Revisiting the archaeological site of Ushkar-Baramullah

Excavations carried in early 20th century at Hushkpor revealed a number of antiquities of Huvishka’s period
Ushkar Baramullah: Remains of a Buddhist monastery where terracotta heads and pottery were found.
Ushkar Baramullah: Remains of a Buddhist monastery where terracotta heads and pottery were found.Author

Although the Hellenistic art or Greco-Buddhist, better known as Ghandhara School of art of ancient India, had almost disappeared from its original home very early, but its influence was very much prevalent in Jammu and Kashmir till late, almost up to 12th century.

Several scholars have named it as post Ghandhara art but in real sense it cannot be classified as late Ghandhara art in simple terms, it is pure Ghandhara School of art.

Before proceeding forward let us first revive the meaning of this art, basically it was a style of Buddhist visual art that had evolved at Ghandhara, in modern day Kandahar province of Afghanistan, during Indo-Greek periods and later got promoted by the largest Kushana empire, the artists of which took it to other distant lands of ancient south Asia.

During Kushan era (100 AD to 4th Century AD) it became the most popular art of north western areas of ancient India. It is the artistic manifestation of Greco-Buddhism a cultural syncretism between ancient Greek art and Buddhism. Its influence is very much found not only in the ancient architectures and sculptures of India and Pakistan but in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir its influence has been strong.

It is in place to mention here that the numismatic motif of standing king and seated deity introduced by Kushan emperor Kanishka I, in first century AD has continued here in Kashmir coins up to 13th century AD. Besides, the ancient monuments and sculptures found in this region bear also strong influences of this art.

The remains of an ancient monastery at Ushkar-Baramullah, and the sculptures recovered from this site, constitute the evidence of popularity of this art during Kushana era.

Ushkar in Baramullah is picturesquely situated at the mouth of the gorge by which the river Jhelum (Vyeth) leaves valley of Kashmir. Baramulla once served as the gateway to this land as it stood on the Jhelum valley route which once was considered the life line of Kashmir.

It was the first motorable road which connected Srinagar with Rawalpandi and other north western towns of undivided India. This route in ancient times also connected Kashmir with Taxila, Hazara and ancient Gandhara (Kabul valley).

Baramulla town since ancient times has been an attractive place for tourists. Owing to its fine geographical location it was accessible to every visitor who in olden times used to visit Kashmir.

Ancient Chinese and Arabian travelers like Huen tsang, Okong and Alburuni were among the most celebrated envoys who visited the town in ancient times. During Sikh and Dogra periods several European travelers arrived here via this route. These travelers have also given brief descriptions about this town in their respective travelogues.

Baramulla is mentioned in olden history records. However, in ancient records it is mentioned by other names, its name, it is believed, has either emerged from Hushkpur or from kanishkpor. These two locations adjacent to the modern town are the earliest ones believed to have been founded by two Kushan princes, namely Kanishka I and Huviska respectively in 1st and 2nd century AD.

Excavations carried in early 20th century at Hushkpor revealed a number of antiquities of Huvishka’s period. The most outstanding find was that of an earliest plinth structure identified as the basement of a Buddhist monastery. Nowadays a basement of massive limestone is still found on the upper land of Hushkpor.

Archaeologists believe that these ruins are of the ancient monastery which was built here by Kushan king Huviska. Huen Tsang, the Chines ambassador, who arrived in 631 AD, it is recorded, was received by king Durlabhavardana of Karkota Dynasty at this historical monastery.

It is leant that Daya Ram Sahani, the 20th century archaeologist, has excavated Huskapura, modern Ushkara near Baramulla, and discovered the remains of a stupa and its surrounding wall. Although no circular tile pavement is recorded of this site, but a few most striking and significant terra-cotta figures are recorded to have been discovered at the site. The fragments resemble the Gandhara art influence and they are amongst the earliest examples of Kashmir sculpture hitherto discovered.

PNK Bamzai has attributed this art to later Ghandhara period and writes that these “later Gandhara” terracottas have been variously put from the 4th to the 8th centuries A.D. The figures and figurines depict true Hellenistic influence. Hellenistic art was the dominant cultural force for about a thousand years from the 3rd century B.C. to 700 AD in what is now called Afghanistan, and its final echoes lasted in Kashmir until the 10th century A.D.

R C Kak, another archaeologist of 2oth century, writes about the terracotta heads of this site, that structure may have belonged to Kushan times. This surmise is strengthened by the discovery outside the north-eastern corner of the surrounding wall, of eleven terracotta heads, besides a number of fragmentary limbs of images which display the unmistakable influence of the Gandhara School of the third and fourth century. These are now preserved in the Srinagar Museum.

The contributor of this paper also examined the finds of Ushkar, with its wonderful terracotta heads, these heads in its texture and art resemble very close to mainstream Ghandhara art and not to its post period and can be easily dated to a period before 4th century AD as observed by several other archaeologists. The few of the artifacts derived from this site are housed in SPS Museum at Srinagar and are described as follows:

(a) one of the terracotta heads illustrates the head of a Bodhisattva. The unusually ornamental treatment of the hair in this fragment is noteworthy. The delicate features, rounded chin, and twisted, dandified locks secured by a beaded fillet placed sideways, make the face attractive in spite of the somewhat weary smile and the self-satisfied expression of the face.

(b) the another terracotta head is shaggy bearded, close-pressed lips, knitted eyebrows, and furrowed forehead, of this Brahman ascetic are so remarkably realistic that it would be difficult to imagine that the artist was not drawing a portrait from life. The hair is neatly brushed upwards and was probably gathered in a knot at the back of the head, where it was kept in position by an ornamental band. The ardent gaze and the prominent cheekbones are indicative of self-mortification.

(c)
This is one of the most beautiful heads found at Ushkar. The oval face, small nose, sensitive nostrils, soft delicate lips, plump rounded chin, hair smoothly combed back and falling in curly tresses on the shoulders, are all essentially feminine. She is an upasika, or female lay devotee. Her soft and wistful gaze, intensified by the upturned poise of the face, shows with what a feeling of devotion these feminine worshippers approached the Master.

(d) This illustration represents the head of a contemplative young monk with shaven crown, high forehead, arched eyebrows, and large dreamy eyes. The remarkably high and narrow skull seems to be the result of lateral pressure, a practice which was once prevalent among certain tribes in Central Asia.

The terracotta heads and other artifacts derived from this site are also earliest evidences of Kashmir sculpture art, which is very much influenced by Hellenistic style and these artifacts can be dated to the period between 2nd century AD to 4th century AD.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK

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