The Manthal Buddha Rock in Skardu is a 9th century Buddha relief on the natural flat surface of a large granite rock. Resting on the edge of Manthal village, overlooking the town of Skardu, it is a significant relic of Buddhism at Skardu town in Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan. The Buddha Rock is a famous tourist attraction and an iconic archaeological heritage representing the “rich glory of the past”. The Manthal Buddha Rock was not known to the world until Jane E. Duncan, a British traveller, documented it in the early 20th century. There are several other interesting and unique petroglyphs present in the region yet to be unveiled to the world.
Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the 4th century, Baltistan was the land of Shamanism. The monks from northern India came and built monasteries during the Palolashahi kingdom that ruled the area. Buddhism continued to flourish after the Tibetan conquest of the region in the second quarter of the 8thCentury. The era between 8th and 10th centuries, therefore, is believed to be the “Golden Era of Buddhism” in the Upper Indus Valley.
Buddhism was the major religion of the time and Buddha was engraved on several rock pieces found so far in Gilgit-Baltistan. Historically, the migration of Buddhist people of Gandhara through the mountain kingdom of Gilgit-Baltistan allowed them to settle in different areas. During their stay, they engraved different images including drawings of Stupas, images of Buddha, expression of their experiences, and at some rocks imprinted texts in Kharoshti language.
Several Buddha carvings including Manthal Buddha rock in Skardu, carvings of stupas and Buddhist reliefs in Shigar and Khaplu in Baltistan; Karga Buddha and the Hanzal Stupa in Gilgit, rock carvings in the premises of KIU (Karakoram International University) in Gilgit; Rock carvings on the main KKH (Karakoram Highway) near Hunza (Haldikish); and hundreds of petroglyphs scattered along the KKH are the imprints left by the Buddhist caravans during the time of Buddhist height in the region.
It was the time the region was the epicentre of Buddhism and Islam was still not known to the people of the area. However, almost centuries passed ever since Buddhists have disappeared from the region, but Buddhism is still alive in the form of rock carvings and petroglyphs. Yet, sadly, the rich heritage is ignored and almost forgotten.
The arrival of Ali Hamadani and his followers from Iran in the 14th century changed the dynamics of the region forever. Buddhism gradually vanished, and the places of worship fell into despair. Locals embraced Islam and by the 15th century, the region became purely a Muslim state.
Art on the Manthal Buddha Rock
The Manthal Buddha Rock that stands gracefully even today has in the past been a place of ultimate significance. Bearing testimony to a tradition that has already disappeared, the Manthal Buddha still has the makings of a heritage site.
The triangular shaped rock measuring 20-foot wide and 30-foot high is decked with significant sculptures and inscriptions carved during the period of Buddhist sovereignty in the region. The front face has a dexterous carving of a huge sculpture of a meditating Buddha surrounded by 20 Bodhisattvas and two vicegerents (future Buddhas) standing on either side. According to Buddhist tradition, the convention of all Buddhas, from past to future, as represented on the Manthal Rock, is called ‘Mandal’ from which the name of the village Manthal is derived.
The apex of the Buddha rock is coloured black. The hole right over the head of the meditating Buddha, measuring four-inch-high and wide, was used as a fireplace and the surrounding of the fireplace is therefore coloured black. According to a myth, visitors try to throw pebbles inside the hollow box believing that success would mean a wish come true. The Tibetan script on the rock, being incomplete and not easily decipherable, could not be translated clearly even by experts.
It was also believed that there was a platform to perform religious practices on the eastern side of the rock. Likewise, the area right behind the rock was spared to provide medical facilities by the Lamas. However, the actual platform does not exist anymore, and it was all believed to have washed.
Location and Access
Manthal Buddha is located about 3 kilometres from Satpara (also known as Sadpara) Road that leads to Satpara Lake in Skardu. The town of Skardu has an airport and PIA operates flights on daily basis yet subject to weather condition. By road, Skardu is accessible from Islamabad in almost 24 hours along the KKH. One can also fly to Gilgit and travel to Skardu by road. Currently, the Gilgit-Skardu road is under construction; once it is completed may take around 3 to 4 hours as compared to more than 7 hours now.
The relics of the imposing Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and Sahr-i-Bahlol are two major Buddhist sites 5 kilometres apart from each other. Both important sites are located in Mardan city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has once remained a major city of Gandhara civilization. Both sites date from the same era – early 1st century – and made up to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan in 1980.
Takht-i-Bahi: Brief overview
Takht-i-Bahi is a combination of two Persian words Takht & Bahi where Takht means “top” or “throne” while Bahi stands for “spring” or “water”. According to locals, the term refers to two springs on a nearby hill and thus symbolizing a “high spring”. The other yet credible notion is the term referring to as Throne of Origin which is a context widely used.
The Takht-i-Bahi grand monastery is situated on the flank of about 36.6 meters to 152.4 meters high hills. It is about 2 km east of Takht-e-Bahi bazaar on Mardan-Swat road. The main monastic complex is about 60 meters above the surrounding plains. There are a number of ruins stretching on the mountain around the main complex which can all be viewed from the top.
The scenic view from the top of the crest behind Takht-i-Bahi archaeological relics makes the hike up the worth of visit. One can see, across the plains, as far as Peshawar on one side and the Malakand Pass and the beautiful hills of Swat on the other. Sometimes fog covers the region in winters making it is even impossible to sight even the nearby Takht-i-Bahi bazaar and Mardan city.
The monastery of Takht-i-Bahi was first discovered by European Lieutenants Lumsden and Stokes in 1852. The remains, however, were mentioned in 1836 by General Court, the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Later in 1871, Sergeant Wilcher found numerous sculptures from the site depicting life stories of Buddha. For detailed information excavation was carried out in 1911 to 1913. However, the outcome never turned to be as expected due to lack of proper recording. The site underwent major restoration in 1920.
Historically the monastery was in continuous use from 1st century B.C. to 7th century A.D. Archaeologist divide the history of the complex into four distinct periods.
It was believed that the monastic complex was founded in 1st century B.C. The basis serving as proof are the inscriptions found bearing the name of Gondophares (20-46 A.D.). The place then fell under the first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Likewise, in the second century, it came under Kushan king Kanishka, the Parthian and then again, the Kushan Kings.
Similarly, the second period which largely is believed as the creation of the Stupa Court and Assembly hall period is during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.
The third period is associated with the later Kushan dynasty as well as the Kidara Kushana rulers occurred during the 4th and 5th centuries.
The last construction period relates to the creation of the Trantic complex in 6th and 7th centuries which was overseen by invading Hun rulers.
Two different notions prevail regarding the destruction and abolishing of the site. According to historians White Huns of Central Asia destroyed the site along with other Gandhara sites. But according to the other account, one of the kings destroyed 1600 Stupas and monasteries and killed about two-thirds of Gandhara population. Thus, it was abandoned.
The remains comprise of four main areas of the complex which are:
- The main “Stupa Court” is a cluster of Stupas around a central courtyard.
- The monastic chambers comprising of individual cells around a courtyard.
- A temple complex consisting of several Stupas
- The dark cells with low openings in the basement constructed for meditation
It is also believed that a number of other double-storey structures which may have served as residence or assembly halls also exist in the main complex as well as in the surroundings. The structure is all built with grey colored limestone in mud mortar. The reputation of this splendid complex, indeed, is based on its state of preservation and its prime location. Its location, hence, made it invincible from successful invasions.
The second component is the neighboring city remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol. It is also pronounced as Seri Bahlol or Sehri Behlol. The ruins at Sahr-i-Bahlol are the remains of a small fortified town from Kushan period. The mound is about 9 meters high surrounded by a stone fortified wall. It was constructed around 3,000 years ago covering 9.7 hectares. The wall has damaged at several places.
The site contains remains of Buddha which have not properly been excavated. The local people, however, carried out illegal excavations to erect their own properties by building houses. As a result of excavations, people are said to have found antiques such as statues, coins, jewellery, and utensils. The covered site is surrounded by fertile fields. The site is now in danger of extinction due to continuous constructions.
The name Seri Bahlol refers to the combination of two Hindi words Sehir, Sheri, or Sri. and Bahlol. “Sheri or Sri” means Sir and “Bahlol” the name of a prominent political and religious leader of the area. On the contrary, another account explains Sahri-i-Bahlol as the city of Bahlol.
Mardan city is about 80 kilometers from the main Peshawar city and can be reached in an hour and a half. It is about 150 kilometers from Islamabad and takes some 2.5 hours to reach. A day excursion from both cities is possible and both sites can be explored.
Takht-i-Bahi monastery, with a guarding view of the city, is situated on the crest of a small hill about 16 kilometers northwest of main Mardan city. The other component is the remains of the walled city of Sahr-i-Bahlol located to the left side of Mardan-Swat road about 12 kilometres from main Mardan city.
The legendary Kargah Buddha is a 7th century Buddha figure carved deep into the solid rock. The three-meter (ten-foot) high imposing Buddha sculpture is located in Kargah Nullah (ravine) about 10km south of Gilgit town in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. There are a number of famous short outings from the town and an excursion to Kargah Buddha is unique and a must visit trip.
Gilgit is the capital town and administrative center of Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region rich in the cultural and historic background. Strategically located at the intersection of ancient Silk Route, Gilgit has remained a major stopover for caravans making it a key trade center for centuries. The route passing through Gilgit is one of the several courses of the grand Silk Route – the extensive network of roads – connecting China in the east to Mediterranean in the west.
Besides trade of silk, spices and other goods, this network of routes has played a vital role in the transmission of cultures and religions as a result of interaction between the regions of China, Central Asia, Kashmir, Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, and India. The introduction of a rich cultural heritage and spread of Buddhism in Gilgit and surrounding regions is deeply linked to the movement along the Silk Route. Historical facts reveal that religious Buddhist caravans used to stay in a monastery here while passing through Gilgit.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH), built mostly on the ancient silk route, is rich in rock art containing more than 10,000 images of Buddha, Stupas, animals, and carvings in more than ten languages suggest evolution and sovereignty of Buddhism in the region which lasted from 1st till 7th century A.D. Karga Buddha in Gilgit is also the part of rock art and reminiscent of Buddhist dominance in the region. It was believed that the image of Buddha was carved on the rock in order to pay tribute to Lord Buddha by performing religious rituals and worshipping.
Karga Buddha was discovered along with ruins of a Buddhist monastery and three stupas about 400 meters upriver from the Buddha itself in 1938-39 following the discovery of so-called Gilgit manuscripts in 1931. The manuscripts, written in Sanskrit, contain important information on the local rulers of the region and renowned pilgrims. It also features Buddhist text which testifies the existence of a learned community in the region. All the manuscripts found in the region between 1939 and 1956 have been moved and distributed to the British museum, and museums in Rome, Delhi, and Karachi.
There is yet another interesting myth about Karga Buddha devised by and famous amongst the local residents. According to the legend, once upon a time there lived an ogress called Yakhshini whom local people wanted to get rid of as it used to eat human flesh. The villagers asked a passing saint for help and the saint was said to have succeeded in pinning her to the rock. The series of whole making the boundary around the Buddha are actually believed pinhole holding ogress tight. Later the saint declared that she won’t bother them as long as the saint was alive. And if they buried the saint at the foothills of the rock, she would never be freed. The saint was said to have buried right below the Buddha statue.
The ancient metropolis of Taxila is a town located in Punjab district of Pakistan north of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad (the capital city). The name Taxila was derived from the Sanskrit term Taksasila, literally, means “city of cut stones”. It is an important archaeological site founded in the late 1800s by a renowned archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham. Taxila was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan in 1980.
The pre-historic era of Taxila is associated with microlithic hunters of the period before 3500 BC. The evidence of the three important caves discovered, particularly the one at Khanpur tracing history back to Stone Age. However, the small mound unearthed by prominent late prof. Hasana Dani at Saraikala proved the existence of agricultural communities that developed around 3000 BC. Moreover, axes, chisels, spatulas and a variety of handmade pottery has also been found from the site.
The town spreads over an area of 30 km sq. and has more than 50 archaeological sites. Most of the sites of Taxila (600 BC to 500 AD) are located around the Taxila museum. Three distinct cities: Bhir Mound, Julian, and Mohra Moradu are in a very good state of preservation, decked with images of Buddha in stone and stucco. Other structural remains include Sirsukh, Dharmarajika, Mohra Moradu, Jandial and Pippala temples; the Giri fortress; and the Dharmarajika, Bhallar, and Kunala stupas (burial mounds). The type of masonry used indicates their respective period of origin and all the important stages of the great sage’s life.
Brief Political history of Taxila
Taxila, the main centre of Gandhara, has for centuries been an abode of peace and knowledge. The city once flourished as the hub of Buddhism and a great centre of learning. Its prosperity originally resulted from its location at the crossroads of three great trade routes – the Royal Highway from Eastern India, from Western Asia, and from Central Asia respectively.
Historically Taxila was ruled by several empires. Achaemenid Empire began in 6th century BC followed by Alexander the Great in 326 BC. Alexander, however, could not remain for too long and the legacy passed on to the Mauryan dynasty in 321 BC. It reached a remarkably mature development level under Asoka the Great who influenced Buddhism and moulded the city into a great centre of learning. However, with the death of Asoka in 232BC, the dynasty also collapsed.
Indo-Greeks remained for a brief period till 190 BC and then came Scythians who ruled from 2ndcentury to the middle of 1st century BC. Under the Indo-Greek descendants of Alexander’s warrior, Taxila finally came to the most creative period of Gandhara. The final and longest period of the ruling was enjoyed by the Kushans who invaded in 50AD from 1st to 5th century before the White Huns destroyed the region in the 5th century.
Taxila University, however, is believed to have existed even before Asoka (7th century BC) where philosophers gathered to have their own schools of thought and imparted instructions. By the time of the Buddha, it rose to be a strong educational centre where instructions were given in military science, medicine, political science, philosophy, religion, language and literature, and grammar.
Taxila, Swat, and Charsadda (old Pushkalavati) became three important centres for culture, trade, and learning and hundreds of monasteries and stupas were built together with Greek and Kushan towns such as Sirkap and Sirsukh. Gandhara civilization was not only the centre of spiritual influence but also the cradle of the world famous Gandhara culture, art, and learning. It was from these centres that a unique art of sculpture originated which is known as Gandhara Art all over the world.
The ivy-covered Gothic-style museum of Taxila houses rich archaeological finds. It is one of the well-maintained museums in Pakistan frequently visited by local and foreign tourists. Its caskets are decked with a rich collection of coins, jewellery, surgical instruments, vessels, grinders, rare inscriptions, plaster and terra-cotta figures, and stone and stucco sculptures arranged in chronological order and properly labelled.
Taxila Museum remains open from 08:30 am to 05:30 pm during summers (1st April — 30th September). While during winters (1st October — 31st March) visit timings are from 09:00 am to 04:00 pm. The museum, however, remains closed on the first Monday of every month and obviously during Muslim religious holidays.
The archaeological remains around Taxila include stupas, mounds, and ancient cities the brief account of which is detailed as below.
The earliest city of Bhir Mound dates from the 6th century BC Achaemenid period to 2nd Century BC Bactrian-Greek period. It was built on a small plateau in the open fields and situated on the ancient trade route. Earliest findings of the city as evidence included cramped houses of early rubble and irregular streets. However, the consistent masonry of Mauryan era and later from thick coating to lime coating plaster in the Indo-Greek period shows the period of maturity. King Ambhi received Alexander the great and his armies in Bhir Mound. Its glorious history ended with the Bactrian Greeks built Sirkap as a well-planned city.
Sirkap was built by Bactrian Greek king Demetrius around 180 BC when he invaded South Asia. It became the major city of Taxila with Greek influence in city planning. The city once said to have covered with 6-meter thick rubble wall running for 5 km. It was first identified and excavated in 1912 and more detailed excavation was carried out in 1944 & 45 by Mortimer Wheeler and his team.
The city of Sirkap is located on the opposite side of the Tamara Stream. The remains of the layout of Sirkap city indicate a well-planned construction. The sides of the main street are decked with houses of the affluent and the farther cramped settlements dwelt by the common people. It had evidence of having a sophisticated drainage system for runoff water and soak wells for sewage. The main street also has, till date, Royal Residence, Sun Temple, Apsidal Temple, Double Headed Eagle Stupa and the Jain Temple. Valuable finds include gold and silver jewellery in a house near the Stupa and Indian punch-marked bent bar coins. Sirkap flourished under several regimes including Greeks, Scythians, Parthians and finally the Kushans.
Sirkap enjoyed the kingdom until 10 BC and lost its significance when King Kanishka of the Kushans founded Sirsukh. The narrow strip of fortifications around the Lundi rivulet adjoining the walls on one side has revealed coin hoards. These coins belonged not only to Kushan rulers but also dating to the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It is the evidence that the city was dwelt for at least 1000 years after its original foundation.
Sirsukh is the third and comparatively the modern city built by the Kushan Kings in the 1st century A.D. Roughly it is rectangular in shape with no significant defence system. Sirsukh is patterned after Central Asian cities. Though not fully excavated due to the local forming, clearly it is a well-fortified city.
Dharmarajika stupa was established by the Maurya emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC to house the relics of the Buddha. It is located 3kms east of Taxila Museum. It is one of the eight shrines and considered to be the earliest Buddhist monument in Pakistan. Dharmarajika stupa is also popularly known as Chir Tope. Beside stupa, it also has a monastic area located in the north.
The partially ruined stupa was once coated with lime plaster and gilding. The seven-tier umbrella stone crowned the top of the stupa while the main monastery and the series of annexing chapels were inhabited by monks. Findings from the site included a wealth of silver and gold coins, gems, jewellery, and other antiques. It reached the heights of size and fame in the 2nd century A.D.
Julian site in Taxila is an impressive site in Haripur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan located at a fair altitude. It comprised of several erections consisting of two main parts – The main stupa and the monastery & the University of Julian.
The main stupa is comprised of 21 votive stupas and some of the stupas are believed to be tombs of revered monks. The famous “healing Buddha statue” is also located in Julian. Believers put their finger in the naval whole and pray for the ailment or fulfilment of wishes.
The monastery consists of a 28 students’ rooms, a stone staircase for second-floor rooms with the same setting, and statues of Buddhas in front of some of the rooms surrounding a pool for washing. The monastery also has a spacious assembly hall, a kitchen, storerooms, and bathrooms. Moreover, there is a stone for grinding spices for the preservation of food. The other two stone mills were used to grind different types of grains. The hole made in one of the brick stones of the kitchen wall was used for placing large spoons.
The monastery was burnt in 455 CE by the White Huns and thus destroyed.
Mohra Moradu is another well-preserved monastery located between Sirkap and Julian. It was heavily damaged for treasure and the main stupa was split apart. However, the lower portion was protected. The monastery once served as a place of meditation. The monastic cells surrounding stupa are badly damaged.
Jandial Temple (2nd Century B.C. to 2nd Century A. D.)
The remains of the classic Greek style imageless Jandial temple is about 1.5kms north of Sirkap. It is one of the unique buildings in Central Asia closely following the paradigm of the temples of classical Greece.
At 512 m. above sea level, Taxila is a place anyone can visit. The temperature in peak summers is sometimes unbearable soaring to a maximum of over 40 C. The winters, however, are delightfully cool and pleasant with temperatures ranging between 5 – 15 C. September to March is the best season for a visit. The summer season is from April to September.
Taxila is about 35 km north of Rawalpindi and 45 km from the nearby capital city of Islamabad. Roughly it is about 01-hour drive from both cities.