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.