When you talk about Pakistan’s culture and heritage, you talk about Taxila, one of the ancient capitals of great Gandhara which lay glorious between rivers Indus and Hydespes from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. Today Taxila is perhaps one of the greatest archeological sites in Pakistan, consisting of three equally remarkable cities just 35
kms outside Islamabad.
A trip to Taxila, just like any other wholehearted sight-seeing escapade, will easily take up an entire day so it would be wise to start early. Bringing together an enthusiastic crowd of friends and family and hiring a tour van is better than taking a taxi because the taxi-walas are bound to charge you an arm and a leg despite the fact that the sites are all within walking range once you’ve made it to the first stop.
Unfortunately I took the trip in July when the sun was as harsh as it gets, and came back home with a nasty sunburn for a souvenir after spending ten straight hours under the relentless sun.
The forty minute drive from central Islamabad to Taxila brings you face to face with Armament factories and the Heavy Machinery Complex. These, along with the University of Engineering and Technology and an array of lush fruit and vegetable farms that are said to supply both Islamabad and Rawalpindi with their requirement are the prominent landmarks of modern day Taxila, besides the actual ruins and the famous Taxila museum which Sir John Marshall built in early twentieth century, of course.
On the way I did a little research on the history of the area I was going to spend the next few hours admiring: Gandhara was the meeting place of four great cultures – Indian, Greek, central Asian and Persian. It remained, for a long time, a province of the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka, the most influential of the Mauryan kings, turned Taxila into one of the most prestigious centre of Buddhist education and training. Remains of his religious colleges are still extant in the earthy ruins of a civilization that still shines bright as one of the greatest in the world.
For over one thousand years, Taxila flourished as the famous centre of learning Gandhara art of sculpture, architecture, education and Buddhism in the days of Buddhist glory, with its university in Taxila, and its influence extended to Afghanistan and other regions of central Asia. Though Taxila was one of the capitals of Gandhara – the other being Purushapura (later renamed Peshawar) – Buddhist monuments of the same period are also found in Peshawar and numerous other sites.
There are over 50 archaeological sites scattered in a radius of 30 kms around Taxila, all of which were established as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1980.
The first and the oldest of the three successive cities of Taxila is Bhir mound (600-200 B.C.), belonging to the Achaemenid period; followed by Sirkap (200 B.C. – 600 A.D.), a Buddhist city founded by the Greeks; and finally Sirsukh (200 B.C. – 600 A.D.), a large square fortress founded by the Kushans, to which the Buddhists later added monasteries like Jaulian and Mohra Moradu.
Our first stop was Mohra Moradu, set like a jewel in a small vale between Sirkap and Jaulian, where we hired the local guard/guide to show us around. He led us up a small hill to the hidden monastery; or rather what remains of it from its 3-5th century heydays. The main stupa stands to the front side; a mesmerizing affair despite the fact that most of the Buddhas, dancers and guardians and animal figures have either been looted, damaged by time or moved to the museum by the government for security purposes, but what remains is enough to conjure in the imagination a once potent and awe-inspiring sense of the spiritual community this must have been.
Mohra Muradu was basically a Buddhist shrine; the monastery a place of meditation in the rural areas outside of busy Sirkap, made up of tiny double storey sleeping cells surrounding a large rectangular pool, once filled with spring water and lotuses. Today, it’s filled with a thick film of dirt and overwhelming remnants of past glory.
The guard/guide offered us fresh water from a discreet well after being tipped 200 Rupees for his time and services. The cool mineral water was quite a parting gift considering we’d been foolish enough not to bring our own supply.
A km further up the dirt road, and down a pathway leading through a landscaped hillside, lay the spectacular remains of Jaulian. Most impressive of the monastery’s remains are a series of stupa bases carved with images of the Buddha, of elephants and Nymph-like temptresses.
Further along the main road, we stopped at Sirsukh, a Kushan city from the first century A.D., where a low wall now overgrown with prickly shrubs and thick grass is all that remains of the city. Next we arrived at Sirkap, a city built by the Greeks in the second century B.C. The main gate, now a mere opening in a short rock wall brought us to an vast paddock stretched wide beneath the blazing sun where a main grassy road travels approximately 500 meters through the ruined houses and temples.
Our next and final stop was the museum, which according to most people is normally closed even though the official summer timings are 9 am to 5:30 pm. We were lucky enough, for the guards diligently ran for their keys upon our arrival and even gave us a guided tour of the small but splendid display. The main hall flaunts in its heart the complete stupa from the Buddhist monastery of Mohra Moradu. To its left is an archaeological map of Taxila which gives you a good idea of the whole landscape. Stone heads of the Buddha, busts of Maitreya, a boddhisatva with a distinct look, gold and glass jewelry, uncomplicated clay vessels, ancient coins, stone tools, surgical instruments, rusted iron door hinges and a clay water distillers etc., all neatly displayed in six distinct section to take you on a trip down the Gandharan lane!
The crammed souvenir shop outside the museum was an absolute delight to look through. The friendly shop owner didn’t have any issues with us thoroughly checking out the stuff he had on for sale, nor did he charge too much for the terracotta duplicates of the stupas, Buddhas and other decorative tiles that according to him are some of Taxila’s bestselling items.
By the time we were done it was time for a late lunch. A mediocre restaurant not far from the museum was our best bet, which turned out to be okay except for its lack of staff and inexcusably slow service.
All in all though, it was a hot July day well spent. I mean, even though the place is like a historian’s heaven in itself, the simple fact that you actually get to walk the terrain Alexander the Great roamed makes the whole Taxila experience greatly mesmerizing.