Pulwama in Kashmir is burned into every Indian’s consciousness for the tragic events that took place here recently. In the news for violence and conflict now, the region was once the rich and prosperous heart of a thriving kingdom of one of Kashmir’s greatest monarchs – King Avantivarman (855 – 883 CE).
Just 16 km from Pulwama is the town of Awantipora on National Highway 44. A town like any other in the valley, with modern houses, shops and military barricades, Awantipora betrays little of its ancient past.
It is only when you arrive at the ruins of the magnificent Avantiswamin temple on the banks of the Jhelum river that you realize you are in what once was the great city of Avantipur built by King Avantivarman of the Utpala dynasty that ruled Kashmir.
The greatest of Kashmir’s Hindu monarchs was King Lalitaditya Muktapida, who occupied the throne for 37 years, from 724 to 781 CE. His power and influence stretched from Central Asia to the Gangetic plains. However, after his demise, the Karkota empire crumbled under a succession of weak monarchs. The last ruler of the dynasty was a young boy named Cippata Jayapida, who was dominated by his maternal uncle, Utpala. After the young monarch had ruled for just 12 years, Utpala got the boy king murdered and established a dynasty that would rule Kashmir from the 8th to the 10th centuries.
King Avantivarman was the grandson of this usurper, Utpala. We know of the reign of Avantivarman from the text Rajatarangini, the famous chronicle of Kashmir’s kings, written in the 12th century by Pandit Kalhana. Noted Kashmiri historian, P N K Bamzai, in his book Culture And Political History of Kashmir, pointed out that unlike a lot of accounts in Rajataragini, which were based on legends and lore, Kalhana’s account of Avantivarman was based on historical facts.
Kalhana mentions that King Avantivarman’s reign was one of unprecedented prosperity. He did not indulge in wars or territorial expansion but chose to improve the lives of his people. He curbed the power of the Damaras, powerful local landlords who exploited the people, and encouraged trade and commerce. He established the town of Awantipora on the banks of the Jhelum river and embellished it with beautiful buildings and temples.
Two of his most prominent creations in the town were the Avantiswamin temple dedicated to Vishnu and the Avantishwar temple dedicated to Shiva, the ruins of which stand to this day. He was also a great patron of art and learning. The most famous scholar in his court was Anandavardhana, who composed the text Dhvanyāloka, which expounds the Dhwani theory of Indian aesthetics.
Around 78 km north of Awantipora is the town of Sopore, which again sadly makes headlines only for violence and terrorist attacks. Sopore was once ‘Suyyapura’, named after one of the most interesting characters during Avantivarman’s reign, a brilliant man named ‘Suyya’. The story of Suyya is narrated by Pandit Kalhana in Rajatarangini.
Ancient Kashmir was liable to floods and waterlogging, which caused great destruction. The famous emperor Lalitaditya Muktapida had built irrigation and flood-control networks in the valley but most of them had fallen into disrepair. As a result, a cycle of flood and famine began to affect Avantivarman’s kingdom.
This is when Suyya makes an appearance. Born to anonymous parents, Suyya had been left on the roadside at birth and picked up by a local sweeper woman. He grew up to be a sharp, intelligent man who was well respected in the community. As the fear of a great famine swept the kingdom, Suyya approached Avantivarman, claiming he could solve the problem if pots of gold were given to him. The courtiers declared him a fraud and a charlatan but Avantivarman to decide to test him.
Taking the pots of gold, Suyya threw them in the flooded water plains in the full view of the people. The desperate famine-struck people jumped into the water, and in their desperate search for gold cleared the beds of rocks that had rolled down the hill and choked the passage of the river. In a matter of just days, the water receded. Suyya then built embankments on both sides of the river and also dredged it, making it deeper. This ensured that the river did not cause floods again.
Under Avantivarman’s patronage, Suyya undertook a number of other irrigation projects. He regulated the course of the Jhelum river and its tributaries in such a way that they flowed through the Wular Lake. This water was harnessed for irrigation and each village was allocated a fixed quota of water that was suitable for its needs.
Suyya also created circular embankments around villages to keep out water. These looked like round bowls or kunda and they were hence called kundals. Interestingly, more than a thousand years later, you can still find a number of villages in the region with names like Mar-Kundal, Utsa-Kundal, Amcha-Kundal and so on. All these irrigation projects led to a bumper harvest of crops. Avantivarman also prohibited fishing in Wular Lake and the killing of water fowl during the breeding season.
Avantivarman died in 883 CE, after a long reign of 28 years, leaving behind a rich and prosperous kingdom. He was followed by a succession of weak successors. Today, the only remnants of his glorious reign are the ruins of the two temples – Avantiswamin and Avantishwara – in Awantipora town. In terms of size and dimensions, the Avantiswamin temple is second only to the famous Sun temple of Martand built by Lalitaditya Muktapida. The famous British art historian Percy Brown (1872-1955) writes:
‘Whereas Martand was an expression of a sudden glory when Kashmir reestablished the consciousness of its own might, Avantiswamin is a sophisticated and more elegant structure produced by a maturity of experience acquired during the passage of time. ’
It is popularly believed the Avantiswamin temple was destroyed by Sultan Sikandar Butshikan, who ruled Kashmir from 1389 to 1413 CE. Sir Alexander Cunningham, noted archaeologist and founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, claimed that the temple could have been blown up by gunpower. However, noted Indian archeologist Daya Ram Sahni carried out detailed excavations at the ruins, from 1913 to 1916, in which he found a number of artifacts. These include a large jar with ‘Om Maha Shri Avantimargatha’ written in the Sharada script, dating to the year 1527 CE.
This means the temple was an active site of worship for almost a hundred years after it was believed to have been destroyed. Recent studies conducted on other ancient temples in Kashmir reveal that many were destroyed during the numerous earthquakes that plague the region. We don’t know what and how these temples were destroyed or abandoned.
Compared to its glory days, Awantipore has a very different identity today. Now, it is just a regular town known for its Indian Air Force base. Sometimes, it receives a smattering of day trippers en route to Srinagar. Beyond the images of violence and conflict that fill our television screens and the Internet, it is important to look at places like Awantipore as markers of our rich and distant past.