I had never heard of Naranag before I came to Kashmir. So I expected little from this rural village, barely a hamlet. But, when our village host took us out walking the day we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to spy what looked like ancient ruins very close to Naranag village. I asked him what they were ruins of, but he just shrugged indifferently. Ruins of an old temple, I managed to gather from his vague replies.
Of course, being partial to ancient ruins, I was intrigued.
The temple ruins of Naranag
The Naranag temple ruins lie just outside the village, at the start of the trek towards Gangabal Lake, and on the high riverbank of the stream that runs past the village. Horses grazed by the remnants of stone walls, the grass beginning to yellow in the late summer. It was not yet the monsoon.
Down towards the river, goats pick their footing expertly among the river boulders. Their Gujjar goatherds were at their camp some distance away, leaving the goats free to range.
Although not a particularly big complex, it was built in stone, and some of the structures still stand. The aesthetic was clean, smooth walls and dramatic columns, imposing archways. Our host told us that Hindu pilgrims still come to visit, and still make the trek to Gangabal Lake, which has a religious significance for them.
We spent some time exploring the ruins. Pretty much the first building that drew us was the most intact one. It still had doors, and the roof had clearly been replaced with modern zinc. I’m guessing it may have been a shrine, but we didn’t enter. Maybe it was still in use, despite being the only structure left. After all, the nearest mosque to Naranag is still under construction, but it’s in use anyway while it awaits more funding.
Hindu temple ruins
As we explored further, there were further signs confirming that the ruins were of a Hindu temple. Scattered around the complex were Shiva lingas. There were also additional erections, about the same height as the lingas, with a hole at the top. I wondered if they had once held lingas too. Or perhaps they had merely held wooden columns that had long rotted away.
How to go to Naranag
Naranag is less than 2 hours’ drive from Srinagar. We arranged our stay through our houseboat host, who also drove us there. This is probably the best and safest way to get there.
I can’t say how Naranag compares to Kashmir’s better-known tourism destinations such as Sonmarg, Gulmarg, or Pahalgam, since we couldn’t visit them. However, Naranag is lovely in its own right, and there is a lot of hiking you can do in the area. Some of the trails could also be done on horseback, although the local Kashmiris would lead your horse with a halter and not actually allow you to ride one with a bridle.
For those hikers who must conquer the local peak, Gangabal Lake is a hiking attraction in itself, aside from its religious significance. It lies at the foothills of the highest mountain peak in the Kashmir Valley, Mount Haramukh. However, these hikes would count as high altitude trekking, as the lake is at about 3,600m ASL. Prior acclimatisation is advisable.
Depending on the season, there would be apples and walnuts. Winter is not a good time, as the roads may be blocked by heavy snowfall, and the village houses can be snowed in. (Winter is, however, an excellent time to go to the ski destinations of Kashmir. However, see my earlier article on travel considerations for Kashmir.)
Greeks in the Himalayas
“It looks like a Greek temple,” Jason remarked, when I posted photos of my trip on Facebook. It was only then that I realised that yes, so it does. In fact, the clean lines were considerably unlike what Hindu temples in India usually looked like, with their ornate external carvings.
I wondered, at the time, why there would be Greek-style architecture in the Himalayas. But I soon forgot about it until fairly recently, when I saw a video by a Westerner who had just discovered there was such an empire as the Mauryan Empire, which had ruled over more people than any other known empire in history.
In the video, he made it seem as though it might have been a mythic empire, one that might not have existed. But of course, as an Asian whose nation had been within the Indian sphere of influence at one time, I still remember my history syllabus. The emperor Chadragupta Maurya was but a few paragraphs in my textbook, but what can I say, I’m a nerd.
Anyway, it caused me to remember approximately when the Mauryan empire rose to power, and recall Jason’s offhand remark. A quick research confirmed my suspicions. The Mauryan empire dates to about the same time as the death of Alexander the Great, whose conquests had reached these northwestern borders of present-day India. The emperor Chandragupta even had diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) relations with Alexander’s successors in the region.
So indeed, astonishingly, there were Greeks in the Himalayas. And apparently, they had influenced the architecture in Kashmir then.
Empires are swept away by time, but people remain.
The distance of history causes us to reduce eras to its headlines, losing almost all detail. Today, we often speak of Arab empires and Persian empires and Indian empires, and think of them as comprising of a single race. But that is only a simplification, based on the identity of the king.
In reality, whether due to trade or to conquest, most empires of the older civilisations actually ruled over different minority races amongst the majority, for there were no hard borders then. People have always been attracted to lands of opportunity, and back then, as long as you were loyal to the king, you can stay. Even in my country, the relatively small 15th century Malacca empire of a relatively young civilisation had a multi-ethnic, polyglot society in its capital.
Ancient ruins testify that all empires, whether good ones or cruel, are eventually abandoned by time. With enough distance, no one weeps over them any more. But what truly survives are people, and what we pass on through the ages. In the Himalayas, you see the diverse truth of old empires in the light eyes of a brown-skinned people, and Naranag’s Hindu temple that looks Greek.
And I like reading this ‘textbook’ too, for I think maybe there are fewer lies in it.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.