. He was instrumental in retrieving a large number of Sanskrit works from the throes of destruction. No single person in the Kashmir Hindu community after Shirya Bhatt has played so vital a role in reviving Hindu religion and culture in its multi-faceted forms in Kashmir back to its glory as was done him. Historians have not ventured to explain how Shriya Bhatt neutralized the vicious influence of the Sayyids by adopting the highest order of statecraft. History of Kashmir tells us that after the exit of Shriya Bhatt from the scene in CE 1459, Kashmir Sultanate entered into an era of decline and internal disruption until the Mughal occupation in CE 1586.
In the final analysis, deep and dispassionate research must be conducted on the works and contributions of this great son of Kashmir. He emerges as an eminent social scientist that renounced all temptations and dedicated his entire life to the service of the community and the people. A Shriya Bhatt chair should be incepted in one of the Central Universities of the Union Territory so that scholarly literature is produced on eminent Kashmirian personalities that have not received proper notice so far and are brought out from oblivion.