Located about 30 km southeast of Srinagar, the ruins of Awantipur are a silent reminder of the Hindu empire that once was. It was built by King Avantivarman who founded the Utpala dynasty in the ninth century and ruled Kashmir from 853 to 888 AD. That era faded into the background after fourteenth century Afghan invasions in the valley that paved the way for a largely Persian culture.
My discovery of Awantipur added a fresh twist to my to-do list for Kashmir.
I’m greeted by a lone ASI board in a neglected corner of the highway to Anantnag and Pahalgam. Cars whiz past the ruins, ferrying locals on their way to the former, and tourists to the latter. A man with a greying beard and large blue turban pops out of nowhere and greets me eagerly, shaking my hand enthusiastically with the monument standing aloof behind us. Trilok Singh, a resident guide here for over twenty years, has decoded a lot of these icons. He has been showing visitors around, or at least the handful that do get here.
Among the ruins, are two temples barely a kilometre apart. Of the two, Avantishwar is the smaller one and is dedicated to Shiva. The primary temple is Avantiswami which is dedicated to Vishnu, and which bears a striking resemblance to the masterful Sun temple at Martrand, also in Kashmir.
Built in sandstone, the entrance to the temple is marked by two large columns, a heavy influence of Greek architecture. A lot of the stones have eroded over the centuries, but some of the carvings are still clearly visible, and I peer at the Ganesha at the entrance as Singh narrates the glory of Avantivarman, the great ruler who brought prosperity and order to the politically and economically chaotic reign here. A flight of steps takes one down to the ruins; a natural disaster allegedly buried the town under rubble so phenomenal that the ground levels were raised and subsequent civilisations built over the old one.
The temples were discovered when British excavations were at their zenith in the eighteenth century. Not surprisingly, many of the idols were taken to museums in England. This at least, I thought wandering between the stone ruins, was infinitely better than the structures being destroyed in the fourteenth century plundering by Afghan king Sultan Sikander Butshikan.
The last few that survived the destruction and the transporting to England can still be seen at the SPS museum in Srinagar. I amble past faded demi-gods, mythical creatures with missing toes and noses, and marvel at how they survived this long, and what stories they would have to tell if only they could speak.
Among other sculptures, there’s one of the king himself. The shrine of Vishnu would have stood in the centre, the inner sanctum, which is surrounded by a spacious courtyard, flanked by four smaller shrines in the four corners. A pillared mandapa would stand in front of the main shrine, and the prakhara or outer area had 69 cells dedicated to various deities. Time and again, excavations in this area have yielded copper coins and those of mixed alloys, minted by rulers from different dynasties.
Avantivarman was believed to be a great king, Singh tells me as I begin to leave. During his reign, the settlement, once known as Viswasara, rose to great heights. There was prosperity, and pioneer work in philosophy, arts and literature. But more than that, there was peace, he adds with a faraway look in his light brown eyes, almost as if he had been there himself. I wish him luck, and many more tourists whom he can enlighten with his knowledge of an otherwise forgotten part of the history of Kashmir. And hopefully the next time, I’ll smell that forgotten peace in the air along with the scent of kawa.
Avantipur can easily be done as a day trip from Srinagar, which has plenty of stay options. Unwind Kashmir organises this trip among others, in well-maintained cars with knowledgeable local drivers (www.unwindindia.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: 01942-466641, 9797980969). Only post-paid mobile numbers work in J&K.