The guides that force themselves upon you at every Taxila site at the end of the tour show you poorly carved hand-made figures of Buddha, similar in design to those that are carved on the ancient stupas. These replicas are poorly imitated versions of the original. Most of the time they are asymmetrical, the nose is headed in one direction while the arms are unequal. For the carvers of the original sculptors, chiseling out figurines of Buddha, Bodhavista and other supernatural beings was an act of religious devotion, not much different from how Muslim artisans now decorate shrines of Sufis. This is not only a job but an act of worship. The modern imitators of the Buddha figures have no devotional association with the figures they make. It is yet another way of making money, a bit un-Islamic if one espouses to the puritanical school of thought of Islam, but effective.
In the outskirts of the ruins, which is now where the city has moved there are masons working on decorating graves. They carve out floral patterns on them and then carve out the name of the deceased on the tombstone as the demand comes. Here though one can notice the attention to detail. Unlike our guides that we meet at the ruins these are professionals who have been engaged in this art for several generations now.
The two worlds of ancient Taxila and that of today are separated by thousands of years. Many civilizations came and vanished in between these two eras. Today it seems as if these two worlds are not related to each other in any way. The first time I visited the ancient ruins of Taxila I was blown away by what I saw. I particularly enjoyed the site of Julian, believed to be the oldest university in the world where the legendary teacher, Chanakya taught and trained the future conqueror of India Chandra Gupta Maurya. Looking at how the artisans of that time had carved out a civilization out of mountains I could not come to terms with the fact that it is the descendants of those people that populate the region of Taxila today. Where has the sensibilities of that time vanished, I wondered.
In my passion though, I failed to notice a thin thread joining these disparate worlds. Over the years as I visited the ruins at Taxila several times more the connection between the past and the present became clearer. The first link that I noticed was in the form of the tool of the artisans that once beautified a stupa and now beautifies a grave. There is no doubt that an artistic tradition that reached its zenith in the ancient times is still practiced. The stupas have been replaced by graves.
Another of my favorite sites here is that of Mohra Moradu. It was here that I found the most fascinating connection. At the centre of this site which lies in between a giant stupa and an ancient monastery there is a small platform covered by trees. As I walked into the site I noticed colorful pieces of cloth tied on the branches of these trees, next to an Alam. I asked the tour guide about this Muslim shrine. It turns out that this shrine is known as the baithak of the five Sufis. Sometime in the antiquity of religious history five Muslims saints came and mediated in the ruins of this ancient site, sitting under the grove of these trees, believe the locals who frequently visit this place to get the blessings of the saint. But how can that be? These sites were excavated only about a hundred years ago and after that they came under the protection of the Government. It therefore seems highly implausible that these five saints mediated at this archaeological site.
I listened to the story of the guide about this Muslim shrine. “This place is still occupied by spirits. Devotees present eatables to them. They place them at the platform and overnight all the offerings disappear.” This sounded similar to Buddhist tales that must have been part of the religious culture of that time. A few trees are sacred in Buddhist mythology and it is believed that spirits reside in them. Devotees present them food. This was also how monks living in Buddhist monasteries were fed. They were known as Bhikshus, a word from which the contemporary Bhek (beg) is derived from. They were known as Bhikshusbecause they asked for food.
Listening to the story of the guide I knew that there was a deeper connection between the Muslim shrine and the Buddhist monastery than the guide was willing to admit or was even aware of. I believe that when slowly this Buddhist civilization known as the Gandhara civilization faded away after the White Hun conquest its memory remained in the collective consciousness of the people of that region. Over years, tales of monasteries and sacred spaces that were occupied by them became part of the folk tales and the distinction between fiction and fact became blurred. When all signs of the monastery disappeared, the space that it once occupied continued to remain sacred for the people living in the neighbouring villages. This Muslim shrine I believe is reclamation of that sacred space.
I believe that there was no Muslim saint who came here, but that this story was created since this Buddhist monastery has remained a sacred site for the people of this region and one now needed a Muslim shrine to continue regarding this space as sacred.
Haroon Khalid is the author of A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities (Westland Publishers, 2013)