Avantipora: A Tale of Two Temples
By Arka Chakarborty
The history of Kashmir is rife with tales of kings and queens who over the years have become famous or infamous in the popular imagination thanks to a mix of history and legends that creep around them. Both the Nilmatapurana and Kalhana’s 12 th -century treatise the Rajatarangini have presented the interwoven historic-legendary tales of rulers and the elites who vied for control over them. No source, however, can tell this tales more vividly or more honestly than the tangible, archaeological evidence that these bygone events, processes and people leave behind. Keenly trained eyes, upon observing such evidence, can tease out tales that literary sources might have left off but which might sound even more incredulous to the modern listener or change their perspectives about the past entirely. Located in the Pulwama district of the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory near the National Highway 44, around 29 km from the summer capital Srinagar, is the abandoned capital city of Avantipora that tells such a tale. Built by a ruler whose long reign was more astonishing than his meteoric and unlikely rise to absolute power, the early medieval city symbolizes a dream of peace and prosperity, while centuries of torment has made it witness to war and destitution. Today, Avantipora is regarded as a part of Jammu & Kashmir’s historical heritage, a colossal physical embodiment of its glorious and volatile past.
It goes without saying that the world where Avantipora’s foundations were first laid was a lot
different from the one we see before our eyes, given the fact that the city was constructed
over a millennium ago. Kashmir in the early and mid-ninth century CE was a valley racked with violence, marred with political intrigue and beggared by disastrous economic neglect. The glory days of kings Lalitaditya Muktipida and Jayapida were long gone and the later scions of the Karkota dynasty were weak when dealing with their own aristocratic subordinates while tyrannical when dealing with the common-folk. Expensive wars and exorbitant royal spending had emptied the treasury but no efforts were made to improve or even maintain the economic machinery. The irrigation canals constructed during the early Karkota era were grossly mismanaged and neglected. As a long-term result of this, annual yield suffered immensely and famine and drought was commonplace. Both the king and his officials taxed the general population incessantly to fund their lifestyles while the latter suffered horribly. The Damaras i.e. the landowning aristocracy which formed the king’s court and a part of the political elite, also became very powerful and semi-autonomous during the late Karkota period. After the assassination of the last significant Karkota king Cippatajayapida, his powerful maternal uncles each backed one member of the royal family and started a civil war. One of them, Utpala, initially had the upper hand but was killed. Later Utpala’s son Sukhavarman was able to place one of the Karkotas on the throne as a puppet-king and gain immense power. While preparing to take the throne for himself, Sukhavarman was assassinated by one of his own retainers. His son Avantivarman finally slayed the last Karkota king Utpalapida and ascend the throne himself, establishing what later became known as the Utpala dynasty.
Given the fact that his immediate ancestors used political intrigue and military force to wrest
power from Karkota hands, it is surprising to note the approach king Avantivarman took when it came to ruling his new realm. Instead of pursuing glory in the battlefield, the king devoted his career to healing the kingdom that had been damaged by many years of mismanagement, natural disasters and internecine warfare. Utilizing the services of a talented commoner named Suyya, Avantivarman repaired the channels that were once used to drain the waters of the Mahapadma (Wular) lake, hence securing more arable land for the people. Moreover, Sutta was also able to divert the channels of the rivers Vitasta (Jhelum) and Sindhu (Indus) in a way that prevented flooding. Numerous embarkments were constructed to store water and irrigation canalswere used to bring this water to the fields. Grain storehouses (kundalas) were also built, strengthening the kingdom against famine. As a result of this, Avantivarman’s reign saw significant agricultural growth and economic recovery. As king, Avantivarman gave his step brother Suravarman and his nephews important administrative roles, going as far as declaring Suravarman ‘Yuvaraja,’ thereby ensuring that intra-familial conflict would not destroy his dynasty’s power as it did to the Karkotas. He was also able to establish control over the Damaras. The fact that after decades of economic struggles the king was able to commission an entire capital city’s construction speaks volumes of the prosperity his reign brought about.
Unfortunately, the remains of Avantipora, the crowning jewel of king Aantivarman’s achievements, is mostly destroyed. All that remain are two massive temples the king built during his youth and his later years. The temples of Avantishvara and Avantisvami are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu respectively, indicating that the king did not have a narrow minded preference towards a particular cult. These temples tell observers about the prevailing religious sects followed by the elites in the region in the mid-9 th century CE, the architectural style and sculptural sensibilities of the time, the opulence of Avantivarman’s regime and the day-to day functioning of the temples, among other aspects of ninth-century Kashmiri society. The Avantishvara temple is situated in the middle of a courtyard which is surrounded by stone walls which are mostly plain except the western side which is decorated with fluted columns. The middle of the western wall has the main entrance to the courtyard and this entrance has been divided into two chambers by a cross-wall. No decorative features adorn the entrance chambers. The main temple’s base has an area of 57’ 4” square and it is 10’ his. Each of the four corners of the base has a platform with an area of 16’ square which must have served as subsidiary shrines.
The platforms supporting the subsidiary shrines once used to be joined with the plinth at one point only, but later these were joined completely by using the materials that had fallen off from the building over time. The central chamber i.e. the sanctum sanctorum has completely been destroyed. The only decoration of the base, which is the only part of the building that still exists, is the is a series of projecting facets. Each side of the main shrine had stairs running up to it, which were 28 ½ ‘ wide and which were supported by flank walls which were 17 ½ ‘ high. Some fragments of the earlier structure still exist in the courtyard, especially interesting of which are: the spandrel of an arch in front of the southern stair, the flower-and-vase capital of a dodecagonal pilaster, the spandrel of another arch at its side and the base of another
Almost a kilometer further up is the Avantisvami temple which is much more compact in size, but comparatively ornately decorated and much better preserved thanks to the silt that had developed over a millennia, covering almost the entirely of the structure. The courtyard of the temple has an area of 174’ by 148’ 8”. It is paved by stone and is surrounded by a colonnaded peristyle. The peristyle is plain except the western side, which is decorated with fluted columns. The middle of the western side has the main entrance to the courtyard which is approached by aflight of steps and is divided into two chambers by a cross-wall. Unlike the later Avantisvara temple, however, the entrance chambers of the Avantisvami temple are richly decorated, with almost every panel bearing some carved sculpture in relief. Most of the scenes depict several variants of a scene of a crowned king sitting on a simhasana (throne) with his consorts. One especially interesting panel depicts elephants battling majestic birds, the former probably signifying the Nagas and the latter signifying Garuda, the divine vehicle of Lord Vishnu.
Another panel also depicts what seems like the deities Ganga and Yamuna, identified by their vehicles the crocodile and the tortoise. One enters the courtyard by walking down another flight of steps from the entrance chamber. Between the entrance chambers and the main shrine is situated a Garuda-dhvaja i.e. a pillar to the Garuda, the divine bird who is the vehicle of Vishnu. The main shrine has a double base with cyma recta cornices and torus molding. The sanctum sanctorum has almost completely disappeared and unlike Avantiscami, this temple has only one set of stairs. However, there are rich relief sculptures on its pilasters. An outer pilaster, for example, depicts Vishnu himself, seated with his consorts Lakshm’ and Bhumi. The Vishnu figure has four heads and six hands, with two of them encircling his two consorts while the rest holding his signature markers like the bow, the lotus, the mace etc. Vishnu wears a jeweled crown and wears the sacred thread. A pair of parrots is depicted at the bottom of their throne. The image carved on the opposite pilaster is almost identical, except in some ways. One inner pilaster depicts ten figures with two larger central male and female ones, all seeming to be in a posture of utter devotion towards some entity. These may have been depictions of minor gods come to pay reverence to Lord Vishnu. The opposite pilaster, again, has a similar image with minor differences. According to Ram Chandra Kak, the chief attraction of the Avantisvami temple is its colonnaded cells. The temple has sixty-nine such cells with an average size of 3’ 8” by 4’ 10”, the only exceptions being the central cells which are a bit larger. Several sculptures have been unearthed from the Avantiswami temple, which have found their way to the SPS Museum, Srinagar. Most of these sculptures have a level of polish which is unusual for its time and seem to be a blend of the Gandhara and the Mathura schools of art. The jars that have been unearthed from this temple indicate that these were probably used for storing grain and other foodstuff.
At its height, Avantipora must have been a sight to behold, a monumental achievement built on the foundation of a peaceful, sensible and ultimately prosperous reign, crowned by two magnificent temples. This building spree that Avantivarman went on reflected a larger reality of early medieval India as a whole. In the post-Gupta period, as state society expanded, the power of kings came to be more and more symbolized and legitimized by the temples that they built.
These temples mostly housed the family deities of the monarch from whose divine presence and blessings their royal devotees supposedly drew their worldly power and the right to rule. In fact, during Avantivarman’s reign itself, the Chalukya rulers of Vengi, the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta, the Palas of Bengal and countless other dynasties across the subcontinent were embarking on and completing similar building projects to shore up their prestige and legitimize their authority. However, like many of its contemporaries, the wealth and prosperity of the Utpalas were short-lived due to the turbulent nature of dynastic politics. Avantivarman is said to have died in 883 CE and was succeeded by his son Samkaravarman. Samkaravarman went on expensive expeditions against Gujarat and Kanauj which doubtless increased Kashmir’s prestige but ended up impoverishing the realm. After the death of king Gopalavarman in 939 CE, the Utpala dynasty’s rule ended. By then, Avantipora as a capital city had been long forgotten. Later rulers subjected the city and its temples to further neglect and outright hostility. The Kashmiri king Kalasha (r. 1081-1089 CE) is said to have confiscated the villages which were donated to maintain the expenses of the temple. Later still in the 12 th century CE, Avantipora was used as a military base by Bhasa, a noble who was engaged in conflict with other Damaras. In the fourteenth century, Sultan Sikander But-shikan is known to have subjected the temples to further destruction.
When contextualized within the annals of history, Avantipora represents a period of peace and prosperity arising out of an era of war and starvation. King Avantivarman’s rise to power may have been marred by politics and civil war, but he chose to end the cycle of conflict by focusing solely on rejuvenating the battered state that he had inherited. The shrewd political maneuvers and wise economic investments that he made during his reign paid off magnanimously, the tangible proof of which has partially stood the test of time over a millennium later. The later neglect, destruction and abandonment of the city could be seen as the culmination of the unyielding ambition of Avantivarman’s successors, the resultant instability and a return to war within a century of the great ruler’s death. If viewed in this manner, Avantipora transcends any historic context to stand as a monument to two universal truths: the promise of peace and the cost of war.