The archaeological site at Harwan, discovered for the first time in 1895, offers fascinating details about Kashmir’s rich Buddhist past during the Kushana and Huna eras. It offers clinching evidence about a clear distinction between the Kashmir and Gandhara art forms, writes Dr Abdul Rashid Lone

A Google Earth map of the Harwan archaeological site that belongs to Kashmir’s Buddhist era.

Nestled amidst the pristine landscapes of Kashmir lies the archaeological site of Harwan, a testament to the rich historical and cultural heritage of the region. Located approximately 18 kilometres from Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, Harwan has been an archaeological treasure trove, unravelling fascinating stories from antiquity. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini stands as a pivotal source illuminating the historical processes that have influenced Kashmir’s landscape since ancient times. Within its pages, this significant text not only chronicles past events but also sheds light on the socio-economic and politico-religious developments that adorned the magnificent Kashmir. Among the myriad historical occurrences, one remarkable phenomenon was the arrival and flourishing of Buddhism, a profound religious ideology.

Kashmir has earned the epithets of Heaven on Earth, Peer Vaer, and Rishi Vaer for good reason, particularly when considering its early history. Following the decline of the Naga tradition, Buddhism emerged and profoundly influenced the region, leaving a lasting impact on Kashmir.

While the literature from early historic times aids in reconstructing the history of Kashmir, it is archaeology that takes the lead, providing invaluable insights into the day-to-day activities of the past. Through archaeological discoveries, we gain a deeper understanding of the region’s rich historical tapestry and the lives of its inhabitants.

The exploration and excavation of the Buddhist civilisation’s relics and ruins in Kashmir have unearthed a wealth of historical treasures from various parts of the region. This write-up centres on a captivating location in Kashmir, renowned for its Mughal garden but equally captivating for its remarkable Buddhist archaeological remains. These ancient ruins have consistently attracted tourists over the years, showcasing their distinct Buddhist character and echoing a resounding call for heritage tourism in the region. Among the many beautiful places, my personal favourite is none other than the Harwan.

Settlement Pattern

The history of Harwan dates back several centuries, with its roots intertwined with the rise and fall of various civilisations in Kashmir. The region has been an abode of diverse cultures, including the Kushana Empire and the Hunas. This site stands as a testament to the continuous human occupation and evolution of Kashmiri society.

The archaeological remains at Harwan were initially discovered by chance in 1895 during the construction of a conduit meant to transport drinking water to Srinagar. However, this accidental finding did not garner much attention until Hiranand Shastri, an official from the Archaeological Survey of India, recognised the area as a Buddhist site amidst the surrounding forested terrain. In 1919, Shastri personally explored the site and uncovered some brick tiles bearing stamped images. However, it was not until 1920-21 that the first systematic excavations were carried out by RC Kak. Subsequently, in 1973, LK Srinivasan from the Frontier Circle of the Survey continued the excavations at the site.

The image of a Stupa is part of Harwan’s excavations. The site belongs to Kashmir’s Buddhist era.

The excavation efforts at the site unveiled the remains of a Buddhist structural complex that thrived from the fourth to the seventh century CE. Currently, the entire settlement is relatively small consisting of approximately 10 ruins scattered across multiple terraces carved into a steep hillside. The earliest constructions discovered at the site were built in a pebble style, where pebbles ranging from one to two inches in diameter, readily available from nearby streams, were meticulously embedded in mud walls.

Pebble Style Structures

These pebble-style structures were found on a lower level compared to the other two types of masonry, namely diaper pebble and diaper rubble. Notably, the pebble-style structures were identified on two distinct terraces. On the middle terrace, at a higher level, an isolated section of a monastery in pure pebble style was uncovered, featuring an entrance on the northern side, as depicted by RC Kak in his book Ancient Monuments of Kashmir. Furthermore, on the same terrace but at a lower level, Kak’s illustrations reveal a rectangular structure laid out in a north-south orientation, also constructed in pure pebble style. It includes a flight of steps facing northwest.

On the lower terrace of the settlement, two adjacent walls were exposed, constructed entirely in pebble masonry. These walls seem to have been part of an enclosure surrounding a courtyard belonging to a structure, traces of which are currently absent.

A New Technique

Around 300 CE, the pebble style of construction was succeeded by a technique known as the diaper pebble style of construction; which involved reinforcing the walls of pebbles with the insertion of large and irregular stones at regular intervals. On the highest terrace of the settlement, the remains of the foundations of an apsidal temple constructed in diaper pebble masonry can be found. This temple is encompassed by a courtyard adorned with terracotta tiles depicting intricate motifs of humans, animals, birds, flora, and abstract designs.

It is important to highlight that this particular structure occupies the highest point of the settlement in terms of altitude. It stands out as the most remarkable and intricately decorated architectural complex in Harwan. This elevates the significance of the structure, indicating that great attention was given by its builders during the construction and decoration process. Notably, the courtyard of the shrine stands out as a testament to this meticulous care, as none of the other structures within the site exhibits such elaborate treatment and attention to detail in their decoration.

A Terracota Harwan tile depicting a male and a female and a deer. This tile is part of the many items that were received from Harwan, an archaeological site belonging to Kashmir’s Buddhist past.

The temple exhibits an apsidal shape on its exterior and a circular layout internally. It is preceded by a rectangular hall at the front. In regard to the terracotta tiles discovered near this structure, Robert E Fisher suggests that the rubble-filled walls of the raised apsidal temple, with its entrance facing the valley, were likely covered with a layer of smooth plaster. The lower sections of the walls were adorned with terracotta plaques depicting ascetic figures. These plaques formed a low wall encircling three sides of the temple, demarcating its boundaries and separating it from the hillside behind.

In earlier investigations at the site, no evidence of a circumambulatory passage surrounding the temple was found. However, in the excavations carried out during 1979-80, the presence of such a passage was identified. It is believed to have taken the form of a courtyard paved with terracotta tiles. On the lowest terrace, several cells or rooms constructed in diaper pebble style were also uncovered. These chambers may have served as chapels or as part of a residential complex. Another structure, referred to as the ‘prayer hall’, was exposed on the same lowest terrace. This rectangular structure was also constructed in diaper pebble style.

The Stupa Details

The basement of the stupa, probably housing Buddhist relics, was exposed on the lowest terrace, positioned to the south of the prayer hall. It appears to be one of the later constructions, as it is constructed using untrimmed stones with smaller stones filling the gaps. This construction style, known as diaper rubble, is recognised as the third and most recent style employed at the site. An enclosure wall, also constructed in diaper rubble style, surrounds the stupa. The stupa itself is situated in the centre of a rectangular courtyard facing north.

The method of construction for the stupa and its surrounding area is notably rough and crude, lacking any binding material, indicating a later period of construction. The vicinity of the stupa was paved with terracotta tiles featuring decorative motifs. According to Kak, these tiles were found broken, some bearing incomplete figures. While some tiles appeared flat and could have been part of a pavement, others displayed relief mouldings and likely belonged to walls. This indicates that the tiles were not originally from the courtyard where they were discovered during the excavation but were likely relocated from another structure, possibly of an earlier date.

Coin Connection

The presence of a coin belonging to Toramana, an Huna ruler mentioned in Kalhana’s accounts, discovered beneath the stairs of the stupa, provides a crucial clue for dating the construction of the stupa. This finding suggests that the stupa and its architectural style can be attributed to the fifth or sixth century CE or possibly even a later period. Alongside this significant discovery, various other artefacts were unearthed, including fragments of terracotta figurines and three plaques bearing impressed images of stupas. These plaques offer valuable insights into the design and structure of a stupa during the fifth century in Kashmir. The description of the stupa depictions on these plaques is given by Pratapaditya Pal as: ‘all three (stupas on plaques) have a triple basement with three flight of steps, the drum with a line of beading and plain moldings with plain dome. A row of projecting brackets makes up the harmika, above which is a succession of eleven umbrellas of diminishing size, with fluttering ribbons tied at the very top. At both corners of the top terrace is a tall column with seated lion.’

An Interesting Discovery

During the 1973 excavation season at the site, an interesting discovery was made. It was observed that an earlier structure, constructed with diaper pebble walls, had been overlaid by a different style of construction using dry rubble. This finding indicates the arrival of a distinct group of individuals, possibly non-local, who intentionally vandalised the pre-existing diaper pebble constructions and erected their own buildings in a different architectural style known as diaper rubble masonry.

Notably, between these two foundation walls constructed using different construction styles, a layer of ash and charcoal was found. This provides evidence of the earlier settlement of Kushanas being burned down by intruders, potentially the Hunas, who entered Kashmir towards the end of the sixth century CE. These invaders were responsible for the destruction of Buddhist monuments not only in Kashmir but also across the Indian subcontinent. Consequently, the Buddhist settlement at Harwan remained occupied for several centuries before eventually falling into neglect during Kashmir’s later Muslim rule.

As a result of the excavations, significant evidence of construction techniques, artistic remnants, and other cultural artefacts with Buddhist associations were unearthed, shedding light on the rich heritage of the site.

Diaper Pebble masonry at Harwan, the archaeological site depicting Kashmir’s Buddhist past. Picture: Namrita Wakhloo

The emergence of Art Forms

During the prosperous reign of the Kushana kings, Kashmir witnessed the emergence of an independent artistic tradition known as the Kashmir Terracotta School of Art. Unlike the artists of the Kushana period in the broader Indian subcontinent who predominantly worked with stone and were associated with the Gandhara School of art, the artists in Kashmir during the early centuries of the Christian era favoured clay as their preferred medium for showcasing their artistic expressions. Terracotta art became particularly renowned during the Kushana period in Kashmir.

It is noteworthy that the presence of diaper-pebble style constructions along with the use of decorated terracotta tiles for paving the courtyards of Buddhist stupas, is a distinct characteristic of settlement patterns observed within the Kashmir dating back to the Kushana period. This observation is supported by the significant number of terracotta artefacts that have been discovered, including stamped tiles, figurines depicting humans and animals, beads, skin rubbers, seals, and various other objects. These findings attest to the widespread use of terracotta and reflect the artistic richness of the era.

Linkages With Other Spots

Numerous archaeological sites showcasing the distinctive settlement pattern have been discovered across the entire expanse of the Kashmir valley, totalling almost a dozen. In some instances, only terracotta tile pavements have been unearthed as seen at locations such as Kutbal and Hoinar-Lidroo in the Anantnag district.

In other cases, these terracotta tile pavements have been found in conjunction with pebble and diaper-pebble-style constructions. Noteworthy sites encompass Harwan in the Srinagar district, Huthmura and Semthan in Anantnag, Ushkar and Kanispur in Baramulla, and Kralchak in the Pulwama district. The tradition of adorning floors with terracotta tile pavements is also documented at Takiya Bala in Pulwama, several closely situated sites at Doen Pather (Pahalgam), Ahan (Sumbal), and the Bham-ud-din Sahib mosque near Matan in Anantnag. Additionally, such pavements have been reported at Gurwait-Yarikhan in Budgam.

These art forms, especially terracotta figurines bear Hellenistic influence. Since Kashmir, as a geographical and political entity, formed an integral part of the Gandhara kingdom in those times, which was dominated by the Hellenistic ideas of art and learning that influence was carried on in Kashmir. The Gandhara School of Art flourished between the first and fifth century CE, it continued till the seventh century CE in parts of Kashmir and Afghanistan.

A Striking Contrast

The majority of sculptures from the Kushana period in the Indian subcontinent are typically crafted in stone. However, the situation in Kashmir presents a striking contrast. Instead of favouring stone as the preferred material, the artists of the Kushana period in Kashmir opted for terracotta, using it to create various art forms such as figurines and tiles.

This shift in material raises questions about the reasons behind this choice. Could it be that Kashmir had already developed an indigenous school of art prior to the Kushana rule, in which terracotta or clay was widely utilized as a medium of artistic expression?

The evidence seems to support this hypothesis convincingly. Even before its incorporation into the Kushana Empire, the early historic period in Kashmir was marked by the presence of urban centres, indicating the existence of a local school of art predominantly employing terracotta. The introduction of Hellenistic features to these figurines by Gandhara artists can be seen as a result of the changing political power and patronage. The evidence also points to a developmental progression in the terracotta tiles, with surface treatments evolving from simple and plain designs to highly elaborate decorations found in Harwan, Huthmura, and Semthan.

The findings suggest that the relationship between Kashmir and Gandhara significantly strengthened following the conquest of Kashmir. Some form of rudimentary exchange, akin to commerce, already existed, allowing ideas to travel both from Kashmir to the west and back into the valley. The intermingling of these two cultures in Kashmir gave rise to art forms that manifested regional characteristics while also displaying foreign influences.

Significance and Interpretation

The archaeological findings at Harwan hold immense significance in understanding the socio-cultural dynamics of ancient Kashmir. They provide evidence of the region’s assimilation of various religious and cultural influences throughout history. The presence of Buddhist structures reflects the influence of Buddhism in the region during the Kushan period, while the diverse artefacts point to the interaction between different communities and civilizations.

Furthermore, the presence of terracotta tiles, pottery and coins indicates the existence of a vibrant economy and trade networks, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas. The excavation at Harwan also sheds light on the craftsmanship and artistic skills of the ancient inhabitants, evident in the intricately decorated tiles etc.

Preservation and Challenges

Preserving and conserving the archaeological treasures of Harwan is crucial for future generations to understand and appreciate Kashmir’s ancient past fully. However, the site faces various challenges, including environmental degradation, encroachment, and inadequate conservation efforts.

It is imperative for the authorities to take proactive measures to protect and safeguard the site’s integrity, ensuring that Harwan’s heritage remains intact for years to come.


The archaeology of Harwan serves as a gateway to Kashmir’s rich heritage. The excavation findings at this ancient site provide a deeper understanding of the region’s historical, cultural, and religious dynamics.

From the Buddhist monastic complex to the advanced technique of paving courtyards of monuments with decorated terracotta tiles, Harwan’s archaeological treasures unravel the story of past civilisations and the complex interplay of various cultural influences. It is crucial to recognise the significance of these archaeological sites and undertake concerted efforts to preserve and promote Harwan’s heritage, ensuring that future generations can connect with Kashmir’s ancient roots and appreciate the magnificence of its past.

(A trained archaeologist, the author teaches Kashmir Archaeology at the Department of History, University of Kashmir. He is also an Ashoka Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Archaeological Research, Ashoka University.)


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