The Harwan Monastery: A Relic of Kashmir’s Buddhist Past
On the outskirts of Srinagar in Harwan, lie the ruins of an old Buddhist Monastery. It is impossible to imagine the importance of the site from its ruins. But this ancient monastery played a pivotal role in the history of Buddhism. It is here, that the 4th Buddhist council of the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism was held sometime in the 1st or 2nd century CE, on the orders of the Kushana emperor Kanishka I. It was also the home to one of the greatest Buddhist masters Nagarjuna (150-250 CE) , who propounded the theory of ‘Sunyata’ or ‘Emptiness’ which went on to revolutionize Buddhist thought. Sadly, the significance of the site seems to have been lost somehow in modern times. As has the significance of Kashmir, in the history of Buddhism.
Kashmir, throughout history lay at the crossroads of great civilizations. It was a melting pot of ideas, faiths and cultures. Before it emerged as a powerful kingdom in its own right, in the 8th century, Kashmir was part of the belt ranging from Southern Iran, that connected Gandhara, Bactria and Kashmir. This was an area where early Buddhism thrived and the famous ‘Gandhara’ sculptures found all over Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and onwards to Tibet, bear testimony to the vibrant faith that held sway. One of the main corridors connecting the two ends, of the Buddhist world through the otherwise impenetrable Himalayas, was Kashmir. It was mainly through this corridor that Buddhism was spread beyond the Land of the Buddha further south to the rest of Asia, on the famous Silk Route.
Buddhism itself flourished in Kashmir during the 1st century CE when Kashmir was a part of the Kushana Empire. Its greatest Emperor, Kanishka I was a great proponent of Buddhism and ruled over a vast Empire which stretched from Western Afghanistan to Pataliputra in the south and from Central Asia and Tarim Basin in China, to Central India. Kashmir was a part of the Empire as well and lay at the eastern end of the Gandhara Region which served as a nursery for the growth and spread of Buddhism further afield.
Buddhism continued to be the main religion in Kashmir from the time of Kanishka well into the 8th century CE when it was gradually replaced by a revitalized form of Hinduism. For a time period both co-existed in a syncretic existence until Buddhism all but disappeared, with the coming of Islam.
It is not known exactly when the Harwan monastery was built; though excavations reveal remains dating from 1st to 6th century CE. During this period, numerous Buddhist monasteries dotted Kashmir, with the ones at Harwan and Ushkur (Baramulla district) being the most prominent. Even the present Pari Mahal was once the site of one such Monastery.
Interestingly, the ruins of Harwan was a chance discovery by pioneering archaeologist Pandit Ram Chandra Kak. He was surveying the site one afternoon when he noticed a square flat patch covered only with thin turf amidst a long-stalked Indian cornfield. This plot of land, by reason of its apparent unproductiveness, immediately attracted attention. To know more, Pandit Kak called upon the neat-herd who was watering his cattle in the brook nearby and it was ascertained that this barren field owned the significant name of Kitur-i-Daj (field of potsherds), because the entire field consisted of thickly packed sherds — whence its barrenness. The question that naturally arose was how such an abundance of potsherds could occur so high up the hill-side and so far from the present inhabited areas. The only explanation (which eventually turned out to be correct) was that in ancient times there had been dwellings here — dwellings the nature of which could be ascertained only by excavation.
Within a few days of the commencement of the excavation by Pandit Kak, a number of walls came to light, including the base of a medium-sized stupa, and a set of rooms that might have been used for residential purposes.
Today the ruins of the Harwan monastery get few tourists. To get there, you have to take the road to Harwan village, located around 7 miles northeast of Srinagar. A small board , just off the main road marks the site. The Upper Tier of the monastery lies on the edge of the Dachigam National Park.
Historians believe that the 4th Buddhist Council of the Mahayana Buddhism was held in Harwan which was known as ‘Kundalavana’ in ancient times . The 4th Buddhist council of Mahayana (Sarvastivada) tradition called by Emperor Kanishka between the 1st & 2nd century CE was significant because it was held to reconcile the contradictory doctrines of 18 sects of Mahayana Buddhism existing then. By this time, Buddhism had split into multiple sects and the council in Harwan, was an attempt, albeit unsuccessful, at reconciliation between them.
According to the records, 500 monks assembled here to discuss the Buddhist religious texts and interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. After the Council, the Monks along with their texts, went North to Tibet, China, Central Asia and Mongolia. And subsequently the Mahayana school of thought spread to these countries. The first , second and third Buddhist councils were held around 400 BCE, 334 BCE and 250 BCE respectively. Apart from the fourth one at Harwan, the last and the fifth Buddhist council was held nearly 2000 years later in 1871 CE in Mandalay, Burma.
There were many exquisite terracotta tiles which were found here as well, but they have since been shifted to the Shri Pratap Singh Museum in Jammu . Some of the exquisite tiles excavated from the site dated back to the 4th Century CE. The upper tier also had a temple type round structure and a courtyard which was also covered with the same terracotta tiles that were now kept at the museum. Behind this upper tier lay what seems to be remains of more structures that are still to be excavated. It seems that the whole complex was spread over the whole hillside.
Harwan monastery was also the home to Nagarjuna, one of the most important Buddhist philosophers of Mahayana Buddhism. Originally believed to be from Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, he is said to have traveled to Kashmir and settled in a place called ‘Sadarhadvana’ or ‘The Grove of Six Saints’. The 12th century Kashmiri scholar Pandit Kalhana in his work Rajatarangini writes ‘ A Bodhisattva lived then in this country as the sole lord of the land, namely the glorious Nagarjuna, who resided at Sadarhadvana.’ Historians like Aurel Stein, have identified ‘Sadarhadvana’ with the Harwan monastery.
With the spread of the faith, went the arts and artisans. As Buddhism spread across Central and East Asia, scholars and craftsmen from India, travelled there too. No wonder then that there is a great similarity between all the Buddhist iconography in Stone and Bronze made in Tibet with all such Buddhist iconography found in Kashmir which started around the time of the great Kushana Emperor Kanishka in the first century, till the time of Lalitaditya in the 8th century .
There are records of Kashmiri craftsmen going to the ancient kingdom of Guge in Central Tibet to decorate the Buddhist monasteries being built there. Tibetan Chronicles also mention that the great Tibetan scholar Rinchan Sangpo visited Kashmir thrice in order to take Kashmiri craftsmen to Tibet to re-organise Buddhist arts in Tibet. It is said that Rinchen built a Hundred and Fifty Temples in Tibet with the help of 75 Kashmiri craftsmen. The 16th century monk, Lama Taranath also records the great contribution of Kashmiri craftsmen to Tibetan painting and metal casting.
The Harwan Monastery site holds great significance in the saga of the spread of Buddhism as it traveled into all directions from the place of its founding and Kashmir itself played a major role in it. A role which nowadays seems to have been forgotten.
Prashant Mathawan (Kiki) is a writer and a photographer who has spent his formative years in living amidst the Himalayas in the most beautiful Vale of Kashmir. For decades, he has explored the deepest parts of the Himalayas and is a passionate follower of the history and culture of the region.
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