Ancient and Medieval Kashmir-Gateway to the Indian Subcontinent

Northwest India has a rich history extending back thousands of years. It is perhaps the most controversial as well as the most historic region in modern South Asia. Scholars theorize that nearly every invading general prior to the Europeans entered South Asia through what is known as the Khyber Pass at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Surya(Sun-god) temple in Kashmir

This includes, presumably, the old Aryans coming from Central Asia with chariots nearly 3,000 years ago, Alexander the Great, and conquering Turks and Muslims. Ironically, the Khyber Pass slowed and altogether halted the British from expanding their imperial territory in the middle of the 19th century. The British attempted to conquer territory form Calcutta to Kabul in 1839-1842. This campaign is known as the First Afghan War. Only the Russians in the late 19th century were able to conquer the strong amirate of Bukhara in 1868. Since Kashmir and the Indian northwest more generally has always served as a focal point for expansionism in South Asia, its architectural and cultural developments have always been unique.

Sadly and tragically, many monuments and archaeological sites have not been well preserved, partially due to poor conservation practices, but partially due to war, political upheaval, and deliberate destruction and defacement. However, these heavy concerns have not entirely limited scholars in studying the ancient and medieval architecture extant in Kashmir. Despite the attempts of incessant foreigners to the region, Kashmir traditionally remained somewhat isolated culturally, mostly because mountains enclose it. Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century BCE that led to fertile architectural developments. In the 8th century CE, Vaishnava and Shaiva temples began to gain much influence. Shaivism especially enjoyed great patronage. Kashmir became the medieval center for Shaiva philosophical thought. The 12th century poet Kalhana wrote a definitive Sanskrit history of the region called the Rajatarangini.

Much of the Buddhist material culture that was once presumably so abundant in the region has since been re-used, destroyed, or lost entirely. One of the largest sites, Parihasapura, contains some remnants from the 7th or 8th centuries CE. Today one may seen the remains of several structures that are representative of Buddhist architecture in Kashmir and ancient Gandhara broadly. There, a square monastery, a caitya shrine which once housed a massive Buddha image and a stone stupa, and miscellaneous sculpture. Kalhana’s 12th century Sanskrit history claims that king Lalitaditya and his minister Chakuna erected these buildings. The same text also claims that Lalitaditya enlarged Shiva temples, thus suggesting a reasonably tolerant religious atmosphere during his reign. Lalitaditya’s father Pratapaditya (7th century CE) built an exceptionally large Vishnu temple of five shrines, a large pillared mandapa hall, an elaborately carved gateway, and a massive Garuda statue.

The Martanda temple site is quite noteworthy. Lalitaditya also likely funded the construction of a Surya (Sun-god) temple here. Temples devoted to Surya are considerably rare, especially one that is as ancient as the one at Martanda. The main shrine is 19×11 meters and sits on a plinth in a rectangular court. Nearly 90 smaller shrines surround this main shrine. One may see that the ribbed pillars and pilasters in the entrance and the repeated use of tri-arches was strongly influenced by previous Buddhist architecture in Gandhara. Little known, or at least little discussed, is the fact that this architectural type was already a mix of Greek and Indian stylistics. By the 7th century, this conglomerate style became the norm. At Martanda, the Surya temple has a large entrance with many decorations. As usual with shrines devoted to Surya, there is a tank in front of the main shrine. Today, the roof is no longer extant but one can see the triple doorway before reaching the inner sanctum. Entering the main hall, one may see the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna richly carved on either side. The solar form of Vishnu with three heads and a three-pointed crown may also be seen.

Southeast of Srinagar is Avantipura, a ceremonial capital of king Avantivarman in the middle of the 9th century CE. He founded the Utpala dynasty. At this ceremonial political center, the king constructed two major monuments, one to Vishnu (the Avantisvarmin temple) and one to Shiva (the Avantishvara temple). Only the foundations and select wall sections of Avantisvarmin temple still exist today. But it is obvious from the layout that the temple was of the pancayatana style, consisting of five-shrines: a main sanctum and a stairway leading to a courtyard where four secondary shrines were built. Later rulers add two additional shrines to the eastern side, but none remain extant. The west wall contained a large monument entrance covered by a gateway. Inside the courtyard there are 69 cells, each presumably containing a separate image in the ancient period. Of the remaining images, many display Vishnu in his four-faced form. The Shiva Avantishvara temple was also of the pancayanatana variety but today is not well preserved. Scholars theorize that the temple was actually never completed, although it was likely used as a place of worship since some sculptures were evidently in use. One such image featured Lakulisha and another showed Avantivarman and a queen. Coins from the 15th century reference Avantipura, thus showing that in the medieval period, some of Kashmir’s oldest religious temples were still prominent features.

Kashmir’s modern political capital, Srinagar, has a lengthy history of its own, although most of its extant historical pieces of architecture are Islamic. The city is at an altitude of 1600 meters and is at the head of the passes going from the plains of India into Central Asia. As such, the city has been a conflux of trade and imperialism. The most important mosque is the Jami’ Masjid in the center of the city. It was first built in the 14th century by the Sultan Sikander, but has been rebuilt at least three times since then. The modern mosque was built by the much maligned Aurangzeb in the 17th century. It has nearly 400 columns, a serious of pyramidal roofs, and a variety of interesting minarets. Arched entrances flank the walls. The Shiva temple at Takht-i-Sulaiman Hill is a testament to the medieval Hindu architecture. It rests on a square plan, with a circular inner shrine. Most travelers to Srinagar will be immediately directed to the Shalimar Bagh garden, built by Jahangir in the early 17th century. It was considered to be a gift for his wife Nur Jahan. It is in a secluded part of Dal Lake and has three terraces. Numerous canals and pools weave throughout the grounds. On the top terrace, there is a beautiful black marble pavilion circled by fountains. Kashmir’s lengthy and controversial political history does not overshadow the natural beauty of places like the Shalimar Bagh garden.


  1. P. Brown: Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu Periods) (Bombay, [1942], rev. Bombay, 1956)
  2. S. L. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain (New York and Tokyo, 1985)
  3. R. C. Kak: Ancient Monuments of Kashmir (London, 1933/R New Delhi, 1971)
  4. S. C. Ray: Early History and Culture of Kashmir (Delhi, 1970)

Author: Eric Jogga

I am a PhD candidate at a top American university. I study Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages. My interest is primarily in: Ancient India, art, archaeology, architecture.

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