The article below by Mehrdad Shokoohy on the Persian Influence on Kashmiri Art was originally Published on the Encyclopedia Iranica on May 1, 2012 and last updated on May 15, 2012; this article is also available in print (Vol. XVI, Fasc. 1, p. 61-64).
Kindly note that excepting two figures and accompanying captions, all other pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.
The Iranian influence on the art and architecture of Kashmir is indirect, appearing in ancient times via Hellenistic and Kushan culture and later through Muslim India. Spread over the western Himalaya, the once relatively inaccessible region’s architecture still reflects Himalayan traditions in its extensive use of timber and the pitched and tiered roofs. Even as late as the 17th century, its people lived in rudimentary huts and tents; only palaces, mansions of the wealthy, and temples were constructed of timber, still a perishable and combustible material. As a result, little is preserved of the ancient monuments except in the ruins of a very few stone temples, which, to a great extent, reflect the style of the timber structures.
Statue of King Kanishka I (c. AD 127–163) of the Kushan Empire (c. 30-375 CE) (housed in the Mathura Government Museum, Source: Public Domain). The large broadsword was a powerful cultural symbol in the martial cultures of the Iranian kingdoms as exemplified by the “broadsword” of Khosrow II seen at the top panel inside the Iwan at Taghe Bostan near Kermanshah in Western Iran. Note also the “French” Fleur-de-lis symbols at the bottom end of Kanishka’s shorter sword. The origins of the Fleur-de-lis are in the ancient Iranian realms and had a powerful imprint on the Caucasus, notably Georgia and Armenia.
The earliest Iranian influence can be seen in a fragment of a 2nd-century statue of a Kushan ruler, carved in the Parthian style, found in the ancient site of Huvishkapura (modern Ushkar), and preserved in the Sri Partap Singh Museum at Srinagar. Huvishkapura, founded by Emperor Huvishka (see huviška) in the 2nd century CE, is one of the many towns built by the Kushan kings in Kashmir. Little survives of the town today, except for the remains of Huvishka’s stupa, which was reconstructed in the 8th century and later became a Vaishnavite Hindu site (Kak, 1933, p. 152).
Extensive Iranian influence impacted Kashmir after the disintegration of the Parthian empire in 227, when numerous artisans and stonemasons seem to have left the eastern borders of the empire for Kashmir and northwest India. As the Sasanian conquest of Kushan did not extend as far as Kashmir, the Parthian style continued to flourish in the Buddhist sites of the region, as presented in the stupas and monastery at Harwan, which preserve numerous figures in Parthian costume carved in the Parthian style (see figure below).
Terracotta bas relief with a horseman in Parthian posture and costume, with quiver and fluttering scarves in the Iranian style. At the base of the plaque are incised the Kharoshthi numerals 1, 4 and 10. Sri Partap Singh Museum, Srinagar (after R. C. Kak, 1933, pl. 23) (Source: Description and Picture from Encyclopedia Iranica).
Parthian traditions seem to have remained prevalent, as wherever Indians in Indian costumes are represented they are carved in a non-Indian manner. Nevertheless, the images show that Indians were indeed in the region, and when their art is reflected, it is in typically Gupta floral motifs. By the end of the 4th century, the Iranian influence started to decline, and Indian culture began to dominate. Later Buddhism, along with its arts, much related to Gandharan and Partho-Hellenistic culture, was replaced by Hinduism, and the Iranian influence would not be seen in Kashmir until the introduction of Islam into the region in the mid-14th century. But in the 9th-century temples of the Utpala dynasty at Avantipura, decorative motifs of Sasanian style are prevalent in the surface decoration, while the design principles relate to North India. It seems that, with the collapse of the Sasanian empire after the Muslim conquest, once again Iranian craftsmen together with others from the Near East moved to the relative safety of the mountains of Kashmir (Goetz, 1952, p. 81).
Kashmir was never conquered by a Muslim army, but Islam was introduced to the region by one Šāh Mirzā or Šāh Mir, a Muslim adventurer who entered the court of the local raja in 715/ 1315-16; subsequently, in 747/ 1346-47, he married the last Hindu ruler, Queen Kutāh Div (Kotā Devi), but killed her a day after their marriage (Ferešta, II, p. 338; Neẓām-al-Din Aḥmad Heravi, Ṭabaqāt-e akbari III, p. 425). The spread of Islam was slow but firm, and the sixth Šāh-Miri sultan, Sekandar b. Hindal, known as Botšekan “Idol-breaker” (r. ca. 796-819/ 1393-1417), converted the entire population. This was after the coming of the Kobrawi Sufi, Sayyed ʿAli Hamadāni, who resided in Srinagar and was instrumental in the spread of Islam in Kashmir. Among his many followers was the Kashmir Sultan Qoṭb-al-Din Ṭāher (ca. 772-88/1370-86; Aḏkāʾi, pp. 51-53). Sekandar expelled those who did not convert, although his son, the enlightened Sultan Zaynal- ʿĀbedin (r. 826-77/1422-73), allowed some Hindus to return.
A Double-sided Persian calligraphy manuscript on paper by Zarin Qalam, signed by Faqir-i Kashmiri, India, Mughal, circa 1590-1600 (Source: Pinterest).
Sekandar earned his epithet by destroying whatever temples were left from earlier eras. Little remains of his own edifices, but the buildings of the time of Zaynal- ʿĀbedin leave the impression that the early mosques and tombs would either be built over the remains of the sanctum of an earlier temple or be erected on a square plan following the traditional style. They were often made entirely in timber or with brick or stone walls and Islamic arches, but with a timber pitched roof surmounted by a square canopy with an elongated pitched roof—similar in form to the pinnacle (chattrāvali) of a Himalayan stupa— used as a minaret for the call to prayer. The style appears in many buildings, such as the shrine of Madani or Mādin Šāh at Zadibal and the mosque of Šāh Ḥamdān (the local name for Sayyed ʿAli Hamadāni) in Srinagar, both originally founded at the time of Sultan Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin but many times rebuilt.
The exception is the tomb of Zayn-al- ʿAbedin’s mother, which is a brick structure consisting of an octagonal, double-shelled domed chamber with four smaller double-shelled domes over three square chambers and the entrances at the cardinal points. The building, and particularly its domes, seems to have been inspired by the grand monuments of Samarqand, but executed on a modest scale (see below).
Srinagar, the tomb of Sultan Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin’s mother with Central-Asian style domes (after Tadgel, 1990, p. 182, pl. 208) (Source: Description and Picture from Encyclopedia Iranica).
An example representing all aspects of traditional Kashmiri architecture is the mosque at Avantipura, erected near the ruins of the ancient site, but, unlike the earlier mosques and shrines, not incorporating spoil of ancient monuments. The most outstanding monument of the sultanate of Kashmir, however, is the Jāmeʿ Mosque of Srinagar, which has an Iranian and Central Asian four-ayvān plan built with brick walls and grand arches for the ayvāns, but with wooden columns supporting a traditional, Kashmiri-style timber superstructure. In his memoirs, the Mughal emperor Nur-al-Din Moḥammad Jahāngir (p. 338) describes this mosque:
“In the town there is an extremely elegant mosque of the edifices of Sultan Sekandar, which was founded in 795