Pakistan: UNESCO Taxila and Takht-i-Bahi

2 October 2016

Taxila and Takht-i-Bahi are UNESCO sites so of course, we’d pay it a visit! Islamabad does make a good base to explore these two sites so we started the day early to ensure that we have enough time. Although it can be tiring, a road trip is the best way to see a country. Since we are stepping back in time, we had to use our imagination to picture these ancient cities and historical sites. Sometimes, a place in ruins offers the best insight into human civilisation.

After around a 40 min drive, we were the first to arrive at Taxila Museum (500 rupees).


The museum is one long hall with many relics, statues and old artefacts on display with few labels and limited information. There are no audio available but the staff were nice enough to give us some additional information about the various treasuries that live inside this museum. My favourite one is the Buddha statue. I remember staring at it and imagining just how many people before me also had the privilege of laying eyes on this magnificent statue.

1393146574Taxila or the City of Cut Stone is 32 km from the capital and an important archaeological site.  The history behind Taxila is long and a bit complicating so to make it short: Following a few visits to Taxila by Chinese monks, Alexander the Great described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed.” During India’s Aśoka reign, Taxila became a great Buddhist centre of learning and had great influence on the Hindu culture and the Sanskrit language. As a result, the Buddhist monasteries and stupas in Dharmarajika and Sirkap reflected just that. Some accounts stated that it is also one of the earliest universities in the world.

Dharmarajika, a short drive from Taxila Museum would look so stunning if only it wasn’t in ruins but then imagination is a powerful thing….Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.26.26 AMScreen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.26.41 AM With a huge stupa in the middle and the main entrance leading to the once celebrated Buddhist stupa, it is now engulfed by natural elements. The multitudes of mini stupas donated by locals back then have also disappeared. Random holes that would make no sense now were actually places where people made their donations hence coins have ben discovered on site. As the largest and earliest religious complex in Taxila, it was constructed to enshrine the holy relic of the Buddha by King Asoka the Great. A box with Buddha relics was found inside one of the many stupas. Destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt twice, it was wrecked by the White Huns when they invaded in the 5th century. Since many empires have fought over the area due to it being at the centre of the trade routes, once that stopped, surrounding cities became less important and thus was eventually abandoned. The 11 m tall Buddha statues only exists in an intangible fashion and looking at the broken pieces make you realise that nothing lasts forever. Even the greatest of empires and the most glorious of times will eventually fall…..Immortality? What immortality?

Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.27.34 AMTaxila was annexed by the Indo-Greek Kingdom of Bactria who built a new capital called Sirkap. This is the second city of ancient Taxila and has huge Greek influences as seen by the sun temple and the arrangement of the streets like the ones in Athens.  Walking along the main street and seeing the locals getting on with their everyday life gave a nice insight into what life must be like back thousands of years ago. You have the residence, the guard’s room, the main gate, shops and various other facilities to support those who once called this metropolis home.

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The midday sun got to us and since one more UNESCO site awaits for our discovery, we had to leave. UNESCO Takht Bahiتخت بھائی or “Spring from the Top” dates back to the 1st century BCE. It is a rare architectural example of Buddhist monastic centers from that era. Located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (close to the Afghan border), it was at the centre of intense military and counter terrorism activity since the Talibans began an attempt to capture the province 12 years ago.  It was also the place where schoolchildren were massacred by Taliban linked terrorists in 2014. Looking back, how amazing it was to set eyes on this UNESCO site which would not be possible at all back in 2004.Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.31.54 AM
Once we walked into the entrance, an elderly man greeted us. He was clearly happy to see us foreigners.

“Come and sit, I am the head of security here. Welcome! This commando will go with you.

So the Commando from the Anti-Terrorism Squad accompanied us during our visit and under his watchful eyes, we took in as much sight and sound of the Buddhist monastery. Again, no other foreign tourists except for us. Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.36.25 AMSo like what happened in Islamabad, locals asked us for selfies and photos.The walk up the stairs took us through some epic scenery which gave us a nice sense of the scale. The view from the top? sensational

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Located on a small hill overlooking Takht Bahi village, there are four main areas to the Takht-i-Baht complex. There are the stupa courts, chambers, temple complex and meditation centres. These rooms used to be all complete and intact and with some slowly showing signs of damage, I do hope that the current monastery could be protected for more visitors to see.Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 10.32.18 AMWe walked past the meditation room where staff showed us some broken statue pieces from the monastery.

“Look, Buddha finger, look part from the statue”

Sigh..such a great UNESCO site and on the verge of damage and loss. Clearly, management is insufficient and much help is needed.

Before leaving and saying goodbye to the Commando, we took a photo with the head of security and had a quick chat with a local surgeon and his politician brother who asked us about Pakistan. By the time we’ve arrived at our hotel, it was around 7pm and Qamar came for dinner… last chat before the day ends.

I remember contacting Aziz for help with regards to a contact in Islamabad and without any hesitation, Aziz passed on Qamar’s details. The support and assistance I have received since that meeting was incredible. As I stared at the key ring and black traditional top given by Qamar, I remembered what he said to me a day earlier in response to my comments about me being a friend stealer

You don’t steal friends… share them:)

Thank you Aziz for sharing with me your friend. I am upset that I couldn’t see you in Islamabad and you landed right before I left the capital. To have the chance to meet you at Tsinghua University will always be a huge honour for me. The wonderful chats we had about Pakistan and Islam along with the epic tea will stay with me for a long time. My friend Aziz- I hope to see you soon!

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 9.01.38 AM IMG_3292 L: Aziz R: Qamar

Thank you for introducing me to Qamar and thank you for giving me your friendship. Miss you!

Goodbye Islamabad- Good night and thank you for the precious memories.

Sometimes…it’s not about what you see during your hours in a foreign country but who remains by your side and share such experiences with you. Thank you!