Avantipur and Martand, on the road from Srinagar to Pehelgam, are the site of three imposing Hindu temples. The two temples in Avantipur date from the 9th c AD, and the the largest of the three in Martand is from the 8th c. While all three temples are in ruins, there is enough there (after reconstruction) to give an idea of what stone temple architecture in Kashmir from that time would have looked like. The style of these temples is unique, heavily influenced by the Buddhist Gandhara school of art, which in turn is heavily influenced by Greek and Hellenistic art and architecture. Scholarship mentions that these Kashmiri temples also show direct Roman influences, but I wonder if this influence could also be redirected from later Gandharan times.
Avantishwara Temple, Avantipur
Avantishwara (Shiva) temple is the smaller temple at Avantipur and built a little before the larger Avantiswami temple. It is also the most ruined, with just the main entrance gateway still standing erect. The rest of the temple remains just up to base level.
The entrance gateway leads into a court with the main shrine at the center, and four subsidiary platforms at each corner of the court. The base of the central shrine structure of this particular temple – with stairs projecting out from all four sides – could be similar to the base of the main tomb at the Zain-ul-Abidin tomb complex in Srinagar, and could suggest a reason behind the unusual shape of that structure.
Approach to the Avantishwara temple
Relief sculptures on the entrance gateway
View of the temple court and central shrine
Central shrine with a corner subsidiary platform in the foreground
Avantiswami Temple, Avantipur
The Avantiswami (Vishnu) temple is the larger of the two at Avantipur, and while the central shrine is almost in the same state of ruin as in the Avantishwara temple, the composite walls that enclose the temple court are much better preserved, and have some really interesting features.
The first of these features is that the enclosure walls of the temple court contained cells in them, much like the viharas of ancient Buddhist monasteries. I’m not sure whether these cells were meant for statues, but each cell is large enough for a person to sit inside (for meditation, prayer etc), though not large enough for longer stay. The cells are arranged so that they each look towards the central shrine.
Another striking aspects is the columns and pilasters that adorn these cells and the enclosure wall in general. The influence of the Gandhara school, as well as more direct Roman influences are apparent in these columns and pilasters, and would not look out of place on a Roman structure.
Another interesting aspect is the two-tiered sloping roof motif that is prominent in the relief sculpture on the walls of all three temples. This motif is present above all the wall niches that house deity sculptures etc. Indeed the temples themselves had similar two-tiered gabled roofs, and this tradition has seemingly continued in wooden Hindu temple architecture throughout the western and central Himalayas, as well as carried over into the architecture of Islamic religious structures in Kashmir.
Throughout the decorative/relief sculpture work in all three temples, the juxtaposition of Greek and Roman-inspired designs and more recognizably Hindu temple figures and motifs is extremely intriguing.
Approach to the Avantiswami temple
Temple main gateway
Relief sculpture work on main gateway
Looking at the main gateway from inside the temple court
The central shrine
Sculpture-work on a staircase post
A side platform with the cell-lined enclosure wall
The cell-lined enclosure wall of the temple. The columns flanking the cells, and pilasters lining the cell door-jambs are evident
Cells, columns, pilasters and the sloping roof decorative element are all visible at this corner of the temple court
Cells, columns, pilasters and the sloping roof
In this photo we can see that the openings were topped by a type of trefoil arch
Surya Temple, Martand
The Surya (Sun) temple at Martand is larger than the two at Avantipur, and a little older. The central shrine at this temple is better preserved, and really gives an idea of how imposing and beautiful these temples must have been.