The foundation-laying of a temple in the Valley of Kashmir might easily raise some hackles in today’s deeply polarized India. But no matter what the narrative constructed by this or that side of the ideological fence, the bhoomi poojan ceremony of the Sharda Temple in Teetwal, Kupwara wouldn’t quite fit. Conducted by the Save Sharda Committee, the 2nd December 2021 event was truly a story spun out of the threads of communal camaraderie. Dr. Darakhshan Andrabi – BJP National Executive member – presided over the ceremony in the presence of Ravinder Pandita, head of the Committee, with several Hindus as well as local Muslims and Sikhs in attendance, all silently and collectively paying a tribute to the spirit of Kashmiriyat.
The Backdrop – Story of a Lone Soldier
Though unprecedented in itself, the bhoomi poojan ceremony for the Sharda Temple was preceded by a chain of events no less extraordinary. For more than a decade now, Delhi-based civil engineer turned activist Ravinder Pandita has singlehandedly been spearheading a movement for recommencing pilgrimage to Sharda Peeth, located since 1948 in Neelum District of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). While the Karwan-e-Aman bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad launched in April 2005 enabled families divided by the Line of Control (LoC) to reconnect and reunite, Kashmiri Pandits remained bereft of the opportunity to visit one of their most revered sites of pilgrimage situated in the same region.
As someone personally associated with the spiritual lineage of Swami Nand Lal – a Kashmiri sage and last residing saint of Sharda Peeth – Ravinder Pandita has fought long and hard. His journey has been marked by several remarkable milestones. Social media enabled him to reach out to like-minded riyasatees on the other side of the LoC, resulting in the formation of a civil society group whose members laid flowers in obeisance – for the first time since 1948 – at the Sharda Peeth Temple in November 2016. March 2017 saw members of the same group put up a picture of Sharda Devi, earlier sent by Pandita via post.
More significantly, a petition sent by Pandita led PoK’s apex court to pass a landmark verdict according protection to minority religious sites and symbols across the territory. The first-ever legally binding document pertaining to the preservation of Sharda Peeth, this order further prompted the Archeology Department to take control of all minority shrines located across PoK. In December 2018, the same Department responded to Pandita’s plea to maintain the sanctity of the ancient site. English and Urdu signboards elucidating the history of Sharda Peeth were subsequently put up and visitors disallowed from walking into the Sanctum Sanctorum with shoes.
In October 2019, Sujata and Venkatraman, a Hong Kong-based couple of Indian origin, performed pooja on the banks of Kishanganga River near Sharda Peeth – the result of months of intense coordination between Save Sharda Committee and PoK civil society members.
Within his own country, Pandita has left no stone unturned with regard to raising awareness on the issue, highlighting the religious significance of the shrine as well as its immense potential to usher in a new dawn of India-Pak relations. Over the years, he has frequently participated in social media debates, conducted press conferences, organized programmes and seminars pertaining to Sharda Peeth, met dozens of seers and saints, ministers, ambassadors, and dignitaries across the spectrum, and written letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In August 2020, Pandita went to Keran, along the LoC in Kupwara – one of the pre-1947 routes traditionally taken by yatris on their way to Sharda Peeth on foot. There, on the banks of Kishanganga River, he along with other followers of Swami Nand Lal, performed a symbolic pooja marking the auspicious occasion of Sharda Ashthami i.e. the 8th day of the bright moon fortnight on which the annual yatra to Sharda Peeth would traditionally culminate.
Teetwal – River Split, Land Bifurcated
In 2021 Pandita began exploring yet another route of pilgrimage to Sharda Peeth. Teetwal in Karnah along the LoC in Kupwara was an important pre-1947 trading centre and one of the key routes for the Sharda Peeth pilgrimage. A heavily militarized zone at present, Teetwal would annually see pilgrims take out the “Chhari Mubarak” or holy mace, commencing their pilgrimage to Sharda Peeth, located roughly 40 miles away. Every year, local resident Hindus – primarily of the Khatri business community – would make arrangements for the yatris. A notable name was that of Lala Melaram who would take the lead in organizing and financing the yatra.
Like in Keran, the River Kishanganga acts as the divide between India and PoK, a white mark on a colonial-era suspension bridge acting as the de facto line bifurcating the former princely state between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan. Located on the PoK side is Chilhana village. Nowhere perhaps is the irony of partitioning the waters of one river more bitter than on this 3.5-foot wooden bridge whose one half is manned by the Indian Army, and other half by the Pakistan Army.
When Pandita visited Teetwal along with 22 other Hindus to mark Sharda Ashthami celebrations on 14th September 2021, he was accorded a gracious welcome by the Indian Army and local residents who subsequently went on to spring a pleasant surprise on the Sharda Committee head. A piece of land – identified by revenue records as Hindu land – that served as a base camp for Sharda Peeth yatris prior to 1947 had been rediscovered. Now overrun with maize crops, the plot was once home to a dharamshala (guest house) for yatris as well as a small gurudwara managed by Sikhs of the area. Local residents of Teetwal expressed a keen desire to hand it over to the Save Sharda Committee. The idea was to rebuild what stood there decades earlier.
An Interfaith Collaboration
Pandita returned to Delhi shortly after the Sharda Ashthami celebrations. However, Teetwal civil society members Iftikhar Ahmed, Captain Ilyas Ahmed, Hamid Mir, Aijaz Ahmed and a few Sikhs led by Joginder Singh from the nearby Sikh village of Tribhvani in Tangdhar reiterated their intent, persisting in their efforts to reach out to the revenue authorities, and share revenue records and videos of the land and site plan map with Pandita. Since a mosque already exists in the area, a large number of local residents readily lent support to the project, hoping religious tourism would give a fillip to the local economy.
“The developments at Teetwal have already been noticed at the national level. The Government of India will hopefully take all requisite steps to boost religious tourism in the area. An official announcement has been made with regard to building an underground tunnel en route to Teetwal which will save two hours of travel time from Srinagar” says Ravinder Pandita.
The date of 2nd December was finally set for the Sharda temple bhoomi poojan ceremony. Dr. Darakshan Andrabi, who had informed the Lieutenant-Governor (LG) government of the event, had earlier consented to preside over the bhoomi poojan function, setting a unique example of interreligious participation in a religious ceremony. The ceremony coincided with the Sikhs planting the Nishan Sahib to lay the foundation of the Gurudwara.
Out of 17 marlas (approximately 4628 square feet), a total of five marlas (approximately 1361 square feet) were demarcated for the Gurudwara and 12 marlas (approximately 3267 square feet) for the Sharda Temple. Though revenue records clearly mention 23 marlas of Hindu land, only 17 were identified and reclaimed. “I am not raking up that issue at all” says Pandita. “For the larger cause of interfaith harmony and peace with our would-be neighbours in Teetwal – none of whom wish to sell their land – I have chosen to let it go. Rare occasions such as these call for a measure of magnanimity after all” he added.
In the following days, a “Sharda Yatra Temple Committee Teetwal” was formed with the express aim of raising funds for the temple construction. In keeping with the spirit of the project, this is a multi-faith committee consisting of civil society members Iftikhar Ahmed, Captain Ilyas Ahmed, Surinder Mirza, Kamal Nijon (a descendent of Lala Mela Ram) and Pandita himself. Donations soon began to trickle in even as scores of Indian Army jawans and officers voluntarily stepped forward, depositing anything from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1000 at the Committee bank account.
Temple of Hope
As a Maha Shakti Peeth and ancient centre of learning, the temple-university of Sharda Peeth has extraordinary relevance for all faithful Hindus in general and Kashmiri Pandits in particular. The great Hindu seer Adi Shankaracharya is believed to have defeated the Buddhist monks in debate at Sharda Peeth, reviving a moribund Vedic religion across the subcontinent. For centuries, thousands of Hindus including Kashmiri Pandits, made the annual pilgrimage to the shrine, merrily undergoing the rigours of the arduous journey.
Even today, Sharda Devi, the revered goddess of wisdom and learning, is invoked in the daily prayers of Kashmiri Pandits the world over. Significantly, the eponymous Sharda script, the indigenous script of Kashmiri, is named after the deity of the temple.
The latest spiritual link of the shrine to Kashmiri Pandits is the fact that both the temple’s last resident saint and priest, Swami Nand Lal and Prakash Swami Bhat respectively, were from the community.
“I’d like the temple at Teetwal to replicate the aura and architecture of Sharda Peeth. The temple is to have four entrances, paying reverence to the Adi Shankaracharya tradition and four associated Mutts” says Pandita.
Interestingly, the ancient idol of the goddess Sharda, fashioned out of sandalwood, is believed to have been taken away by Vidyaranya, the 14th century spiritual head of the Sringeri Mutt. Legend has it that he installed the idol at Sringeri Mutt, where it now remains. In February 2022, the Save Sharda Committee head felicitated and paid his respects to the current Shankaracharya of Sringeri Mutt, Jagadguru Bharathi Teertha ji Mahaswami. “The Sringeri Mutt head extended full support to the proposed temple at Teetwal, agreeing to present a replica of the original Sharda devi idol for installation at the temple on completion” says Pandita.
Though devoid of the lofty religious and ritualistic underpinnings of the ancient shrine-university in PoK, the Sharda Temple conceived at Teetwal must already be considered a temple of hope. Located serendipitously close to the LoC, it could well become a site for people to meet and greet one another, fortifying cross-LoC people-to-people ties. Even the bhoomi poojan at Teetwal saw gaggles of civilians gathered on the other side, brandishing peace flags, clicking photographs and chanting peace slogans as they patiently looked on at the proceedings.
“While we were allowed by the Indian Army to walk the zero-line bridge from where we immersed the pooja material in the Kishanganga River, the Pakistan army did not allow their civilians to approach the bridge. We nevertheless exchanged cordial greetings, the proximity allowing us to both see and hear each other without difficulty” says Pandita.
Another peerless example of communal amity woven into the temple’s backdrop story is that of Teetwal civil society member Iftikhar Ahmed who, along with his family shareholders, has shown willingness to donate his long-abandoned ancestral haveli. Visible from the main road and located only a short distance from the temple, his haveli might be developed into a yatri niwas (pilgrims’ lodge) or Sharda Centre which is to house a learning centre and small museum cum library containing artefacts and manuscripts.
“Overseeing the temple construction will necessitate several visits to Teetwal. Iftikhar Ahmed has already permitted us to use one room of his haveli for accommodation. It is currently under renovation. Clearly, it is the greatness of the cause that has inspired a gesture as munificent as his” says Pandita.
In early March, construction of the Sharda temple boundary wall was completed. With the fundraising process in full swing, construction is all set to accelerate in the upcoming summer months. Interestingly, in a region torn by a three-decade conflict in which the Army has gained inevitable notoriety for alleged human rights abuse, the Sharda Temple project is witnessing a remarkable cooperation between the Army and civilians.
“I am hopeful that resurrecting the Sharda yatra base camp with a temple and dharamshala at Teetwal will positively impact our Sharda mission. With the blessings of Sharda Devi, the lost glory of pre-1947 days will be revived. The day is not far when yatris on their way to Sharda Peeth will take out the Chari Mubarak from here again” says Pandita, evincing the trademark optimism of a tireless soldier.’
The author is an independent journalist. She is currently collaborating with Ravinder Pandita on a book chronicling the journey of Save Sharda Committee.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not reflect those of DNA.)