Hari Parbat: A centuries-old celebration of diversity in Kashmir
By Geeta Vaishnavi
On the west bank of the Dal lake, near the old city of Srinagar, stands a hill overlooking the cityscape which has sacred significance to the three major religious communities of the valley of Kashmir. Steeped in a legendary past and rich with historical anecdotes, Hari Parbat houses shrines which were built centuries ago, but are still visited by thousands of devout pilgrims and curious tourists from across the country and are revered by more. This confluence of cultures seems to observers to be held together by a looming fort which stands atop the hill- a structure that in its formidability symbolizes the valley’s early modern past but upon closer inspection also reveals its transformation of meaning in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Together, these structures endow Hari Parbat with significance unparalleled in the rest of the valley, as it as a geographical location has become the symbol of interfaith harmony, the ‘Kashmiriyat’ for which Kashmir is famous and which its inhabitants strive to uphold.
Hari Parbat has an elevation of 122 meters. Anyone standing at the peak of this hill is treated to the view of the sparkling water of the Dal lake on one hand and most of the old city of Srinagar on the other. The name ‘Hari Parbat’ seems to have been derived from a legend that predates any of the structures that now adorn the hill itself. This legend has numerous versions, the most popular ones of which have been presented here. According to legend, the area where Hari Parbat now stands was once a vast lake. A demon (asura) named Jalobhava lived in this lake and terrorized and persecuted the local population. When the locals prayed to Parvati (Lord Shiva’s consort and a form of the primordial deity Shakti), she took the form of a Myna (an indigenous bird known in the Kashmiri language as Heer) and dropped a pebble on Jalobhava’s head. This pebble grew larger and larger until it crushed the demon. It is believed that Hari Parbat is this rock itself and derives its name from Heer (the name of the bird the form of which Parvati took while slaying Jalobhava) and Parbat. Another version of the legend recounts that the area was inhabited not by Jalobhava, but by the demon brothers Tsand and Mond. Tsand lived in the lake where Hari Parbat now stands and Mond lived in an area above the current Dal lake. Parvati as a Myna bird dropped the magical pebble on Tsand’s head, thereby creating Hari Parbat in the same fashion as the Jalobhava myth. Still other versions of the legend propagate that Parvati had not gone herself, but had sent her sister Sharika to save her devotees. Most myths and legends have the tendency to exhibit various versions which are believed by various groups of devotees, disagreements regarding the particulars of which have often created tangible tensions and conflicts between these groups. However, the Hari Parbat legend has only served to unite Kashmir’s Hindus. What all legends agree on is that the goddess Parvati had intervened to answer the prayers of her Kashmiri devotees and had saved them from the wrath of demons, with Hari Parbat serving as the gigantic reminder of this divine intervention.
In addition to the Hari Parbat itself, a man-made structure commemorating the legend of the creation of the hill stands in the form of a temple on its western slope, known as Sharika Devi Temple. The temple can be approached from Deviangan by a flight of 108 stone steps. The number 108 has special spiritual significance for the followers of the Hindu religion. Ascending the steps, one can begin to admire the white-and-orange domed roof of this magnificent temple. This abode is considered to be home to the idol of Jagadamba Sharika Bhagwati, also known as Maha Tripurasundhari or Rajrajeshwari. This eighteen-armed goddess is a form of Shakti or Parvati and is considered to be the presiding deity of Srinagar city by Kashmiri Pandits who are the deity’s fiercest devotees. The goddess is represented by Swayambhu Shrichakra or Mahamaha Shrichakra or Mahashriyantra which consists of mystic circular shapes and triangles with a dot (bindu) in the middle. The symbol of Swayambhu Shricharka, in turn, represents cosmic energy.
On the southern slope of the Hari Parbat lie two structures representing a later period of the valley’s history. One of them is the Makhdoom Sahib shrine, dedicated to the great Kashmiri sage Humza Makhdoom (1494-1578), also known as Makhdoom Sahib, Mehboob-ul-Alam (“loved by all”) and Sultan-ul-Arifeen. Born in a Rajput Chandravanshi family, Makhdoom was educated first in the Shamsi Chak monastery and was later further educated in jurisprudence, philosophy and mysticism at Ismail Kubrawal’s Madrassa. He became one of the greatest religious scholars and teachers of his time and died a few years before the successful Mughal invasion of Kashmir. The Makhdoom Sahib shrine is two-storeyed and supported by numerous pillars which creates a unique architectural ambience.
On the southern slope, near the Kathi Darwaza of the Hari Parbat fort, stands one of the most important gurudwaras of Kashmir, the Chatti Padshahi or Chhevin Padshahi gurudwara. This gurudwara was constructed in the seventeenth century to commemorate the visit of the sixth Sikh guru Guru Hargovind Singh to Kashmir around 1616 AD. According to legend, an old, blind, devout woman named Bhag Bhari lived in the place where the gurudwara was later built and came to know about Guru Hargovind through her son. Having seen her son’s spiritual transformation through his contact with him, Bhag Bhari also expressed her deep desire to see him. Guru Hargovind Singh granted her wish when he was travelling through Kashmir and came before her, aiming an arrow at the ground. Miraculously, a spring instantly formed where he had aimed his arrow and he instructed Bhag Bhari to wash her eyes with the water. Upon doing so, the woman’s sight was instantly restored. Having laid eyes on the guru, Bhag Bhari wished not to look upon anything else again. She was granted this second wish as well and left her earthly body for the heavenly plain. The original gurudwara was a rectangular structure with room for ‘Langar’ or kitchen with free food distribution. A well was also constructed nearby, supposedly on the orders of the guru himself. Later, a larger gurudwara replaced the former. Built of white marble, this structure dazzles the viewers with its cream-white domes. All three structures are centuries old, with the Sharika Devi temple definitely being the oldest. It finds mention in the Rajatarangini, which means that the structure was established at least in the twelfth century AD or earlier. The Makhdoom Saihb shrine and the Chatti Padshahi gurudwara were, however, established around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although dating back to early medieval and medieval times, all three remain to be centers of worship and pilgrimage to this day and hold a special significance for the population of Kashmir and beyond. The Sharika Devi temple celebrates a number of auspicious days throughout the year, namely, the Phalgun Krishna Paksh Ashtami (Hora Ashtami), Ashad Shukla Paksh Saptami, Ashtami and Navami (Har Satum, Har Ashtam and Har Navum). Har Navum is the most sacred day of the year for the temple, as it is considered the birthday of the deity. Devotees celebrate this day by offering the deity
‘Taher-charvan’ (rice boiled with turmeric powder, mixed with oil, salt and cooked goat liver)
in a sacred ceremony called ‘Chout Kharoun.’ The temple is visited by a steady stream of devotees and pilgrims throughout the year, with particularly noticeable activity during the months of Magh, Phalgun, during the Navreh (new year), during the Navaratri and during the festivals. The Chatti Padshahi gurudwara celebrates the day Guru Hargovind was supposed to have visited Bagh Bhari every year as the ‘Prakash Utsav,’ which was declared a holiday by the JK government. The Makhdoom Sahib shrine is one of the most important shrines in Kashmir and is visited by devotees as well as people from all faiths throughout the year.
At the foot of the Hari Parbat fort, between the Bachi Darwaza and the Makhdoom Sahib shrine, stands a smaller structure, also claiming a place in the sacred hill, yet away from the bustle of worship, pilgrimage and tourism which attends the other structures. The Mulla Shah Badakhshi mosque, as it is called, was constructed in 1651 AD at a cost of over Rs. 40000 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest surviving daughter Jahanara Begum for the Badakhshani Qadiri Sufi master Mulla Shah who was based in Kashmir at that time. This mosque is a testimony to the early and mid-seventeenth century in Mughal history when, during a time when Mughal power was almost at its peak, the eldest two children of the emperor Shah Jahan, namely, Jahanara Begum and Dara Shukkoh, had become avid patrons of the Qadiri Sufi order. The siblings had always been close growing up and embarked on joint scholarly ventures in their early twenties. Dara had first taken the discipleship of the Qadiri saint Miyan Mir and, after his death, had sought out Mir’s great disciple Mulla Shah to seek spiritual guidance. Jahanara learnt of the saint through Dara and started communicating with him via letters, eventually also taking his discipleship. The Shah Badakhshi mosque was a token of her devotion to her spiritual master. The mosque was meant as a mosque-madrassa-sarai complex judging from its architectural planning. It stood at the center of a Mughal garden and had three separate levels. The size of the actual mosque suggests that it was not meant for public use, although additional cells were made to be used as a madrassa or sarai (guest house). There was a smaller mosque nearby, which seems to have been commissioned by Dara around the same time. This is unsurprising as the siblings had embarked on joint ventures before. Architectural evidence strongly suggests that the structure was never truly completed, as it seems that Aurangzeb’s takeover in1658 AD led to the abrupt halt in the mosque’s construction. Today, the structure has been abandoned and sits hauntingly on the slope of the hill.
Looming over all these sacred structures is the splendid Hari Parbat fort which, surprisingly for many, is the newest of all these. The outer wall of the fort was commissioned by emperor Akbar after his victory over Kashmir in 1590 AD, his hope of creating a new Mughal capital within the limits of this wall named ‘Nagar Nagor’ was left unfulfilled. After emperor Aurangzeb’s death(1707), Mughal hold over Kashmir became tenuous and the region was taken over by Afghan invaders led by Ahmad Shah Abdali in the mid-eighteenth century. The construction of the fort was finally completed by Atta Mohammad Khan, a governor of Kashmir under the suzerainty of the Durrani rulers of Afghanistan, during the reign of Shuja Shah Durrani in 1808 AD. The newly built fort became a center of much political intrigue when Atta Mohammad Khan imprisoned his own former master Shuja Shah here. The former ruler of Afghanistan was rescued by the ruler of Lahore, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in exchange of the Kohinoor diamond. Kashmir was conquered by the Sikh forces shortly afterwards in 1820 AD. After a brief period of Sikh rule, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was created and the fort remained under the Dogra rulers’ authority for a century (1846-1947) until the state was handed over to the Indian republic in 1947 AD. The fort was constructed to be the administrative center of the state in Srinagar. The formidable structure, 200 feet high and with two layers, had walls which were fortified by the addition of bastions and guardhouses. The inner quarters of the fort were large enough to support the local administrative elite, and were meant to serve as a city within a city to carry out governance. Both layers within the fort had large ponds to support the population. The years have not been equally kind to all the structures that adorn the sacred Hari Parbat hill. While the Makhdoom Sahib shrine, the Sharika Devi temple and the Chatti Padhshahi gurudwara receive a regular stream of devotees and tourists throughout the year and are the centers of an active public life even in the twenty-first century, the same cannot be said for the Shah Badakhshi mosque complex and the Hari Parbat fort. The mosque seems to carry the legacy of the untimely death of Dara Shukoh as its incomplete nature speaks of a grander plan for the complex that never came to fruition. The structure has fallen into disuse and is crumbling for want of repairs. The Archaeological Survey of India has taken over the main building of the mosque, but not its adjacent structures like the sarai or the smaller mosque commissioned by Dara. Restoration seems to be in the agenda, but may take years to be accomplished.
The Hari Parbat fort ceased to be the administrative center of Srinagar, but was occupied for most of post- colonial history by the Central security forces. During the twentieth century, signs of disrepair in the fort have become apparent. However, the fort was opened for guided tours for the public in 2014 AD and the UT government of Jammu & Kashmir has decided to restore the fort to its former glory in order to boost tourist visits to the valley. Although the present is bleak for the fort and the mosque, the future does not seem without
In many ways, Hari Parbat has been the beating heart of the city of Srinagar in particular and the Kashmir valley in general for centuries. It welcomes people from all faiths with open arms and holds spiritual significance for all. While legends give this hill a sense of deep history, the myriad of stories surrounding the various sacred and secular structures that adorn its slopes point towards the rich recorded history it also boasts and the eventful history of the valley that it seems to be an architectural archive for. The twentieth and the twenty-first centuries have been transformative periods for the world and the picturesque Kashmir is no exception. The rapid changes in military technologies and battle tactics, the rise of social and moral norms which do not necessarily put religion at the center of human life and economic twists and turns have led to some previous institutions becoming obsolete, while others have taken on a new meaning altogether amid the transformed society. While the Sharika Devi temple, the Makhdoom Sahib shrine and the Chatti Padshahi gurudwara have more or less continued to welcome pilgrims and local worshippers through these turbulent centuries, the Shah Badakhshi mosque has suffered abandonment and neglect. The Hari Parbat fort has lost its previous place as Srinagar’s administrative and military hub and has become a relic of a bygone past that is seldom celebrated. However, the administration’s recent moves towards restoring these sites, opening them to tourists and the more recent declarations by the UT government to embark on more large-scale restoration and development projects all indicate a secure and thriving future for Kashmir’s most visible symbol of interfaith amity.