Ushkur: The forgotten Kushan town of Ancient Kashmir

Younus Yousuf Ganie ✉

The history of Kashmir starts with the history of Baramulla, when the whole of Kashmir was a lake. Baramulla located on the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar highway was called the gateway of Kashmir valley. According to a belief, the city of Baramulla was founded by Raja Bhimsena in 2306 B.C. According to R.C Kak, “The town of Baramulla properly ‘Varahamulla’ named after the boar incarnation of Vishnu was an important place from ancient to medieval times because of its strategic location as it fell on the main trade between India and central Asia. Baramulla district is bounded by Kupwara in the North, Budgam and Poonch in the South parts of Srinagar and Ladakh in the east and Muzaffarabad in the west.

District Baramulla has a very rich history. Many places of Baramulla are historically very important viz. Parihaspora, Sopore, Pattan, Ushkara, Khadinyar, Badmulla, Fatehgarh Kanispora, etc. among these important historical places is Ushkur or Ushkara.

Ushkur, the modern-day Ushkara is one of the famous historical villages of Baramulla. It has been a very important place right from ancient times. It falls right in the heart of the Baramulla District. According to the revenue records, the total area of Ushkara is 15761 kanals & 19 Marlas out of which 11300 kanals form agricultural land whereas the rest of the land is used for habitational purposes. The total population of Ushkara is 18976.

Nomenclature of Ushkur

According to Kalhana, Kashmir formed the part of Kushan Empire and Ushkara was one of the most important trade centres during that time. Ushkara town was built by Huvishka –a Kushan emperor in about 125 AD. The nomenclature of Ushkara is linked to the name of Huvishka which is why it was earlier known as Huvishkapura and later Ushkapora and finally these days as Ushkara. Coins belonging to Kushan times have been found in Ushkara.

Sir Walter Lawrence in his book “Valley of Kashmir” writes that in 1882 A.D Mr. Garrick carried out extensive excavations at Ushkpur near Baramulla and unearthed a Buddhist Stupa of squared stones held together with iron clamps. On this site, Lalitaditya is said to have built an image of Muktaswami and a large monastery with a stupa for Buddhists.

C.E Bates in his “Gazetteer of Kashmir” writes that Ushkpura was one of the earliest capitals of Kashmir, founded by King Huvishka, one of the two Indo-Scythian princes and brothers.

P.N.K Bamzai writes that Ushkapura retained its importance for a long time as the headquarters of the Buddhist monks and also as the first town of note in the valley on its entrance from the Jhelum Valley Route. Huien Tsang stopped here after passing the ancient gate of Baramulla. Ruins of stupa and Vihara and a large number of Terracotta figures have been found there.

According to a legend, the village elders believe that Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali once visited the village and said about the village that “wushkur-yes ye khosh kor taem te koer” means that the people of this village (Ushkara) do whatever they wish to do. 

             Remains of Buddhist Stupa in Ushkara built by Huvishka and later renovated by Lalitaditya.                           

During the Kushan times the famous three cities/towns built were Kanishkapur (now Kanispora), Jushkapur (now Zakoora) and Huvishkapra (now Ushkara). Out of the three, Kanishkapura and Huvishkapura fall in District Baramulla whereas Zakoora Falls in District Srinagar.

According to Kalhana, the Kushan emperor Huvishka constructed Huvishkapura in Baramulla, which is the modern-day Ushkur. It is customary to regard the building of religious buildings as a crucial byproduct of the rulers' towns and cities. It is therefore not surprising that Ushkur rose to prominence as a religious center, a status it kept long after the Kushanas. When Hieun Tsang traveled to Kashmir in A.D. 631, he spent the night at the Huvishkapura monastery. Huvishka was most likely the one who constructed this monastery. Given that the stones from the ancient stupa were discovered in Sittu after the silt surrounding the base was cleared a few years prior, it is possible that Lalitaditya built the new stupa on the foundations of the older one constructed by Huvishka. Even though Lalitaditya was a Vaisnava, he is known for having supported Buddhism and thought it was a holy deed to keep Huvishkapur in its place as a sacred site for Buddhists and also constructed the viharas and stupas. Numerous terracotta shards of human skulls, limbs, and other body parts have been discovered at this location. The Buddha, Bodhisattva, lay devotees, and male and female monks are all depicted on these terracotta heads. While some of them have calm outlooks and others have insane ones. These lovely sculptures are superb modeling examples. The majority of these heads resemble with Taxila terracotta heads. Sahani was correct when he dated these terracotta figures to the late Kushana period during the excavations.


Self-clicked pic of the Site Ushkur

 

 


Courtesy: British Museum, A terracotta head of Buddha found at Ushkur. 

As was already noted, Kushan King Huvishka created the settlement known today as Ushkar. Lalitaditya constructed a sizable vihara with a stupa and a Vishnu temple here, Muktasvamin, indicating that the town continued to be a hub of activity until the Karkota period. The construction of Lalitaditya's stupa appears to have been erected over an earlier, almost identical structure, the stones of which were discovered to be still in place when the silt covering the foundation was removed. This is an intriguing fact about the stupa. The lower construction was hypothesized to date to the Kushan period. And the assumption was eventually confirmed by the items that were later taken from the scene.

In addition to several broken picture limbs, the site produced eleven terracotta heads that, according to R.C. Kak, "display the unmistakable influence of Gandhara school of the third and fourth century A.D." Ushkur's collection of terracotta heads features images of the Buddha, Badhisattvas, male and female monks, lay followers of all ages, and some with calm expressions and others with insane ones. According to R.C. Kak, these endearing sculptures are among the earliest instances of Kashmiri sculptural art and "represent excellent example of modeling."

 

 



Fragment of a female head found at Ushkur, Courtesy, British Museum.
 

A stone sculpture depicting Siva seated in a "European pose" was discovered recently at Ushkar Baramulla (Varaha Mulla). This sculpture artwork is exceptional and one-of-a-kind since it represents Siva in a way that has never been seen before. Even if "European pose" wasn't unheard of in India, Padmasana was more frequently employed for austere seated poses.

 


Note: The author is a Research Scholar, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


 

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