It’s December 25. Artisans in the Kashmir valley have already shipped off this Christmas’ handmade decorations. The Valley’s few churches held services for the minuscule Christian population. At the Rozabal shrine in Khanyar area of the backstreets of downtown Srinagar, it’s just another day and there are no tourists in sight, even though the Lonely Planet travel guide to India drew attention to the site by suggesting that it could actually be the tomb of Jesus.

According to this myth, Jesus actually survived his crucifixion and spent his last days in Kashmir.

Though the legend brings stray visitors to the shrine in season, locals aren’t especially pleased about it: many of them believe that the myth is blasphemous.

Signboards outside Rozabal bear the names of the two saints, Youza Asaf and Syed Naseer-ud-Din. Another sign next to the shrine warns – in English, Urdu, and Hindi – that photography and videography is strictly prohibited.

Yet another signboard, in an attempt to dispel the idea of Jesus being buried in the shrine, cites the mention of Jesus’ ascent to heaven in the Quran and Bible.

On the morning of this Christmas, shops in the vicinity opened for business as usual and young people loitered around. An elderly woman sought blessings, touching its walls and praying at the window which offers a glimpse of the interiors of the shrine which has remained under lock since separatist militancy erupted. Donations are slipped in through the window and only on the 13th of every lunar month, are the locks opened for a recital of Quran.

The myth

Residents around the shrine remain wary of visitors and do not take seriously the claim that Jesus could be buried here. Ghulam Nabi Bhat, who is in his late 70s, lives in the vicinity. The Jesus story, he said, was propaganda built around the shrine in an attempt to make money. “A neighbour, too, used to claim he was a descendant of Jesus and wrote books about it,” said Bhat.

But the story actually dates back to the late 19th century when theories began to circulate that Jesus might have lived in India during his so-called lost years, when he was between the ages of 12 and 30, which are not documented in the gospels.

The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is said to have been the first to claim in 1899 that Rozabal was actually the tomb of Jesus. The shrine was relatively unknown until then, and Iranian visitors would sometimes visit the shrine to pay obeisance at the grave of Syed Naseer-ud-Din, a Shia muslim saint.

While the theory has largely been dismissed by serious scholars, in recent years, the likes of Dan brown and Ashwin Sanghi have also done their bit to propagate the myth in their popular fiction. Following the popularity of the myth about Jesus being buried there, Bhat said, mostly western visitors came.

As the myth propagated, assertions grew stronger. One of the visitors, Bhat said, attempted to extract samples from the grave for testing. This irked the residents who deemed it sacrilegious. “Islam has told us that Jesus was taken to heaven,” Bhat said. “How can we believe that Jesus lies buried here?”

He perhaps was referring to Suzanne Marie Olsson, an American who self-published Jesus in Kashmir, The Lost Tomb in 2005 and claimed to be a 59th generation descendant of Jesus. She had sought to examine the graves for samples for DNA testing. Her attempt were met with opposition from local residents who deemed it desecration of the shrine.

“We have locked the shrine since the militancy erupted,” Bhat said. “First we were wary of militants stashing weapons – and now of people, who believe Jesus is buried here, of planting items to prove their claims.”

Interior of the shrine. Photo: Rayan Naqash
Interior of the shrine. Photo: Rayan Naqash

Conspiracies unlimited

Bhat recalls that a foreigner had once approached him and suggested placing a coffin in the shrine that would further raise doubts. “Some people from Srinagar supported her in this.” he said. “They were hoping for a huge influx of foreigners, that would in turn suit their business interests.”

The shrine finds its earliest mention in the Waqi’at-i-Kashmir (Story of Kashmir, published 1747), by Khwaja Muhammad Azam Didamari, a local Srinagar Sufi writer, according to which the tomb is of a foreign prophet and prince, Yuzasuf – transcribed as Youza Asouph or Yuz Asaf – in modern local Kashmiri. In folklore, the name Yuzasuf is associated with the legend of Balauhar and Yuzasaf, in which Yuzasaf is a name for Gautama Buddha.

Ahmad Bhat, another resident in the vicinity said that even though Youza Asaf was not a Muslim, “he must have been someone spiritual. After all over one lakh prophets have been sent to mankind.”

Nabi Bhat said there once used to be a hose which passed underneath the shrine and would emit fragrance. “Locals would stuff it with bridal clothes for fragrance,” he said. “The hose was closed after the floods in 1950s.”

A couple of years ago, Ahmad said, a drainage construction project had to be stalled as it passed by the shrine and the fragrance was once again detected. Fearing sacrilege, no outlet for the fragrance was constructed.