Megaliths are ancient stone structures which are found throughout the world. The cultures who built these monuments were usually at an earlier state of civilization and so they tend to be associated with the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. They are amongst some of the earliest examples of large-scale architecture. As not much is known about these structures, they lend themselves to more unorthodox explanations including the supernatural, lost knowledge and other fringe theories.
The megalith at Asota Sharif in the Swabi District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is the largest stone circle in Pakistan and is a very interesting place to explore.
My morning started as usual, lying around in bed enjoying the air-conditioning, having spent the entire previous day baking around the shores of Mangla Dam in an unsuccessful bid to catch fish. After getting out of bed and going to my kitchenette to make a cup of coffee, I noticed a gecko stuck in the sink. After relocating the pesky reptile outside and making coffee, I got back in bed and started my morning ritual of wasting time on Twitter/YouTube/TikTok. Just as I was getting comfortable, I received a message saying that my awaited Covid vaccination appointment was approved (vaccinations for those in their 30s had just opened up a week ago) and that I had to go to the mass vaccination centre in F9 Park that very day. Knowing that the earlier I reached the venue the better my prospects of getting a shot would be, I got dressed, put on my sunglasses and reached the centre. I got a jab of SinoVac and was out in half an hour.
Upon returning home, I told my brother Hammad to get ready and within half an hour, we were on the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway. The megalith is located in the village of Asota Sharif, which is close to the border of Swabi and Mardan. We initially tried looking for it within the town but found out that it is just off the main road connecting Swabi and Mardan. In the photos I had seen of it beforehand, the stones did not look too impressive but in reality they are quite large and the arrangement is in a near perfect semi-circle. It must have been a complete circle in the past perhaps, consisting of multiple circles within each other as there are plenty of stones which have been unearthed lying behind the standing ones. Megaliths exist throughout much of Pakistan, with most being concentrated in the far South and again in Gilgit-Baltistan in the North. In between are the megaliths in Swat and, of course, the one that we are discussing here, Asota Sharif, which is also the largest and best preserved one in Pakistan.
We do not know much about this megalith but it’s safe to assume that it predates the Gandharan Civilization and even the Buddha himself. British Raj-era archaeologists surmised that it must have been built around 400 BCE when the region was controlled by the Achaemenid Persian Empire
When one thinks of the Peshawar Valley in a historical context, the mind immediately conjures up images of the fabled Gandharan Buddhist culture. We do not know much about this megalith but it’s safe to assume that it predates the Gandharan Civilization and even the Buddha himself. British Raj-era archaeologists surmised that it must have been built around 400 BCE when the region was controlled by the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Later Pakistani research concluded that it was somehow linked to the Indo-Aryan expansion into South Asia around 1500 BCE as grave sites pertaining to that culture have been found nearby.
In fact, it might be far older. The ancient South Asian hunter gatherers, whose descendants are today known as Adivasis in India, created elaborate rock paintings and erected megaliths from a very ancient date. And this site, too, is perhaps their work. How they built such a monument without iron tools is a mystery. The Gond Adivasis in Central India still constructed stone circles right up to the 1800s. I read a paper published by the Australian National University about the racial/ethnic origins of the megalith builders in South Asia and its conclusion was that they were built by the ancient indigenous inhabitants of the Subcontinent. As this publication was from the 1970s and did not include genetic data – back then the science of genetics was still in its infancy – this cannot be taken as an absolute fact, but it is an analysis that otherwise makes sense.
Coming back to the site, much like other megaliths in South Asia, there are many folk tales surrounding the Asota Sharif Stone Circle. They include some stories about how the stones were living people who were petrified due to a curse or that it was a shrine built by the Emperor Ashoka.
Where ever they are located, megaliths tend to attract those interested in the occult and in India they are often the venue for Tantric black magic rituals. I did not find any evidence for such unsavoury activities occurring at Asota. But I did make an observation which has escaped archaeologists. Megaliths often served some astrological purpose, meaning at certain times of the year the sun or stars would align with the stones in a particular way. I noticed that one of the rocks/pillars had straight horizontal lines etched upon it: starting from ground level up to about three feet up. Such etchings were missing from the other stones and this engraved pillar may have served some ritualistic or perhaps astrological purpose.
From a touristic standpoint, the megalith is a very interesting place to see. It is easily accessible from Islamabad or Peshawar and lies in close proximity to many later Gandharan archaeological sites
From a touristic standpoint, the megalith is a very interesting place to see. It is easily accessible from Islamabad or Peshawar and lies in close proximity to many later Gandharan archaeological sites in the area. The element of mystery that surrounds all megaliths is an added draw. The region that it is located in is also quite picturesque. Drier and hillier than other parts of the Peshawar Valley, Swabi is a unique place where the southernmost foothills of the Hindu Raj, which extends from there right up to the Boroghil and Ishkoman Passes where it merges with the Pamirs, mingle with the foothills of the Himalayas in Hazara across the Indus. The Tarbela reservoir, the world’s largest earth-filled dam, is also nearby.
After making some observations and taking some pictures, it was time to head back. It was a very nice day with the temperature at a delightful 29 degrees Celsius due to the heavy rainstorm the previous evening. After reaching home I remembered that I had just gotten vaccinated that morning and was beginning to feel some pain at the injection point. Thankfully that was the only side effect. I went into the kitchenette to see if the gecko had returned – and sure enough, he was back in the sink! This time I had one of my good men capture the little beast and release it down the street well away from my house!
History, nature and adventure are things easily accessible throughout Pakistan and Islamabad is especially conveniently located close to places that have all three. Make use of this in this uncertain world and go out and experience the nature and the story of human civilization. But first make sure to get vaccinated as soon as you are able to!
The author is the ceremonialMehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk