From Laughter and Joy to Snakes and Stones: The Tale of Parihaspora
By Arka Chakarborty
Situated nearly 26 kilometers away from Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar is a dry plateau haunted by fragments of built heritage, some large enough to give the building blocks of ancient Egyptian buildings a run for their money, while others exhibiting an awe-inspiring level of craftsmanship. The scattered fragments of what was once the capital of one of Kashmir’s most renowned sovereigns is now rumored to be home to little more than snakes. Timely intervention on the part of both the government and the general population, however, may yet save this site of ancient glory and exquisite beauty from total oblivion.
Lalitaditya Muktipida (c. 695-731 CE or c. 724-760 CE, sources vary) was a ruler of the Karkota dynasty of Jammu and Kashmir. The dynasty was established by one Durlabhavardhana (c. 625 CE) and seems to have been one of the first powerful dynasties indigenous to Kashmir which came to rule over the valley. By the time Durlabhavardhana’s great-grandson Lalitaditya was enthroned, South Asia had entered a period of small, squabbling polities and the time was ripe for one individual to establish an empire. Lalitaditya seems to have been able to achieve the feats that he did with the help of a cosmopolitan and efficient army which had significant numbers of Chinese and Turk mercenary soldiers. One of Lalitaditya’s first significant conquests outside Jammu and Kashmir was the city of Kanyakubja (now Kanauj) which had been the seat of Emperor Harshavardhana and was thus coveted by any ruler who wanted to have himself seen as one worthy of imperial prestige. Throughout his long reign, Lalitaditya seems to have conquered large swathes of territory in northern India, launched successful raids into the Deccan and extended his influence to regions like Afghanistan, Central Asia, parts of western China and Tibet. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini even narrates that the king celebrated the second day of Chaitra in memory of his conquest of Tibet. Kalhana’s account has to be taken with a grain of salt, however. This was an author whose family had close ties with the royal family and who himself had composed his work supposedly four centuries after the titular monarch’s death. The fact that Kalhana attributes miraculous powers to Lalitaditya and hails him as a ‘world-conqueror’ ends up calling into further question the authenticity of his account. Still, it can be said without any doubt that Lalitaditya was a great king with imperial ambitions who had spread his power and influence to a great extent.
Like most successful kings and emperors who preceded and followed him in Indian history, Lalitaditya also chose to pour his riches gained through military campaigns into building a new capital city for himself. He chose a dry plateau as the site of his capital as this would protect his city from the potentially fatal damage caused by floods. At the end of the rapid construction, during which according to Ram Chandra Kak (1933) he and his ministers competed to embellish the site with grand monuments, stood the city of Parihaspora or Parihaspur (literally meaning “The City of Laughter”), the crowning jewel of his reign.
The towering monuments that once adorned Parihaspura have long since bowed to the sands of time. Over a millennium has passed and only bits and pieces remain indicating the pride and joy Lalitditya must have felt when he laid his eyes on his achievement. However, archaeologists in the nineteenth and twentieth century have tried to piece together a believable picture of what parts of this ancient city must have looked like. Ram Chandra Kak (1933) describes parts of Parihaspora in vivid detail.
The remains of the city, Kak points out, features the ruins of three significant monuments: a stupa, a Buddhist monastery and a chaitya, all of which have in common the immense size of the limestone blocks used for their construction, the smooth dressing and their fine joints. The stupa of Chankuna (a Turkoman minister of Lalitaditya) is situated at the north-western edge of the plateau. The superstructure of the monument has disappeared and boulders cover the base. A massive stone block with a circular hole in the middle is identified as a part of its finial. The hole must have been the morrice in which was embedded a part of the pole which supported the umbrella crowning the stupa. The structure had an area of 128 sq, feet and 2 sq. inches. Flights of steps led to the entrances of the stupa on all sides. These stairs had plain railings and side walls while the pilasters in the front were decorated by carved figures of atlantes in sitting and standing positions. The two plinths of the monument have broad surfaces, suggesting the existence of a circumambulatory path. Fragments of trefoiled arches still exist which exhibit images of the Buddha and the Bodhisatvas.
To the south of the stupa is a quadrangular monastery which is entered from the east through a flight of steps. The monastery, also known as the rajavihara or the royal monastery, had twenty- six cells which enclosed a paved courtyard. Each cell seems to have had its own covered verandah. One could approach the courtyard through a flight of steps descending from the eastern side. The western side had three cells and a vestibule, with its corresponding plinth projecting inwards into the courtyard. These cells, according to Kak, were occupied by the abbot. One of the quadrangular structure’s corners holds the ruins of what once might have been a bath. Two stone drains carried rainwater and extra water outside the monastery. The plinth of the structure was around 10 feet high.
The structure immediately south to the monastery was a chaitya which was approached from the eastern side by a flight of stairs. The side walls flanking the stairs were adorned by atlantes. The sanctum of the chaitya was 27 sq. feet in area and was supported by four columns, the bases of which have survived. The roof of the chaitya was probably pyramidal in nature. In front of the steps leading to the chaitya’s entrance is the base of a column which may have held aloft the dhwaja of the structure sporting the unique emblem of the building. Kak also points out that there was also the foundation of a small building of the diaper rubble style near the chaitya.
Apart from these structures, legend has it that Lalitaditya also built two magnificent statues- one of Vishnu made of gold and another of Buddha made of copper. Kalhana’s account tells us that Lalitaditya had built four great temples in the city, two of which housed the aforementioned statues.
Soon after Lalitaditya’s death, the capital of his kingdom was moved away from Parihaspora. Depopulation began after human intervention moved the Jhelum river away from the city, robbing it of its source of water supply. King Shankaravarman seems to have cannibalized the stones of this city to build his own capital Shankarpur in nearby Pattan. The abandoned and depopulated city is said to have undergone two further destructions during the reigns of King Harsha (11 th century CE) and Sultan Sikander (14 th century). Today, Parihaspora is known as ‘Kani Shahar’ or the city of stones, a sadly appropriate name for an abandoned settlement inhabited only by stone blocks. Locals believe that the site is now home to large snakes.
The first attempt to protect this place of priceless heritage from destruction can be traced back to 1892 CE when M. Aurel Stein visited it twice, noticing that some blocks of stone were missing the second time. Apparently, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir was building the Jhelum cart road and materials from this site were being used in that project. Thankfully, Stein contacted the British resident and was able to convince the Maharaja to stop this practice. A further victory for preservation was achieved in 1958 CE when Parihaspora was declared to be a ‘monument of national importance’ by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, Government of India. Sadly, the steps towards the proper preservation of Parihaspora seem to end here at the moment. In spite of immense potential for historic tourism, no attempt has been made to furnish the site or develop any nearby area with electricity, drinking water, benches, souvenir shops and other amenities considered basic in any effort to boost tourism. A few guards are employed to protect the site from plundering, but they lack the manpower to perform their duties with any degree of effectiveness.
Parihaspora today bears marks of a journey that has lasted more than a thousand years. Built as the seat of the greatest king Kashmir had ever seen, it embodied both Buddhist and Brahmanical beliefs. A short-lived period of abundance and affluence was, unfortunately, followed by decay and neglect that lasted for centuries. Archaeologists and heritage enthusiasts have realized the immense historic value this ancient capital has only since the late nineteenth century. While a few measures have been taken by the government to protect the former city of laughter from further destruction, many more such efforts need to be undertaken if proper security is to be effectively enforced. Moreover, the tourism potential of this historic site remains woefully unexplored. Resources and energy must be spent to their fullest capacities in order to ensure that the city of silent stones and snakes is once again filled with laughter.