While entering the city of Srinagar from the south, scores of workshops of sculptors are found at Sampora and Pantha Chowk. In these workshops hundreds of sculptors are involved in producing wonderful stone works viz. plinth stones, slabs, tomb stones, inscribed stones, pestles and mortars, grinding stones etc. They have also set up their respective stone work stalls where these artifacts are sold to their customers.
Although the demand for few artifacts, for example large mortars has ceased, considerably due to extension of power grinding machines but the demand for well designed plinth stones, slabs and miniature mortars and other items have been flourishing with every passing day. These stone works are very popular and have a good market throughout the Valley.
The commissioning of gravestones and plinth stones has provided good trade opportunities in the last few years and this art has extended to the far-flung areas and villages where new workshops of this art have been set up.
This stone sculpture art has a very long history. The earliest artifacts of this art are known from Bijbehara, which are dated to 6lh and 7th century AD. These sculptural traditions, which appeared from Bijbehara, got cultivated in Pandhrethan, Awantipura, Parihaspura and Verinag Schools.
The most impressive sculpture school of art is believed, has evolved at Avantipura 25 kms distant from Srinagar, Most probably in the reign of Avantivarman (855-883 AD). The place still retains the king’s name and the remains of grand temples he built here. The standing remains of those marvelous temples are still existing at the site and attracting the attention of tourists. Interestingly these remains are called here Pandu laree (the buildings of Pandus).
But historically speaking these are the remains of some religious structures identified as those of ancient temples and believed to had been raised here during Utpala dynasty in 9th and 10th century AD
It was from these archaeological remains that various archaeological artifacts including metallic tools, pottery artifacts and magnificent stone sculptures were way back unearthed during the olden excavations of its archaeological mounds. The excavation then had revealed the remains of magnificent structures, agricultural and domestic metallic tools and a variety of stone sculptures. The most impressive artifacts were the magnificent stone sculptures of Hindu pantheon comprising of variety of deities of Vishnu and Shiva Avtara. These sculptures are dated to have been commissioned here during 9th 10th century AD during Utpala period (855-939) particularly during the period of Avantivarman.
The most of the finds of Avantipura are housed and showcased in the archaeology gallery of the museum at Srinagar. The sculptures recovered from Avantipura are the most impressive and magnificent relics of Kashmir ancient sculpture art. The archaeologists who have been working on ancient Kashmir Sculpture art have identified the ancient school of Avantipiura Sculpture art and distinguished it with other Schools of fine artof that period. Robert E. Fisher a European archaeologist provides the following description of this school.
“Foremost among these images is the four headed, four armed Vishnu that first began appearing in the late eight century toward the end of Karkota period known as the Vaikuntha or Chaturanana image of Vishnu.” This particular form of deity has become common with Kashmir art, it is now best known image from the valley and is often rendered in brass as well. The regally attired figure of Vishnu stands between his two personified attributes Gadanari and Cahkrapurusha, with the earth goddess, Prithvi, emerging between his feet.
Typically, the deity wears a long garland reaching below the knees and a dagger at his waist (unique to Kashmiri versions) and holds his usual attributes in each of the four hands. The most distinctive aspect, however, is the four heads, in the front is a placid human face, with a boar and lion on either sides or a ferocious visage behind, and perhaps added by the Pancharatrins to suit their theory of Chaturvyuha, a system already noted in the configuration of Vaishnav temple in Kashmir such as the Avantiswami.
It appears that the ancient Avantipura School besides making Siva images had provided basis for making of beautiful Vishnu images, this trend later got cultivated in the ancient Verinag School of sculpture art. The artists involved in these schools somehow have followed a uniform style. This distinctive type consisted of highly polished sculptures rarely found among Indian sculptures. These images are impressive as they represent to had been adorned with decorative crowns, necklaces, armlets and other ornaments.
A number of magnificent sculptures these days are showcased in the archaeology gallery of the SPS Museum at Lal manidi Srinager.
One of the fascinating sculptures is of the Vishnu Chaturanana, with its central human head; it forms the heads of lion and boar the Narsimha and Varaha incarnations of Vishnu. Its attributes are shown in its hands respectively, the lotus in right and conch in the left one, while the missing two originally rested on the heads of his personified mace and wheel. The figure is richly crowned and highly polished. Its crescent type crown is elaborately jeweled.
The sculpture wears two necklaces one short and other long. The long one had a big pendant hanging from the middle and the pendant’s circle is studded with motifs jewels. He is shown wearing diamonded armlet motif. The sacred thread which runs over the left shoulder and under the right arm falls well below the waist band while the well ornamented garland falls short. The auspicious symbol is shown on the breast of the image while the lower garments consists of a small dhoti.
The town has already lost its stone sculpture art, but this art is still carried well with the modern themes and as per the secular social and cultural requirements, at Sampora and Pantha Chowk localities on the outskrits of the historic Srinagar city. The archaeological artifacts recovered in the earlier excavations at the twin sites of Avantipura are housed and showcased at Srinagar Museum, the magnificent archaeological remains symbolizing the ancient influences of ancient Grecian and Roman art and architecture are still well maintained in this historic town of Avantipura. These sites have become the main attractions for local as well as for domestic tourists and lacs of tourists every year visit this town, to see these wonderful remains of the stone architectural and sculptural art.