Aasha Khosa/New Delhi
“March 22 was the day when I felt complete; as if my lost right hand had got attached to my body, and a feeling that I could operate with both the hands filled my heart,” said Abdul Rashid Khokar, the elected sarpanch (village head) of Teetwal village in north Kashmir, who inaugurated the temple of Goddess Sharda in his north Kashmir village last week.
This 74-year-old sarpanch says the inauguration of the temple was an honour for him and he was transported in an era when Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs lived as neighbours in the area.
He is the elected head of Teetwal and five hamlets spread over 6 km along the Line of Control in north kashmir. Today all these villagers are Muslims belonging to the Pahadis and Gujjar tribal communities.
Temple of Sharda Mata located in the middle of Teetwal village
Speaking to Awaz-the Voice over the phone, Abdul Rashid Khokar, said that on the day of the inauguration of the temple and during its year-long construction, so many Hindus and Sikhs converged in the village. “It was a surreal experience. I was transported to the year 1944, when, I was told, a large number of non-Muslims also lived in the area.”
“I had displayed a six-meter-wide banner welcoming pilgrims and officials to our village on the day of its inauguration. I and other villagers danced to the drum beats and we also burst firecrackers to celebrate the occasion,” he said.
Khokar says Teetwal was a tehsil headquarter in Jammu and Kashmir before the Pakistani raiders attacked the State and wrested a part of it now called Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK). As a result today the village is located at the most precarious position, surrounded on two sides by the Line of Control (LoC) that often turned into a line of fire as the Indian and Pakistani armies exchanged fire till they came to an understanding for a ceasefire three years ago.
Ravinder Pandita, the man behind construction of Sharda temple in Teetwal, posted these images of locals celebrating the opening of the temple on Twitter:
Civil society of Tangdhar Teetwal welcoming sharda murti yatra on 20 March to local dance & tunes pic.twitter.com/zwiPU2LMl9— Ravinder Pandita(Save Sharda) (@panditaAPMCC63) March 25, 2023
More importantly, Teetwal was the base camp for the annual pilgrimage for the Shardapeeth, an ancient temple complex dedicated to Kashmir’s reigning deity, located about 25 km from the village.
At the place where the grandiose temple, a replica of the 8th-century shrine located at Shadei village in POK, stands today, there was a pilgrims’ inn that was burnt down along with the adjoining Gurudwara and a mosque located some distance away in shelling by the Pakistan army in 1947.
Rashid Khokar says that presently the gurudwara’s reconstruction is nearing its completion and the work on the mosque to complete the mandir-masjid-gurudwara complex on the LOC is yet to begin although the land for it has been earmarked.
Interestingly, Khokar was the first villager to visit the Sharda temple that stands as a protected monument in the picturesque village of Shardei in POK.
He described his 2013 visit to Shardei as “historic and his tryst with his heritage.”
“I had gone to meet my relatives who live in Muzzafarabad and Islamabad by crossing from a designated point in the Teetwal sector in 2013. On the other side, I could see the China-built road. My nephew took me on his motorcycle to Shardei, located about 82 km from Islamabad.
Villagers of Teetwal welcoming pilgrims on the day of opening of Sharda temple
“It’s a beautiful village surrounded by pristine forests, River Kishenganga and Madhumati flow in the village. Though Muslims, the local villagers have faith in Sharda Mata and are keen for the reopening of the pilgrimage route on the lines of Kartarpur corridor in Punjab.”
He met the principal of the local college that is located on the premises of the ancient university of Sharda. What was once the world-famous university today houses tehsil headquarters, a university, and several establishments of the Pakistan army. “The temple is also looked after by Pakistan Army,” he said.
Locals told him that the temple was plundered by the Kabali (Tribesmen commissioned by Pakistan Army to launch an attack on Kashmir) raiders. Since they could not carry the big idol of the Goddess, they immersed it in the river Kishenganga. Many families in the village have taken away smaller idols from the temple complex and kept these as souvenirs.
“They told me that they would return the idols the moment, the shrine is thrown opened to pilgrims,” he said.
It may be recalled that during the inauguration ceremony Home Minister Amit Shah said that the government would ensure that Hindus can go to Shardapeeth for pilgrimage.
He also saw a 1000-kanal meadow that was used for horses that carried the rich pilgrims from Teetwal to Shardei. “This is designated as ghascharai land.” He also saw a building built by the Maharaja of Nepal for his stay during his pilgrimage to Shardapeeth.
“I also learned that Sharda University was the biggest university of its time. It had a big library and its manuscripts are still found in a Pharsi (Persian) University in Iran. “This is our heritage and we are proud of it.”
He says on his return from Pakistan, he wrote a letter to the Ministry of External Affairs seeking the opening of the corridor to Shardapeeth for pilgrims. “I have its copy with me,” said Khokar who had set out on an all-India tour to understand the working of Panchayats by the time this conversation took place.
Teetwal, surrounded by alpine forests and located right on the Line of control is considered a remote village in Kashmir. In the past, it frequently bore the brunt of the exchange of fire between the Indian and Pakistani armies
Two temples: Shardapeeth in ruins in Shardei (POK) and Shardapeeth in Teetwal (Right)
How has the temple construction changed their lives?
Rashid Khokar, who lives with his three sons and their families, says he sees a lot of potential for the job creation due to the expected influx of pilgrims in the future. However, more importantly, he sees this as a sign of peace and has a feeling that his grandchildren and their peers will grow amidst peace and tranquility.
“A lot of efforts went into keeping away elements that once glorified Pakistan and influenced the minds of the young in order to convert Kashmir’s villages into safe sanctuaries for terrorists sneaking in from Pakistan for the sake of our children. We don't want to fritter away peace and want the village to remain peaceful for the generations to come.”
He has lost his nephew-cum son-in-law in the firing by Pakistan and says he wishes peace flows between the two countries for all times.
Although there is not much flow of pilgrims to the village these days, he says already 30 houses have created extra space and can accommodate 4,000 pilgrims as guests. A lot remains to be done to make Teetwal the pilgrimage center, he says.
He has asked the government to start a bus service from Srinagar to Teetwal. “At present private transporters charge Rs 700 per passenger for Srinagar to Teetwal jourtney in Tata-Sumo. The bus service would cost about Rs 250 and will encourage common people to visit the village.”
Pilgrims on the bridge connecting Teetwal to POK where villagers greeted them
The Jio company has recently set up a tower to give high-speed internet connectivity to the area. "We are waiting it to become functional," Khokar said.
The seven km of road to Teetwal is being upgraded.
However, he says for the villagers who are mostly agriculturists, the completion of a canal is the most urgent project and it has been delayed for years.
After Amit Shah appreciated the efforts of villagers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the opening of the temple in Teetwal, Khokar sent a list of demands to Lt Governor Manoj Snha listing all that needs to be done for development iof the village.
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He says he tried his best to spend the budget of Rs 23 lakhs for his Panchayat judiciously and completed projects under MNREGA. He aklso purchased a generator set for the local hospital and constructed several links roads. “However, a Panchayat alone can not do things; the government has to chip in,” he said.