June 16, 2019
Like other places in this ancient land, Taxila has been mentioned from the earliest of times in Vedic texts of 7th century BC and Panini’s grammar treatise of the 5th century BC. The epic Ramayana describes Takshashila as a magnificent city founded by Bharat, the younger brother of Rama. He reputedly also founded Pushkalavati, in present-day Peshawar. The Buddhist Jataka tales mention this same city as the seat of great learning and many are the scholars who traveled here. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian is said to have mentioned it as well. And on it goes with multiple mentions in tales of yore.
Sharing the same history as the rest of Gandhara, Taxila too was a far-flung province of Achaemenid empire and then a major city of the the Mauryan rule, followed by the Indo-Greeks and the Kushan and Gupta empire. And like others, it has yielded relics from all the ages. The museum at Taxila fairly bristles with artifacts. Predictably, I pored over each item, so much so that the self-appointed guide who had attached himself unasked, quickly lost patience and drifted off.
Not just a single city, this is a vast area, with many different sites located in and around the valley, a few kilometers apart. The cities were used at different times at different sites. The excavated items include Buddhist stupas and statuary, pots, bowls and pans and silver jewelry whose designs are chic enough for present day. The headdresses speak of the vast number of nationalities that called this place home. The details on the statues are incredible! Coins of each empire bear their stamps, a lesson in history itself.
There are strangely shaped metal keys and utensils of the iron age and the ribs of a folding chair. There are fragments of writing and even one inscription in Aramaic which mentions Priyadarshi, the Emperor Ashoka, dating it to the 3rd century BC. There are terracotta items of the Harappan civilization dating back to 2900 BC. As in Mohenjo Daro, toys make up a rich palette here too. It even has a terracotta water condenser. Imagine that – a chemistry lab a few thousand years old!
And then there are the sites themselves. Unable to see all of them, I had to limit myself to just four.
Bhir Mound was the second city dating from the Achaemenid period of 6th century BC to the Hellenistic one. Today it lies forgotten in one corner of a field. A pair of goats scavenge nearby while game of football is underway. Low stone walls delineate small enclosures and there are wells now filled with garbage.
Sirkap, yet another site dates from 2nd century BC through 2nd century AD. Its is vast. Arrow-straight stone walls demarcate enclosures, small and large. The large circular areas were once stupas that are no more but a couple smaller ones still remain. Raised platforms, some with pillars must have once housed buildings long gone. The decoration along the edges tell the tale of Greek influence. In one pit near the fortified wall are some bone fragments of denizens from all those years ago.
Another site Dharmarajika, was built in the 2nd century AD. Allegedly this large stupa was built over an earlier one built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. I had seen quite a few relics at the Lahore museum that were excavated here. The gigantic stupa stands with a peripheral path, much like the Bouddhanath stupa in Kathmandu. It must have been a magnificent sight once but it is mostly rubble now, left to decay under the elements. It is the haunt of squirrels and insects and grass grows freely on every available surface. A couple of locked gates reveal a pair of Buddha statues that the caretaker grudgingly opens for me. He is far more interested in selling me a collection of coins which I decline. A lecture on the wrongness of these items being taken out of the country falls on deaf ears.
A few more kilometers out, in the district of KPK is the Jaulian ruin. A set of steps climb uphill to the ruins and the caretaker opens the gate to the main stupa. Seeing my interest, he smilingly leaves me to pore over the interior that is cheek by jowl with stupas. Images of Buddha grace every nook and cranny and every surface of each, some in fairly good condition while others are barely discernable.
Adjacent to it is the monastic complex. A large open area surrounded by enclosures that were monk cells. Every wall must have once been richly decorated but now show just the bones. Like many monasteries of old, and even modern ones, it is located on a hill with a lovely view of the surroundings. Can one ask for a better place to study?