In March 2022, a temple dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Sharda - a civilisational, spiritual and cultural Goddess of Knowledge - was inaugurated in the village of Teethwal, a few kilometers from the Line of Control in Northwest Kashmir’s Tanghdhar sector. Next to it, a Sikh Gurudwara was also reopened up for devotees. Both, along with a Sarai (shelter for overnight stay for pilgrims) were burnt down in 1947 by Pakistani Kabali raiders that plundered, raped, and killed the residents, mostly Hindus and Sikhs. They also burned properties and places of worship. The ghost of the 1947 memory has left an invisible mark that perhaps can never be forgotten. It still erupts powerful emotions.

“When partition happened, followed by the Pakistan invasion in 1947, it completely eroded trust between Hindus and Muslims. Whatever trust was left was destroyed by militancy in Kashmir Valley in 1990 followed by the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits”, says Aijaz, a local teacher in Teethwal. Sitting inside the temple complex on the banks of Kishenganga, the river that is the de facto border between the two parts of Kashmir, he adds emphatically that there is a need to end the animosity between the two communities.

Pointing towards the temple in Neelam Valley in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir he says, “It's for this reason that we have come together to revive our cultural heritage and send a message to the world for peace in the region.” Part of the Save Sharda Construction Committee, Aijaz has converted his house into a homestay for Hindu pilgrims. “My Pahadi* Muslim community is supporting it”, he says.

The original Sharda temple located in the village Sharda, named after the Goddess, is in Azad Kashmir, the region occupied by Pakistan. It is 83 kms from Teethwal, across the river Kishanganga also called Neelam by residents of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). After 1947, the annual pilgrimage was discontinued and in the last 70 years, the temple slowly came to ruins as there was no one to take care of it.

“I was born from the civilisation womb of Sharda. This is my birthplace”, says Khawaja Abdul Ghani, a Headmaster in Neelam Valley, researcher, and author of ‘The Fountainhead of Kashmir Civilisation’.

The book has been translated from Urdu to English by Manoj Sheeri, an Indian police officer from Jammu and Kashmir. Sheeri, a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) born in North Kashmir, writes in his translator’s note, “Ever since my childhood days, Sharda has been a word, a term, a culture, and a civilisation to be explored.” He writes that his father used to tell him stories about the Sharda temple and the annual pilgrimage taken there by the Kashmiri Pandits.

Stories of the civilisation and the annual pilgrimage to Sharda have been passed on to the inhabitants of both Kashmir and Neelam Valley. Ghani, born in Khwaja Saeri Village of Tehsil Sharda reminisces about when his mother took him to Sharda as a child. “I have heard stories from her. However, we Muslims have forgotten our cultural heritage. I am revisiting these sites and exploring them again to revive our cultural ties with the land - Sharda Desh. This longing faces some opposition from “mehzabi”, a group of people who are religious minded. “But people like me, they favour civilisation and the pilgrimage from across the border”, Ghani asserts.

“We have raised a civil society of about 150 members across LoC in PoK that is working in tandem with us,” says Ravinder Pandita, founder of the Save Sharda Committee. Formed in 2018, the committee started the movement to restart the pilgrimage to Sharda Peeth. Pandita states, “For the first time since partition, flowers were laid by the civil society of PoK in November 2016, and later in March 2017, a photograph of Sharda Devi was installed inside the temple by them. It was also for the first time in the last 72 years Sindoor (Vermillion) was applied inside Peeth in October 2020 by a group of Muslims led by Mohammed Rayees. Again, in September 2021 a portrait of the Goddess and my Guru Swami Nand Lal, the last priest to perform prayers in the temple before 1947, was installed inside Sharda temple by civil society members across Line of Control (LoC)”.

On the Indian side, the activities picked up momentum in 2021. A Sharda Yatra Temple Construction comprising three local Muslims, one Sikh and five Hindus was formed and on December 2, 2021, Bhoomi poojan (Hindu rituals and chants for Earth worship) were performed. “Our Hindu brothers did not know that even though the Temple and Gurudwara were burnt, the land still existed. We contacted them and invited them to re-build a temple”. After finding revenue records, parts of about 19 marlas* of the original land, around 33 marlas (5 marlas belonged to Sikhs and 18 marlas to Hindus) were acquired to build the temple and the Gurudwara. Pandita says, “Undoubtedly, the Muslims had not encroached on the land and had preserved it for all these years”, unlike in the interior parts of the Kashmir Valley where, after the exodus of the Pandits, temples were desecrated, and temple lands encroached post-1990.

Sharda Temple and Gurdwara

On November 9, 2019, a visa-free 4.7 km long religious corridor was established between India and Pakistan for people to visit the Sikh Guru Nanak’s Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan. Referring to the ‘Kartarpur Corridor’, Pandita and Aijaz assert that a similar corridor should be opened for Hindus to travel to Sharda and for Muslims to travel to their sacred sites in Kashmir. “This will be the biggest confidence-building measure”, they say. Ghani echoes their thoughts, “Sharda is the Goddess of peace. After years of war and conflict, it's time that peace prevails”.

However, the reality on the ground is different. The Srinagar-Muzzafarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot bus service started as the biggest confidence-building measure between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir in April 2019, but was closed for repair work and did not reopen as the relations between the two countries nosedived after the Abrogation of Article 370 and the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. The only silver lining is the continuation of the 2003 ceasefire across the Line of Control, which was renewed in February 2011 and still holds on the ground.

In the bleak context of the relationship between the two countries, an annual pilgrimage, and a religious corridor between Teethwal and Sharda seem challenging. However, a hopeful and determined Aijaz says, “We have ignited the flame from Teethwal for peace and goodwill. It will spread to the rest of the country and the world.”

*An ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir.

*A marla is a traditional area unit used in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The marla was standardized under British raj to be equal to the square rod, or 272.25 square feet, 30.25 square yards, or 25.2929 square meters.