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A Buddhist Monastery of Kashmir Buried in the Past — by Manan Shah

Jun 25, 2021

Manan Shah revisits a heritage site that holds the answers to a significant number of questions about the presence and development of Buddhism in Kashmir’s lengthy history. As a student of archaeology and ancient history, Shah offers a core introduction to a site of great importance that was excavated in 1923. Till date, the Buddhist Monastery at Harwan remains a marker of a Kashmiri history that places the Himalayan territory as an important historic location for the convergence of multiple cultures. In its exposition, Shah’s piece also shows Kashmir’s inherent cultural sophistication through a reading of Harwan as an archaeological and historical site that provides a view into Kashmir’s past far beyond the mediatized discourses and reductive narratives that attempt to represent Kashmir within a limited scope of relevance and importance—as a mere socio-political appendage whose place in South Asian and Central Asian history remains posited on shaky ground. Perhaps inadvertently, this essential piece provides an introductory glace into a history where Kashmir is a center and not some territory within the margins set by others—and in that, a place frequently referenced by multiple visitors seeking both knowledge and answers. The piece features the author's photography of the site that was included in the World History Encyclopedia (republished here via CC-NC-SA).

Buddhism holds a significant place in the greater history of the Kashmir valley. However, its influence often goes unnoticed even while Kashmir happens to have a documented history of over 2000 years that remains unexplored. One place of such notable history, and ancient and archaeological importance, is the Harwan Monastery that stands in ruins at the present. While it may seem like a deserted structure that struggles to stay intact, its contribution to the spread of Buddhism in Kashmir is significant. The site was first excavated by Ram Chandra Kak in 1923.

The origin of Buddhism in Kashmir is rather obscure. Buddhist sources associate it with a monk named Majjhantika of Varanasi. A Srilankan source, Mahavamsa, suggests that Ashoka sent missionaries to propagate Dharma. In the said manner Majjhantika was sent to Kashmir and Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan). The same has been acknowledged by Buddhist texts such as Ashokavadana and Avadanakalpalata, while as the Divyavadana mentions that monks from Kashmir were invited by Ashoka to the capital of his kingdom, Patliputra (present-day Patna). With all such sources with their particular claims to the origins of Buddhism in Kashmir, Kalhana, the author of Rajtarangani, mentions the establishment of Viharas (Buddhist shelters) during the reign of Surendra, the predecessor of Ashoka.

Set of rooms (Viharas) which might have been used for residential purposes or as a chapel. Part of the Harwan Monastery in Kashmir.
Photo: Manan Shah / World History Encyclopedia

After the rule of Ashoka from the Mauryan dynasty, the development of Buddhism in Kashmir is greatly associated with Kanishka, one of the rulers of the Kushana Dynasty. Historians are of the opinion that the 4th Buddhist Council took place here in Harwan, earlier known as Kundalvan. The Council was called upon by Kanishka himself between the 1st and 2nd century BCE.  In his book Ancient Monuments of Kashmir, RC Kak writes, “While digging under its foundations a copper coin of Toramana, the White Hun ruler, who flourished in about the fifth century CE., was discovered. From this piece of evidence, it was inferred that the diaper rubble stupa could not possibly be earlier than the 5th century CE., though it might be considered later in the date.”

The tiles found in the complex, which bear numerals inscribed in the Kharosthi script, provide substantial evidence to the date of the monument as well. The Kharosthi script flourished in the 5th century CE in North-Western India. Therefore, it provides us with yet another piece of evidence to ascertain the date of the monument. RC Kak accordingly places the date of the tiles at c. 300 CE, and consequently that of the diaper pebble masonry as well. Diaper pebble masonry is the practice of inserting large size stones in the middle of an arrangement of pebbles in order to make the structure more solid and durable (as described in Kak’s Ancient Monuments of Kashmir).

The importance of the council is recognised by the fact that they represent an attempt to make peace and reconcile the differences between different sects of the Mahayana doctrine of Buddhism. It is suggested that about 500 monks met at Harwan to discuss the doctrine of Buddhism. It further led to the development and spread of the Mahayana doctrine. As a result, and through Kashmir, the influence of Buddhism spread to Ladakh, Tibet and China.

The fifth Buddhist council was held after 2000 years in Burma in 1871 CE. Nagarjuna, the celebrated Buddhist scholar of Mahayana doctrine, arrived from Andhra Pradesh to settle in Sadarhadvana, also known as “the grove of six saints.” Interestrinly, Sadarhaddvana is identified as Harwan in Kalhana's Rajtarangani, providing further proof of the importance of Buddhism in ancient Kashmir. Even the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang mentions in his account the prevalence of Buddhism in the Valley.

Triple based stupa in Harwan Monastery in diaper rubble style
Photo: Manan Shah / World History Encyclopedia

Another view of the stupa at the Harwan Monastery in Kashmir
Photo: Manan Shah / World History Encyclopedia

The monastery complex is mainly divided into two main terraces, the first, where the main stupa stands in a typical Gandhara style with another structure next to it, which appears as some kind of an assembly hall. The complex also includes a raised structure, a set of four residential rooms with a corridor running in between. These may be called Viharas—a resting place for monks. Both the structures are made in rubble enclosure walls.

On the second terrace is a structure identified as an apsidal shrine made in diaper pebble masonry.

An apsidal shrine on the second terrace of the monastery complex
Photo: Manan Shah / World History Encyclopedia

While among the antiquities, as mentioned above, many tiles were found at the site. The pavement around the shrine was covered with moulded brick tiles bearing different patterns. Each tile was marked with a number in the Kharosthi script, with the order of the tiles in a series being in strict accordance with their consecutive numerical order. “The obvious inference is that the tile-pavement was not laid in a haphazard manner, but followed a set design, probably drawn first by the architect on paper or parchment,” writes RC Kak in Ancient Monuments of Kashmir.

The tiles were also found in the facade and scattered on the way up-hill. The most common patterns engraved on the tiles were flower designs, ducks, roosters, elephants, deer looking with their heads turned backward to the moon, and female figures. As a matter of fact, I was fortunate enough to see some of these tiles myself.

A fragmented tile found in the complex, impressed with Kharosthi numerals. From the Harwan Monastery in Kashmir.
Photo: Manan Shah / World History Encyclopedia

With the spread of Buddhism, crafts and craftsmen associated with the same, travelled from Kashmir to the other parts of Asia. Many were patronized by the rulers of the time with the mission to propagate the message of Dharma. There are records of Kashmiri craftsmen going to the ancient kingdom of Guge in Central Tibet to decorate the Buddhist monasteries being built there. A Tibetan source mentions Rinchen Sangpo, who visited Kashmir and took craftsmen along to revive the Buddhist art in Tibet. Tradition says he built one hundred and fifty temples with the help of 75 Kashmiri craftsmen.

Unfortunately, this site lies deserted in the close vicinity of the Harwan Garden (also known as Heerwan). While its uniqueness bears sole witness to its place in Kashmiri history, the state establishment and people in charge have failed this structure of importance in Kashmir, like many other such heritage sites that do not get the necessary attention required for their proper preservation. However, in the words of RC Kak, “the peculiar interest of the Harwan monuments lies in the fact that they are the only remains of their kind in India (possibly in the world), and that they supply a life-like representation of the features of those mysterious people, the Kushans.”

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About the Contributor

Manan Shah was born and brought up in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. He has a Honors Degree in archeology and ancient history from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, India. As a history enthusiast and a freelance writer, his work intends to revive the historic past and the diverse traditions of the Kashmir Valley. He attempts to bring into notice the old practices and traditions that have shaped the current cultural and political identity of Kashmir.

“Remember, remember
13th of July,
Martyrs of Kashmir
and their sacrifice
who bore witness
with the crimson skies
Heroes of Kashmir
who paid the price.
Remember, remember
13th of July
Remember, remember
13th of July.”

—from: 13th of July, MC Kash

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