At first sight Taxila may prove a disappointment. The ruins are shallow, the ancient cities hardly distinguishable above the ground, and literally nothing remains of the fertile land once so favorably described by Greek scholars and early travelers. But a visit to Taxila is a sort of pilgrimage for it stood at the cross-roads of three critical trade routes into India, to Central Asia and West Asia, and on to Europe. Ideas, concepts, technologies, and innumerable influences were traded here.
Modern historians (much to the horror of fundamentalists) are finding that there was greater interchange of ideas in the ancient world than had been previously thought. The cross-fertilization of cultures that occurred early in human history did so much to remove the 'purity' and monotony of mono-cultures. What we inherit today is a synthesized cumulative experience which came to us through the ages from such hybridizations that one finds at Taxila.
To Taxila came some great historical personalities like Alexander the Great from Macedonia and the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka from the Gangetic plains of eastern India. Long after these personalities were dead the routes of communication remained alive and open. Here, in the third century BC the philosophy of the Buddha came into contact with Greek and Pathian ideals. At Taxila, images of the gentle Buddha of the eastern Himalaya are dressed in Greek robes and sandals. It is this intangible, very subtle but vital aspect of human culture that one honors at Taxila.
The valley within which Taxila is situated is only 18 kilometers long and 8 kilometers broad at its mouth and stands 550 meters above sea level. On the eastern side of the valley are the Murree hills, to the north and south are two of its spurs, Sarda and Margalla, and a rocky ridge of limestone, the Hathial, divides the valley into two unequal parts. From the hills flowed streams and rivulets that fed the valley making it, in the words of Hiuen Tsang the seventh century Chinese scholar, 'a land of rich harvests, flowing streams and fountains, abundant flowers and fruits'. All this has gone, the hills around Taxila are bare and raw, brown and barren with meager vegetation most of the year.
Nothing remains of the early part of Taxila's history during the Stone and Copper Ages. In the fifth century BC the region formed part of the Persian empire. During the next three hundred years it benefited from efficient Persian administration and witnessed the introduction of Aramaic, which was centuries later to influence the development of the local Kharoshthi script.
In the spring of 326 BC Alexander, the ruler of Macedonia, descended to the plains of the Punjab, having conquered most of the Persian empire. Greek accounts describe Alexander's encounter with the city of Taxila. The most amusing story concerns Onesikritos, his staff philosopher. He was asked to meet local ages and understand their world-view. One sage ticked him off, telling him to remove his clothes and show some humility; another asked why Alexander had come; he had not been invited. Yet another sage of Taxila remarked, 'I commend the king [Alexander] because, although he governs so vast an empire, he is still desirous of acquiring wisdom, for he is the only philosopher in arms that I have ever seen'. Leaving his newly carved empire in the hands of administrators, Alexander wished to return to Greece, but died on the way home.
Within a decade Taxila was incorporated into the expanding Mauryan empire with its capital at Pataliputra (Modern Patna, Bihar, east India, many thousand kilometers away). Young Ashoka was sent to Taxila to look after this north-western frontier city when he was still a prince. Roads and roadways were built, trees were planted, traveler's lodges and wells built along the way, and Mauryan administration was introduced into the valley. When Ashoka became emperor and was converted to the way of the Buddha, the impact was felt in distant Taxila, as indeed it was in faraway Sri Lanka. The state religious was introduced into Taxila and the earliest city here (within the Bihar Mound in the southernmost part of the valley) was adorned with its first Buddhist monuments, the great Dharmarajika Stupa. From its name it would appear that the stupa contained some relics of the Buddha (the only true Dharma-raja, King of the Low of Dharma), perhaps a gift from the newly converted emperor to the town, which he had ruled as a prince.
The stupa is (15 meters high and 50 meters in diameter) raised on a platform. Around it is a passage for pradakshina and in the outer circle is a ring of smaller stupas. The original stupa was renovated and expanded over the centuries and perhaps even plastered and gilded with the addition of images of the Buddha placed in niches at the cardinal points.
North of this complex of stupas and votive shrines donated by wealthy patrons is a monastery with cells and peaceful courtyards for the monks. Found among the ruins, hidden like hoards of treasure, were large heaps coins, a gold-nine for the historian reconstructing the economic and political life of the people of Taxila.
For the next eight hundred years or more Buddhist shrines continued to be built in Taxila. In Buddhist literature Taxila, or more correctly Takshashila, grew to be a famous university (like Nalanda), attracting scholars and students from all parts of the Buddhist world, even as far away as China. It was celebrated in the ancient world as a prestigious center of learning where students could receive instruction in almost any subject, from mathematics to medicine, as astrology to philosophy.
Over the hills of the Dharmarajika Stupa (to the north-west) on a spur of the rocky Hathial outcrop stands the Memorial to Kunala, an imposing stupa and monastery. According to Hiuen Tsang, Emperor Ashoka returned to his capital in Pataliputra, and his son Kunala was sent to govern Taxila. It happened that he had actually been sent there at the behest of a lustful stepmother smarting from her spurned advances to the young prince. Unknown to Ashoka, the miserable stepmother sent a messenger to Taxila with orders carrying the emperor's insignia, to punish the young prince. According to Hiuen Tsang the stupa and monastery marks the site where the prince with the beautiful eyes was blinded. This story and many variations of it are to be found in Greek literature.
The Kunala Stupa is raised on a triple-tiered base with pillars and mouldings, and was once coated with plaster or dressed in stone. West of the stupa are the remains of the monastery, which consist of a courtyard surrounded by a veranda and cells for the monks to live in. An annexe or extension to the monastery appears to have been further up the hill. This cloister too has the usual open courtyard with windows to let in light and breeze. There are several cells, some with little niches on the walls for lamps and books. From the Hathial outcrop one gets an excellent view of Sirkap below. This city marks the next historical stage of development at Taxila.
After the brief period of Mauryan rule lasting only three generations, the Greeks again invaded the region, but this time from their home town in Bactria. A wave of Greek ideas flowed once again through the valley of Taxila. From the hilltop of Hathial one can see one of the most beautiful Bactrian contributions to Taxila, the city of Sirkap. The long rectangular city plan is surrounded by a city wall five kilometers long. Right down the center is a wide 700 meter long main street, with shallow ruins of walls buildings divided into city blocks. Each block was given a religious structure, a stupa or a shrine set within an enclosed courtyard. Behind the line of shops on the main street and shrines were the residential homes of the city dwellers.
Walking from north to south along the main street, the first monumental structure that would have dominated the view is the large apsidal shrine (to the east in the fourth block, between the fifth and sixth streets). This shrine has one rounded side that follows the form of the circular votive stupa at the eastern end. The apsidal shrine was a kind of chaitya prayer hall, similar in design to that found in western India (Ajanta, Kanheri, Bedsa, and Karle). The next block has a small very early stupa dated by historians to the first century BC, its circular dome decorated with plasterwork decorations. The next block has the famous Shrine of the Double-Headed Eagle. This is a very interesting first century shrine with many decorative motifs from Greek and Indian architectural tradition. On the façade is a row of Corinthian pilasters with foliage sprouting from the capitals separating little niches in three contrasting styles. Seated on the top of the central niche is the double-headed eagle from which the shrine derives its name. The stupa was of familiar shape and form with a base drum or dome decorated with plasterwork.
At the southern end of the street is the so-called Royal Palace and the homes of the rich and famous. There is a maze of rooms, courtyards, verandas, and within the rooms were excavated a large number of carved soft stone dishes, goblets, toilet trays, now on display in the Museum at Taxila. The Greek artists also worked with local metalworkers to produce images cast in bronze and copper.
Jaulian is on a road north-eastward (7 kilometers away from Sirkap on a rugged hilly outcrop. A description by Sir John Marshall, one of the chief archaeologists of Taxila, captures the aura of this site:
It is upwards of forty years since I visited Taxila [in 1913] and I still remember the thrill I got from the sight of the buried cities. At the time I was a young man, fresh from archeological excavations in Greece and filled with enthusiasm for anything Greek; and in that far-off corner of the Panjab it seemed as if I had lighted all of a sudden on a bit of Greece itself......I felt then, as I have never ceased to feel since, that there is something appealingly Greek in the countryside itself; in the groves of wild olive on the rocky slopes, in the distant pine-clad hills below Murree, and in the chill, invigorating air that blows from the snow-field beyond the Indus.
Clambering up the road to the second century AD stupa and monastery of Jaulian one cannot but concur with Sir John. The olive trees are an instant reminder of a distant Mediterranean land and of the rich culture that traveled miles across Europe and the Middle East to settle in the western plains of the Indian subcontinent. A narrow entrance leads into courtyard of the lower stupa. It is a brick construction covered over with plaster and adorned with rows of plaster images of the Buddha. Above, approached by a short flight of stairs, is another stupa (once about 20 meters high) with miniature stupas surrounding it. The main stupa is profusely decorated with pilasters, niches with Buddhist images, attendants, and animals. The costumes and robes worn by the sculptured figures, their facial type, and aesthetic delineation are distinctively Greek. To the west of the main stupa is the monastery with nearly thirty cells for monks, and here too the walls have been adorned with scenes from the life of the Buddha.
• What's in the neighbourhood
The Museum at Taxila must be one of the loveliest in the world, with a pretty garden of trees, flower-beds, and fountains that look out the breathtaking view. The museum is not very large but has a fine collection of objects unearthed during excavations. There is a model of Taxila, which gives an idea of the layout of the various cities of Bhir Mound, Sirkap, Jaulian, Sirsukh, and Mohra Moradu. There is a vast coin collection that records the various historical periods of Taxila's history: from Persian times, to Alexander, the Mauryan empire, Bactrian Greeks who were followed by the Shakas, Parthians, Kushans and, finally, the destruction of Taxila by the invading hordes of White Huns.
The Museum also has an excellent collection of Gandharan art delineating the changing artistic trends over the long period of Taxila's occupation. Beautiful carved stone images of the Buddha and the Boddhisattvas are followed by figures made of more easily malleable plaster, creating images almost repetitive and sterile in form.
• How to get there
Taxila is 35 kilometers from Islamabad, the modern capital of Pakistan, and a little over 32 kilometers north-west of the city of Rawalpindi. There are organized tours, buses, and cars that ply up and down the Grand Trunk Road. There is little in the way of hotels or restaurants at Taxila and most people like to go on a one day picnic trip. The best time of the year to visit is during the winter months (October to March) when it is cool and the long walks along hill tracks is a pleasant sojourn into the past.