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 Mystery of the Martyr’s Tomb 

Who is buried in Srinagar’s ancient sepulcher? The question plagued James Polster for years, so much so that he made a journey to Kashmir to find out. This is the account of Polster’s journey of discovery nearly 30 years ago.

Part One

Map o Srinagar
Mon May 15, 2006 10:48 AM ET

Srinagar, India — Sahibzada Basharat Saleem was silent. In one corner of his sitting room, a lazy ceiling fan pushed the thick afternoon air toward a plastic replica of the Taj Mahal. Saleem rubbed his right forefinger into his brow and stared off toward the garden. This restaurant owner and poet from Kashmir in northernmost India was pondering questions that one day may influence the soul of the western world.

Sahibzada Basharat Saleem was the man in the middle of a great mystery. In 1979, city maps of Srinigar marked a place in the Khanyar district called the Martyr’s Tomb. Rozabal, the squat, sprawling structure that houses the tomb, is next to Saleem’s ancestral home. Family tradition required that the tomb be maintained by the eldest son in each generation. Saleem was that eldest son, a direct descendent of the inhabitant of the tomb.

Yet who was in that tomb?

In the fall of 1979, I’d been following a string of possibility that had led from a dusty bookshop in London, to a memorable afternoon at the Press Club of London, and eventually to a Pan Am flight to New Delhi. In those days, few people made the trip north from Delhi to the Vale of Kashmir. Those who did, however, found themselves in a quiet world of gilded houseboats, lush jungles, towering mountains, and turquoise lakes. A paradise; heaven on earth.

But as I tried to plumb the mystery of the tomb’s occupant, I found that Saleem was no public figure, and difficult to find. It was a tip that he owned a restaurant that eventually led me to the right restaurant. Then, some helpful scrawls from a waiter on a torn napkin corner sent me into the tangle of roads in Khanyar that confused even my taxi driver.

I knocked on the door. Nothing. I surreptitiously peeked in some windows (yes, I was unexpected and uninvited; but I was hot, the cab was gone, and I’d come a long way, so, I did it.) I shouted out some polite hellos.

Someone unseen returned my call, and asked me to unbolt a large metal door around the side. I did, clanged it closed behind me, and made my way through a long row of hedges.

Sahibzada Saleem, wild-eyed, with bright, red-dyed hair, wearing pajamas, shuffled up to me and placed the palm of his hand on my forehead. The effect was immediate and electric. This was still the time of the gurus in America; it would be nothing for another god or prophet to surface in India.

That, however, was not the case. Saleem just excused himself and reappeared a short time later in slacks and a button-down shirt. The wild eyes were because he didn’t have his glasses on. The touch on my forehead, an understandable attempt to communicate a greeting in India if one is caught without his hearing aid. The blazes of red at the temples, while a little unusual, were only a touch of vanity covering up his creeping grey hair.

Saleem presented himself as a mild man, certainly no publicity seeker. But when I told him the purpose of my visit, he nodded. “The truth must be told,” he said, raising to his lips a small blue book from his breast pocket as we settled into chairs. “The truth must be told and the truth must prevail. One should always be guided by actual facts.”

Basharat Saleem had in his possession ancient genealogical tables which he, and many others, claims link him back through the centuries to the occupant of that tomb, as a direct descendant of whatever martyr’s remains are held within.

When I asked any native of Srinagar why this place is famous, they invariably replied, “Because it is the tomb of Jesus Christ.”

And when I asked if most people in Kashmir believed this, the reply was “Not most. Everyone.”

Part Two

Tue May 16, 2006 10:55 AM ET

Srinagar, India — Deep in the Khanyar district of the old capital, there is a tomb which many sources have suggested, or insisted, is the final resting place of Jesus Christ. Sahibzada Basharat Saleem, caretaker of the tomb, had in his possession ancient genealogical tables which he claimed link him back through the centuries to the occupant of that tomb, a direct descendant.

With the success of the book “Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown, and the movie being released this week, interest in such alternative histories has spiked. Brown was sued for plagiarism by the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” a supposedly nonfiction work outlining the survival of Jesus’ bloodline in Europe, a legal battle in which Brown prevailed. Last month, National Geographic aired a television special based on a resurfaced “lost gospel” questioning long held beliefs on Judas and his role in the betrayal of Jesus. All of these works drive home how malleable long held theories may be, subject to interpretations of fact, problems with translations, coded information, allegories, cryptic writings… legend and myth intertwining with history.

I embarked on my own journey nearly 30 years ago, a quest that that began in an old London bookshop and sent me down a trail of evidence reaching from Palestine to Kashmir, and beyond to the Tibetan border. It suggests that after the crucifixion, Jesus did not ascend to heaven, but remained alive, escaped into Persia, and continued to travel east. This theory that Jesus became a father, lived out his final years in Kashmir and remains buried there today, bears odd resemblance to the “Da Vinci Code” theory.

The New Testament itself has puzzling passages, such as the one from Luke where Christ speaks to his disciples after the crucifixion. “Behold my hands and feet that it is I myself, handle me and see for a spirit hath no flesh and bones as ye see me have.”

“I am not a man to force my views on anyone,” said Saleem, when I tracked him down in the Khanyar district of Srinagar. “The truth must be told and the truth must prevail. One should always be guided by actual facts.”

While we spoke, I wondered which was more likely true, more supported by facts. One, the widely held belief that Jesus died and ascended to heaven, or two, that he was only badly injured, his followers hustled him out of dangerous Jerusalem and, some time in the course of his life, he had at least one child; and that the inheritor of that bloodline in Kashmir was now sitting across from me.

“I am the most authentic source,” Saleem maintained, “the most directly concerned. I possess the history.” He indicated the genealogies.

“According to the family history and genealogical tables (written in Persian), the name clearly and explicitly mentioned is Shahzada Nabi Hazrat Yura Asaf. From him the lineage comes directly down to my father and to me. This man came here from Afghanistan more than 1,900 years ago. He was a prophet, highly reverenced, some sources say of the highest reverence, who performed miracles.

“But the name,” Saleem said carefully, “is always Yura Asaf, not Jesus.”

The group that first claimed that Jesus and Yura Asaf were the same man was the Ahmadiyya movement, a controversial nineteenth century offshoot of Islam. Numerous Muslim and Persian documents — the Tafir-Ibn-I-Jarir, the Kanz-al-Ummal, and the Rauzat-us-Safa — have references that contribute to the theory of Christ’s escape. Some of these also mention that Jesus was accompanied by Mary, and there is another burial place in Pakistan, along his theoretical route to Kashmir, known as Mai Mari da Ashtan, or “resting place of Mother Mary.”

The Tarik-i-Kashmir tells of the prophet Yura Asaf arriving in Kashmir at a time coinciding with the supposed arrival of Jesus. An old Persian book, Negaris-Tan-i-Kashmir, tells how Jesus became a husband and father. The Bhavishya Mahapuroma, an ancient Hindu text, places him in Kashmir decades after the crucifixion, and in the old lamasery of Hemis in Ladakh, scrolls exist which reportedly attest to Christ’s presence there at one time.

Genealogies, ancient books, family traditions. But what of the tomb itself, the Martyr’s Tomb of Srinagar? I had to see for myself.

Part Three

Wed May 17, 2006 10:08 AM ET

The Martyr's Tomb
Srinagar, India – It was 1979. City maps of Srinagar marked a place called only the Martyr’s Tomb. Rozabal, the squat, sprawling structure that houses the tomb, is next to the ancestral home of Sahibzada Basharat Saleem, and, it is family tradition that the tomb be maintained by the eldest son in each generation.

The main street leading up to the Rozabal was too narrow and torn to allow a car to pass through. Women fully veiled in their black chadreh, and men dressed in baggy pants, skull caps, vests and dark fur hats noisily charged about in front.

The grounds were overgrown — twists and clumps of green leaves hid most of the arches and elaborately carved shutters of the small, whitewashed old building on two sides, a short metal fence surrounded a cleared section on the others.

Gulam Mohammed at the gate of the tomb
The Rozabal was kept locked. Gulam Mohammed, the custodian, had to first be located, then tolerated. He unbolted the thick door which creaked predictably. I ascended a few stone steps, removed my shoes, and entered a small hall leading into the main chamber.

Inside, there was an official decree dated 1766 proclaiming it to be the tomb of Yura Asaf. But within the crypt itself, I was to find a final, chilling clue.

The tomb dominated the cool, rectangular interior of the Rozabal. Faded green wooden walls were carved in diamond and six-point star motifs forming a tall, cage-like box. The box itself was divided into large and small lattice-carved sections which made it look a bit like the sort of elaborate device a stage magician might use.

The tomb walls echoed the shape of the larger exterior walls and ran along the perimeter of the crypt area. Long Kashmiri carpets were laid the length of all sides.

It was just possible to crawl into the tomb, 2,000 years back in time, through a small opening in one of the walls. The ground was hard and cool, and, should you ever enter that same, shadowed vault, the slightest flinch of imagination will be enough to spin your thoughts.

I lit a single candle. In the tight space above me, an orange cloth was draped over a worn, wooden scaffold which protected a short, three tiered, rectangular mound at the head of the crypt .

Moving deeper inside, I pulled next to the burial head. There was an old stone cube with the life-size imprints of a pair of feet. I pushed my candle forward.

The feet appeared to be ancient carvings, but, at the center of each foot, there was the clear mark of a deep wound.

◊ ◊ ◊

“In the Koran,” Saleem told me, “God says, ‘We did not let Jesus die on the cross. We lifted him up and took him away to a place full of mountains, rivers, lakes, flowers. A place of beauty.‘

“This place in the Koran can be none other than heaven,” Saleem explained with a serene smile. “It is written further, ‘Jesus is alive in heaven’. The Koran says bodily alive, but the word ‘heaven’ is not actually written in the Koran.”

Saleem paused for a moment, then sat up a little straighter in his chair. “Many people say this place he went to is Kashmir, instead of heaven, because Kashmir has this same beauty.”

“I can talk for days and nights about this because I am the man concerned,” Sahibzada Basharat Saleem said. But the sun was setting behind unfamiliar streets, and it seemed like I had heard enough.

Source: Yahoo Travel Adventure Beat

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