Verinag: The Heart of Jhelum
Just as you enter the valley of Kashmir, through the Jawahar tunnel at Banihal, is a site of great natural beauty and of historic importance. This is the Verinag (also known as Vernag) spring, from which emerges the Jhelum river. Verinag, named after a neighbouring village Ver (now Shahabad) and Nag which means spring, in local Kashmiri parlance, is known not just for the river it feeds, but for the beautiful, idyllic gardens that surround it. The story behind this is fascinating, given that it was once a small, shapeless pond at the foot of the Pir Panjal mountain range.
The Hindu Legend
In Hindu mythology and tradition, the emergent spots of rivers are given great religious importance. There are some interesting myths found in the Hindu texts related to Verinag. The Kashmir valley gets its name from Kashyap, a Rishi or Sage in Hindu mythology. Millions of years ago, the Kashmir valley was a giant lake. Around 12,000 years ago, the water from the lake began to drain thanks to a break in Pir Panjal range making the valley habitable for human settlement. Some memory of Kashmir once being a lake must have survived in human memory, as it does find mention in early Hindu texts.
According to the Nilamata Purana, an ancient text about the history, geography, religion and folklore of Kashmir believed to have been written in the 6th to 8th century CE (it was later used by Kalhana as one of the sources for his famous Rajatarangini), all of Kashmir was a giant lake called Satisar (Lake of Sati), believed to have been inhabited by ferocious water demon named 'Jalodbhava’, who disturbed the local population. The lake was drained by Rishi Kashyap and Lord Vishnu killed the demon. Then Rishi Kashyap requested Lord Shiva to prevail upon Goddess Parvati to manifest herself in the form of a river to give water to the valley. Lord Shiva obliged and struck the ground at Verinag with his trident. Thus, from this spot emerged the Goddess in the form of river Vitasta or Jhelum.
Kalhana in Rajatarangini writes about Verinag:
‘That (land) is protected by Nīla [Shiva], the lord of all Nāgas, whose regal parasol is formed by the circular pond (of the Nīlakunda) with the Vitastā's newly rising stream as its stick. There Gauri, though she has assumed the form of the Vitastā, still keeps her wonted inclination.’
At this spot, there was once a temple dedicated to the river goddess, Vitasta or Jhelum, which was considered to be a pilgrimage spot by local Hindus. The remains of this temple can still be seen here.
Verinag under the Mughals
Though the legends surrounding this spring are colourful and dramatic, the spring itself, was just a shapeless pond with a small temple, till the arrival of the Mughals. Kashmir had been captured by Akbar in 1586 CE when he arrested the last Chak king Yusuf Shah, husband of the noted Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon by treachery. It was then incorporated into the Mughal empire.
One of the earliest mentions of the Verinag spring comes from Abul Fazl’s account in Ain-i-Akbari:
In the Vér tract of country is the source of the Bihat [Jhelum]. It is a pool measuring a jarib [Unit of land measure] which tosses in foam with an astonishing roar, and its depth is unfathomable. It goes by the name of Vernág and is surrounded by a stone embankment and to its east are temples of stone.
However, it was due to Akbar's successor Jahangir, on whose orders Abul Fazl would one day be murdered, that Verinag transformed - from a small pond to the site of a beautiful Mughal garden.
Jahangir had visited Verinag twice before he became the Mughal Emperor, but it was in 1607 CE, as Emperor, that he ordered a garden with a long water canal to be built at Verinag. In Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, his autobiography, he writes:
‘The source of the Bihaṭ (Jhelum) is a spring in Kashmir called the Vīr-nāg; in the language of India a snake is vīr-nāg. Clearly there had been a large snake at that place. I went twice to the spring in my father's lifetime; it is 20 kms from the city of Kashmir. It is an octagonal reservoir about 20 yards by 20. Near it are the remains of a place of worship for recluses; cells cut out of the rock and numerous caves. The water is exceedingly pure. Although I could not guess its depth, a grain of poppy-seed is visible until it touches the bottom. There were many fish to be seen in it. As I had heard that it was unfathomable, I ordered them to throw in a cord with a stone attached, and when this cord was measured in gaz it became evident that the depth was not more than once and a half the height of a man. After my accession I ordered them to build the sides of the spring round with stone, and they made a garden round it with a canal; and built halls and houses about it, and made a place such that travellers over the world can point out few like it.’
Jahangir changed the shape of the Verinag spring from the original shapeless kund (pond) to a Mughal octagonal-shaped pool. Around the pool, he built a garden in the traditional Charbagh design, which is a traditional Mughal garden design, where a garden is divided symmetrically into four equal parts. Such gardens can be seen at Humayun's tomb at Delhi and even at the Taj Mahal. Around the year 1620 CE, Jahangir built an ornate arcade surrounding it. He loved this place so much, that he gave instructions that he be buried here after his death.
A Persian inscription dating to 1620 CE on Southern wall of the complex states:
‘The king of seven kingdoms, the administrator of justice, the father of victory, Nur-ud-din, Jahangir son of Akbar, the martyr king, halted at this spring of God's grace in the 15th year of his reign. This construction was made by order of His Majesty. By Jahangir, son of King Akbar, This construction was raised to the skies. The architect of intelligence got its date---'May the mansion last for ever together with the spring Vernag!' (1029 Hijri)‘
Jahangir died in Kashmir in 1627 CE, but against his wishes, he was buried at Shahdara Bagh, Lahore on the orders of his wife Nur Jahan. His successor, Shah Jahan later added cascades and fountains in front of the spring and also hot and cold baths (Hamams) of which only ruins are now left. However, with the decline and fall of the Mughal empire, the Mughal garden complex fell into a state of disrepair.
Thankfully, today the Verinag spring and the garden around it has been beautifully restored and attracts many visitors. It has been recognised by the Archaeological Survey of India as a monument of Natural Importance.
Cover Image: Vinayak Razdan via Wikimedia Commons