A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee
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After a tiring day trip to Anantanag yesterday, morning began late for me. Having some light breakfast with samosa, puffed rice and coffee, we headed on to our next destination – Awantipora, which houses an array of Hindu temples from 9th century A.D. We had already booked a tourist cab through Abdul Sheikh, the same operator who dropped us from Pahalgam. He sent a new driver for the trip. His name was Bilal, belonging to historical Awantipora.
Temple Ruins of Awantipora
It is a small Nagar Panchayat (urban council equivalent to Municipality) on the NH44 highway, geographically located in the Pulwama District of Jammu & Kashmir. The small town is well known for its ancient Hindu temples constructed during the reign of King Avanti Varman, a Hindu ruler belonging to the Utpala Dynasty. He was known for his strong patronage towards art, literature and architecture. The two most famous temples of Utpala Dynasty – Avantishwar and Avantiswami – were built by Avanti Varman, dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu respectively. With time, the place gradually got its name Avantipura (named after the ruler), presently spelled as Awantipora.
Road Drive to Awantipora from Srinagar
Our new cab was waiting for us since 7.30am in front of our hotel gate. However we started quite late today, close to ten. Distance was hardly 30 kilometres from Srinagar, so we commenced our day trip relaxingly. After a few internal road crossings, we got onto the national highway. Snow caps at a distance, green paddies, straight road – such a perfect canvas!
The moment we reached NH44, discovered on both the sides of the road millions of timber pieces, about two feet long, stacked in clusters and a green flushed road drilling through the chinars. The raw wooden clubs were piled one above the other, yet to be finally processed. One generally doesn’t get to see such scenes in bustling metros.
Heaps of Kashmiri Willow Bats by roadside
Bilal reminded this was the place known for manufacturing world’s best cricket bats made of Kashmiri willow wood. Also finest quality saffron is reaped nearby too. While he took a sudden bio break, I utilized the time to purchase an indigenous cricket bat made of much coveted Kashmiri willow wood from a roadside shop, at an unbelievably low price. Recurring sights of such timber heaps continued for miles together as we kept passing through Sangam and Bijbehara villages until Awantipora.
Miles of wooden bats under processing
The beautiful temple town lies on the banks of Jhelum River, popularly known as Vitasta River among the natives. Historians say, due to massive earthquakes, the construction of majority of Awantipora temples had tumbled down centuries ago. But the sites are now protected and duly maintained by Archaeological Survey of India.
We took our first stop at Awantipora’s 800 A.D. ancient Vaishnava centre titled Avantiswami Temple. Bilal parked the car by the side of the main road and directed us to cross the highway and walk a little up to the temple entrance. The approach road being narrow, he could not take the SUV inside.
Entry Fee at Awantiswami Temple
Floral Decoration at the Temple Entrance
Following his guidelines, we reached the temple gate. Entry fee was only Rs. 5 per head (for Indians) and a nominal camera fee was also charged for non-commercial photography inside the premises. The entrance was beautifully decorated with bright red roses, sad to find the temple in complete ruins though. The ceilings had collapsed, only remnants of ornamented stone pillars stand today with stooping facades. The main shrine was Vaikuntha Vishnu placed on a two-tiered granite courtyard surrounded by porched walls. We walked up to the centre from western side, taking a flight of stairs. One striking aspect about the temple was that the pillars were decorated on all sides resembling Greek styles. Also the main shrine was fortified by subsidiary shrines of other Hindu deities on all four corners of the courtyard.
Vestiges of Awantiswami Temple
A flight of stairs to the main courtyard
Spending almost an hour amidst the sculptured reliefs and intricate stone carvings, we drove to the Avantishwar Temple, located at Jawbrari hardly within a few hundred metres from the Avantiswami Temple. There was also a famous Darga just beside the temple complex. On the other side, the view of the mountains at the temple ruin’s backdrop was eye catching.
Fallen Stone Pillars
Intricate stone carvings
Darga beside Avanti temples
Both the temples appeared almost like twins to my inexperienced eyes except that the main deity of Avantishwar Temple was Lord Shiva. Otherwise, the two edifices bore stunning similarities both structurally as well as ornamentally. Here too, the idol used to be at the centre of a paved quadrangular platform bounded by colonnaded porticoes. People say, Lord Shiva was depicted as a stone image in this temple, however today nothing exists inside the main chamber. Only a rectangular plinth with black granite stairs and collapsed pillars could be found.
Central Quadrangular Plinth
Stairs to Main Courtyard
Structural relics and ornamented stone walls
Same Darga from Avantishwar Temple
Little afar these twin temples, Bilal also took us to the ruins of few Hindu prayer halls built by Emperor Lalitaditya from the 1st century A.D., most of which had been excavated by Rakhaldas Banerjee and Dayaram Sahni. An unmaintained lake with wild roses around it caught most of our attentions.
Wild roses inside temple complex
Near Awantipora, we broke for lunch at a Punjabi dhaba, seemed to be opened newly. I loved their kitchen – it was open and at the ground level. There was an old Punjabi gentleman sitting with his son at the kitchen, busy preparing tea. Seeing us stopping at his dhaba, both of them approached us very cordially as if we were their personal guests.
Emperor Lalitaditya’s Temple Ruins
Ordering Alu paratha, pickle and cardamom tea, we waited at one of those blue plastic tables outside the kitchen. From them we got to know, the old man was an ex-army official, who opened this dhaba as a post retirement venture. Within a few months tourists started pouring in. Eventually all his three sons now assist him in operating it as a family business. Their amicable welcome created an immediate intimacy with the family. There was a small building attached to the kitchen, fairly visible from where we were sitting, the place where they stay and the dhaba kitchen was common to their home as well. It became evident when we found that along with our Alu parathas, they prepared the same for their lunch too. They also fed our driver Bilal as a goodwill gesture. The kind of hospitality the entire family exhibited created a lasting impression in our memories.
Way back, Bilal accompanied us to a private orchard of walnut, pear and apple trees. He himself being from Awantipora took much interest to tell us more about his hometown. The day of our visit happened to be celebrated as the Baradin in Kashmir, during when many interesting rituals are performed in the name of Pir Baba and a local fair was also lined up to commence from evening. The celebrations seemed to be very ceremonious from the apparent excitement of Bilal as well as the Punjabi family.
Wish we could stay back till evening to witness the Baradin festival; but alas, we had a tough high hill drive planned for the next couple of days. A reposing night was the need of the hour.