Throne of Origins
Thursday, December 27, 2012
This article appeared in the Daily Nation
The actual “Road to Swat” bifurcates from the great Grand Trunk Road near Nowshera. About a kilometre below the highest point on the Road to Swat, the commuters can see the view of Takht-e-Bahi Mountains in the middle distance standing from the road. The ruins of one of the grand monastery of the past are situated on the top of a 152-meter high hill, about 80 kilometres from Peshawar and 16 kilometres northwest of the city of Mardan. While Swat is famous for different reasons now (rise and fall of the Taliban), some interested people still commuters to visit Takht-e-Bahi - a Buddhist monastery developed between 1st and 7th centuries AD.
A lot of tea shops are found every where in Pakistan but they are certainly more in North West Frontier Province and even more on the way to Takht-e-Bahi. One can spend an enjoyable time sitting in these roadside eateries meeting interesting people. Have famous Chappal Kabab in the town and hire a transport from Main Bazaar for village of Sahr-e-Bahlol, which occupies an extensive mound containing the remains of an ancient monastery. The site is located on the northern flanks of a rocky spur gradually rising above the idyllic plains and well tended fields.
Of all the Buddhist monasteries built through the length and breadth of Gandhara, Takht-e-Bahi is most renowned and the most splendid. The reputation is based partly on its state of preservation, its careful restoration, and partly on its location.
The monastery of Takht-e-Bahi was first discovered in 1852 by Lieutenant Lumsden and Lieutenant Stokes. The remains were earlier mentioned by General Court, the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836. In 1871, Sergeant Wilcher found innumerable sculptures at Takht-e-Bahi - some depicted stories from the life of Buddha, while others more devotional in nature included the Buddha and Bodhisattava. The first scientific excavations on the site were carried out between 1907, 1911 and than in 1913. Unfortunately the results were never properly coordinated and recorded and so no sequence has ever been established for the site of intrinsic value. The extensive remains of the Buddhist monastic establishment or Sangharama were placed on the World Heritage List in 1980. These remains are sometime known as the "throne of origins".
Gandhara, an ancient region of northern Pakistan containing Swat Valley, Peshawar area, and the north Indus Plain, was a heartland of early Buddhist development. According to the lore, the Buddhas came to this part of the world stopping at Taxila and Peshawar. While Buddhism has left this area, signs of Gandhara are still spread all around.
The Takht-e-Bahi Complex, a gigantic Buddhist establishment comprises several well-knit units: Court of Many Stupas, Monastery, Main Stupa, Assembly Hall, Low Level Chambers, Courtyard, Court of Three Stupas, Wall of Colossi and some secular buildings. All these structures are built in grey-colored limestone, in mud mortar. The excavations at Takht-e-Bahi and Shar-e-Bahlol have yielded a large number of fine sculptures of Buddha, Boddisattavas and other deities, both in stone and stucco. Other valuable antiquities have also been found in the vicinity.
Being of outstanding quality and significance, the remains of Takht-e-Bahi have received much attention of the conservators. Consequently, conservation work on the site has been carried out periodically. The recent conservation works are a good example of a judicious mix of traditional as well as modern conservation practice. However, the residential buildings too, need the attention of conservators. Across the hill there are buildings along the ridges: some mediation locations, some guard towers, some monks’ cells.
The main site is located on a hilltop. Much of the friezes and statuary were removed between 1907 and 1913, some of which can be seen on site and in museums in the country. Around this site are many smaller stupas and monasteries, but the amazing views from Takht-e-Bahi alone makes this monastery worth the long hike up. From the top of the hill behind monastery one can look down across the plains as far as Peshawar on one side and up to the Malakand Pass and the hills of Swat on the other. The famous post where young officer (later British Prime Minister) Churchill served during World War is also across the Malakand Hills nearby but cannot be seen from the top.
The old text throws light on the architecture of the monastery. The village is built on the ruins of the ancient town, the foundation walls of which are still in an identifiable condition. As a proof, that it was in the past occupied by the Buddhists and Hindu races, coins of those periods are still found at the site.
The monks constructed it for their convenience. Spring water was supplied to them on hill tops; living quarters for ventilators for light and alcoves for oil lamps were made in the walls. From the description of Song Yun, a Chinese pilgrim, it appears that it was on one of the four great cities lying along the important commercial route to India. It was a well-fortified town with four gates outside the northern one, on the mound known as Chajaka Dehri which was a magnificent temple containing beautiful stone images covered in gold leaves. Not far from the rocky defile of Khaperdra did Ashoka build the eastern gate of the town outside of which existed a stupa and a sangharama.
The Court of Stupas is surrounded on three sides by open alcoves or chapels. The excavators were of the view that originally they contained single plaster statues of Buddha sitting or standing dedicated in memory of holy men or donated by rich pilgrims. The monastery on the north was probably a double storied structure consisting of an open court, ringed with cells, kitchens and a refectory.
A visit to Takht-e-Bahi is an informative experience particularly to those interested in archaeological excavations. Walking further, you will come across the monastery court which was a residential area and as such a small number of sculptures were recovered. However, a beautiful emaciated Siddhartha in three parts was discovered. Likewise the other courts with Buddha's images in stucco are equally interesting and they were used either for meditation, meetings or storage. A truly majestic place!
Monastery was a remarkable institution once upon a time. The final indication of its importance is provided by the spread of stone domestic buildings over the surrounding hill. For the most part two storied, often with sophisticated staircase, they were originally plastered externally with lime mortar as well as decorated internally.
Bake in town, short distance from Takht-e-Bahi is another site called Shahbaz Garhi. One can go to see “Ashoka minors” there. Shahbaz Garhi is a small archaeological town that was once visited by Alexander from Macedonia. In Pashto there is a proverb that says “da staro zai shahbaz garha wee” meaning Shahbaz Garhi is for the tired to rest. It is said that this was the point where many invaders (including Alexander) had stayed to recoup their energies. Next to Shahbaz Garhi one can also visit Kara Mar Hill. A folk story of Yousuf Khan and Sher Bano is associated with this place. Remember the first ever Pashto film entitled Yousuf Khan Sher Bano!
The NWFP possesses a unique cultural heritage – from the Stone Age to the Islamic period. Still the tourism in the province is in on embryonic state. In the age when tourism has become one of the biggest industry, the need is that the out side world be told about the treasures hidden in the region.
posted by S A J Shirazi @ 8:00 AM,
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