The Amarnath cave in Kashmir, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is one of the holiest shrines for Hindus, attracting lakhs of devotees each year. But few outside archaeological circles have heard of the Maha Guha or the Great Cave of Lord Shiva in a place called Kashmir Smast in North Pakistan.
What makes this place so fascinating is that it is not only one of the oldest Shaivite sites in the Indian subcontinent, but was also one of the most important centres of Hinduism from the 2nd to 10th centuries CE, that is, for almost 800 years.
The sheer volume of archaeological, numismatic and epigraphic evidence found here has completely changed our understanding of early Hinduism in North-Western India. But despite its great significance, most Indians are oblivious to this place.
Located in the Babuzai Sakra mountains in the Katlang Valley Mardan in Northern Pakistan, Kashmir Smast (the Pashto word for ‘cave’) is a series of natural limestone caves. Its unusual name has given rise to many theories. According to one, the name ‘Kashmir’ relates to the caves’ location on the route to Kashmir in India; others say the caves were reminiscent of the ones in Kashmir; and still others claim that they were part of a series of caves that stretched all the way to Kashmir.
Interestingly, the mountain in which these caves are embedded, known as Sri Munja or Munjavat, was considered one of the most sacred mountains in early Hinduism. Indian historian and numismatist Susmita Basu Mazumdar in her paper Kashmir Smast: An Enigmatic Site in Pakistan says that numerous references to this mountain are found in Hindu texts such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata.
In the Atharva Veda, the people of the Gandhara region are referred to as Munjavats. Historian D C Sirkar in his Cosmology and Geography in Early India, reveals how this mountain finds mention, both in the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda, as the place where Soma plants were found. The plant was used to make Soma rasa, a drink of ritual importance in ancient India. In fact, the Rigveda refers to the Soma plant as Munjavata or ‘from the Munjavat mountain’. In the Mahabharata, we also find a reference to the “Great temple of Yakshi at Munjavata”.
But over the centuries, the site was so completely forgotten that in 1960, when a Japanese team collaborating with the Federal Department of Archaeology, Government of Pakistan, carried out an early survey of the site, little was known about it. It was only in 2001, thanks to excavations conducted by the Department of Archaeology, University of Peshawar, led by Dr Nasim Khan, that the site was rediscovered by the wider world.
Pakistani Archaeologist Dr Nasim Khan, in his report, writes how during his visit to the site in November 1999, he observed “some striking ancient remains all along the way from Babuzai to the Great Cave, Maha Guha. They were beautiful walled structures and magnificently engraved and painted inscriptions, especially those painted on the sacred rock in the Bare Uba area and in the plain area of Bakhai. But unfortunately all of them have been subjected to clandestine excavations by antiquity seekers. As a result, thousands of antiquities robbed from here found their way to Peshawar and all over the world.”
The series of caves consists of a maha-guha (great cave), numerous small cave shelters and sanctuaries, a monastery, remnants of a small temple and water reservoirs. The Great Cave, which is divided into three chambers, is believed to have been used by ascetics for prayers, meditation and other religious purposes. Sadly, as mentioned by Dr Khan in his report, the site has been pillaged over the years, due to which much of it is destroyed.
Regarding its impact on our understanding of Hinduism, till the 1999 excavations, the earliest ‘surviving’ remnants of Hinduism dated to the 9th century CE. But the antiquities found at Kashmir Smast changed it all.
Treasure Trove of Antiquities
Not only did it take the historical evidence of Hinduism in the region back to the 2nd century CE, but the treasure trove of antiquities discovered included coins, which provided a chronology of the different dynasties that ruled the region. In fact, the site is said to be so rich in antiquities that even during surface explorations, coins, lamps, earthen pots, arrows, metal and clay objects and bronzes, among other things, were found!
Among these antiquities were seals of Lajja Gauri, the goddess of fertility, whose worship was believed to be prevalent especially in Central and Southern India. Numerous seals of Lajja Gauri were found here along with inscriptions that describe her as Goddess ‘Achima’. Dr Khan believes that the site was an important centre of Lajja Gauri worship. Other fascinating artifacts discovered here include Shivalingas, stone sculptures of Ganesh and Vishnu, metal plaques in silver and bronze depicting Radha-Krishna, and a few gold ornaments studded with jewels.
A few inscriptions refer to the name of the mountain as Sri Minja (Munjavat) and the principal deity residing in the Maha-Guha as Bhima (Shiva). Interestingly, a copper-plate inscription refers to this site as a Shaivite temple with the chief deity as ‘Shaliyaka Vardharmeshvara’ (The House of Lord Shiva). Another inscription mentions the valley below as ‘Sita Maha Kandara’ or ‘the Great Valley of Sita’. There are also several inscriptions that refer to donations and offerings made by pilgrims.
It is these offerings by pilgrims that explain the numerous coins discovered at the site. Some of these coins date to several post-Mauryan dynasties, from the 2nd century BCE up to the Islamic period in the 14th century CE.
The numerous coins found here are those of the Kushanas and the Huns, dating to the 2nd to 6th century CE. Apart from coins of the great Kushana emperors like Kanishka, coins of the ‘lesser’ Kushana kings have also been found here. This tells us that Kushana rule continued in the region much after the empire had collapsed elsewhere. Apart from that, there are the coins of the Huns (Kidarites and Hepthalites) dating from the 4th to 6th century CE, and those of the Hindu Shahi dynasty till the 9th century CE.
What makes the hoard at Kashmir Smast so significant is that numerous coins of early Islamic kingdoms have also been found in the caves dating to the 7th-8th century CE. Interestingly, these are said to be the earliest examples of Muslim coinage in the subcontinent.
Rise & Fall
What sustained Kashmir Smast’s religious establishment were the trade routes from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia. Since ancient times, the Gandhara region was a confluence of cultures, attracting merchants, artists and scholars from around Asia. It was the wealth through trade that sustained religious establishments such as Kashmir Smast. However, the collapse in Central Asian trade in the 10th century CE as well as the advent of Islam in the region led to the loss of patronage. And, over time, these caves were completely forgotten.
In the 19th century, a European explorer named A Court stumbled upon these caves in 1839 and made a note of them in his journals. Renowned archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham also visited the site in the latter half of the 19th century. It was only with the Japanese Archaeological Mission in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology, Government of Pakistan, that the first systematic study was conducted. It declared that the site was a Buddhist establishment. It was only due to systematic excavations in 2001 by Dr Nasim Khan that the Shaiva establishment at the site was brought to light along with its rich antiquities.
Today, Kashmir Smast remains a crucial archaeological site.
If you enjoyed this article, you will love LHI Circle - your Digital Gateway to the Best of India's history and heritage. You can enjoy our virtual tours to the must-see sites across India, meet leading historians and best-selling authors, and enjoy tours of the top museums across the world. Join LHI Circle here