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.
Pakistan is a unique and blessed state made up of Asia’s most remarkable landscapes. It has diverse geography blended with rich cultures and a long tradition of hospitality mirrored by the people of its country. There is no other country in the world presenting more prospects to trace roots of modern-day humans than Pakistan.
The territory that constitutes today’s Pakistan has for centuries been a cradle of ancient civilizations and home to ancient cultures and dynasties. Tracing its history back from the 9000 years old Neolithic Mehergarh civilization followed by the 5000 years old bronze age Indus Valley Civilization, the 3000 years old Buddhist Gandhara Civilization, the 16th century Mughal Era, the brief Sikh rule, and the 200 years British occupation, until independence in 1947, Pakistan has seen unprecedented events that no other independent sovereign state might have gone through.
Officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the world’s 6th most populous country in South Asia housing more than 212,742,631 people (as per 2017 census). It is the 33rd-largest country encompassing 881,913 square kilometres (340,509 square miles). The country has four provinces – Sindh, Baluchistan, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – and three territories – FATA, Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan – surrounding a well-planned modern capital city, Islamabad, located in the heart of the state.
Pakistan is strategically placed on the crossroads of Asia and divided into three major geographic areas – the northern highlands, the Indus River plains, and the Balochistan Plateau. The country is bordered by the 1046 km coastline of the Arabian Sea in the south, India to the east, China to the northeast, Afghanistan to the northwest, and Iran to the southeast. From the mighty glaciated mountain ranges in the north (Gilgit-Baltistan) to the coastal areas of the south the diverse landscape of Pakistan is rich in alluvial fertile planes, vast deserts, dense forests, plateaus, jungles, flora and fauna, rivers, and lakes.
Pakistan is abundant in tourist attractions.
The northern mountainous part of the country constitutes some parts of KPK (Chitral, Swat, and the Kaghan Valley), Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and the entire Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly northern areas) – making up the westernmost edge of the great Himalayas – a unique playground for adventure lovers. The region is ideal for adventure sports and is known as a haven for nature and adventure lovers.
Gilgit-Baltistan has the honour of hosting world’s highest mountains and longest glaciers located outside the polar region famous for trekking, mountaineering, climbing, white water rafting, mountain & desert jeep safaris, and paragliding. The junction point of three mighty mountain ranges – the Karakoram, the Hindukush, and the Himalaya – and the Pamir mountain range exist in Gilgit-Baltistan. The region has been the melting pot of Buddhism and remained one of the several trade routes of ancient Silk Route – currently the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan and China Pakistan and China at Khunjerab Pass as a trade and tourism artery embellished by more than 100,000 petroglyphs and rock carvings testifying the Buddhist rule, towering mountains with tiny valleys and terraced fields in the backdrop, ancient forts featuring architectural dexterity, and hundreds of years old rich history of the natives.
The central territories of the country feature mostly, dense forests, vast deserts, and fertile lands so abundant in history and culture housing unique landmarks. Its archaeological heritage making up ancient sites such as Moenjo-Daro & Harappa of Indus Valley Civilization as well as Taxila & Takht-i-Bahi of Gandhara Civilization are the spotlights drawing domestic and international visitors in volumes. In addition to these sites, Pakistan boasts a wealth of architecturally significant landmarks, many dating from the Islamic era, Moghul Empire, Sikh rule, and from the British era, located in Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur, Karachi & Peshawar.
Its southern region constituting Sindh and Baluchistan make up archaeological sites, religious landmarks, architectural heritage, lakes, and some of the world’s best golden beaches stretching along the coastal line. The Makran Coastal Highway from Karachi to Gwadar and Jiwani is a unique highway in the world crowned with exclusive tourist attractions. Pakistan hosts six of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and several dozens of sites still lined up to be declared the World Heritage.
The country’s major cities reflect historic and modern influences. The people of different colors and creeds having diverse cultural backgrounds living in different parts of these cities belonging to diverse ethnic groups, practicing their own faiths, wearing colorful costumes speaking some of the world’s distinct languages, consuming rich diet, maintaining and harmonious society are known as the most hospitable people present a true image of the country.
Pakistan is accessible by road from China via Khunjerab border, from Afghanistan via Khyber Pass (currently closed), From Iran via Taftan border and from India via the Wahga border. By air, Pakistan is accessible from several countries directly and indirectly. A number of international flag carriers fly to the major airports of Pakistan including Islamabad, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Sialkot, and Karachi.
The region’s four distinct seasons, its countless landmarks including the highest mountain ranges and longest glaciers outside polar region, crystal blue lakes, gushing rivers, longest highways, trekking routes, terraced fields, monuments, cuisines, and cultural diversity are what make it a distinguished region and draw tourists in volumes.
The Deosai National Park is the second largest alpine plateau in the world covering an area of 3626 sq. km. The region is one of the few areas of the world to hold a vast natural expanse of exceptional natural scenery and wealth of wildlife. Deosai Park can be reached from Skardu directly and from Gilgit via Astore through a scenic road.
The park is located at an elevation of 13600 feet above the sea level, at the junction of 04 major mountain ranges – The Karakoram, Ladakh range (Trans-Himalaya), Zanskar range (Trans-Himalaya), and Himalaya in the rugged Northern region – between Skardu and Astore districts in Gilgit-Baltistan territory of Pakistan. The national park also serves as a major tourist attraction in Gilgit-Baltistan drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
Deosai, basically a combination of two words, Deo and Sai, literally means Land of Giants and also referred to as Roof of the Earth. For decades a myth prevailed that the region was haunted by giants and the name “Land of Giants” thus came into being. Local people of Baltistan, however, call this place ‘Ghbiarsa’ referring to ‘summer’s Place’ because it is only accessible in summer.
The park is a protected area and divided into several zones some of which are restricted. The core zone is a specially protected area for the Brown Bear. Tourists can only visit certain zones. Deosai being a prime tourist attraction visited by a massive amount of domestic and international tourists each year.
The park is abundant in natural beauty with its vast expanses covered by wildflowers. There are multiple streams and lakes teaming with trout fish and major spots to stay for overnight. some of the major attractions include:
Sheosar Lake is the mole on the cheek of Deosai Plains and the entire lake is surrounded by hills crowned with snow and its immediate surroundings have green patches covered with wildflowers.
Kala Pani or the black water is a major campsite by a stream called Kala Pani while driving from Sheosar lake towards Skardu. This water stream is called Kala ( Black ) Pani (water) because it looks almost black from a fair distance. However, the water is actually crystal clear and freezing. The campsite is located at a low altitude, surrounded by small green hills, ideal for camping by avoiding the chilly nighttime winds.
Bara Pani is a local name to indicate the Larger Water stream flowing from the top of icy mountains of Deosai. Bara Pani is located between Kala Pani and Ali Malik Mar Pass ( Deosai Top ). Bara Pani is an ideal campsite surrounded by a vast stretch of the park and snow-crowned mountains.
Ali Malik Mar Pass (Deosai Top) is about 30km uphill drive from Skardu town and is part of an adventurous half day excursion. While driving from Astore side, it is the end of Deosai plains before descending to Skardu.
Shatoung Nala is an uphill gorge leading up to Deosai from Skardu surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The freshwater stream flowing all the way is the primary source of water of the Sadpara Lake in Skardu.
There are a number of trails to explore but the best one is to walk along the jeep track and around the Sheosar Lake to explore the vast expanse of the park.
One can go fishing by acquiring a valid license. Nights are special when the sky is clear to observe Milky Way galaxy in a deafening silence.
Those who wish to spend a night at Deosai must carry tents and food unless there is confirmed arrangements for accommodation and food. Heavy rains sometimes make movement difficult and to be on the safe side careful planning and necessary arrangements must be made in advance.
Flora and Fauna
The Deosai National Park was established in December 1993 by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan with the prime objective to conserve the rare wildlife. The park makes up one of the last frontiers of natural habitat for the Himalayan brown bear – a rare species once roamed the mountains freely. The park currently has about 20-28 Brown bears. The population of the Brown Bear is growing since strict conservation measures were taken.
The national park is home to a variety of significant species of wildlife. Himalayan Ibex, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Red Fox, wolf, the Ladakh urial, the snow leopard and Golden Marmot are among the 18 different mammals exist. There are three types of fresh-water fishes and 209 bird Species (both resident and migratory) including Honred lard, Citrine Wagtail, Mountain Finch, Eastern Swift, and Craig Martin.
Deosai Plateau is poised between sub-alpine and glacial fields where only the shrubs and forbs are found and no tree can be sited at all. The park is also famous for its variety of medicinal and aromatic plant species. There are 342 species of plants belonging to 142 genera and 36 families. Notable plant species include Artemisia, Aconitum, Jurinea, Rheum, Mentha, Swertia, Valeriana, Verbascum, Viola, Potentilla, Ephedra, Thymus, Saussurea, and Bunium.
The park remains snowbound throughout most of the year and is only accessible for about four to five to six months from June to November. Its environment is characterized by extreme cold coupled with low atmospheric pressure and low oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. One must be cautious about aridity and intense and rapid solar ultraviolet radiation. The Deosai plain receives higher rainfall than adjoining northern and northeastern valleys of Baltistan due to its geographical location facing the monsoon affected outer Himalayas. The weather during the months of July and August remains pleasant. However, most times it is unpredictable as it even snows in July and August sometimes. Annual precipitation varies from 350 to 550 mm., mostly received during winter as snow. Average daily temperature ranges from -20C in winters and 12 C in July and August.
Deosai National Park is accessible both from Skardu district in the north and Astor valley in the west. It is about 9 to 10 hrs journey from Gilgit to Skardu via Astore and Deosai or vice versa unless there is an overnight stay plan either in Astor or anywhere at the National Park. While visiting Deosai tourists usually spend a night in Astore valley to visit Rama valley and Rama Lake. Others prefer to spend an additional night in Deosai, preferably at Sheosar Lake or other designated campsites. A 4WD is the recommended conveyance because of the altitude and road condition.