Sunday, March 22, 2009

Kashmir's Buddhist past - a quick excerpt

Basharat Peer’s memoir, Curfewed Night, is about Kashmir’s woes, but there are plenty of other interesting bits in the book that have nothing to do with the dark mood of the last two decades. I love the parts where Peer writes of his visits to spiritual places – Sufi, Hindu, and Buddhist – and though some of these places are facing neglect, they are nonetheless indicative of the region’s rich and diverse religious history. For instance, it was Ashoka who founded “Srinagari (the City of Wealth) around 250 BC on the outskirts of what is modern Srinagar … it was from the seminaries of Kashmir patronised by Ashoka that missionaries spread Buddhism to China and Japan.” And here’s an excerpt about the fourth Buddhist Council that might have been held in Kashmir:
“When I was a child my father told me stories of the Fourth World Buddhist Council, which was held in Kashmir in the second century under the rule of the learned Gandharan Buddhist king Kanishka. Every now and then someone claims to have found the true location of the council but most believe it was held near the ancient Garden of Harwan on the northwestern fringe of Srinagar. On a family excursion to the garden – which is lined with waterways and shaded by towering chinar trees – my father had pointed to the hillock above and told me it was where the council was believed to have gathered. I went there a few days after visiting the Srinagar museum. A signboard, ‘Buddhist sites’, guided me to a terraced area where, in 1905, archaeologists found a stupa, prayer hall, and living quarters. In the centre of the site are remains of the stupa. I stared at its stone base and two concentric squares of roughly polished stones covered with wild grass. It was hard to imagine what it might have looked like. To the left, were four fallen stonewalls covered with moss. “That was a vihara, where the monks met,” said Mohammed Khazar, an elderly caretaker of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which maintains the site. According to the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang, more than 5000 monks had come together to debate and discuss the faith.”

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