The apparently nondescript ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Kashmir are a testimony to the region’s richly variegated past and in that, hold enormous historical significance.

In the popular imagination, there is little more to Kashmir than its verdant meadows, aquamarine lakes, fruit-laden orchards, and snow-topped peaks. The typical tourist itinerary includes visiting the usual traveller’s haunts, namely Gulmarg, Dal Lake, Nishat Garden, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, and the like. Though the aforementioned places are an inextricable part of the region’s stupendous natural heritage, they aren’t all there is to the Valley. Sadly, the abundant sites of historical interest have remained hidden from the view – both literal and metaphorical – of the traveller and local resident alike.


(Above)
: Lower terrace of the Harwan Monastery ruins, Srinagar.                   Photograph by Nandini Sen

One such little-known historical site is the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Harwan, on the north-eastern fringes of Srinagar City. A slice of Kashmir’s ancient past, it is a significant relic of the Valley’s umbilical links with Buddhism. Few know that Kashmir long served as the cradle of Buddhism before spreading to neighbouring Ladakh, Tibet, and China. An important component of the mosaic of Kashmir’s syncretic culture, it finds a mention in the Nilamata Purana, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, and even the accounts of Chinese travellers to Kashmir in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. 

                     

                     (Above): A signpost directing visitors to the ancient site.                      Photograph by Nandini Sen

 

Significance of Kundalvan 

According to historians, Harwan, then known as Kundalvan, was the site of the Fourth Buddhist Council convened by the Kushan Emperor Kanishka in 78 A.D. Held in the Sarvastivada tradition – one of the early Buddhist schools that flourished throughout Kashmir and Central Asia – this council saw the systematization and compilation of Sarvastivadin Abhidharma texts by 500 monks headed by Vasumitra. It is said that these texts were translated from vernacular languages into Sanskrit. This was a watershed since Sanskrit was the official liturgical language of Brahmanism in the sub-continent and its adoption facilitated the dissemination of Buddhist thought and ideas. Subsequently, all major Sarvastivad and later, Mahayana Buddhist scholars in the Indian sub-continent wrote their commentaries and treatises in Sanskrit. The Theravada school of Buddhism, on the other hand, continued drawing its scriptural inspiration from the Pali Canon. Elements of the Sarvastivada School later came to influence Mahayana tradition. 

The 4th Buddhist Council resulted in the creation of the vast commentary known as the Mahā-Vibhāshā (“Great Elucidation”). It is held that three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements were compiled during the Council – a process which took nearly a dozen years to complete. 

                                                   

(Above): Flight of steps leading to the Harwan Monastery.                 Photograph by Nandini Sen

 

The Harwan Monastery is also significant due to the fact that Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist scholar, saint, and philosopher, is believed to have lived here during the Kushan period. As founder and exponent of the madhyamaka (centrist) philosophy of emptiness or Śūnyatā, Nagarjuna is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world. In Rajatarangini, the 12th century work of historiography, Kalhan mentions Nagarjuna as having resided at Sadarhadvana or the “Grove of Six Saints” which historians have identified as the Harwan Monastry. 

Unearthing a Heritage

First excavated by renowned archeologist Ram Chandra Kak in the early 20th century, the Harwan Monastry complex is divided into two main terraces. The lower terrace apparently includes a set of four residential rooms separated by a corridor with a flight of steps on the east, a portion of a diaper pebble wall – a type of masonry practice in which large-sized stones are inserted in the middle of smaller pebbles in order to lend the structure strength and durability – the triple base of a north-facing stupa within a rectangular courtyard made of rubble, and a rubble enclosure wall most likely that of a monastery. 

                   

(Above): Diaper pebble masonry on the shrine remains located on the second terrace.      Photograph by Nandini Sen

The upper terrace contains an apsidal shrine constructed in diaper pebble masonry within a courtyard which is laid with now-buried plain and moulded tiles. The pavement around the shrine was covered with these tiles engraved with different patterns including motifs of flora and fauna, cows suckling their calves, rams fighting, elephants, roosters, dancing girls, men and women conversing, and hunters on horseback chasing deer among others.

Additionally, each tile was marked with a number in the now-extinct Kharosthi script, with the tiles ordered in strict numerical sequence. This led RC Kak to conclude that the tile-pavement was not haphazardly laid but followed a distinct design.

                    (Above): Set of four rooms or Viharas situated on the lower terrace.             Photograph by Nandini Sen

Tale of Yore

The Harwan Monastery fits into the larger narrative of Kashmir’s ancient Buddhist past when the Valley lay at the intersection of civilizations straddling Bactria, Gandhara, Southern Iran, and Tibet. As part of the famed Kushan Empire (1st century BC-3rd century AD) which was known for its patronage of Buddhism, increased contacts with ancient Rome and China, and stunningly beautiful Gandhara Art, Kashmir became a potpourri of syncretic ideas and cultures. This was long before the Valley flowered politically and culturally, becoming an independent kingdom in its own right in the 8th century A.D.

                  

(Above): Triple base of a stupa in diaper rubble style.                     Photograph by Nandini Sen

Today, the ruins at Harwan bear no trappings of their enormous historical significance. Though fenced in with a newly installed signboard that sheds light on the history of the site, a rickety unguarded gate serves as the entrance to the monastery ruins. The nearby water tank and pipes installed by the Jal Shakti Department somehow lend the site an air of un-remarkability, bordering on the nondescript. Barring a handful of visitors – mostly picnickers and sightseers, not history aficionados – the ruins are lonesome – a far cry from the nearby Mughal Gardens teeming with tourists and local visitors. That a scintillating tale of yore should find no contemporary listeners is indeed lamentable.

                   

(Above): Apsidal shrine on the upper terrace of the Harwan monastery.                     Photograph by Nandini Sen

Though the splendours of the staggeringly beautiful Valley of Kashmir are known to one and all, sites such as the Harwan Monastery ruins add to the wholeness of its grandeur, testifying the rich variegation of the region’s tapestry of history and cultures.