Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1

Temple Architecture   of Kashmir

Verender Bangroo*

Kashmir is bestowed with nature’s bounties and the mystical environment has fascinated people irrespective of caste, creed and language. Scholars coming from far and wide have carried away with them its, immense spiritual wealth shedding the shackles of this materialistic work and merging with the ultimate.

   The Kashmir valley blessed with the natural bounties is rightly celebrated as the valley of Gods . Apart from its natural beauty an added attraction are the ancient stone temples of Kashmir , noteworthy for unique architectural elements and fine stone carvings.


Foreign Influences or Interactions on the temple Architecture


      The art and architecture of Kashmir has been subject of debate ever since the foreigners noticed it. They were first to identify them and relate them to the past. However to these cultural traditions, they compared the architectural edifices with those of the East, West Asian and Central Asian. Only the components of Kashmir architecture were analysed and attributed to by these foreign influences. Fluted pillars, Triangular pediments were attributed to Greek, cellular peristyle to Roman, trefoil niches to Gandhara, drapery and tunic representation sculptures to Iran and Central Asia and the moulding of sculptures to China.

       Indian and Pan Indian art and architectural movements were viewed similarly. It is only in the recent past that there has been a marked change in the western outlook towards the artistic contribution of the Indian sub-continent. Indian art and thought acted as a pivot and its



influences are said to have nurtured the whole of South East Asia . Kashmir was the seat of learning since the time immemorial and scholars not only from India but its neighborhood visited Kashmir in pursuit of higher learning. Over the centuries it not only gained reputation for Vedic studies, but equally as a Buddhist seat of learning. Kashmir in real sense was brain of India and responsible for the movement of Indian art and thought to East Asia, West and Central Asia . Therefore Kashmir , which lies in the heart of the Asian continent, has geographically been of decisive importance for commerce and cultural exchanges. All the main trade routes connecting East and Central Asia with Eastern Europe and countries of the East (West Asian) lay across the territory. There was continuous exchange on the cultural and religious fronts as it was the meeting place of the cultural waves. The craven routes from China , Central Asia and Tibet met in Kashmir and this led to its greater impact on the political, social and cultural structure of the region.


Cosmology and Hindu Temple

   The Hindu temple represents the cosmological symbolism in an aesthetic grab.  It is a symbol or rather an aggregate of various symbols. It is ritually invested with human personality (Vastupurusha) and conceived in terms of human organism, which is the most evolved form. The scriptures say that the temple should be worshipped as Purusha. The names of the various limbs of the human body from the foot to the crown of the head are applied in Indian architectural texts to different parts of the temple structure.

    The door of the temple is its mouth, the platform terminating the trunk to the superstructure, represents the shoulder of the Purusha; the projection, the arms and down to the wall, the leg and to the very bottom, to the lower most molding- the feet. The temple is Purusha and conceived by means of Prakriti the feminine form.

       We talked about the perfect body- the Vastupurusha, but it is lifeless without the resident soul. The image in the temple, the Pratima is the very life of the temple. The sanctum called Garbhagriha is the house of the womb, it is here the regeneration is effected and the higher self of the devotee is reborn

     A similar purpose is served by the superstructure, which is frequently designed as the mystical Meru, Mandara or Kailasa  — the function of which is to lead from a broad base to a point where all lines converge —  the ultimate one.

       The conceptualization and development of Hindu temple architecture was the result of the churning of cosmic ideas in the microcosm of

natural setting. The temple was not a four-walled enclosure but an embodiment of the cosmos and the energy, which propels it. The main sanctum sanatorium, which houses the Garbagriha, the womb, is the personification of Purusha so as to define the relationship of cosmos and man. The image placed in the Garbagriha is the atman    the soul. The temples were laid according to a well-defined plan. The temple building was a ritual and every stone laid was consecrated to God by the holy chant of the Brahmins.


Temple construction techniques

    The temple builders of Kashmir were way ahead of their contemporaries of the plains and peninsular India . The 8th century temples of Kashmir were constructed of evenly dressed ashlar masonry. Built of mammoth boulders, the joints were put together with lime mortar, which is seen at Wangat, and also steel dowels, used in the Martand temples. These engineering developments were in vogue in the neighboring western region of Kashmir . These refined techniques could not stand up the rigorous climate of the region and human vandalism and only a few of the vast number of temples, described so eloquently by Kalhana in Rajtarangni, have survived.

      Despite limited means of communication there were interactions at the social, economic and cultural levels. The interactions in the field of architecture have been remarkable as it brought about a fusion. The resulting indigenous designs produced new art. Architectural projects were set amidst natural landscapes. Kashmir played a vital role in the understanding of art and formulating the canons for its appreciation.


Development of Temple architecture in Kashmir

      Buddhism was introduced in Kashmir soon after the Buddha’s demise and king Ashoka is said to have built stupas in the 3rd C.B.C. The Buddhist remains at Harwan, Hoina and Hutamer have revealed unique tiles depicting the fine workmanship.

       With the background of Buddhist artistic tradition, Kashmiri artisans evolved a style of Hindu temple architecture with a distinct characteristic of its own. Kashmir temple exhibits a unique bland of foreign style and indigenous creativity that resulted in a distinctive architecture which was more suited to their geographic and climate conditions.

      The temple of Lodhu situated 16 miles from Srinagar is in the midst

of a tank and is said to be the earliest remaining stone structure. Vigne gave the description of the temple in 1866. This temple does not find mention by Kalhana or any other text. The temple is a plain and simple square, walled structure, circular on the inside. A large number of dressed stones are lying around in the tank, notable among them are the memorial stones depicting war heroes. The corbelled corners of the structure suggest that it had a pyramidal roof as found at Pandrathen. Because of its simpler type of trefoil niche, consisting of a rounded arch inside a trefoil pediment and its unique circular plan, it is representative of the earliest engineering developments which later on culminated at Martand.

     The next stage in the development of temple architecture may be studied at the Sankracharya temple. The temple is on a high octagonal platform and approached by an imposing flight of steps. The entrance doorway to the sanctum contains a tri-cusped trefoil arch, set inside a high pitched pediment. The roof of the cella is a plain unornamented pyramid. The temple has a low parapet wall, inner side of which has the recesses. The shrine is circular inside.

        In the temple at Narsathan, situated 40 kms, SE of Srinagar in district Pulwama, the pediment and arch motif is in a process of development. Triangular canopies sunken trefoil niches and the enclosure wall with a prominent gateway is close to the final form of temple architecture of Kashmir . Internally the temple cell is square; facing south the temple does not posses a ceiling. In front of the temple is a square tank.


The Karkota Period (ca. 625-855 A.D.)

      7th and 8th century marked the culmination of art during the reign of Karakota rulers. Lalitaditya Miktapida (724-761 AD) ushered in an era of glory and prosperity in the kingdom. After gaining victories over Punjab,  Kananuj and Bihar, he turned his attention to the bordering territories of Kashmir . He led the victorious army to Dardistan, Ladakh and Tibet . During the Kara-kota rule there was a crisis across which brought a improvised style into being. We see a profound influence of Chinese, apparent from faces and dresses, which are typically Mangoloid. Building art was a product of influences from different classical schools viz-Greko-Roman, Gandharan, while as the sculpture iconography reflects the tremendous central Asian impact.

      Lalitaditya built the famous and elegant Sun temple at Martand and Parihaskesvar at his capital Parihasapura.

    The temple at Martand is the most impressive of all the ancient structures of Kashmir . Dedicated to Sun god, Surya this magnificent edifice is located on a Kerewa or tableland. Its picturesque situation at the foot of a mountain on a Kerewa bed enhances it grandeur. The temple stands in the middle of a large courtyard (220 X 142 ft.) enclosed by a cellular peristyle, once having 86 fluted columns. The temple proper contains garbhagriha, antarâla and closed mandapa, approached by grand flight of steps. The plinth supporting the Central shrine has two tiers, both with niches. The upper row has large niche, with figures of 37 divinities including Surya, Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Ganga , Yamuna and the Dikpalas. Exteriorly the sanctum is tri-ratha in plan.

     Martand reveal a great depth of thought, the delicacy of execution and the balanced proportion of figures. Even in its present ruinous condition, Martand evokes awe and wonder and is hailed as the most striking masterpiece of architecture of Kashmir , incomparable for its artistic grandeur.


The Utpala Dynasty (ca. 855-939 A.D.)

     The second golden age of temple building was brought into being by the patronage of king Avantivarman the founder of Utpala dynasty. The king established his capital at Avantipura and built two temples Avantishvara and Avantisvamin, one dedicated to Shiva and other dedicated to Vishnu.

     The Avantisvamin temple repeats the plan of Martanda on a smaller scale. The temple consists of a colonnaded peristyle comprising of 69 miniature cells, enclosing a stone paved courtyard. The main sanctum built on a double base in the centre of the courtyard and at its Four Corners are four subsidiary shrines. The double chambered gateway of the temple is profusely carved both externally and internally. Among the elegant sculptured reliefs, are the scenes representing Kamadeva seated with his consorts Rati and Priti; king Avantivarman before his accession and at the coronation ceremony with his queen and attendants. The Avantisvamin temple repeats the architectural development as the older structures but one does see increased refinement in architectural unity.

    The other temple built by Avantivarman is Avantisvara temple, dedicated to Shiva. The temple is panchayatana type, having main temple at the centre of the Court and four subsidiary shrines at four corners of the main sanctum. The gateway of the temple is double chambered and is devoid of any ornamentation. The main sanctum is raised on a high platform. It has staircase on each of its four sides. Among the sculptured stones in this temple is one of the king Avantivarman and his queen.

     The final refinement of form and a more polished look may be seen in a group of temples erected by Sankaravarman (A.D.883-902), who succeeded Avantivarman.

   He shifted his capital to Sankarapattnam, modern pattern, and built two temples, Sugandhesha and Sankaragaurisha. Both the temples are much on the same plan as described earlier but these structures reveal a refinement in handling the material, treatment of ornamentation and more polished look.The former is of panchyatana type, surrounded by a cellular peristyle. The main shrine and the remains of two subsidiary shrines are the only surviving structures. Sankaragaurisha is an enlarged version of Sugendhesha and consists of a garbhagriha and antarala. Peristyle walls and superstructure are entirely lost.

    During subsequent years due to constant wars between the weak kings and kingdoms temple activity gradually started receding. By the beginning of the 10th century the growth of style had come to an end but small shrines were raised without any notable architectural development.


The main architectural features of the temples of Kashmir could be summed up in a nutshell as:

1.  The temples face either east or west.

2.  The temples have a straight-edged pyramidal roof in two tiers

     instead of curvilinear superstructure of the southern temples.

3.  The triangular pediments enclosing trefoil riches are on all the

     four sides of the main shrine.

4.  They have a cellular layout with a row of pillars – a feature,

     which is not reported elsewhere in India .

5.  The double-chambered gateway matches the central shrine in

     scale and design. The temple walls in Kashmir are profusely


    The offshoot of the Kashmir style of architecture is found in Northern Punjab and Northwest frontier. The temples at Amb, Malot, Bilot, Kafirkot (sites presently in Pakistan ) exhibit some of the architectural elements like enclosed courtyard, pyramidal roof, and trefoil arches, fluted columns showing strong affinity with that of Kashmir . The influences are also found in the Western Himalayan architecture from Ladakh to Nepal .

      The traditions never die. The elements of ancient Hindu architecture of Kashmir , which were buried a millennium ago, resurfaced in the form of Muslim shrines and residential houses in succeeding periods.  The traditions together with the geographical conditions play a vital role in shaping the Kashmiri character.

    With the advent of Islam in the Valley, the Hindu temples were either converted into mosques or tombs or fell into disuse with passage of time. It was only during the Dogra rule that the Pandits could recover their identity and with the help of oral traditions and scriptures, were able to identify some of the ancient shrines and relate them to the Hindu past.                                                                                                              The iconoclastic zeal of the invaders had already left temple architectural heritage in a shambles. Most of the monuments  built  in ancient times were of  wood and stone. Wood being a perishable material, we may not attribute its damage to man but the lofty stone structures were razed to rubble and nothing noteworthy of ancient architecture remains, except for a few stone temples at Pandrathen, Payer, Mamal, etc.                                                                                   Although there was state patronage during the rule of the Dogras, the regime was not as powerful as that of the Karakotas or Utpalas. The temple activities during the Dogra rule started afresh but on a comparatively small scale. Most of the temples we see in the Valley are built on the remnants of ancient structures and the superstructure was built of bricks. The temples built during the Dogra rule have a curvilinear superstructure, which is found in the north Indian plains. In these temples were also placed sculptures/idols excavated from the surrounding places. These sculptures are very valuable and throw important light on art and iconography of ancient Kashmir .

The description of some of the lesser known but well preserved temples is as follows:-


Shiva temple, Mamalesvara 

     The small temple at Mamaleshvara, Pahalgam like other ancient temples of Kashmir is situated with a commanding view of the Pahalgam valley. It has been attraction to pilgrims visiting the shrine of Amarnath and the tourists alike. Pahalgam is a basic camp for the Amarnath yatris and during their halt pilgrims visit this shrine of Mamlesvara. The temple finds mention in the Rajatarangni written by the eminent poet and historian Pandit Kalhana of Kashmir. The temple roof was originally built of stone, which is missing now and is being replaced with wooden shingles. The temple enshrines a linga. In front of the temple is a stone lined spring containing limpid water. The temple is devoid of architectural motifs. Near the temple was found a pestle carved with rams seated in opposite direction and is housed in the chowkidar’s shed nearby.


Vishnu temple, Buniar

     On the bank of river Vitasa at Buniar, Baramulla is a well-preserved Shiva temple with all the typical characteristics of Kashmir architecture. The temple along with the cellular peristyle is in good condition except the roof, which was replaced by wooden shingles during the Dorga regime. This temple is well maintained and presently being looked after by the defence forces. The temple proper stands on a double base and approached by flight of steps from the southern side. The temple is placed in a cellular quadrangle consisting of fifty-three cells. In front of the cells is a colonnade which together with the cells and the cella represents the microcosm of the cosmos. The temple complex is approached by the double chambered gateway. The temple shrines a linga, which is a later addition; originally it was a Vishnu temple, the image of which was placed against the back wall of the cella. The temple is devoid of decorative motifs and its construction could be placed at least two centuries after the construction of elegant and imposing Martand temple. The temples on the Uri-Baramulla road at Fatehgarh, Uri and Dettamandir are more or less akin to architectural setting of Buniar temple and are milestones in the temple architecture of Kashmir .


Shiva temple, Payar

      Payar is a small hamlet, three kilometers from of Pulwama. The Shiva temple of Payar located at the fort of Kerava tableland is a jewel in stone. The temple consists of ten stones, is well preserved and speaks volumes about our architectural and sculptural glory. The shrine is open on all the four sides and approached by steps from eastern side. The temple consists of a double pyramidal roof with triangular pediments on all the four sides enclosing a trefoil arch. The eastern trefoil niche contains the image of Lakulisa. The deity is seated cross-legged on a wicker seat. At western trefoil niche is dancing Shiva in high relief. Six armed Shiva carries trident and khatvanga and dances to the tune of male drummer and female flute player. The trefoil niche on the northern side contains an image of three-headed Shiva. The central image of Shiva is having Aghora on its right and Uma on its left side. The southern trefoil niche depicts Shiva as Gajasamhara. Shiva in the form of Bhairava kills the elephant demon Nila. The ceiling of the temple  carved out of single stone block, is dome shaped. The other sculpted reliefs on the exterior include, geese, bulls and decorative bands.


Shiva temple, Pandrethan

     Pandrethan derived from Puranadhistava, meaning the old capital was founded by Ashoka. The Shiva temple of Pandrathan located in the Badami Bagh cantonment, Srinagar stands in the midst of a fresh water spring. The temple stands on a base carved with a row of elephants, and the decorative motifs at pilasters and roof are the major exterior embellishment. The temple consists of a double pyramidal roof with triangular pediments on all the four sides enclosing a trefoil arch. The figure of Lakulisa enclosed in a trefoil arch is above the entrance of the temple. The ceiling of the temple composed of four overlapping squares, is sculpted with vidyadharas and garland bearers. The topmost square is carved into a twelve petalled lotus. The temple on the basis of architectural motifs can be dated to late eighth century. A number of isolated stone sculptures recovered from Pandrathen are now housed in Sri Pratap Singh Museum , Lalmandi, Srinagar , which include Indrani, Vaishnavi, and Chamunda. These images throw important light on religious beliefs and also on East Asian and West Asian influence on the art of Kashmir but at the same time highlighting distinctive local idioms.




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Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati