Until three decades ago few visitors to Indian-ruled Kashmir would have bothered to seek out the Rozabal shrine, tomb of the medieval Muslim preacher Yus Asaf.
Most tourists in the predominantly Muslim region were unaware of the theory, dating back more than 150 years, that Jesus survived the Crucifixion and travelled later to Kashmir. Nor had they heard the rumours that his remains were still there in the Rozabal shrine, a small, wooden-roofed building on a street corner in Srinagar, the summer capital.
Thanks to a reference in the latest Lonely Planet guide, however, the shrine has become so popular among foreigners that this year they have been banned from visiting. Mohammed Amin Ringshawl, the manager in charge of the shrine, said that local people resented the sudden flurry of interest in the place where they pray. “It is the work of people associated with the tourist trade. They are misleading visitors and making them believe that Jesus was buried here,” he said.
“Locals ask why Westerners visit this shrine and not other shrines in Kashmir. To avoid any trouble we decided to shut the shrine for Westerners, who were offending sentiments.”
The shrine consists of a wooden chamber placed over a tombstone covered with green cloth embroidered with verses from the Koran.
The idea that Jesus visited Kashmir and died there first arose in the mid-19th century as European scholars sought to explain similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Some Christian groups were keen to link Jesus with India to win more converts, while others were exploring what he did between the ages of 12 and 30, which is not explained in the gospels.
The theory was also espoused by the controversial Ahmadiyya sect, which was founded in 1889 but is not recognised by many Muslims. A US-based Christian sect called the Church Universal and Triumphant, founded in 1952, also supports the belief that Jesus lived in Kashmir, but not that he died there. The latest edition of Lonely Planet, published last year, says: “The very act of visiting this place is highly thought-provoking.”
The story gained currency in India with the publication of a book called Christ in Kashmir, by Aziz Abdul Kashmiri, in 1968. “Kashmiri history books tell us that Yus Asaf came from abroad,” he told the BBC. “He came from Israel. He came to spread his teachings. He lived and died here. Yus Asaf was Issa. He was Jesus.”
Most Christian scholars and historians ridicule such theories but in the past three decades they have been popularised by a series of books, including Jesus Lived In India by the German author Holger Kersten. That work, published in 1981, claims there are hidden details at the shrine such as carved footprints marked with Crucifixion wounds — an idea which has inevitably grown more popular since the publication of The Da Vinci Code in 2003.
Suzanne Marie Olsson, the New York-based author of another book on the subject, has suggested exhuming the remains for carbon dating and DNA testing to check for Jewish ancestry. But she was forced to leave Kashmir several years ago after shrine managers filed a police complaint accusing her of “causing hurt to Muslim beliefs”.
This article was by Jeremy Page and originally published in The Times.