Situated at the foot of one of the spurs of the mountain Wastarwan, this temple site overlooks the Jhelum, which wends its tortuous way gently by the side of the Jammu-Srinagar highway.
Reign Of Utpala Dynasty
The foundation of the town of Avantipura has been ascribed to Avantivarman by Kalhana who noted: 'At the site called Vishvaikasara, which procures final beatitude for those who die, the king founded the Avantipura, an abode of abundant enjoyments'. From this statement it appears that the place had already been a holy centre before the town was established by the king after his own name.
Avantivarman, the first king of the Utpala dynasty, was the son of Sukhavarman and the grandson of Utpalaka or Utpala who was a maternal uncle of the Karkota king Chippatajayapida, son of Lalitapida and Jayadevi, daughter of a spirit - distiller. Taking advantage of the minority of the king, Utpala and his four brothers virtually grasped the regal powers and ultimately caused the death of their royal nephew and became king makers. Then ensured an internecine strife and rivalry among the brothers themselves.
After the death of Utpala, his son Sukhavarman consolidated his power, placed his nominee Utpalapida on the throne and practically became the de facto ruler. Eventually he had been on the point of usurping the crown when he was killed by one of his relatives. Soon afterwards Utpalapida was dethroned by the minister Sura who crowned Avantivarman as the king.
A King's Passion For Art & Learning
Though of an inglorious lineage, Avantivarman made himself illustrious by virtue of his peaceful pursuits, conscientious care of his subjects and liberal patronage of arts and learning and made himself fondly live in the memory of posterity. He did not launch on an ambitious career of conquests. Aided by his wise and faithful minister Sura, the great king devoted his energies to the consolidation of his kingdom by subduing the unruly opponents and turbulent chiefs and brought back the much needed peace and prosperity to the country, hitherto town by court intrigues, factions and oppression of the subjects during the reign of the later feeble puppet kings of the Karkota dynasty.
He made earnest efforts to ameliorate the economic condition of the people and picked up a gifted person, Suyya, who by his engineering operations regulated the course of the Vitasta, thereby arresting the devastating periodical floods and consequent famine, and promoted irrigation and agricultural operations over an extensive area with the result that output of crops increased tremendously. His court was adorned by men of learning and poets like "Muktakana", "Shivasvamin", "Anandavardhana" and "Ratnakara". His just and peaceful rule of twenty-eight years was made further memorable by a large number of religious foundations and endowments, not only by himself but by his relatives and officials.
Building Of The Two Temples
At Avantipura itself Avantivarman erected two magnificent temples, one dedicated to Lord Vishnu called "Avantisvamin" and the other to Lord Shiva called "Avantisvara" the former built before his accession to the throne and the latter after obtaining sovereignty. The king was a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu from his childhood and remained Vaishnava in the core of his heart till his death. However, out of great regard for his minister Sura who was a devotee of Shiva, he made the other temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.
It appears that Avantivarman made the required provision for the maintenance of the temples at Avantipura and the ritualistic worship of the images by lavish endowments. Thus, according to Kalhana, the greedy Kalasa (AD 1063-89) of the first Lohara dynasty confiscated the villages, which had formed the endowment of the Avantisvamin temple.
In the time of Kalhana and immediately after the accession of King Jayasimha (AD 1128-55) of the second Lohara dynasty when his position became precarious due to the uprisings and attacks of Bhikshachara, the great grandson of Kalasa, and his powerful Damara allies, the Avantisvamin temple braced a siege when its courtyard protected by mighty stone walls provided shelter to royal officers Bhasa and Kshemananda and their companions who were besieged by the Damaras of Holada.
The stone walls of the enclosure of the temple withstood the siege successfully and the Damaras headed by the powerful Tikka could not overcome the besieged, 'though they fought them by lighting fires, throwing stones and making breaches' Ultimately, the Damaras had to disperse at the approach of sujji, the commander-in-chief of jayasimha, to relieve bhasa nad his retinue.
Route To Srinagar
The town of Avantipura, on account of its situation on the main route to the capital from the eastern and south - eastern sides, maintained its importance for many centuries. Kalhana referred to this town in course of his narrations of the anecdotes of the reigns of Kalasa (AD 1063-89), Harsha (AD 1189-1101), Sussala (AD 1112-1120 & 1121-28) and Jayasimha (AD 1128-55). Its been said that these kings stopped at Avantipura on way to Vijayesvara from the capital and back.
The town was a scene of several battles and sometimes used to serve as a station for the troops. During the reign of Sussala, Yasoraja, the Mandalesa (governor), was posted here along with a great force of troops. For its strategic position, the town appears to have been provided with military requirements as well. Thus, Sujji, commander-in-chief of Jayasimha, during his fight with the enemy constructed a bridge on the Gambhira with boats brought from Avantipura.
Reign Of Sultan Hasan Shah & Zainu'l-'Abidin
That the town was a place of importance even up to the reign of Sultan Hasan Shah is proved by the chronicles of Jonaraja, a contemporary of Zainu' l-'Abidin, and his pupil Srivara who was a contemporary not only of Zainu'l-'Abidin, Haidar Shah and Hasan Shah but of Muhammad Shah and Fath shah in the beginning of their royal career. Thus, in the short reign of Sultan Jamshid, his brother 'Ali Sher at the break of hostility with the sultan betook himself to Avantipura, his stronghold.
While he was away from Avantipura in his mission to kill his brother's son, Jamshid with a formidable force besieged the town. The operations resulted in the slaughter of Ali Sher's partisans, the number of whom was so many that the current of the Vitasta having been blocked by dead bodies is said to have flowed back wards. During the reign of Sultan Zainu'l-Abidin a canal was caused to be excavated in the lands of Avantipura by the sultan who also visited the town on his way to various places to witness the festival of flowers accompanied by cultural programmes and fireworks. Sultan hasan shah along with his ministers also stayed at avantipura for some time.
A Six Hundred Year Old Historical Presence
From the above survey, it is abundantly clear that the history of the town of Avantipura covers a period of more than six hundred years. In course of its long career, the town, being on an important route to the capital, witnessed both prosperity and adversity. Being a halting place of the kings and a camping ground of the troops, it, no doubt, had, apart from palaces, many edifices both secular and religious.
With the exception of the remains of two temples built by Avantivarman, none of these edifices is now visible. All that remains of the town are long stretches of stonewalls and rubble foundations along the slope of the spur and these too are being obliterated by modern constructions.
Being on the bank of the Jhelum, Avantipura formed a favourite quarry of sized stones, which were conveniently carried through the river to Srinagar . The large-scale denudation of the site can easily be visualized when one sees the remains of the two existing temples. Their enclosure and precincts should have been studded with fallen stones of the stupendous structural complex after their destruction. Instead, only a few slabs have been left. The denudation must have started before the major portion of their enclosure got filled and continued for centuries afterwards. Daya Ram sahni found several architectural stones lying on the bank of the river.
Compared to the Martanda temple, the Avantisvamin temple is, no doubt, small. However, what it lacked in grandiosity, it adequately compensated by its elegant form, proportionate layout of different members of a fairly large complex and above all its wealth of effectively distributed exuberant carvings and refined and graceful sculptures - a masterly symphony of architecture and art.
Ensample Of Peace & Beauty
The temple reflects the personality of a peace loving prince with an innate aesthetic sense and a keen appreciation of beauty- a prince whose ambition was not to dazzle his subjects by far flung conquests of others' realms but to provide an atmosphere of peace and prosperity in which the people could thrive with a mind on higher thoughts and beatitude. The intense religiosity of the prince is depicted effectively in two of the reliefs. Avantivarman, no doubt, recruited the best available artists of the country to make the mansion of his chosen god a thing of great beauty- the earthly "Vaikuntha".
Left to itself, the temple complex is not small. The ground level of the area around the temple quadrangle being very high, due to the accumulation over a millennium, people scarcely perceive the magnitude and importance of the temple which is indeed magnificent and inspiring even in its ruins. The ruins that still remain proudly proclaim the skill of the inspired artists and daring architects as well.
Causes Of Temple's Depleted State
Various factors contributed to the ruin of the temple complex as a whole. The relentless agents of Sultan Sikandar most probably stripped the shrines, both main and subsidiary, of their superstructure. The fall of the roofs made the surviving parts of the walls a constant prey to the inclemencies of nature, and stone blocks started falling down one after another. The process of distintegration was accelerated by the inherent weakness of the building material itself. The stone used in the construction is not merely soft and fragile but lacks homogeneity of texture and is prone to exfoliation. Many of the architectural members got damaged and broken due to the poor quality of stone.
Conscious of the weakness of the stone which, no doubt, is easy to work on to a fine finish and carving, the builders used stone slabs of stupendous sizes, evidently with the idea of ensuring stability. This magnificent creation would have certainly lasted if it received periodical repairs against the forces of nature and if it did not suffer from the ruthless vandalism of man.
The effect of the poor quality of stone on the exuberant carvings is in fact disastrous. The figures in relief and decorative motifs have not only been defaced but also disappeared altogether at many places due to the exfoliation and abrasion. This is all the more deplorable in view of the high quality of charming sculptures and carvings. Many of the divine figures carved on the walls could not be identified due to the effacement.
Layout Of The Temple-Complex
The layout of the original complex consists of a temple erected in the central part of a spacious oblong courtyard, four smaller shrines at the four corners of the central shrine, a running roofed Peristyle with an array of cells ranged around the periphery of the paved courtyard, and an imposing gateway, the last provided in the middle part of the western side of the cellular Peristyle.
This type of layout, particularly the ranges of cells, is peculiar to Buddhist establishments from very early times. It is very likely that the Brahmanical temple builders of Kashmir borrowed this layout from the followers of Buddhism, which was the dominant religion in the valley at least up to the 6th century AD.
The symmetrical layout of the four corner-shrines would indicate that the temple was conceived as "Panchayatana". In front of the staircase of the central shrine was a sort of a pillared Mandapa with open sides, containing within perhaps a "Garuda Dhvaja". In a later period some buildings, including two shrines, cropped up on the courtyard.
It is a matter of great regret that very little of the superstructure of the central temple has survived. Built on a fairly high platform in two tiers, it is approached by an elegant staircase.
Very little of the wall of the sanctum has survived. Externally, the sanctum is "Tri Ratha" on plan, while the interior is squarish. It had a single door facing the west and its been assumed that the roof was, pyramidal and made of slabs. No trace of the image, which had been under worship within the sanctum, could be found.
Subsidiary Shrines And Structures
As already noted, the temple was conceived as panchayatana, as seen from the symmetrical layout of the four smaller shrines, one at each corner of the courtyard. Facing the western direction, all of them, of identical dimensions, are stripped of their superstructure. To judge by the available portion, they were contemporaneous with the main temple. The best preserved among these shrines is the one at the southwestern corner.
Two Later Shrines
Apart from these four shrines, there are a few other subsidiary structures including two shrines of a later date. These two shrines on the backside of the temple between the northeastern and southeastern corner shrines are preserved up to their moulded platforms. With mouldings similar to those of the corner shrines, these platforms are however, "Tri Ratha" on plan. They are reached by a staircase, provided on the western side. Subsidiary platforms approached by stairs are found against the three sides of platform of the other. Evidently, they are later additions to provide easy access to the images of the "Parsva Devatas" in the niches of the central projections.
In front of the staircase of the main temple is a squarish pavement edged by a low kerb. The latter has at four corners as well as in its central parts sockets, which evidently held the tenons of pillars. The arrangement would indicate the existence once of a large Mandapa, possibly open on all sides.
Most of the images found in the excavation of the Avantisvamin temple are now in the Sri Pratap Singh Museum at Srinagar. The majority of the unearthed images represent Lord Vishnu. Unfortunately, only four out of these Vishnu images preserve their head. Made of highly polished black stone, all the four images are almost similar to each other with four heads and four arms.
Among other images found at Avantipur two are particularly noteworthy. One, found in the premises of the Avantisvamin temple itself, preserves the lower portion of an image of Ardhanarishvara (Lord Shiva) wearing a long garland, an anklet round the left ankle alone, bangles around the wrist of the extant left hand and finger rings. Behind the standing figure is a humped bull, while by the sides are the four-armed Ganesha and the six headed and six armed Karttikeya, both standing.
This temple too is situated by the side of Jammu-Srinagar highway, near the hamlet of Jaubrar about a kilometre to the northwest of the Avantisvamin temple.
The temple was conceived on a colossal scale, but, for reasons unknown, the decoration was left unfinished. The damage and spoliation suffered by it are greater than those of the Avantisvamin temple.
Facing the west, the complex consists of a Panchayatana temple in the middle of an oblong courtyard, two subsidiary shrines, a quadrangular array of cells around the periphery of the courtyard and a double chambered imposing gateway in the centre of the western row of cells in two flanks.
What of this temple now remains is merely its "Tri Ratha" platform. Even the top courses of this high platform are missing. However, to judge by the dimensions of the platform, the temple appears to have been an imposing one. Against the four central projections are built four high and spacious staircases, suggesting thereby the possibility of the existence of four doors of the sanctum. Attached to the four corners of the platform is the small platform of a subsidiary shrine. Thus, the temple was of the compact Panchayatana type.
It appears that the staircases, with the exception of the western one (the main approach), and also the four subsidiary shrines at corners were not parts of the original scheme contemplated at the initial planning stage. This is indicated not only by the unbonded masonry of these staircases and the platforms of the subsidiary but also by the fact that the roughly fashioned decorative architectural motifs and the mouldings of the facades of the platform of the main temple have been covered by these staircases and subsidiary platforms. There is no trace of the last having any independent staircase attached to them.
Presumably, the shrines over these platforms were approached from the top of the main platform, which provided a narrow access to the platforms of these shrines. The three staircases and the subsidiary shrines, which were the result of an afterthought, however, do not appear to have been far removed in date.