So Long Kashmir- Part 3
(In the multi-part Kashmir Travelogue, the writer continues his journey in Srinagar with a visit to Shankaracharya Temple & a visit to a bakery along the boulevard)
I woke up late in the morning as the ‘Dal’ froze in the night and the temperature dipped further. I freshened up and showered with lukewarm water somehow managing not to have a heart attack. However, Usman Bhai’s piping hot breakfast of omelet and bread with ‘masala’ tea returned color to my pale face. My spirits rose. I decided to pay homage to the singular oddity in Srinagar’s recent and fierce embrace of central Asian demeanor and outlook- The Shankaracharya Temple which stands tall and mighty proud atop the crushed and humiliated Kashmiriyat (The Spirit of Kashmir which has a proud tradition of Hindu-Muslim harmony and fusion of culture, names, and surnames, cuisine & mannerism). I shrugged the corrupt politics out of my mind and instead found refuge in the philosophical ruthlessness of the ‘Time’ which reduces Rome to rubbles when it has decided to move on.
A leisure stroll along the Boulevard road was filling my lungs with white silken ice when I saw it. My eyes adjusted to the quietude of that turquoise rectangle against the scratchy gray horizon. I entered it and looked around. I could have been in Sebastied Goudard at 1 rue des Pyramides, in Central Paris. Glass cabin filled with pastel-colored pastries of all hue and tone, velvety creme delicately balanced on the fluffy and porous bread. I looked up and my eyes met a twin looking pair of man and woman. They purposefully averted their gaze. She was comely as only a Kashmiri girl with Hijab could have looked with milky glazed skin and absence of muscle motion on face and guy looked no more than 20 years old with soft baby hair on his unshaven face.
I realized my mistake immediately but a long pause followed before I could utter something to undo the damage. “Never mind. I was just very surprised that such high-quality patisserie exists in Srinagar”- I said in a broken voice. The babyface guy mumbled something in an attempt to recover and gain ground but the reply lost its meaning to me. I bought two pastries-one with coconut shaving and the other vanilla. They tasted elite. I stepped out.
I was carrying a secret in my rucksack when I reached the base of the temple and it became a troubling one when I saw the heavy military presence around the area. The plan was to declare, offer, and keep the rucksack with the military while visiting the temple and hope for the chivalry of the Indian army. Glenfiddich 18 had been a trusted friend to face the winters of Kashmir and I was carrying it along with everywhere to take a sip whenever I felt like lighting fire in my belly. Two Bihari army men asked me to leave everything including my expensive Nikon behind before I could ascend the steps which would take me to the temple. I tried my luck and told them about the good whisky that I was carrying, and if they needed they could take a swig hoping if that would buy me a bargain for allowing my camera. Both of them refused politely and it happily assured me of the professionalism of our army. We exchanged a few pleasantries and they gave me a few tidbits about life in Kashmir. They did not sound unhappy or sour as I expected them to by reading the news. You see! selective coverage paints a very unreal image. I decided to visit Afghanistan at some point in the near future.
Stone steps that took me to the top reminded me to hit back to the Gym after the bacchanalia of Kashmiri mutton and clarified butter was over. The temple sits atop on an octagonal base with a narrow entrance in the shape of folded hands. The temple houses a ‘Shiva-Linga’ (Phallus of Lord Shiva) and is served by a single priest. It is nothing like grand Indian temples with pomp and splendor that I have seen. An earthly philistine quality which could only have been in Kashmir. I offered my respect to the temple and walked around the peripheral wall that overlooks Kashmir from above. This is the only way to see the five lakes of Srinagar lying serpentine, cutting across marshy lands on which reeds, ‘chinars’, residential and commercial streets rise to modest heights. On a gray rainy day, this landscape feels like the poetry of decadent beauty.
This temple is described by famous Sanskrit scholar Kalhana in his Rajtarangini and it seems king Gopaditya donated this land for the temple construction to brahmins atop the hill. There might have been intermittent Budhhist link to the temple before Adi Shankaracharya took shelter in this temple and developed it as a center of Shaivism in the 9th century. After the 9th century, this temple became known as Shankaracharya Temple. The temple fell into ruination during Islamic rule before the Sikh Empire took care of it and king Gulab Singh built stone steps to reach the temple. It is a surprising fact as well as testimony to the great co-existence of harmony spirit of the valley that this temple remained intact during a number of zealot Muslim rulers including “But-Shikan” Sikandar Shah Miri who got notoriety for destroying Hindu temples including the Sun temple of Kashmir- Martand temple. I heard authoritative & mystic chants of hundreds of brahmins echoing around the valley in their heyday in my mind as I tried to visualize a Hindu/Buddhist Kashmir in the middle ages. Quest of spirituality in Hindu and Buddist religions weakened the practical matter of life such as protection of civilization from aggressors. Time and again, Hinduism left it on fate and their Gods to protect themselves from coercion and subjugation as the art and necessity of war stayed a very low priority affair in the path of enlightenment.