Enquiry into the sectarian affiliation of Harwan
by Geetika Kaw Kher on 14 Dec 2008 4 Comments

This paper seeks to address questions of representation and interpretation of the monuments unearthed at Harwan, Kashmir. These days, strenuous efforts are being made to project Harwan as an unproblematic Buddhist site and promote it as a destination for cultural tourism by linking it with the great Central Asian tradition. In this effort, scholars have deliberately underplayed facts and attributed all monuments found in the area to Buddhists, ignoring any other cultic possibility.

Stein identifies ‘Harwan’ with Shadarhadvana (grove of six saints), a locality mentioned in Rajatarangini [Stein M.A., ‘Kalhana’s Rajatarangini,’ Vol. II, p. 455 &  Vol.  I, Book I, p. 31, Delhi 1989]. According to Kalhana, the great Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna belonged to this place; hence the Buddhist connection is inevitable.

Following a chance discovery of few moulded brick tiles at the beginning of the 20th century, the importance of the site was realized, though it took another 10-15 years to seriously survey it. The area was filled with cornfields, but interestingly, there was a square patch of land which had no cultivation and was covered by turf only. This aroused interest and the area was excavated to reveal the ruins of a Buddhist site situated halfway up the slope of a mountain bordering a lateral branch of the main valley. These walls were constructed in what has been called “diaper rubble style,” wherein a number of large undressed boulders are placed in one row with intervening spaces filled with smaller stones, so that the entire façade presents a diaper effect, hence the name. Among the buildings constructed in this style were found 

1] The triple base of a medium sized stupa
2] A set of rooms which might have been Buddhist viharas

The stupa is built in the middle of a rectangular courtyard facing north. Digging under its foundations revealed a copper coin of Toramana, the White Hun ruler who flourished around the 5th century AD. His monuments at Eran (Madhya Pradesh) dated around the same time point to his peak period of activity. Hence the stupa could not have been constructed earlier than the 5th century AD. The viharas surrounding the stupa must have been constructed after or simultaneously with the stupa, hence whatever proof we find of Buddhist activity is all post 5th century AD.

Apart from these structures there were excavated some more walls in crude pebble style (still seen in many village temples in Kashmir) and in a style which can be called a cross between pebble style and diaper style.

Immediately around the stupa is a narrow fringe of figured tile pavement. Closer examination showed that nearly all pieces were fragmentary and no group of adjacent pieces completed a motif. Such incoherence is usually seen in monuments which are constructed using fragments of existing monuments, such as the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutb complex, made from the remains of 22 Jaina and Hindu temples.

The tile pavement thus raises interesting questions regarding the original monument to which the tiles belonged. Closer scrutiny of the hillside revealed that the ruins were arranged in level terraces, on each of which stood several buildings. On the highest terrace was excavated a large apsidal temple built in picturesque diaper-pebble style masonry. The temple consists of a spacious rectangular antechamber with a circular sanctum covered with a terracotta tiled floor with various motifs. The plan of the temple is very similar to Lomas Rsi cave in Barabar hills (Bihar) and the early chaitya at Kondivite near Bombay.

There is no trace of a stupa, while what remains at the site is a low section of the wall and original floor of the courtyard, which were faced with stamped terracotta tiles. The floor tiles were arranged to suggest the form of an enormous open lotus, possibly representing the cosmic lotus. The lotus symbology pervades all Indian art, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina. Similarly, the motifs found on these floor tiles do not point towards any sectarian affiliation. That these tiles occupied exactly the position they were laid in by ancient workmen is borne but by the fact that each one bears a number in Kharoshthi script, the order of the tiles in a series being in strict accordance with their consecutive numeral order. The existence of Kharoshthi numerals also more or less allows one to tentatively date the tiles. According to R.C. Kak, by the 5th century AD Kharoshthi ceased to be the main language in the area and the fact that even a common labourer was expected to know the language points to the time when the language was at its peak popularity; hence he suggests 3rd-4th century as the date of the structure [Kak R.C, ‘Ancient Monuments of Kashmir,’ p. 109-110, Srinagar, Kashmir, 2002].

Most curious and interesting are the tiles running all around the temple, depicting three naked ascetics in the central band with a row of geese holding half blown lotus in their bill in the lower band.

The upper band portrays figures conversing above a railing. The division of space as well as the conversing figures on the top band is very similar to Kusana Mathura sculptures the second century AD. On the basis of the script and style, the tiles can be dated to 3rd-4th century AD. The facial features resemble faces found at Ushkur and Akhnur regions.

Most interesting here is the posture and the nakedness of the ascetic figures – both unseen in Buddhist representations. Hence one cannot club them together with the stupa and vihara ruins. This shows that before the Buddhist monuments were constructed, a part of the site or the whole site was dedicated to some other sect or cult. The ascetics are shown seated in ‘kakasana’ and seem to be in meditation.

Sastri in his work on Ajivikas states: “…The Ajivikas covered their bodies with dust and ate ordure of a calf. Other austerities they practiced were painful squatting on heels, swinging in the air like bats, reclining on thorns and scorching themselves with five fire (panchagni tapas). These mendicants roamed about the country propagating their mysterious themes… Their love of solitude, disdain of comfort, even of decencies, performing penances which almost broke their mortal frame attracted the society” [Sastri N., Ajivikas (from Tamil Sources), Journal of Sri Venkatesvara Rao Institute, p. 419-422, 1941]

The possibility of the monument being dedicated to Ajivikas seems probable, because the ascetic figure seems to fit the description of an Ajivika ascetic. Plan-wise also, it has similarity with Lomas Rsi cave which along with Sudama cave have been dedicated to Ajivika monks.

Unfortunately none of the original works of Ajivikas survives, though we know of their existence through various Buddhist and Jaina sources. Asoka’s Pillar Edict VII mentions Ajivikas, and Barabar hills have a dedicatory inscription clearly mentioning that the cave was dedicated to this sect.

It is believed the original Ajivika texts were written in an eastern Prakrit, perhaps similar to the Jaina Prakrit Ardhamagadhi. Quotations and adaptations from these texts appear to have been inserted into Jaina and Buddhist accounts of the Ajivikas. Makkhali Gosala is regarded as the founder leader of the Ajivikas, and one source of his teachings is the Buddhist Digha Nikaya.

Three Tamil texts, the Manimakalai of the Buddhists, the Nilakesi of the Jainas, and the Sivajnanasiddhiyar of the Saivites, all contain outlines of Ajivika doctrine. The stories of the origin of Ajivika leader Makkhali Gosala are to be found in the Bhagwati Sutra and in Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Samanna-phala-sutta. As Basham points out, both these texts clearly show dislike and scorn felt by both Jainas and Buddhists for Makkhali Gosala [Basham A.L., ‘History and Doctrine of Ajivikas; a vanished Indian religion,’ 1951].

Bhagvati sutra states that Gosala was a slave who, while walking over a patch of muddy ground holding a pot of oil, was hailed by his master with words ‘don’t stumble old fellow’ (tata makhal iti). Despite the warning, he carelessly tripped and spilt the oil. Fearing his master’s anger, he tried to run away, but his master chased him and managed to catch the edge of his robe. Leaving his garment behind, Gosala escaped in the state of nudity and hence he became a naked mendicant and acquired the name of Mankhali. These and several other such statements clearly point towards an abhorrence of nudity, while on the other hand come across as fabrications of people who want to put down another cult or sect.

Jainas and Buddhists, considering Ajivikas their most dangerous rivals, show how popular the sect was, especially in the 5th -4th centuries BC when the different sects were forming. Asoka in his Seventh Pillar Edict ranks Ajivikas third in importance among the religious groups he patronized after Buddhists and Brahmans. They were thus ahead of the Jainas. After this period the Ajivikas declined and the main references to them are found only in Tamil literature; there is evidence they survived in South India until the fourteenth century.

Gosala started his ascetic life as a mankha, an ancient class of mendicants, whose symbol was the carrying of a bamboo staff. Scholars differ regarding the religious leanings of Ajivikas. Kern considers them a sub-division of Vaisnavas, worshipping Narayana. Bhandarkar opines that the Ajivikas or a section of them were the predecessors of Lakulisa Pasupatas or even Sivabhagvatas of Patanjali [Bhandarkar D.R., ‘Ajivikas,’ Indian Antiquity, p. 286-290, 1912]

This can be collated with the fact that Kalkacharya, a fifth century Jaina astrologer, calls Ajivikas as bhagvatas. Danielou goes further and calls Lakulisa an Ajivika ascetic. “It was an Ajivika called Lakulisa, one of those wandering monks who maintained the heritage of the ancient knowledge in an occult tradition, who judged the moment opportune to reveal it, causing a great revolution in society. This corresponds to the greatest period in Indian civilization, which was to last for more than a millennium. Lakulisa (the name means "Club-bearing Lord") restored an extraordinary impetus to Saivism, reestablished the pre-Aryan culture, and united, under the name of the Pashupata(s) (followers of Pashupati, Lord of Animals), the different sects that had survived in semi-secrecy for centuries.”

The similarities one comes across in the practices of Ajivika and Laulisa-Pasupata order are too many to be just coincidence. To start with, ascetics following both orders carry a bamboo lance (danda), perform panchagni tapas, move around naked and resort to song and dance as a medium to reach ultimate reality. During his last years, Gosala observed a vow of silence (vacam pahaya) and lived in a state of trance. He practiced dance and drunkenness and like certain Saivite saints pondered upon the mysterious term ‘Halla’, to invoke the Supreme Being during ecstatic dances. All Ajivika(s) used music and dance as ecstatic media and knew the secret of the technique of resuscitating the dead by the transfer of their own vital energy, one of the Siddhi(s) (powers) obtained through Yoga. This power was called pautta parihara by the disciples of Gosala. Hence the connection of Ajivikas with Saivas seems quite plausible.

Nevertheless, the philosophy of both orders is drastically different. While Ajivikas believed in Niyativada, Lakulisa seems to have formulated a school of thought which bridged the gap between early dualistic Saiva philosophy and later monistic school of Kashmir Saivism. Unfortunately not much has survived to suggest the importance and extent of Lakulisa order in Kashmir, but the fact that Abhinavagupta, the 10th century AD philosophical giant, grants the school a position next only to his highly evolved system, speaks of its importance [Pandey K.C., ‘Abhinavagupta, A historical and philosophical study,’ 2000].

A tradition in the Agama, quoted by Abhinavagupta, records the receiving of the doctrine by Lakula from Swachchhanda, thus linking the system with much complicated and curious Bhairava tradition of Kashmir. Moreover, the images of Lakulisa seen on Pandrethan and Payar temples point towards its worship in the valley somewhere in the seventh and eighth centuries.

It is beyond our scope to dig into the antiquity of Lakulisa-Pasupata order, but one has attempted to show that cultural and artistic heritage never perishes but only transforms from one form to another. Though iconoclasts in their zeal to ravage whatever is left of the past try their best to eradicate proof of its existence, there are always some clues, some hints hidden at deeper levels, and it is for the discerning eye and questing mind to locate them.




The author teaches Art History and Art Criticism at the Delhi College of Art; she is a Junior Research Fellow, Dept. of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of  Fine Arts, Baroda

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