Situated in the mountains some 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from Muzaffarabad, the capital and largest city of Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir – also known as Azad Kashmir – Sharda Peeth is an ancient learning center considered among the most prominent temple universities in the world.
Precariously uneven and hard to climb, the stone slab stairs lead to a vast courtyard on the edge of the majestic Narda mountain, which once hosted a university and a rich library, like Taxila near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and Nalanda in India's northeastern state of Bihar.
In the middle of the courtyard, a stone's throw away from Line of Control (LoC) – the world's most dangerous and militarized border – stands a roofless structure, nearly ruined now due to ravages of time.
The stone structure used to be the house of worship, revered by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus.
British surveyor Charles Ellison Bated, who authored "A Gazetteer of Kashmir" in 1873, had written that this house of worship was already in ruins when he visited the region in the 19th century.
Historians say that nearly 50,000 pilgrims used to visit the site, on the left bank of roaring Neelam River until the 11th century. The revered Madhumati River, also known as Sharda or Khutchal River, runs on the southern side of the temple. In ancient times, pilgrims used to bathe in the "sacred" water of the Madhumati River before entering the temple.
According to Rukhsana Khan, head of the fine arts department of Azad Jammu and Kashmir University Muzaffarabad, the site was fundamentally revered by the Buddhists as it was their place of learning before it was converted into a Hindu temple. The 13th and 14th century Muslim Kings of Kashmir would also visit and show respect to the site, she added.
Khawaja Abdul Ghani, a local historian and author, said the house of worship had seen some restoration work in the 19th century during the reign of Hindu Dogra rulers of undivided Jammu and Kashmir.
He said that floods had washed away the southern walls of the structure a century ago and it had not been repaired since then.
"In a lukewarm attempt, a mud fence was built on the wall site during the Dogra era, but it collapsed soon," he said.
A unit of the Pakistan army, stationed nearby takes care of the site. This, according to Ghani, has helped to preserve the remnants of this architectural treasure from destruction.
The main structure has a 9 feet wide staircase made of steep stone steps, some 63 in number, with massive side railings on either side, which are also falling into ruins.
Some historians believe that scholars from far-off places used to visit the place between the sixth and 12th centuries to gain knowledge.
According to historical records in the fourth century, Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim-traveler, visited the place and found that it was a flourishing center of education.
It is believed that this famed university was visited by Hindu seer Adi Sankaracharya who had undertaken the journey to debate with Buddhists to revive Hinduism in the eighth century.
While entering the stony enclosure, which is said to be a temple set up by Shankaracharya, Ghani took off his shoes. A small-sized room, without a roof, is now all that is left of the sanctum sanctorum.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Ghani said the site was fundamentally a house of worship revered by the followers of three religions. He has authored the book "Sharda Evolution of History" in the Urdu language. But he contests that the site was a full-fledged university.
"It had never been a university or learning place for the common people. Only selected students from the then-elite would come here to learn about philosophy, science, and religion," he said.
Excavators have found precious and sophisticated jewelry, tools, and artifacts representing the pre-historic era and the bronze age during the salvage excavation near the main structure.
According to Khan, who established Sharda Center Of Learning Archaeology Cultural Heritage (SCLACH) at the University of Azad Jammu Kashmir, in 2013, researchers also collected a variety of cultural material, which helped develop the chronology of Kashmir through archaeological findings.
It is believed that the stone slabs used in the construction of the temple had been brought from Narda peak, a contention which Khan said might be true. "The carved stone slabs used in the construction of the temple are not found in and around Sharda. These kinds of stones are found near Saraswati Lake," she added.
Whatever the history may be, the panoramic snow-capped Narda peak never ceases to amaze all those that visit by driving down the battered road, just before entering Sharda.
At first sight, it appears like a woman laying down on the mountain's summit with her hair untied in long strands. Ghani said this woman in Hindu mythology is called Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge. He said the mountain hosts three high-altitude lakes whose water is considered holy by Hindus. One of them is Saraswati Lake. Others are Narda Lake – also known after Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune – and Nareel Lake.
"Our region is believed to have been named after that sleeping woman or the lake," Ghani said.
Khan, however, said that Sharda itself was like Indus River Valley Civilization and other such civilizations across the world.
"It (Sharda) is named after the Sharda script of Kashmiri language used by the inhabitants of that era," she maintained.
Also, she said that the existence of the three lakes on the Narda peak has not been confirmed.
"I have visited Saraswati lake. It's huge, but not at all beautiful. It's huge as you require a motorbike or car to circumambulate the lake," she said.
Ghani said the Sharda has been a cluster of civilizations. Hun and Aryan are among the civilizations it has hosted. But he hastened to add that more research is required to historically endorse this theory.
"If this site (Sharda temple) is restored and conserved, it will attract thousands of Hindus and Buddhists from occupied Kashmir (Indian-administered Kashmir) and the rest of the world," he said.
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