By Tariq Bhat – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – In the valley of saints (http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?contentId=10650495&programId=1073755753&tabId=13&BV_ID=@@@&categoryId=-169761)
The seat of omniscience: The Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar is situated on a 11,000ft hill called Takht-i-Sulaiman / Photo by Imran Nissar
Kashmir, for centuries, has enticed warriors and saints alike. The former invaded it for its unmatched natural beauty. The saints came to attain spiritual bliss. That is, perhaps, what attracted Adi Shankara to the valley over a millennium ago.
His primary aim was to establish a mutt. But he was equally motivated by a desire to visit the Sharada temple. The temple, which is now in ruins, is located in Shardi, a small village on the banks of the Kishanganga river in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. For centuries, the temple was considered a high seat of learning by Hindu scholars outside Kashmir. Even today, orthodox Hindus in south India bow facing north, towards the temple, when they rise in the morning.
Shankara is believed to be the only scholar who visited the temple and entered Sarvajna Peetham after defeating scholars in a debate. The temple had four doors for scholars from the four cardinal directions. Till Shankara visited the place, the southern door had remained closed—no scholar from south India had entered the Sarvajna Peetha.
Shankara abandoned the plan to establish a mutt in Srinagar after a debate with the Kashmiri Pandits of that time. The Pandits had initially stopped his entry into Srinagar, as they took umbrage to the idea of an outsider coming to teach them about religion. They disapproved of Shankara’s idea of establishing a mutt and arranged a debate with him. Shankara was so impressed with their knowledge of religion, especially Shaivism, that he realised there was no need for establishing a mutt in Kashmir. Later, Shankara was ceremoniously ushered into the city of Srinagar by the Pandits.
He immortalised his experience in Srinagar with a famous prayer to Saraswati. The beginning verse is as follows: Namaste Sharade Devi Kashmira puravasini, Tavaham prarthaye, nityam vidya danam cha dehi mae… (Obeisance to thee, O effulgent Sharada, worshipped in the city of Kashmir, I always beseech thee to vouchsafe to me pure knowledge).
Shankara, however, stayed at the famous Shankaracharya temple located on the top of a 11,000ft high hill overlooking the Dal lake and most of Srinagar. The local people also call it Takht-i-Sulaiman, a reference to the throne of Jewish king Solomon. But there is no historical evidence to support the belief.
The temple, devoted to Lord Shiva, was built in 2605-2540 BC by King Sandhiman of the Gonanda dynasty, who named it Jeshteshwara. The hillock came to be known as Sandhiman Parbat. Later, King Gopadityas repaired the temple and donated two villages, Gupkar and Buchhwara, to the temple. The hillock was given the name Gopadari, or Gopa Hill.
The name Gopadari and Jeshteshwara stayed till the temple was dedicated to the memory of Shankara, who had stayed at the temple complex around AD 800, observing penance to attain spiritual wisdom. It was after completion of penance here that Shankara founded the four dhams.
The temple is today managed by Dharmath Trust, of which the sole trustee is Dr Karan Singh, son of Hari Singh, the last maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. The temple attracts a good number of tourists from various parts of India. A board on the temple premises reads the temple was constructed by Pandavas in 5 BC and completed by Maharaja Gopaditya.
The Shivling in the temple was installed by the Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh. Inside, the temple is shaped like a Shivling. When the temple was built, the board says, the land below was submerged in water. According to historian Fida Husnain, “Sharada, goddess of learning, was held in high esteem by all scholars. So it was natural for people like Adi Shankara to visit the valley.” But M.H. Zaffar, who teaches at Kashmir University, says there is no mention of Shankara in the famous Rajatarangni by Pandit Kalhana.
Brigadier Rattan Koul, an expert on Kashmir’s religious history, contests the claim that Shankara established the four dhams after his visit to Kashmir. He says there is enough evidence to prove that they were established much earlier. He also argues that had Shankara defeated the Kashmiri Pandits in a religious debate, his preaching would have taken precedence in Kashmir. But that, he says, did not happen.
Whatever the truth, the legend of Shankara lives on in the valley.