Just an hour’s drive from Islamabad is the archaeological treasure chest that is Taxila. This city at the crossroads of Asia has been center of knowledge and political power since the Vedic era. Although it was already a flourishing settlement since the time of Alexander, it is only in the centuries following his departure that Takshasila (Taxila being the Anglicized spelling) really came into the limelight. The Greco-Buddhist Gandharan tradition blossomed in this region and the various religious complexes in the vicinity of Taxila housed wondrous icons belonging to the Gandharan style. Two of these sites are the Dharmrajika Stupa and the Temple of Jandial.
Other than the Hellenic conqueror Alexander, the other illustrious name associated with Taxila is Ashoka. The third Mauryan Emperor Ashoka was at one time the governor of Taxila during the reign of his father Bindusara. As the Mauryan Empire stretched far to the west, into what is now Central Afghanistan, Taxila lay on the main route between those Western outposts and the Gangetic heartland of the Mauryas in Magadha. At the time of his governorship, Ashoka was not a Buddhist as he accepted the Law of the Enlightened One only after he ascended the Mauryan throne. The largest stupa in Taxila is the Dharamarajika Stupa. This stupa was first constructed on the orders of Ashoka to house relics of the Buddha. The name Dharmarajika means “Of the Dharma Raja” referring to Ashoka. Taxila had been a Buddhist center since before Alexander’s time and before that had been a favorite haunt of other ascetics, also known as Shramanas, belonging to various Indic traditions.
The remains present at the site today are from various different eras in history. It is unclear whether the foundations of the original stupa of Ashoka still stand. The main stupa present today was constructed during the rule of the Indo-Greeks around 100 BCE. It is said that the relics of the Buddha present in Ashoka’s stupa were transferred to the newer stupa. Further additions and improvements were made by the Kushans during their long reign in the Indus Basin and Central Asia. During the Kushan era a large Buddhist monastery was founded around the Dharmarajika stupa. The remains of this monastery surround the main stupa. The monastery was finally abandoned sometime around 500CE following the invasion of the Hephthalites and the resurgence of Hinduism in Gandhara and Punjab.
The best time to visit would be on a sunny winter’s day, when there is less vegetation to obstruct views of the relics
The Dharmarajika Stupa is a very pleasant place to visit, from a purely touristic point of view as well. It is located quite close to the Taxila Museum and to approach it you have to climb up a very well maintained short path crossing a gentle stream and going up a gradual incline until you reach the summit of the small plateau upon which the stupa and monastery are. In September, following the Monsoon, the region is lush green and pleasing to the senses, albeit a bit humid, but the best time to visit would be on a sunny winter’s day, when there is less vegetation to obstruct views of the relics.
The next site we will be examining is the Jandial Temple. Jandial is the name of the small settlement which marks the boundary between the provinces of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the ruins lie on the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa side. The Temple was constructed and added upon during the reigns of three empires, the Indo-Scythians, Indo-Greeks and Indo-Parthians. The prefix “Indo-” illustrates that these peoples were somewhat cut off from their parent populations and had become permanent inhabitants of the Indus region. The temple of Jandial was an important religious establishment for all three and as we shall examine it had elements which could be attributed to each of these cultures respectively.
The temple is located upon a small hillock just off the main road in the middle of the village. The site is well maintained by the Archaeological Department and is periodically cleaned to keep the site clear of the notorious packets of crisps and other snacks associated with local tourists.
The temple was built in the style of a Classical Greek temple dedicated to the Olympian religion. Reconstructions of the Jandial Temple show it to be a structure similar to those found in the Greek Islands and particularly those located on the Aegean Coast of what is now Turkey. The Ionian columns, the bases of which are still standing, make this structure unique as the later Greek influenced structures in Gandhara employed Corinthian style pillars. The temple structure itself might be Greek but what is surprising is that it was not used in the worship of Zeus or Apollo. The temple was dedicated to the faith of those the Greeks had vanquished on their way to India, the Iranians. It is unclear what deities were specifically worshipped at Jandial. Both primary sources and archaeological evidence point to it being used by adherents of some form of Iranic religion but not Zoroastrianism. As there is no evidence for a fire altar, the most important part of a Zoroastrian temple, it has been surmised that this was used for the worship of other pre-Zoroastrian Iranic deities. This would make sense as both the Scythians and the Parthians were adherents of the cults of the old Iranic deities sometimes alongside formal Zoroastrianism and sometimes independent of it. Jandial is the only major archaeological site in Taxila that is not associated with Buddhism.
Every year Buddhist pilgrims from many nations across Asia also visit Taxila, often accompanied by monks who conduct rituals and meditation sessions. These pilgrims are the last vestiges of the ancient world of Gandharan Buddhism
We have just scratched the surface of what Taxila has to offer. Sirkap, Sirsukh, Kunala and Mohra Moradu among many others are places which offer an in depth look into the world of the various dynasties that ruled Gandhara and the beautiful synthesis of East and West that is Gandharan Art. The fact that this world class historical complex is located not in a some remote and difficult to access region but right on the outskirts of a modern capital city makes it a great option for tourists who want to experience the grandeur of the ancient world without roughing it. Every year Buddhist pilgrims from many nations across Asia also visit Taxila, often accompanied by monks who conduct rituals and meditation sessions. These pilgrims are the last vestiges of the ancient world of Gandharan Buddhism and a reminder that the legacy of Gandhara belongs not only to Pakistan but to all of Asia!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk