Akhnoor in Jammu & Kashmir is a treasure trove of history with its mythological cave, a fort in ruins and remains of ancient Buddhist settlements

‘Pracheen Pandav Gufa,’ says an inscription on the outer wall of a concrete building painted in pink on the banks of river Chenab at Akhnoor in Jammu & Kashmir. But it is not until you step into the building that you find your way into this ancient cave hidden inside the cemented four walls. The Pandavas are said to have spent some time in this cave during the last year of their exile. Akhnoor is believed to be the mythical Virat Nagri mentioned in the Mahabharata.

What is disappointing is not only the modern structure housing the ancient cave but also the tiled flooring that takes away the ‘antiquity value’ of the place. Dayanand Sharma, a senior citizen, who has been coming here for many years now says that earlier only sadhus used to meditate here but now many pilgrims who visit Akhnoor make a stopover at the cave.

About five km from this ancient cave are the ruins of the Akhnoor Fort situated on the right bank of the Chenab; the river was called Asikni in ancient times and later Chandrabhaga. Like many other forts, this too has been encroached. Some of the original structures stand altered by the construction of the tehsil and police quarters. Large parts of the fort are surrounded by grass more than feet high and with scores of monkeys inhabiting the place it is now difficult to even enter the ruin.

The Archaeological Survey of India’s deputy superintending archaeologist (Srinagar circle), A.K. Pandey, said that their main task is to preserve the monuments. He said that while the river-side portion of the fort has been cleaned and restored, work on major portions of the fort which are in ruins will be taken up in September after the rainy season. He added that their department is dependent on the grant of funds for preservation and conservation works.

This two-storey fort is under the ASI’s jurisdiction since 1982 and was declared a national monument protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

It was during the reign of Mian Tej Singh that the work on the fort began in 1762AD and was completed by his successor Raja Alum Singh in 1802 AD. Excavations around the fort by the ASI during 1991-2001 threw up relics of the 5,000-year-old Harappan and pre-Harappan civilisations. The remains of a Buddhist monastic establishment of the Kushana period was found at Ambaran in Akhnoor.

According to ASI officials, small-scale scientific clearances in 2009-2010 exposed a spoked stupa (Dharmachakra) and some votive stupas. The site was abandoned during the seventh Century AD due to flash floods in the area and the decline of Buddhism in the region. While the remains of the platform are there for visitors to see, the superstructure is missing.

The excavations suggest four different periods of human settlements in the area - the pre-Kushana period (second Century BC), the Kushana period, the Gupta period and the post-Kushana period. Many terracotta heads and a gold casket were unearthed here.

With its sprawling landscape, the majestic Chenab flowing by, the fort, the temples, an ancient cave and remains of a Buddhist site, Akhnoor has all the features to become a thriving tourist hub of Jammu & Kashmir.