Sunday, June 23, 2013
The Hidden Treasures of Taxila
June 22, 2013
By Saeed Qureshi
I belong to Taxila, one of the cities in Pakistan with immense historical significance. During my childhood period till the age of adolescence, I had been roaming in the scenic outskirts, vales, dales and the ruins of Taxila that spread over a vast area along the mountains. The valley of Khanpur situated between the two high walls of mountains is breathtakingly enchanting with a river flowing called Haro.
Taxila is famous for the Gandhara Art that dates back to the period between first millennium BC and 11th century AD. Those were the peak times for the Hindu, Buddhist and Greek civilizations. During the rule of King Asoka who was the grandson of Hindu king Chandragupta Maurya and converted to Buddhism, Taxila became a great Buddhist center of learning.
The Eastern side of Taxila is a plateau situated in the foothill of the Himalayan Mountains. The Western part of the lofty Himalayan ranges start from the captivating valleys of Taxila and Khanpur. It was here that Aryans, white Huns, Greek and waves of other invaders and conquerors arrived from the North to the subcontinent. They stopped here to settle as the mountains would block them to move further.
Besides the main river Haro there is another small rivulet known as Dhamrah. It winds around the mountains’ ridges. Most of the ancient settlements, monasteries and military barracks were built around the curved slops of mountains or just adjacent to the lap of these beautiful ranges.
It was in these valleys partly excavated and partly covered that I along with my friends would walk mostly after school hours. To look yonder at the vastness of the place as far as the Silhouetted Mountains, we would be nourished and filled with a new vibrancy and inner serenity. This place was hardly a mile away from my residence and therefore was easy to visit whenever we would find time.
After crossing over the railway line laid out by the British in between the Taxila city and the Museum and its surroundings, we would witness the first dazzling spectacle. It was the majestic building of the museum built on a higher ground and surrounded by a variety of flower plants, fragrant bushes, tall mulberry, and pine and walnut trees. It is fenced. The surroundings of the museum looks like an emerald for its lush green, well maintained grassy plots and flower beds.
The British viceroy Lord Curzon appointed the famous British archaeologist Sir Johan Marshall as the Director-General of Archaeology in 1902. In 1913 John Marshall started the excavations at Taxila. It lasted for twenty years. He laid the foundation stone for the Taxila museum in 1918.The museum was however inaugurated in 1930.
The museum hosts a few thousands artifacts from statues to gold ornaments and antiques taken out from various sites. The museum is built within a vast area better to be portrayed like a big garden meticulously maintained with fruit and ornamental bushes, trees and flowers beds all around.
There are about a dozen ancient cities and settlements spread over an areas of thirty to fifty sq. miles built with meticulous planning However, only six sites have been excavated and that was mostly done by Sir John Marshall. The antiques and artifacts were also preserved and catalogued by him. Thereafter no meaningful effort has ever been made to explore as to what more lies in Taxila. However in 1998 another wing named the “Northern Gallery” was added to the museum by Pakistan government.
These sites are spread over a vast area that circulate and wind up around the hills and turning sharply towards the east at Sirkap. Then along the mountains it further extends up to the small valleys in the mountains that stretch on the right side of the river Haro and the road that runs in between the river and the mountains.
The walls of the compounds, buildings and stupas are minutely engraved, carved, and studded with various images and postures of Lord Buddha or Hindu deities. It is ever a breath-taking spectacle to see the old houses, wells, baths, stupas, sidewalks and main paths made of symmetrical sized stones and the walls in perfect harmony and neatly and smoothly laid-out.
One wonders that in those primitive times, there were great builders, artisans, masons, iron-smiths, the designers and the mural makers. During our time the engraved statues of various sizes were still intact on the wall.
Taxila used to be an outstanding Buddhists University whose ruins and old structures have been unearthed and offer great attraction for tourists all over the world. Barring roofs, their walls and rooms appear to be intact and holding on. There are niches for the statues to be placed.
The Taxila museum displays a huge collection of artifacts ranging from earthen pottery, statues, idols beads, rosaries, coins, make-up things, utensils to jewelry and weapons and so on. All these invaluable objects encompass various periods and civilizations from 600 BC to 500 AD.
In fact all the sites, old temples on the mountains, the Buddhist University, the magnificent stupas are located on the periphery of the mountains. Within these mountains, there are also paths and passages linking them. For instance the Dharamrajika Stupa which is situated on the right of the same mountain near the village of Shahpur is connected with the Sirkap ruins from a narrow passage through a gorge. From the main road it comes like a curve and should be not less than 15 miles.
In the far away valley of Khanpur, there is a large meticulously laid-out city of Sirkap with wide lanes and passages. This city was built by the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius after he invaded India around 180 BC.
Adjacent to that there are several layers of high walls and huge barracks perhaps made for the armies in successive periods. Here, while walking we would find old coins, toys, weapons, statues, household articles, and even gold jewelry. A few miles further in the mountain lap is located the world famous Buddhist university at the Julian site.
Now let me come to my actual purpose of writing this article. While walking and looking down on the ground, we would find old coins, neatly rounded stones for grinding purpose and similar relics. I had collected a good number of old coins some bearing the images of the old kings, deities and also the later times Greek administrators.
In my assessment Taxila is unearthed only by a small part and most of its old ruins are still buried underneath the debris and soil. It is my firm understanding after having seen and traveled these places for countess times that there are still hidden archaeological sites full of past relics ranging from gold and silver jewelry to precious statues, weapons and household objects But if discovered another huge museum building would be needed for their preservation.
As already narrated, I have seen many pavements, earthen pots, ovens and chiseled stones etc. half exposed and half buried in the ground. While walking on the plowed land one may, all of sudden, see a coin or piece of an ornament or earthen pottery, a precious tone, a bead, a pitcher or a barrel.
At Sirkap there is a huge mass of earth with long walls of hostels or military barracks of the Greek army extends up to the small river Dharma. Only a portion of it has been excavated. Here I found several coins that were later put up in an exhibition at my school and these were never returned to me.
I am sure that a huge trough of treasures and antiques are buried in this huge landmass that if recovered, can shed light over the lifestyle and culture prevailing in those times.
The land between the museum and Dharma River that flows along the mountains ridges and Taxila Museum is yet to be excavated. It was here that we have been also collecting old coins, toys, beads and small artifacts that would surface after the plowing of the land by the peasants who sparsely live here.
The flat ground that exists between the museum and the two adjacent disappearing Bhir Mound ruins can be excavated for marvelous discoveries of the antiquities.
Similarly there are caves in the mountains that are unexplored in order to find out what was hidden inside. There are sites near the city of Usman Khattar that show signs of underneath settlements of the past. The stupa of Balartope is a marvel of the ancient times and with its fine roundness and smooth construction takes us back into the past.
That round pillar is erected on the western end of the “Sarhra mountain” .This is the same mountain, along which flows river Haro. The entire zone stretching for several miles is full of orange gardens.
Ever since the evocation in Taxila early 20th century and creation of the Museum the relic robbers and vandals have made several attempts to steal the artifacts particularly original Gandhara art statues from the museum. And they have succeeded in many instances. They sell these in the international markets on huge prices.
While the museum is well guarded, the ruin sites and temple especially the Buddhist University is unprotected .The guard stay for day time. They can also be prevailed upon by money or force to cooperate with the antique robbers and that has been happening uninhibited.
From time to time, they are caught and even some of the precious treasures are recovered by them. But they do not relent in their profitable business. It is said that as a result of collusion between the staff and the antique dealers, quite a few things in the museum have been replaced with fake artifacts. This is an alarming situation and needs to be checked once and for all.
The local residents living in nearby villages sell both fake and real statues and other artifacts to the tourists. They roam about the archaeological sites and show both the original and replicas to the visitors and charge money accordingly.
As for further excavation and extension of museum, while it would not be financially possible for Pakistan to spend a sizable amount of money on these projects, the UNESCO may move forward to allocate funds for such interesting missions that can connect the antiquity with the present and find out how our ancestors differed from us.