Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bhamala: the hidden monastery

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As the city of Taxila expanded over the centuries, there grew around it like appendages a number of religious institutions. Buddhism being the predominant religion in the heyday of this great city, these establishments were all monasteries of that religion. The better known among these are Jaulian, Mohra Moradu and Dharmarajika. There are others in the same area that are lesser known. Of these surely the most enchanting and the least known or visited is the Bhamala monastery.
Situated on an elongated hill above the right bank of the Haro River where the valley is only a couple of hundred metres wide, Bhamala is as secluded as it can get. On three sides the hills loom high, only to the southwest is the view open where the narrow valley looks into what was once a large depression containing a few villages but now lies submerged under the placid blue waters of Khanpur Dam.

By the beginning of the 4th century CE, Taxila was famous for not only its university but also for the several monasteries dotted around it where one could learn the intricacies of the Buddhist faith. As this crowd of religious schools grew, newer ones spread farther outward. Meanwhile, towards the end of the 3rd century, conditions of monastic life had changed so considerably that the bhikshus did not need to support themselves by seeking alms. The daily trek into Taxila city was no longer necessary and the monastery’s distance from town no longer mattered.

If it has a unique setting among the other Taxilan monasteries, Bhamala also has one distinctive feature of archaeological interest: its main stupa is built upon a cruciform base as opposed to the circular stupas in the other monasteries. Long before John Marshall struck the first spade to uncover its secrets in 1931, this stupa had already been dug into and somewhat damaged by treasure hunters. A reminder of that act of vandalism is the cleft running clear across the body of the structure.

The area immediately around the stupa base is paved with terra-cotta tiles which is another one of its unique features. Arrayed around the main stupa and just outside this paved area is a number of smaller votive stupas. To the east, the monastery itself sits behind its high wall with a gate facing the main stupa. Like the other monasteries, the monks’ rooms run around the wall that forms the perimeter and look inward to the courtyard. The standard feature of the central water tank is missing here, perhaps because of the nearness to the Haro just below the hill.

Like so many other ancient sites, Bhamala fell in the early years of the 6th century to the savage Central Asiatic Huns under their leader Mehr Gul (Mihirakula). It is not for nothing that the epic Rajatarangini – Chronicles of Kings [of Kashmir] written 1160, tells us that this barbarian was a killer of ‘three crore’ people. He had, so we are told, no pity either for women or children or the elderly and that his progress across the country was marked by a dark cloud of crows and vultures keen to feed on the corpses the savages left behind.

By the time the Huns descended upon Bhamala, most of the peaceful adherents of Buddha would have fled. Some few may have stayed behind in a vain attempt to protect their sacred site. But they had no chance. When the smoke finally cleared, the monastery had been completely sacked. A silence descended upon its ruined walls and structures; a silence to last fifteen hundred years until the first spade was struck to reveal the ashes left behind by the Huns.

How To Get There: Take the road north to Khanpur from the PTDC Motel at Taxila. At exactly 16 km from the motel a shingle road takes off to the right. The blue Department of Archaeology sign saying ‘Bhamala’ has been badly mauled by some passing vehicle and needs a sharp eye to be spotted. The ruined monastery is 6 km from the turn-off. The drive from the PTDC Motel to the ruins is just over an hour. Though the shingle road is rather poor, cars can be taken all the way in fair weather.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:37,


At 9 November 2015 at 14:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Went there yesterday, the road is much better now, with the last 2 km having been cemented. Apparently they have found the14-meter (46 feet) long statue of the dying Buddha, the largest known from the Gandhara civilization. It rests on a 15-meter (49 feet) platform, and portrays a scene known as Mahaparinirvana, said to be the moment Buddha’s consciousness left his body and he died.

The scenery along the route is breathtaking. Missed you at the Stupa Sire !

At 9 November 2015 at 17:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

So glad you enjoyed it. Of all monasteries around Taxila, Bhamala is the most magical. Of course there is Mohra Moradu too.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days