From time immemorial Kashmir has been known all over India as Saradapeeth or the abode of Sarada the goddess of learning and fine arts. Every orthodox Brahmin in South India, for instance, on rising from his bed in the morning faces north and with folded hands offers salutations to goddess Sarada:
Namaste Sarada Devi, Kashmira mandala vasini
(Salutations to Goddess Sarada who resides in Kashmir).
No wonder the holy spot became a sacred shrine to which thousands of devotees not only from the Kashmir Valley but from distant parts of India were attracted to seek blessings from Sarada Devi, the goddess in her three aspects of Sarada, Narada or Saraswati and Vaghdevi.
The exact location of the shrine where, in course of time, a huge temple complex came up, is indicated by Kalhana himself. He has occasion to speak of the siege of Sirahsila castle (Raj. viii- 2556-2706) which took place in his own time. His references show clearly that the shrine was in close proximity to this hill stronghold. Various indications gathered from the general description of the locality pointed to the Upper Kishneganga Valley.
An earlier source, the Sarada Mahatmya, narrating the origin of the tirtha mentions the various stages of the pilgrim route. The Muni Snadalya, son of Matanga, was practising austerities in order to obtain the sight of the goddess Sarada, who is a Sakti embodying three separate manifestations. Divine advice prompts him to proeeed to Syamala (the present Kupwara district).
There at Ghusa, Mahadevi appears before him and promises to show herself in her true form as Sakti in the 'Sarada Forest'. The goddess vanishes from his sight at Hayasrama, the present village of Hayahoma situated about four miles to the N.E- E of Ghusa.
The Muni next proceeds to a spring now known as Krishna Nag in which he bathes. Thereupon half his body becomes golden, emblematic of the approach to complete liberation from darkness. The spring situated above the village of Drang is shown on the larger Survey Map as quite close to Hayahom and is undoubtedly the Drang mentioned by Kalhana (Raj . 2607-2702). The place is nowadays usually designated by the local Brahmins as Sona-Drang.
From thence Sandalya ascends the mountain range to the north on which he sees a dance of goddesses in a mountain meadow known as Rangavatika which lies below the pass by which the route leading from Drang towards the Kishenganga crosses the watershed.
He then arrives at Tejavana, the residence of Sage Gautama on the bank of the Kishenganga. The Mahatmya then relates how the sage after crossing a hill sees on the east the god Ganesa and arrives in the Saradavana. After reciting a hymn in praise of her triple form of Sarada, Narada or Saraswati and Vaghdevi, an account is given how the goddess revealed herself to the Muni at the sacred spot and rewarded his long austerities by inviting him to her residence at Sirahsila.
Pitras now approach Sandalya and ask him to perform their shradas. On his taking water from the Mahasindhu for the purpose of the tarpana rite, half its water turns into honey and forms the stream now known as Madhumati. Ever since baths and shradas at the samgama of the Sindhu and Madhumati assure to the pious complete remission of sins.
The Brahmins from the neighbouring districts who till recently performed the pilgrimage to Sarada, avoided the difficult gorges through which the route above described, debouches into the Kishenganga Valley.
Starting on the pilgrimage on the Sudi 4th Bhadarpada, the day when, as the Mahatmya says, special holiness accumulates at the tirtha, they satisfied themselves by bathing in the rivulet which comes from Drang, instead of visiting its source at the Krishna Nag. They then proceeded to Ghusa where they visited a little grove of walnut trees and chinars situated by the side of the Kamil river known by the name of Rangavaar as a substitute for Rangavatika. From there they marched by the ordinary route to Dudinial on the Kishenganga over the Sitalvan pass. Ascending the river on its left bank they reached Tejavana and finally Sarada on the 4th day.
The sacred spot where the goddess appeared in her divine from is marked by a stone slab seven feet long, six feet wide and half a foot thick. The stone is supposed to cover a Kunda or spring cavity from where the goddess rose and finally vanished in.
Through the course of centuries it has been the object of worship and devotion of a large number of pilgrims who annually visited the spot. The slab has ipso-facto become the sanctum sanctorum of the temple which came up here on the model of the Aryan order of Kashmir architecture. Though in ruins now the entire complex inspires a sense of grandeur and awe.
The cella of the main temple is 22 feet square. The entrance is from the west. The other three walls have blank refoiled archway standing to a height of about 20 feet from the base to the apex of the arches. The entrance is approached by a flight of a few steps. On each side of the porchway are two square pillars about 16 feet high and two feet six inches apart. The capital of both the pillars seem to have been hewn from a single stone.
The interior of the temple is square and perfectly plane. There are scarcely any traces of the usual pyramidal stone roof. Bates (1873) noticed the temple covered by a low shingle roof having been "recently erected by Col. Gundu, Maharaja Gulab Singh's Ziladar of Muzaffarabad".
The temple occupies the centre of a quadrangular court 142 feet long and 94'6" broad. The quadrangle is enclosed by a massive wall six feet thick and eleven feet high from the level of the court to the projecting rim at the foot of the coping. The latter rises in pyramidal form to a height of eight feet above the top of the wall, giving it a massive look.
Seen from outside, the walls of the enclosure appear still massive and imposing, as they are raised on basement walls built to equalize the different elevations of the ground.
The entire complex stands at the foot of a spur which rises above the right bank of the Madhumati stream and slopes up gradually for some distance until it culminates in the precipitous pine-clad mountain which is traversed by the direct path leading towards the Kashmir Valley.
The temple with its enclosed quadrangle is approached by a staircase about nine feet wide of stone steps sixty-three in number, having on either side a massive balustrade fallen into ruins. The stair-case leads to the entrance of the quadrangular court. This gateway occupies exactly the middle of the west face directly in line with the porchway leading to the sanctum sanctorum of the main temple.
Judging from the fame which the shrine of Sarada enjoyed not only in Kashmir but far beyond it, the number of pilgrims must have been considerable. Kalhana himself in his account of Lalitaditya's reign (8th century AD) refers to certain followers of a king of Gauda or Bengal, who had come to Kashmir. under the pretence of visiting the shrine of Sarada, but in reality to avenge the murder of their king by Lalitaditya. This particular reference to Sarada shows that its fame had spread to far off regions.
A witness to the fame of Sarada is Alberuni (10th century AD) who describes its position in "inner Kashmir about two to three days journey towards the mountains of Bolor" (upper Indus between Gilgit and Ladakh). He speaks of the shrine as much venerated and frequented by pilgrims and mentions it along with the most famous ones like those of Surya at Multan, the Visnu Chakraswamin of Thaneswar and the Linga of Somnath.
Bilhana whose literary career falls into the second half of the eleventh century also mentions the tirtha of Sarada, in his panigyrical description of Pravarapura or Srinagar. Written when he was in Deccan far away from his home, he ascribes the patronage of learning, claimed for that city, to the favour of Sarada. The goddess is said to resemble a swan, carrying as her diadem the glittering gold washed from the sand of river Madhumati".
In a more legendary light the temple of Sarada figures in a story related of the great jaina scholar Hemacandra (1088-1172 AD), in the Prabhavakacarita. Commissioned by king Jayasimha of Gujarat to compose a new grammar, he requested to be supplied with necessary material in the shape of the older grammars which could be found complete only in the library of Sarada in Kashmir. Jayasimha sent at once high officials to Pravarapura to obtain the manuscripts. Arrived there they proceeded to the temple of the goddess and offered prayers. The manuscripts were delivered to the king's-envoys and brought by them to Hemacandra, who, after perusing them, composed his own grammatical work, the Siddhahemacandra.
The Sarada shrine was known in distant parts of India, long before the compostion of Prabhavakacarita (middle of the 13th century) and hence the author must have known that at the temple of Sarada was a massive library housing learned works of authors who had been blessed by goddess Sarada.
Another curious reference to Saradapeeth is found in Jonaraja's chronicle wherein he mentions that Sultan Zain-ul-abidin visited the shrine perhaps in 1422 AD to witness the miraculous manfestations of the goddess. From Jonaraja's account it appears these were the appearance of sweat on the face of the image of the goddess, the shaking of the arm, and a sensation of heat on touching the feet.
We see from this account that a miracle-working image of Sarada, probably the same of which Alberuni had heard was yet in existence in the early part of the 15th century.
In the 16th century the temple of Sarada must have enjoyed yet considerable reputation in Kashmir itself. Abul Fazl's notice of the site (Ain.ii-p. 365): "At two day's distance from Hayahom is the river named Madhumati, which flows from the Darda country. Gold is aiso found in this river. On its banks is a stone temple called Sarada, dedicated to Durga and regarded with great veneration. On every eighth tithi of the bright half of the month, it begins to shake and produces the most extraordinary effect".
The notice of gold being found in the river clearly applies to the Kishenganga, which drains a mountain region known as auriferous to the present day.
The number of pilgrims was ever increasing while Kashmir was under the rule of Hindu kings. They maintained the temple complex in a spick- and-span condition. With the advent of Islam (First quarter of the 14th century) it lost the royal patronage. But the flow of pilgims was quite sizeable even during the Sultan, Chak and Mughal rule. Fortunately the destructive hands of Simandar Butshikan did not reach the shrine and its temple, because of its location at an isolated sport where perhaps his writ did not run.
But it was the politically disturbed condition of the Upper Kishenganga Valley during the later Mughal and Pathan rule that has had much to do with the neglect into which the shrine of Sarada has fallen.
Karnah and Drava were then in the hands of the government of the Kashmir Valley. Unable themselves to maintain order among the warlike and turbulent hillmend of their territory, they allowed them to make frequent raids into the Kashmir Valley.
Conditions improved but little during the Sikh rule, and even as late as 1846 Kashmir was raided as far as Srinagar by bands of restless Bombas. It is evident that during this long period of anarchy the pilgrimage to the distant shrine on the Kishenganga could have no attractions for peaceful Brahmins of Kashmir.
Under one of the Karnah chiefs the temple is said to have been used for the storage of gunpowder, the explosion of which blew off the original roof.
The temple was subsequently repaired by Maharaja Gulab Singh under whose orders Col. Gundu, the Ziladar of Muzaffarabad erected a shingle roof over the temple for its protection. The Maharaja also settled a small bounty of seven rupees 'chilki" per mensem on the family of Gotheng Brahmins who claim the hereditary guardianship of the temple.
According to the traditions of the Gotheng Brahmins it was only since the establishment of the Dogra rule and the peaceful settlement of the Upper Kishenganga Valley that the temple of Sarada became once more open for regular pilgrim visits.