'The Gymnosophists' fame had spread far beyond their town by the Murree hills, and all because a pupil of Aristotle had crossed the Hindu Kush in search of the eastern Ocean and a pupil of Diogenes had left the boats on his native island of Cos, joined the expedition and agreed, in India, to go out in the midday sun.' Thus writes Robin Lane Fox on the subject of the naked philosophers of Taxila
in Alexander the Great
, his definitive work on the life and times of the greatest Macedonian ever to have lived.
Indeed, the name of the rich and flourishing city of Taxila was frequently mentioned in the streets of distant Babylon and Athens in the latter years of the 4th century BC. The fact that the information was by and large accurate was entirely due to Alexander the Great, that most illustrious of Aristotle's pupils; although the Macedonian's secretaries and diarists certainly were not the first Westerners to have written about the trans-Sindhu territories. In the year 512 BC, the Greek admiral Scylax sailed down the Sindhu
on a mission of reconnaissance on behalf of Darius Hystaspes, the Achaemenian king of Persia. Soon afterwards Darius annexed Gandhara, Sindh and parts of the Punjab. Herodotus, the Father of History (born 484 BC), tells us that Indian tribute to the Persian court was gold dug from some 'sandy desert' in the vicinity of the city of Caspatyrus (identified as Peshawar), by the fabulous 'gold digging ants'.
Excerpt (Chapter 1) from "The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau" - available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100)
Less than a century later (c BC 416), Ctesias, a native of the Greek city of Cnidos (in modern Western Turkey), physician to Artaxerxes Mnemon, consorted with Indian merchants, diplomats and soldiers of fortune that frequented the court of this Persian sovereign. For seventeen long years the doctor was held in thrall with stories that were wild and fanciful - stories of unicorns, dog headed men that barked, hirsute pygmies that needed no clothing, for their thick and matted hair covered them fully and a race of men with ears the size of their bodies, one of which they used as a mattress and the other as a covering . These fables were related no doubt with a view to impress upon the foreigner the unmatched and fantastic marvels of a country that had long gripped the imagination of the civilised western world.
However, both these writers missed out on Taxila. The work of Scylax, who embarked upon his Sindhu journey from the city of Caspatyrus in the country of the Pactyice (the affinity with modern 'Pakhtun' is unmistakable), is lost and we know of his exploratory journey only from the brief mention in the Histories of Herodotus. He may well have kept strictly to his assigned duty of reconnoitering the Sindhu, thereby missing the city of Taxila which, according to later travellers, lay 'three days' march' from the river. Ctesias, on the other hand, based his writing on what he heard from informants without having set foot on Indian soil. Consequently the western world first received notice of Taxila only when Alexander, having embarked from distant Greece with the hope of standing on the shores of the Eastern Ocean , sojourned at Taxila under the shadow of the foothills of the Western Himalayas. Here he sent out his helmsman Onesicritos (a disciple of the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes) to conduct a dialogue with the naked philosophers of the town.
Centuries before Scylax set out on his voyage, the city of Taxila thrived at the meeting point of four great highways of trade and commerce. One came down from Central Asia via the cities of Bactra (Balkh), Kapisa (Kabul) and Pushkalavati (whose ruins lie on the Peshawar-Charsadda highway) and crossed the Sindhu by the ferry of Hund
(anciently known as Udabhandapura - Water Pot City) that operates to this day, before meeting at Taxila with the other descending from Central Asia through Kashmir and Hazara. The third artery was the great waterway of the mighty Sindhu that gave this city direct access to the southern ocean, and of course there was the precursor of Chandragupta Maurya's 'Royal Road' that connected Patliputra (Patna) with Taxila and the cities beyond the Suleman Mountains
Archeological investigations during and subsequent to the 1960s revealed that a town in the Neolithic stage of cultural development stood at the site of Sarai Kala, on the outskirts of modern Taxila as far back as 3100 BC. From the banks of the Kala stream this settlement moved to the site of Bhir on the Tamrah Nallah some time between BC 1000 and 560. It was then that Taxila came of age as a university town. Within its walls, in the latter years of the 6th century, the great physician Jivaka, a friend and companion of Buddha, mastered the art and science of curing the sick. Surely he would have heard of his illustrious predecessor, the grammarian Panini, a native of Salatura (now called Lahore) on the west bank of the Sindhu, who toiled for many years to become the great Master of Sanskrit usage. And if the mythical Vyasa ever lived, it is in Taxila that he is believed to have composed the epic Mahabharata in the closing years of the 7th century BC. Already in the middle of the first millennium BC, Taxila valley would have been dotted with a number of settlements and religious establishments - the suburbs of a thriving centre of trade, commerce and learning.
To the educated upper class inhabitant and visitor, Taxila was Taksha Sila; while in Pali, the vernacular, it was Takha Sila that was easily transliterated into the Greek as Taxila. Now, because Sila in Sanskrit is 'rock ' or 'stone' it is believed by some that Taksha Sila, meaning 'Rock of the Takkas', was so named after a local tribe. Others suggest it meant 'Hewn Rock' from the limestone rubble that went into the construction of its buildings. J. W. McCrindle even suggests that it was 'Takshaka, the great Naga King', of ancient legend, who gave his name to this prosperous city. Fa Hian, a Chinese pilgrim who visited Taxila (c AD 400) rendered the name into Chinese as Chu-ch'a-shi-lo. The name, according to him, meant 'severed head' because 'Buddha, when he was a Bodhisattva, gave his head in charity to a man in this place’.
The legend of the severed head is recounted again by Hiuen Tsiang who tells of Buddha residing at Taxila in an earlier incarnation as the king Chandraprabha. Seeking bodh (enlightenment), the king one day cut off his head; a practice that he continued to follow in his quest for wisdom in ‘a thousand successive births’. It is suggested that the Chinese difficulty with phonetics led them to mistake ‘sila’ for ‘sira’ (head), and their invention of the story of Buddha’s sacrifice. Dr Dar postulates that this legend became so popular that it is commemorated to this day in the various names in and around Taxila: the names Sirkap (sir = head, kup = cut) and Margalla (mar = cut, galla = neck).
The last historical reference to this city by the name of Taxila comes from Hiuen Tsiang around the middle of the 7th century AD. Thereafter the name is lost. When we next hear of a great city in this part of the country, it is called Baburkan by Abu Rehan Al Beruni
in the early 11th century, who also refers to Marikala (the affinity with Margalla cannot be mistaken). Now, Babur Khana (House of the Tiger) is the name that the Sirkap mound was known by during the 19th century. Reaching us through at least eight centuries that translated the word for 'tiger' from the vernacular into the Turkish, the name Babar Khana refers to the legend of Buddha feeding a starving tigress on his blood. Altogether, these names point to the legend of the Sacrifice of the Head. But this was a time when the city of Taxila, lost and forgotten, had been supplanted by a number of nondescript villages. The series of tumuli undulating in the shadow of the Margalla Hills, was generally known as Shah di Dheri - Mound of the King. Though Taxila had been lost from memory, its past grandeur somehow remained a part of the collective consciousness - in some strange way the mounds seemed yet to retain their aura of opulence and majesty.
And so it was in the spring of 326 BC as he was struggling through snow that still lay deep on the pine covered slopes of Aornos , the final stronghold of Pathan tribes, that Alexander sent Hephaestion, his childhood friend and trusted general, ahead to bridge the Sindhu in preparation for the army's crossing. Having subdued the Pathans, when he arrived a couple of weeks later, his passage into the Indian subcontinent proper was a propitious one: from Ambhi (Omphis in Greek), the king of Taxila, there awaited the Macedonian conqueror a substantial gift of a large measure of processed silver, three thousand oxen and over ten thousand sheep for 'sacrificial purposes' together with thirty (fifty six according to another account) war elephants.
It was however the diplomatic acumen of Ambhi, who was at hand to receive him, that won over Alexander's heart. 'Why should we fight battles with one another?' he asked, as reported by Arrian. 'You have not come here to rob us of water or of the necessities of life, and these are the only things for which sensible men are obliged to fight. As for the other kinds of wealth and property so-called, if I possess more than you, I am ready to be generous towards you, and if I have less, I shall not refuse any benefits you may offer.' Never the one to disregard courtesy and gallantry, Alexander responded by assuring Ambhi that there would indeed be contests between the two but not on the killing fields. The Macedonian's struggle would be to outdo the Punjabi king in kindness and generosity.
The effects of Darius' annexation of this part of the subcontinent to the Persian empire were already lost. The last Persian officer that Alexander had encountered was many months earlier and many miles away on the western flanks of the Hindu Kush known to the Greeks as the Indian Caucasus. East of what is now Herat, Alexander had found the countries firmly in the hands of local independent chieftains.
From his alliance with Alexander, it must not go unsaid, Ambhi stood to gain considerably - and this reality would not have been lost on the Macedonian. There was a long standing feud between Ambhi and two of his neighbours, Abhisares, the king of what is now Hazara, and Porus, the powerful master of the belt between the Jhelum and the Ravi rivers. By aligning himself with the Macedonian, Ambhi would certainly have gained the neutralisation of his two strong neighbours.
Generously bestowed with gifts by Alexander, Ambhi was reinstated as the king of Taxila. To rule conjointly with him, Philip the son of Machatas was appointed the Greek satrap (governor). Apparently Alexander felt assured of the Punjabi king's unflinching friendship, for a garrison comprising only of mercenaries and sick and unfit Macedonian soldiers was detailed to remain behind. Public games and contests were held, and surely it was for the first time in history that Punjabi strongmen, javelin throwers, horsemen and archers vied with Macedonian, Greek, Persian and Scythian athletes in friendly contest.
Greek eyes accustomed to the meticulous and orderly planning of their own cities found Taxila, the great seat of Vedic learning, lacking in every outward sign of refinement that a university town should have possessed. Its narrow streets wound around tightly packed double-storeyed houses constructed from rough masonry thickly plastered with mud, either left plain or washed a brilliant white. Small hovels fronting the streets served as shops and behind the narrow doors and slit windows at street level lay a warren of up to twenty small chambers measuring as little as 16 square metres, sometimes even less, that were either occupied by servants, or served as utility rooms. The rooms were arranged around a central courtyard, with the richer houses having two courtyards, the one affording more privacy than the other. The more spacious upper floor rooms would have been occupied by the master and his family.
From wooden balconies, which, in the absence of any pictorial representation, can only be conjectured to have existed, the lady of the house would have kept a watchful eye on the team of servants below as they went about their daily chores. Water was supplied by the still picturesque Tamrah Nallah skirting the eastern and northern fringes of Bhir Mound that marks the Taxila of Alexander's time. Though Moen jo Daro style water supply from in-house wells did not exist, each house had its own soak pit. These circular shafts, just under a metre in diameter and some eight metres deep were either lined with limestone or left plain, and were sometimes filled with crude pottery to permit sewage to percolate to the bottom. As a variation to limestone dressing, there are examples of a lining of earthenware rings or construction from large storage jars with perforated bottoms stacked one above the other. Existing from the earliest times in Taxila, the soak pits are strangely missing from all subsequent settlements except that of the Greek stratum at Sirkap.
Open, stone lined drains carried rainwater from courtyards into the streets, where strangely there were no drains. Sir John Marshall, who first excavated these ruins, therefore inferred that the streets turned into water courses during times of deluge. However, the remains of rubbish bins in public squares and in streets suggest that Taxila, like other towns of the Sindhu valley, was governed by a municipal system. One such bin unearthed in the third decade of the 20th century yielded up bones and broken pottery that had remained undiscovered for over twenty centuries - perhaps the remains of a feast and drunken revel held by Alexander's own successors.
Alexander and his men would have seen, too, the daily bustle of the central bazaars and markets in the squares. Here bullock drawn carts and camel caravans would have unloaded their freight brought in from the ferry at Hund or the salt that would have come from the red tinged mountains four days' journey to the south. This was a time when the web of roads across the wide doabas (land between two rivers) had sufficiently developed to afford fair weather wheeled traffic. But the goods that these carts brought in was not just the produce of cities beyond the western mountains. River traffic, too, bore freight from the distant towns of Alor and Thatta far away in the south on the banks of the Sindhu.
Here the Westerners would have rubbed shoulders with tall, slim men bronzed by the Punjabi sun dressed in, according to Nearchus, Alexander's Admiral of the Fleet, 'an under-garment of cotton which reaches below the knee halfway down to the ankles, and also an upper garment which they throw partly over their shoulders, and partly twist in folds around their heads'. They would have seen upper class men adorned with ivory earrings, who wore their beards either the very whitest of white or dyed them in such rakish colours as bright red, purple or green. Their shoes, made of white leather, were elaborately trimmed and had thick soles to make the wearer seem taller, and their clothing was embroidered with gold thread and studded with precious stones. As they went about their business in the markets, the rich were shaded from the harsh sun under broad parasols borne by attendants.
The massive broadsword 'three cubits long', swung with both hands, would have struck terror in the stoutest heart - Macedonian, Greek, Persian or Scythian. Too long to be worn around the middle, it was carried slung across the shoulders. Equally terrifying would have been the bow 'of equal length with the bowman', the lower end of which was held against the ground with the foot to discharge arrows 'nearly three yards long'. These iron tipped shafts were known to pierce the strongest breastplate or shield and the foreigners were aware that there was no defense against a Taxilian archer's missile. For his own defense, the Punjabi warrior had a buckler made of undressed ox hide 'about as long but not so broad' as the man who carried it.
From Nearchus we also learn that food was in plentiful supply for, 'the land is cultivated by families in common, and when the crops are collected, each person takes a load for his support throughout the year.' The admiral goes on to tell us that the 'remainder of the produce is burned to give them a reason for setting to work anew, and not remaining idle.' Since he was there at a time when the wheat harvest would not yet have been completed, this is clearly hearsay. We also know that in-house grain silos constructed from mud plastered stone or bricks are believed to have been in vogue at that time - as they are even today in remote villages across the country. Moreover, in a society as civilised as Taxila in the 4th century BC, surplus supplies, rather than being destroyed, would have been bartered with neighbouring communities.
Taxila, the bustling centre of commerce and education, was a mix of three religions, namely, Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. On the authority of Aristoboulos, one of Alexander's court chroniclers, Strabo mentions the Sramanes, 'followers of the precepts of Boutta', and the Brachmanes (Brahmans). The latter were evidently quite powerful, for we hear that they were actively involved in the political life of the city and attended the court as counsellors. On the same authority Strabo writes that the dead were put out to the vultures, and that widows willingly consigned themselves to the flames on their deceased husbands' pyres. Those who did not, were held in disgrace. At the same time, polygamy was common practice in Taxila and the neighbouring countries.
The foreigners were surprised to no end by the rectitude of the Indians who made all monetary transactions without 'either seals or witnesses', and yet there were no law suits. Mendacity was unheard of, and there being no fear of theft, they left their houses and other property largely unguarded. Drunkenness was uncommon for they consumed their rice wine only at ritual sacrifices; and, rather unlike today, they possessed the refinement of refraining from spitting in public. If there was a just and civil society, it existed in this country. Finer Greek sensibilities were however jarred by the sight of parents 'unable from poverty to bestow their daughters in marriage', exposing the maidens to possible suitors in the market place or giving them away to victors in boxing matches. Other than this one mention, we hear nothing of women which implies that ladies of the upper class did not show themselves in public. Such then was the situation concerning Taxila in the spring of 326 BC as Alexander, having secured the good will of Ambhi, prepared to march on in his quest for the shores of the Eastern Ocean.
In Taxila too was a young adventurer brought into the presence of Alexander the Great. Plutarch the historian was to dismiss him as an imprudent 'young stripling', but this was Chandragupta who later ruled India as the first of the Maurya kings. It is suggested that Chandragupta was sent out by the Nanda government of Magadha as a propagandist to instill in the hearts of the common Macedonian soldiery a fear of this powerful eastern empire. Though history does not reveal Chandragupta's covert operations in the Westerners' camp - if such ventures he did carry out, the eventual refusal of Alexander's army to march beyond the Beas, is believed by some to have been a result of the masterful work of this brilliant strategist.
Outside the city that Arrian describes in The Campaigns of Alexander as 'the largest between the Indus and the Hydaspes ', beyond the winding azure line of the Tamrah Nallah, where the corn fields gave way to meadow and forest, lived the gymnosophists or naked philosophers . Revered by one and all, these men spent the days of their lives practising strict austerities to accustom their bodies to hardship. Seldom did they come into town; but when they did, they were free to help themselves, without charge, to whatever provisions that took their fancy, or to dine in any house as they pleased. All this in exchange for learned discourse, for such was the esteem that the people of Taxila reserved for men of wisdom.
These philosophers were not a rarity, but a phenomenon commonly met with in dozens of schools sprinkled across the expanse of ancient India. The fact that these associations of learned men could sustain themselves simply by sharing their great wisdom with all classes of people is indicative of one thing: that ancient Indians laid great store by enlightenment. This support of and reverence for the great masters is unique for this part of the world in that age, for neither in Persia nor China, the two other Asiatic centres of classical civilisation, do we find such a custom.
To these philosophers did Alexander send Onesicritos one scorching day in late April or early May of that long ago year, so that he may learn of the philosophy of these Punjabi sages. The disciple of Diogenes knew it was no easy task he was undertaking, and to assist him were three interpreters to translate the Punjabi into Greek very likely through Pushto and Persian. As this train of outlandish visitors trooped out beyond the Tamrah, the savant that they first accosted was stretched out full length, undressed but for a loin cloth, on unshaded rocks that burnt with the heat of the sun. But Kalanos , as he was to be later known by the Greeks, was unobliging. If Onesicritos wished to learn of his doctrine, he should strip and lie naked beside him on the hot stones. The Cynic sailor of Cos hesitated; and while he thus stood there undecided, Kalanos was rebuked for his rudeness by Mandanis.
This 'oldest and wisest' of the sages called Onesicritos over and greeted him with praise for the Macedonian conqueror for the fact that while he ruled over such a vast empire, he yet longed for wisdom and that he was the 'only philosopher in arms ' Mandanis had ever seen. But it was not lost upon the wise one that Onesicritos had come with a vain desire: in the percolation through three interpreters, much of the philosophy would be missed making it difficult if not entirely futile to convey the essence of the doctrine to the Greek. 'One might as well expect water to flow pure through mud,' said the learned one.
Mandanis nevertheless obliged the Greek sailor, relaying the burden of his discourse on the nature of pleasure and grief. Finishing, he asked if they taught a similar philosophy in Greece; and was pleased when Onesicritos affirmed that Pythagoras and Socrates in the past, and his own mentor, Diogenes whose discussions he had attended, did indeed hold similar views. According to Megasthenes writing just twenty years later, the sage condescended that the Greeks 'entertained sound notions'. They nonetheless 'erred on one point by preferring custom to nature, for otherwise they would not be ashamed to go naked like himself and to subsist on frugal fare - for that was the best house which required least repairs.'
Two of the philosophers were invited to dine at Alexander's table where they ate, each standing on one leg, while the king requested them to join his train so that he may benefit more from their wisdom. One, whose name is not mentioned, but was very likely Mandanis himself, declined; but Kalanos accepted and followed Alexander to Susa in Persia. There at the venerable age of almost eighty he, who had enjoyed enviable good health in India, fell ill and 'all strength ultimately left his body'. Not willing to submit himself to an invalid regimen, the Punjabi philosopher told Alexander it was time for him to die. The king entreated but Kalanos brushing aside his pleas to reconsider the suicidal decision asked for his funeral pyre to be built. Too ill to walk the sage, garlanded and singing Vedic hymns, rode in a litter at the head of a solemn procession of soldiers, hangers on, courtiers, and merchants. Many of them came with 'all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames' or bore gifts of gold and silver cups and expensive garments. In the years that he had spent with Alexander's army, his philosophical discourses had won Kalanos admirers and disciples for the histories tell us that it was amongst them he distributed these gifts before mounting the pyre. The spectacle of the unflinching Kalanos lying motionless on the pyre with the flames consuming his emaciated body must long have been remembered in ancient Persia; surely it would have given rise to many a legend now long forgotten.
Had Alexander lived long enough to write his memoirs, we might have known what wisdom and knowledge the young Macedonian gleaned from the ancient Punjabi; but existing histories are all silent. That the king did hobnob with the learned one and revered him is clear from the impressive salute that Arrian says was given to the dying man: the moment his pyre was ignited, 'the bugles sounded, the troops with one accord roared out their battle-cry, and the elephants joined in with their shrill war-trumpetings.' It is said that as he approached the pyre Kalanos' well-wishers came up to bid him farewell. When it came time to take the king's leave, the philosopher, so the histories record, simply said that there was no need for they were soon to meet again in Babylon. We do not know if the prophecy was appreciated when, within the year, Alexander lay dying in that Mesopotamian city.
Not twenty years had passed when word of the conduct of the gymnosophists of Taxila had spread wide, and Megasthenes found Kalanos being roundly censured for behaviour unbecoming a sage: 'a miserable creature, and more to be pitied than the unhappiest wretch, for by setting his heart on lucre he wrought the perdition of his soul!' Mandanis, on the other hand, had risen in reverence for making light of Alexander's purported promise of magnificent reward for submitting himself to royal presence, and of death should he fail to do so. The earth, like a mother, supplied him with everything, the wise one was reported to have said, and he wished for no more. If Alexander were to cut off his head, his soul would yet continue to live, and leaving the body 'like a torn garment upon the earth' would ascend to his Maker: 'Go, then, and tell Alexander this: "Mandanis has no need for aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Mandanis come you to him."'
Such audacity from great men of learning was something Alexander was accustomed to, for his meeting with Diogenes, the very teacher of the man Alexander had sent out to greet the Punjabi ascetics, was still fresh in his mind. As the Macedonian, then a youth of twenty, marched victorious through the streets of Corinth, the notables of the city filed past to pay their respect. Among them Alexander had hoped would be Diogenes. But he wasn't. The king went in search of him and found the Master stretched out stark naked, sun bathing. Respectfully Alexander inquired if he could be of any assistance. 'Yes,' came the reply, 'you may stand a little to one side, out of my sun.'
A ripple went through the ranks of the king's party, but we know that Alexander silenced them and did indeed stand aside. There was no way Mandanis could have known of that occurrence of many years ago in distant Corinth. Such disdain of royal favour was simply the way of the wise - whether they be on the shores of the Aegean Sea or by the waters of the Tamrah stream. In Taxila, as in Corinth, men of lesser character would have broken out in a sweat. Surely for days to come, talk around the Westerners' camp fires would have centered on the disregard that Mandanis had exhibited for his own life and his scorn for Alexander's summons. Many would have gone beyond the Tamrah merely to behold, in respectful silence, this man whose audacity was as great as his wisdom. The king, meanwhile, persisted, and eventually the two senior philosophers deigned to attend the royal dinner party.
Before the month of May 326 BC was over, Alexander set out on his journey for the Eastern Ocean , never again to return to Taxila. But that was an ambition never to be fulfilled. On the banks of the Beas, not far from modern Amritsar, his soldiers, weary in body and soul from years of incessant warfare and dispirited by talk of the great strength of the empire of Magadha, mutinied, forcing the conqueror to turn homeward. Sailing down the Jhelum and the Sindhu, he led his army on a near suicidal march across the sun bleached, waterless wastes of Makran. When Alexander arrived in Babylon not yet thirty three, his body ached from a dozen old wounds of the Indian Campaign, the still youthful face was lined, and streaks of silver shone through the blond head. This was a time to begin consolidating the empire and to plan the Arabian Campaign. But that again was to remain an ambition unfulfilled.
Boating on the Euphrates Alexander contracted a fever, and within days, lay dying. Hephaestion, long his most obvious successor, was already dead; Alexander IV, his son from Roxane the Bactrian princess, the king's only real heterosexual attachment, was yet to be born; Arridaeus, his adult half brother was an imbecile. The question, therefore, supreme in every mind was concerning the succession. Just before he died, Alexander handed the royal ring to Perdiccas, in whose hands he is said also to have placed his wife's hand. But when asked as to whom the sovereignty went, he is reported to have whispered, 'to the strongest'. And so, with Alexander's body scarcely cold, began the violent struggle for that distinction - a struggle that was to last two generations.
With the departure of Alexander, there began in the subcontinent a period whose exact details will perhaps never be known: the rise to power of Chandragupta Maurya. In 324 BC while yet in Carmania (southeast Iran), Alexander, hearing of the murder of Philip, the satrap of Taxila, at the hands of his own officers, advised Ambhi to continue ruling in conjunction with Eudamus, a Thracian officer. Not long afterwards we hear of the Thracian treacherously murdering King Porus and, in 317 BC, deserting Taxila to join the War of the Successors on the side of Alexander's secretary Eumenes.
It has been suggested that Chandragupta who had risen to power around 322 BC was crowned at Taxila. This seems unlikely because in that year the city would still have been firmly in the hands of Ambhi and Eudamus. Wherever he rose to power does not concern us, but shortly afterwards, Chandragupta had displaced the unpopular Nanda king of Magadha to become master of the great city of Patliputra. Within years Taxila, too, was part of the Mauryan kingdom that stretched from the banks of the Ganga to the Sindhu. History is silent on the fate of Ambhi, however. As for Greek garrisons, if after the desertion of Eudamus any survived, they were now wiped out. The remainder of the European population was absorbed locally.
In 305 BC Seleucus Nikator, the new master of Syria, set out at the head of a vast army in an attempt to emulate Alexander in unifying the Eastern Empire. However, when this army met the Mauryan forces west of the Sindhu, Seleucus saw the futility of battle against the awesome host. Gifts and ambassadors were exchanged, peace was established and Chandragupta was left to govern his vast empire as he pleased. Presumably leaving Taxila to his minions, Chandragupta retired to the capital of Patliputra. In the relative peace of the new sovereignty, the university town of Taxila continued to expand and grow beyond the restricting walls of Bhir, with the richer segment of the population moving to the suburb marked by Sirkap. In the early years of the 3rd century BC, travellers coming down the low hills in the northwest would have been greeted by the sight of two or three groups of habitation sprinkled along the Tamrah rivulet.
Shortly afterwards Taxila, which the Greeks had found 'governed by good laws', was no longer the same. Chandragupta's tenuous hold from far away Patliputra weakened and corrupted the administration of Taxila. During the reign of his son Bindusara (reigned BC 298 - 274), we hear of the latter's son Susima being sent to Taxila to quell a rebellion that had broken out against the oppression of the local governor. The prince was unable to bring the Taxilians to terms and was replaced by his younger brother Asoka. To this prince the people readily submitted and in Taxila he was to continue as Bindusara's viceroy. Taxila evidently ranked high in importance, for when trouble erupted during the reign of Chandragupta it was Bindusara, the crown prince, who was sent out to settle affairs. And subsequently when Susima failed, the younger but far more prudent Asoka was entrusted the difficult task.
It is believed that when the time came, Asoka's coronation took place in this city . With the passing of the Greeks, the tradition of recording the social and cultural life was temporarily suspended; consequently there is little insight not only into what exactly would have occurred at the crowning of Asoka, but also into the everyday life of Taxila under the Mauryas. However, later Chinese records show that Greek influence had impregnated Punjabi folklore with tales from Hellenic mythology.
On a low hill to the south of the ruins of Sirkap, lie the remains of the Kunala monastery, said to be named after Asoka's son. Hiuen Tsiang relates that after the death of Asoka's wife and his re-marriage, the new queen, Tishyaraksha by name, made libidinous advances on her pious and handsome stepson Kunala. Angered by his rejection and wishing for the prince to be removed, she advised Asoka to post him to distant Taxila as viceroy. Not comprehending the deceit, the king complied, and as he was sending off the prince, he advised him on the importance of Taxila on the outer reaches of the empire. From time to time Kunala would be guided by royal injunctions; and in order to prevent forgery all imperial edicts would be sent duly sealed: '.. my seal is the impression of my teeth; here in my mouth is my seal. There can be no mistake.'
Even with the prince removed from her presence, the licentious queen's hatred for him was not quelled. She secretly wrote out a dispatch bringing accusations against Kunala and ordering him and his wife to be turned out of Taxila after the prince's eyes had been blinded. Then, as the king slept, she contrived to affix his teeth seal on the wax and sent out the dispatch. Upon reading the order, the pious Kunala did not wait for verification, but ordered his minister to immediately execute the royal command. Thus blinded and destitute, he left Taxila to wander through the land as a mendicant.
Now it came to pass that Kunala and his wife arrived in Patliputra, where they entered the royal palace, playing the lute and singing a plaintive song. The king recognising the voice ordered the prince to be brought into his presence only to be stricken with grief upon seeing the condition of his son. Inquiry was swift and when the truth was discovered, the queen was put to death. Hiuen Tsiang goes on to relate that Kunala's eyes were eventually put in order by a priest named Ghosha . It is interesting to note the parallels between this story and that of the celibate Hippolytus and his lustful stepmother Phaedra. Having made similar advances on Hippolytus, and infuriated by his refusal, she reported to Theseus that his son had made an attempt on her honour. Hippolytus was turned out, and unlike the Punjabi story with the prince's eyesight being restored, the hapless Greek was killed by the god Poseidon. In the spring of 326 BC, when the day's work was done, and campfires winked in the darkness outside Taxila with men in relaxed repose around them, this romantic story would have held many a Punjabi in thrall. And long after the Greek tellers of tales were gone, the story was faithfully grafted upon existing local folklore .
A tenuous substantiation of some sort of intrigue against Kunala comes from Hiuen Tsiang. On his return journey through Khotan (Xinjiang Province, China), the pilgrim saw that the script and grammar of that city was very similar to the Indian model. He also learnt that some of the schemers who had abetted the crime of blinding Kunala were banished by Asoka to the north of the Karakorum mountains 'to establish themselves in the midst of a desert valley'. This seemed like pure fiction until the first decade of the 20th century when the monumental work of Sir Aurel Stein turned up the now well known inscribed wooden boards from the Takla Makan Desert.
Shaped very like the takhti used by school children all over the subcontinent today to practice vernacular transcription, these slats are dated to the middle of the 3rd century AD, some four hundred years after the migration first took place. The texts in the Kharoshti script, all in the Prakrit of northwest Pakistan, are devoid of any literary pretensions whatever and deal with governmental and commercial matters. Here are royal orders to vassals, land deeds and commercial transactions, all carefully recorded and stored away in safety. But there was no protection when the sands of Takla Makan advanced. The city where they spoke a Punjabi dialect and recorded their business in the Kharoshti script of Taxila was abandoned to be smothered by the encroaching desert. And so, while the incursions of Central Asiatic savages into India were recorded, the migration of the superior culture of Punjab to the desert regions of Tartary was forgotten until Stein discovered it early in the 20th century. It was with this migration in the time of Asoka that Buddhism travelled to the desert regions of Tartary from where it spread eastward as far away as Japan and Korea.
Asoka died in 232 BC. In the east, the kingdom of Magadha was already decaying and shrinking: Kashmir was autonomous, the Tamil provinces had broken away and in Taxila we hear of an apparently independent king named Sophagasenus . In the west, Greek mercenaries and adventurers settled in Bactria (Balkh in northern Afghanistan) since the time of Alexander, who had risen to power under the Seleucids, had already rebelled against central authority in 250 BC and gained total independence under Diodotus. Two successive apathetic Seleucid emperors encouraged the growth of the Bactrians and when Antiochus III set out to subdue the breakaway portion of the empire, the Bactrians were powerful enough to defy him. Forced into making peace with Euthydemus , the king of the Bactrians, Antiochus crossed the Hindu Kush to renew with Sophagasenus the friendship that his eminent forebear Seleucus Nikator had made with Chandragupta.
Although history does not tell us whether Sophagasenus was a Mauryan or otherwise; it does give proof of the erosion of the power of Taxila since the time of Chandragupta. The Taxilian king was unable to oppose the foreigner, for Polybius writes that Antiochus received many war elephants and also provisioned his army at the expense of the Taxilian. Not satisfied with that alone, and in a hurry to return home, Antiochus left behind an officer to extract 'the treasure which [Sophagasenus] had agreed to hand over to him'.
This accord is dated around the year 210 BC; of what transpired in Taxila in the next quarter of a century next to nothing is known. Far away in Patliputra, in the year 184 BC, a general of the Mauryan army named Pushyamitra Sunga performed a coup d'etat on the decaying kingdom of Magadha by assassinating the king and installing himself as the sovereign. The uncertainty of the beginning of a new dynasty brought in general unrest, especially in the outlying areas. Taking advantage of this confusion, a fresh wave of Greeks erupted from across the Hindu Kush: the Bactrians. The new man of vision was Euthydemus' illustrious son Demetrius who, modelling himself after Alexander the Great, advanced across the Sindhu with the hope of acquiring the country that once belonged, albeit briefly, to the Greeks. With the help of his brilliant general, Menander, Demetrius was able to overrun, beside Taxila, a vast area of the subcontinent about the year 184 BC.
For the next fifteen years or so, the Euthydemid kingdom straddled the Hindu Kush mountains with its nerve centres at the cities of Bactra and Taxila. While in the former the Greeks were masters over primitive, uncultured savages, east of the Sindhu they met with a civilisation older than theirs and as advanced, if not more. The amalgamation was natural; many would have intermarried with the Taxilians, learned the language and preferred local schools for their children. Others in their quest for wisdom, like Onesicritos before them, would have hobnobbed with the scholars of the town. Social exchange would have been easy and frequent for the absence of Greek quarters among the ruins shows that the foreigner lived side by side with the Taxilian.
In Bactria where it was pointless to interact with the barbarous and culturally inferior subjects, the coins continued to bear only Greek inscriptions; but those in Taxila were inscribed with Kharoshti , together with the Greek legend: cultural integration came from the top downward. It was from this great city that Demetrius hoped to command his expansive, mountain divided kingdom. While he himself would have had Bactria within reach, his governors assigned to Ujjain and Patliputra could oversee the farther limits of the kingdom.
It has been postulated that it was Demetrius who moved the richer segment of Taxilian society - which would necessarily have comprised of the Greeks as well- to the outlying suburb of Sirkap,relegating Bhir to the status of a commercial and industrial centre. From numismatic evidence, however, it is now believed that the switch over would have taken place shortly afterwards during the brief sub-kingship of his son Agathocles. That was the time when the pattern for the new Taxila was set. Here within a protective stonewall, the streets were laid out in a grid with the main thoroughfare running north - south intersected by cross streets that divided the residential area into rectangular blocks. Here the people of the Sindhu valley were to learn anew the forgotten art of laying out towns in a grid shape- something that their predecessors had practised four thousand years before in Moen jo Daro and Harappa.
But whenever the transfer to Sirkap was effected, about the year 168 BC, when Demetrius had yet not had time to consolidate his empire, pressure bore down from the west in the shape of Eucratides, a Seleucidian officer. Leaving his kinsman Apollodotus in charge of Taxila, Demetrius withdrew to Bactria to give battle. But he was unable to stem the rising tide. Once again the gorges of the Suleman mountains rang with the Greek battle cry, and Taxila changed hands from the Euthydemids to the Seleucidians. The next half century saw a great flurry of kings and sub-kings of the Seleucid line ruling over the new Taxila that was growing on the site of Sirkap.
And while king was fighting king for the possession of these trans-Sindhu lands, a quiet, inconspicuous exchange of ideas was taking place in the workshops and ateliers of Taxila. The fertile mind of the Punjabi craftsman was quick to incorporate into the terra cotta, stucco and metal creations of Taxila such Hellenistic features as, among others, leaves of the laurel, wreaths and Aphrodite type figures. From the Greek metal worker the Taxilian was learning to make bronze a more malleable alloy by the addition of lead and of casting delicate wares in the new bronze of copper and nickel. This was, too, an age of great intellectual and artistic ferment. What was to be called Gandharan Buddhist sculpture that gave the stark western faces to the representation of Buddha, was to come shortly afterwards. 'Sufficient studies are now available to show that Gandhara art (sculpture, architecture, jewellery etc all inclusive) made its embryonic beginning as a result of Greek rule at Taxila and elsewhere' writes Dr Dar.
While in Taxila the ferment was on the intellectual plane, across the Hindu Kush it was rather more mundane. Fierce horse riding nomads whose ancestors had mocked Darius Hystaspes, the king of Persia in the 6th century BC, once again broke out from their home on the vast, wind swept grasslands of Central Asia. The Bactrian Greeks, weakened by the wedge driven across themselves and their kinsmen in Babylon and Syria, by the rising power of the Parthians from the southern shores of the Caspian, succumbed to these fearless horsemen. And so the roads into the subcontinent once again fell open. Driven out of their homeland by an even mightier horde, and advancing via the Helmand river valley and Bolan Pass
these pale-skinned, fair-haired warriors known to the Greeks as Scythians and to the Indians as Sakas, first possessed Sindh around 110 BC. So overwhelming were their numbers that for the next two centuries Greek geographers were to term the Sindhu delta country as Indo Scythia. To the people of the subcontinent it became Saka Dvipa - Island of the Sakas .
In that great flurry of kings and sub-kings the beginning of the 1st century BC saw Antialcidas ruling over Taxila, Gandhara and Paropamisadae (the mountainous country between Bactria and Gandhara). Upon his death in about 90 BC, the kingdom broke up and Taxila came under the rule of Archebius. Taking advantage of the weakness of the regime, a branch of the Sakas under the able king Maues took control of Taxila. From the 'Taxila copper plate of Patika ' it is revealed that in the 78th year of an unspecified era during the reign of the 'Great Moga ', Liaka Kusuluka the satrap of Chuksha and his son Patika made an offering of a relic of Buddha to a monastery in the area. Auxiliary evidence points out that the year 78 corresponds with 77 BC. To be well and securely installed in that year, Maues may have taken over Taxila a few years earlier.
To the Greeks the Sakas had once been but barbarians with 'no towns and no cultivated land', who knew only to fight to preserve from desecration the tombs of their forefathers. The few years of interaction with the Parthians before their conquest of the trans-Sindhu territories, had however taught the Sakas to respect, utilise and imitate superior cultures. Unabashedly therefore, Maues copied the Euthydemid elephant onto his coins to show his possession of the trans-Sindhu elephant country and on his earliest coins even called himself 'Basileos Maues' - King Maues in Greek. Later issues, again imitating Greek practice, also carried Kharoshti translations of his title on the reverse.
Whether they be called imitators or successors, Maues and his descendants, did not restrict themselves to copying Greek coins alone, though with decreasing exactness and grace. The Greek method of administration was followed, too, with the same system of provinces, and to some extent, the same title for the officials. So great was the similarity that ancient Indian chroniclers taking them to be one and the same people sometimes mentioned the Sakas and the Yavanas together. In the context of Taxila, 'they followed where the Greeks had led in town planning; they adopted Greek forms in their architecture; and seem to have been inspired mainly by Greek ideas in their minor arts and crafts,' writes Marshall.
With the waning of the Bactrians, Greek craftsmen had become increasingly difficult to come by. Moreover, Parthian control over the countries athwart of the route between Babylon and Syria and the Indian subcontinent had restricted movement between these lands, cutting off a free exchange of ideas. The studio and workshop of Taxila that once turned out Hellenistic objets d'art under the watchful eye of the Greek master, was now supervised by the Taxilian who had done his apprenticeship under the Greek. But in the absence of the Greek master the arts and crafts of Taxila became increasingly Indianised. This, unfortunately was a bastardised, inferior transformation because of the plethora of other influences infiltrating from the northwest. As for the Sakas, not an artistically creative nation who had always relied upon Greek craftsmen, they had nothing to add to the artistic vocabulary of the Taxilian worker.
Maues died about 53 BC. The following half century is a confusing flurry of short lived reigns that is difficult, even for the master historian, to decipher with any exactitude. The difficulty arises from the fact that while the Sakas controlled Taxila, across the Suleman mountains the Parthians, who had earlier displaced the Bactrian Greeks, were already masters of Gandhara. Horse riders and warriors, the Parthians had much in common with their kinsmen, the Sakas - only the former were culturally rather superior. In the process of displacing the Bactrians, they had come to appreciate Hellenistic fine arts, had adopted them and were proud to parade their Phil-Hellenism. Because of this great cultural intermixing and an absence of the written word, it is difficult to determine whether or not after the death of Maues the Sakas ceded Taxila, albeit briefly, to the Greeks, as is believed by some historians. The confusing glut of numismatic evidence of the next half century also is little help in this regard. There is however no doubt that following the death of Maues the latter half of the 1st century BC saw Taxila change hands between several weak rulers and minor chieftains.
Numismatic evidence shows that about the year 19 AD, King Gondophares, the Parthian, finally took control of Taxila, and after a long interregnum does one get a written description of the town and its king. Once again, not unusually, the lifter of the veil is an itinerant Greek philosopher. Apollonius of Tyana (central Turkey) while living at Antioch (modern Antakya, southern Turkey) set out for India purely with the purpose of broadening his intellectual horizon, by consorting with savants whose forebears' friendship Alexander had sought. Travelling with two secretaries, Apollonius picked up a linguist in Nineveh (Iraq), a man called Damis who seems to have been a literate, well travelled man of the world, and from whose diaries we know today of that journey begun in distant Turkey in the year 42 AD.
Having meandered across Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, Apollonius and his retinue at length crossed the Sindhu to reach Taxila two years later. But this was a city where travellers, even such distinguished ones as Apollonius apparently was, were not permitted entry except by the king's leave; and then, too, they could not tarry for more than three days. Therefore, having sent word of their arrival to the court, they awaited royal invitation in a marble temple 'just outside the walls' of the town. In the temple, we are told, was a small and beautiful shrine dedicated to the memory of two great kings that this part of the world had known barely four hundred years earlier: Porus and Alexander.
The walls of the shrine were hung with representations of the Punjabi and the Macedonian on copper plates showing, in full colour and accurate portrayal, the two armies in their frenzy of battle. The 'correctness of drawing, vivacity of expression, and truthfulness of perspective' reminded Apollonius of the great masters of Greece. The fact that these mosaics, showing Alexander as the victor and Porus as the vanquished, had been installed on the orders of the latter subsequent to the death of Alexander, showed 'the noble character of Porus', noted the philosopher, as Damis records. The magnificence of Porus that the sensitive diarist from distant Nineveh was able to discern is now lost on the people who tenant the kingdom of that long ago king. By a bizarre twist of fate and misplaced religiosity Alexander the invader is looked upon as a hero, but the valiant and majestic Porus - the only king who Alexander, in eleven years of campaigning, ever found worthy of respect, is consigned to ignominy.
Another reminder of that time was Porus' elephant that was given the Homeric name of Ajax by Alexander in view of its great courage in battle and loyalty to its royal master, so the visitors were told. It lived off the adoration of the people of Taxila who fed it, anointed it and decorated it with garlands. As no elephant could have lived over three hundred years, this Ajax was possibly a descendent of the one Porus rode into battle and which would surely have been marked for appreciation by Alexander. Indeed, having honoured the brave and heroic Porus, the Macedonian conqueror would have found it hard to overlook his loyal elephant.
Marshall postulated that the ruined temple of Jandial outside the northern periphery of Sirkap was the one where Apollonius and his friends marvelled at the fine artistry as they waited for the king's summons. Dr Dar, however, points out that Jandial, which was built by the Bactrian Greeks as early as the middle of the 2nd century BC, was already in ruins because of the devastating earthquake that struck Taxila about 25 AD .
At length the invitation arrived with a guide and interpreter, and the retinue of foreigners hurried along the well arranged streets that reminded them of Athens. At the time of the philosopher's visit, not yet twenty years after the great earthquake, Gondophares, the Phil-Hellene, would have been in the process of rebuilding Taxila, faithfully replicating the pattern set by the Greeks three centuries earlier. The lessons of the cataclysm were remembered and the houses were restricted to basement and, at most, first floor only, as opposed to the earlier three or four storeys. The crude, unstable mud-plastered coursed rubble construction so prone to collapse in a seismic disturbance, was replaced by the far sturdier diaper masonry. Upper floor walls were also reinforced with cross beams of timber. Glinting a light sandy gray, this chipped stone and block masonry would not have failed to impress the visitors with its newness.
Neatly packed together with uniformly flat roofs, those private buildings that had been mud-plastered would have flaunted rust, blue, green or brown washes with doors very likely in contrasting colours, for this was the upper class area of town. Here a narrow verandah with gaily painted wooden pillars fronted the main street; there the small cubicle of a provision store; and further on, by the jeweller's shop that turned out ornaments reminiscent of Greek artistry, one selling a stone cutter's wares - grind stones, mortars and pestles. As the Parthians had trade links with Mediterranean countries the bazaar would have stocked, beside local goods, objects produced in those far off lands, giving the town a very cosmopolitan complexion indeed. The thronging crowds would have spoken a great babble of languages: here could be heard Greek, Persian and its relative the Scythic tongue; the Prakrits of Punjab and the land beyond the Sindhu. Sindhi and the dialects of the countries east of the Jumna too would have been heard from far ranging merchants and scholars, come to this thriving emporium of trade and seat of learning.
The inhabitants of Taxila were devout folk and above the flat roofs rose the domes and umbrellas of temples and stupas. In having entered from the north gate and traversing the five hundred metres to the palace, the visitors would have passed no less than five houses of worship. Their guide, eager to point out the charms of his hometown, would have mentioned the fine workmanship in one, the Temple of the Sun, for they paused to look. Here again were statues showing the feats of Porus and Alexander 'in gold, silver, and copper; [the temple's] walls were of red marble, but glittering like gold; the image of the god was of pearls', notes Damis, the ever observant and dutiful diarist.
While the temples were impressive in their ostentation, it was the simplicity of the court of Gondophares, the king of Taxila , that Apollonius found more pleasing than all the pomp of Babylon. The palace, we are told, possessed no 'extraordinary magnificence, and was just like the house of any citizen of the better class'. There were no guards, few servants, and three or four persons waiting to speak with the king. Sycophancy was alive and well, for in the presence of the foreigners a cringing courtier attempted to crown Gondophares with a jewelled mitre. The man was rebuked because, writes Damis, not only did the king disapprove of such obsequiousness, but he also did not wish Apollonius to believe that he condoned sycophancy.
Having finished his business with local visitors the king sat down with the travellers, and Apollonius 'now inquired into his mode of life'. The abstemious king, he was told, drank but little and hunted only for exercise, giving away all that he bagged. Being a vegetarian, he was also an avid gardener who subsisted on the fruit and vegetables he grew himself.
Having thus far conversed through an interpreter Gondophares, the philosopher king of Taxila, surprised Apollonius by begging his guest, in cultivated Greek, to invite him to dinner. Why, the philosopher asked, should the king beg to be invited, when as the host it was his own prerogative. 'Because I look on you as the better man; for wisdom is above royalty,' the king is reported to have replied.
The buffet meal was elaborate with 'fish and birds, the carcasses of lions and goats and sows, and with tiger loins'. Damis does not omit to tell us that only the hind parts of the tiger were eaten because it was believed 'that at its birth it raises its fore-paws to the rising sun' . Wine was served in gold and silver goblets large enough to sate ten people, from which they drank 'stooping down like cattle'. During the meal an acrobat performed feats of daring and a marksman having set up his son against a board drew his outline by throwing darts at him. Apollonius however, was held in thrall by the king's discourse in learned Greek. The subject was philosophy and the need to preclude pseudo philosophers from dabbling in it. In the kingdom of Gondophares, Apollonius was told, a man wishing to take up the study of this subject had first to prove that he together with three generations before him were free of any taint on their character. Such proof for dead forebears could be obtained from official records maintained by officers, who could be barred from public service if found guilty of dishonesty in the pursuit of their assignments.
Before his three-day sojourn was over, Apollonius was called upon by the king to help decide a court case: a block of land was sold, and subsequent to its transfer a buried treasure was discovered in it. Now both the buyer and the seller were squabbling over it for possession and the king was at a loss as to who the treasure really belonged to. Apollonius made an inquiry into the life and character of both the litigants, and when it was learnt that the buyer was the better of the two, advised the king to pass judgment in favour of the better man.
Almost two millenniums later (in 1822), years before the first historian was to explore the mounds that now mark ancient Taxila, even before the name of Gondophares was to be revealed by coins, a manuscript titled The Acts of Saint Thomas was discovered in Syria. It told of St Thomas the Apostle, having been assigned by Jesus 'to preach the gospel to the Parthians or the Indians', arriving by sea in the capital of King Gondophares. Rather than hearing the gospel, so the story went, the king paid the apostle some money and hired him to build the royal palace. St Thomas, however, gave away all the money in alms and when asked some days later how construction was progressing, assured the king that his palace had been built in heaven. In anger the king ordered the saint to be burnt alive. Preparations for the execution were all but complete when the plan had to be withheld because of the sudden death of Gad, the king's brother .
Ascending to heaven, Gad was shown the palace built for Gondophares by the efforts of St Thomas, and then allowed to resume his worldly life. He interceded with his brother, the king, and telling him what he had seen, secured remission of the cruel sentence. Thereafter, the king, his brother and St Thomas' Jewish accomplice, all converted to the 'true faith' and the apostle was permitted to proceed to the south country to preach the gospel. And there it was (near Chennai, India) that he died in 72 AD.
Following the early 20th century archeological and numismatic discovery that Taxila was the capital of city of Gondophares, padres with little or no knowledge of history, but possessed only of a more than ample conviction to prove that Christianity was practiced in this part of the subcontinent as early as the 1st century AD, took it upon themselves to glorify the story of St Thomas. To help them along was the rather dubious discovery of an artefact that has since come to be known in Christian circles as the 'Taxila Cross'. In the words of Dr Dar:
It is a small stone piece of grayish colour measuring 3.0x3.2 cms. Its thickness is 0.5 cms. The stone has been cut into a cross of four arms. There is a hole in one of the arms for suspension. It is in the form of crux composita, or crux compacta of the type of a 'Greek Cross' ie, its four arms should be equilateral. But actually, its left horizontal arm is shorter than the remaining three arms by 0.2 cms and this gives it a very awkward look.
It was this cross that prompted Christian 'historians' to propound the practice of Christianity in this part of the subcontinent within a decade of the demise of Christ. Without any historical basis whatsoever it was proposed that St Thomas, having learnt the various languages and acquainted himself with the Vedas at the university of Taxila, began his mission under the shadow of the Margallas. He successfully converted 'Greeks, Parthians, Punjabis, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Philosophers, Pandits, Scholars, illiterates, noblemen, and the poor.' Subsequently (without historical basis again), one part of the palace of Gondophares was earmarked as the spot where the apostle addressed the king . The cross was believed to be a relic that irrefutably proved that 'historic' occurrence.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. For one, the 'Taxila Cross' was not discovered in any identifiable stratum of the ruins, but by a farmer outside the ruins of Sirkap. Secondly, the cross and the swastika, Dr Dar points out, are two of the oldest talismans in the orient; and coins found from Bhir that predate the advent of Christ, are inscribed with crosses . Moreover, the work of Minucius Felix, a Christian writer (c 200 AD), states that the Christians 'neither want nor worship crosses as the pagans do.' It was not until the 4th century AD, after the Roman Emperor Theodosius (reigned 379-95) had abolished execution by crucifixion, that the cross lost its cruel and oppressive connotation and came to be used as a symbol of faith recalling the suffering of Christ.
Now, St Thomas is believed to have been in Taxila in 40 AD, when he would have converted the king and the masses to Christianity. But four years later Apollonius visited a resplendent Temple of the Sun in the city, and learnt that at the royal table the foreparts of the tiger were not eaten for upon its birth the beast worshipped the sun. From this same period in Sirkap was discovered a statue of the Sun god, making it very clear that sun worship, rather than Christianity, was the official faith in Taxila.
There can be no doubt that the story of St Thomas the Apostle is purely apocryphal. It does show one thing, however: that the fame of Gondophares, the just and learned king of Taxila who had so impressed Apollonius with his goodness, had spread far and wide. The author of the fictional Acts of Saint Thomas, acquainted with this Parthian king perhaps from the work of the diarist Damis would have considered him a client worthy of conversion to Christianity - even if the conversion was to occur years, perhaps centuries, after the death of Gondophares. As irrelevant as history was to 20th century priestly historians, so too was geography to that anonymous writer. By telling us that St Thomas arrived by sea in the capital of Gondophares, he placed the Parthian in a coastal city of Sindh or Gujarat.
Meanwhile, under the proudly Phil-Hellenic Gondophares Taxila, at least that of the upper classes, received another infusion of arts and crafts from the West. Utensils, objects of household and toilet use and jewellery adopted classical themes. The rebuilding of the city after the earthquake, too, followed a strictly Greek pattern as can be seen from the regular grid of main and side streets. Buddhism was on the ascendant, yet the deities on the coins showed that they were shaped by Western influence to a large extent. This was an expression of 'local concepts in the medium of the west - an attempt to represent the local ideas on the basis of western technology and perhaps form.' On the other hand, local influence is clearly visible in artefacts of terracotta, bone and iron that come from the poorer section of Sirkap. The poorer classes were permeated with local culture and tradition while the richer, be they foreign or local, had adopted Hellenistic traditions.
With the death of Gondophares about 50 AD, the great age of Hellenisation of Taxila was cut short yet another time. Sanskrit records show that during the short reign of his successor Pacores, Taxila was visited by the plague that decimated its population and left the great city reeling. Three years after this visitation, between the years 60-65, the Kushans swept into Taxila. Whereas the displacement of the Sakas by the Parthians, barely fifty years earlier, had been virtually bloodless, the change now was violent and destructive. As the great horde came across the Sindhu ford, destroying the towns and rich farmlands of the outlying satrapy of Chuksha (Chach), word reached Taxila to seize the townsfolk in a frenzy of panic.
With only their lives and the clothes on their backs the Taxilians fled to the safety of the Margalla hills. Behind them they abandoned all that they valued in the hope of returning to recover their treasures and rebuild their lives after the trouble subsided: 'Many of these [Parthian] antiquities, particularly the gold jewellery and the vessels of silver and bronze, were discovered in treasure hoards which the townspeople had evidently buried in haste beneath the floors of their houses under the menace of the Kushan invasion and which they did not live to recover; others were found scattered amid the debris of the fallen buildings.' Sir John Marshall goes on to declare the archeological yield of Parthian Sirkap as the 'richest and most varied collection of personal ornaments, household utensils, implements and arms that has yet been found in India.'
Thus began a new period in the long and chequered history of Taxila - the age of the Kushans. From the ruins of Sirkap a cache of coins of Gondophares and his successor Pacores together with those of the Kushan king Vima Kadphises, the son of Kajula Kadphises, tells the chronology of the change. And from Dharmarajika stupa, a silver scroll with a Kharoshti inscription reveals that in the year '136 of Azes' (believed to correspond to 77 AD) Urasaka, a Bactrian Buddhist made an offering in a chapel of this monastery at a time when Taxila was ruled over by 'the great king, king of kings, the Son of Heaven, the Kushan'.
Though the Kushan king is not named, it seems to be Vima Kadphises; for it is this same king to whom the building of new Taxila is attributed. Just two kilometres to the north of Sirkap, on the far bank of the winding Lundi Nallah, in a wide sylvan plain, the massive buttressed walls of Sirsukh mark the site of Vima's Taxila. It is not known why the change was warranted, but certainly the change took place not long after the commencement of Kushan rule. Perhaps the new masters of Taxila thought the overlooking spur of Hathial to the south of Sirkap disadvantageous to the defense of the city; perhaps the site was considered inauspicious for memory of the earthquake and the plague would still have persisted. Or perhaps the Kushans considered it inappropriate to inhabit a city they had wrested from a weaker foe. Whatever the case, when the transfer did take place, it was partial as it had been from Bhir to Sirkap. This time around too, the lower strata of society continued to reside in the older city.
Among one of the more abiding mysteries in the history of Taxila are the intricate details of Kushan rule. Even when the first spade was struck in Taxila, the area within the fortification walls of Sirsukh, the Kushan city, was heavily irrigated precluding detailed examination. The mounds, moreover, were occupied by graves and shrines, consequently so far there have been only two cursory digs. Finds of coins, however, tell us that Vima Kadphises gave way to Kanishka who reigned for twenty three years from about 140 AD. It has been argued by some scholars that he ruled from as early as 78 AD, but the Chinese Hou Han Annals dealing with the period AD 25-125, mention only the reigns of Kajula and his son Vima. On the strength of the Annals' omission of any notice of the more celebrated Kanishka, Marshall argues that his reign was yet to come.
But when he did take over, Kanishka was to rise in stature above his predecessors on two counts. One the one hand he was the great patron and protector of Buddhism under whom Taxila was endowed with a number of temples and monasteries; and on the other his feats of arms carried his power to Kashmir and the country beyond the Jumna, as well as, across the Hindu Kush into the valley of the Oxus River. It was by this time, not through royal intervention though but by natural evolution, that the once Phil-Hellenic Taxila had regained its Punjabi complexion. If there were any Greeks left in the city, they were completely integrated; the language, largely forgotten, was retained only by the mint masters and even they spoke a considerably debased version. In the courts and the streets of 2nd century Taxila, one would have heard the local dialect of Punjabi with perhaps a smattering of the archaic Persian of the Kushans.
In the next one hundred years, first under Kanishka and then his successors, Taxila thrived as a centre of Buddhism. In a great flurry of building activity, the monasteries of Jaulian, Giri and Mohra Moradu came up replete with images of the Blessed One where believers from the four corners of India and from the distant land of China resorted for benediction. Kanishka's kingdom passed on successively from Vasishka to Huvishka, to the second Kanishka and finally to Vasudeva, none of whom could match their illustrious predecessor in greatness and administrative ability. Consequently, the power of the Kushan kingdom that had steadily been eroding, sufficiently declined by the latter years of Vasudeva's reign, that a new threat arose in the west. In 230 AD, Ardeshir Babagan, the founder of the Sassanian dynasty, took over Bactria and Gandhara before extending his influence into Punjab as far east as Sirhind.
This was apparently a short lived intrusion, for numismatic evidence shows that Vasudeva was followed by yet another line of Kushan princes who continued to mint poor copies of Vasudeva's copper issues well into the 4th century. From a Roman source, we learn that the adventure begun by Ardeshir came full circle about 355 AD when the Sassanian emperor Shapur II fought and defeated the Cuseni (Kushans). And from an inscription in the ruins of Persepolis in Iran, it is learnt that in 356 Shapur installed himself at Kabul to direct the battles against Gandhara and Punjab. The ample finds of Sassanian copper coins show that Taxila came under the sway of the Persians again and for the last time in history.
By the year 390 AD, the Persians in Taxila were replaced by another branch of Kushans. Known as the Kidara Kushans after their leader Kidara, these warlike people had crossed the Hindu Kush from their home in Bactria under pressure of the depredatory White Huns from the northeast. Other than the fact that they established themselves in Taxila and that the next half century was a period of relative peace, there is little else to be learnt. Meanwhile there percolated through the barrier of the Hindu Kush, news of the bloody progress across the Afghan highlands of barbarians with 'broad shoulders, flat noses, and small black eyes deeply sunk in their heads, and little or no hair on their faces'. In 460 AD, or shortly thereafter, the tempest that was the White Huns, having ravaged Afghanistan, burst across the Suleman Mountains to wreak havoc on the trans-Sindhu countries.
Sung Yun, the Chinese pilgrim, who was in northern Punjab in 520-21 AD, found the country in the hands of a 'cruel and vindictive' king who visited upon the populace the 'most barbarous atrocities'. Though he does not disclose the name, this could be none other than Mehr Gul (Mihirakula), 'the Attila of Indian Huns', who had succeeded his father Toraman in the year 516. Kalhana's Rajatrangini records that this killer of 'three crores' had no pity either for women or children or the aged, and that the progress of his army across the countryside was marked by a cloud of vultures and crows that followed in their keenness to feed on the corpses. Mehr Gul's sun worshipping predecessors who first arrived in Taxila, according to Marshall, were none the better:
Coins of the White Huns number thirty two only - all of silver, but they constitute a valuable series in themselves and all the more so because of the circumstances of their finding, which leave no room for doubt that it was the White Huns who were responsible for the wholesale destruction of the Buddhist sangharamas of Taxila. All but one of their coins were found on the floors of burnt-out monasteries, where some of the invaders evidently perished along with the defenders.
In 631 AD, Hiuen Tsiang sojourned at Taxila and provided an intriguing piece of information when he noted that the extinction of the royal family had led the nobles of the city to squabble amongst themselves for supremacy. From the Rajatrangini we know that the ruler at that time was Narendraditya Khinkhila, the pious devotee of Lord Shiva who was noted more for establishing temples and feeding the clergy than for his ability as a ruler. Perhaps then the monks of Taxila, irked by the weakness and incompetence of the king, had risen in revolt against the rulers. Surely part of the destruction that Taxila suffered was wrought in this period of anarchy. However, research is yet unable to answer this tantalising question.
It is from Hiuen Tsiang that we also get some idea of the extent of the destruction visited upon northwest Punjab by Mehr Gul. After his defeat at the hands of King Baladitya of Magadh, he was banished to Kashmir where Mehr Gul eventually contrived to become the supreme ruler. Subsequently he took an expedition 'plotting against the kingdom of Gandhara'. According to the Rajatrangini, on the banks of the Sindhu he 'slew three ten myriads of the first rank, the same number of the middle rank he drowned in the river, and the same number of the third rank he divided among his soldiers'.
Greatly depleted in population and grandeur Taxila went into decline. Its numerous Buddhist monasteries were deserted and fell into ruin. Whatever little remained of its citizenry, forsook it for the safety of the narrow valleys in the north. Stripped of its educated upper classes, Taxila perhaps became home to rustics from surrounding settlements. In the annals of northwest Punjab, its name was used for the last time by Hiuen Tsiang. Thereafter it was to be known only as the place where the great Buddha had offered his head to the starving tiger: Sirkap, Margalla, Babarkan or Babar Khana. The name Taxila or Takha Sila, completely lost, was not even part of the folklore. It was with considerable effort, therefore, that 19th century archeologists were able to fix its position. But when the name Taxila again became fashionable, the local uneducated masses took it to signify 'ruin'. So they do today; and so the several ruins are all mentioned as 'Taxilas'.
Labels: Alexander, Books, History, Research, Taxila
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
At October 29, 2013 at 8:26 PM,
What an epic, some of it familiar, most of it strange. Interesting but took me two hours to fast read thru it.Must b very hard work for u.It is like doing a thesis for a PhD. Don't take me wrong but what thrill do u get out of this unless u make a living by it. But not to praise the expression and wealth contained in this history of our land would b a travesty of justice. All the while, it kept intriguing me how much varied blood v carry in our genes, Really impressive!
At October 30, 2013 at 12:43 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Dear A Tab, Thank you very much for this appreciation. I cannot say I make a living by my books! But I enjoy the work nevertheless.
At January 21, 2014 at 9:37 AM,
Gordon Schwerzmann said...
Hi, I enjoyed your history, best account of the political scene I read yet, but I missed any depiction of Gandharan art - what were the myriad influences- Partian, Kushan, Greek, Roman,Indian -this Jambalaya stew which produced a melding of East and West for over five centuries --even after the Huns' destruction. Even this art must have changed,based on who was in charge at the time. Anyhow great post --looking forward to a history of Peshawer from you--you would do it justice-just don't neglect the art--Thanks, Gordon
At February 8, 2014 at 3:35 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Once it got going, the art, architecture, sculpture etc changed with each newcomer. Subtle changes occurred.
At August 28, 2014 at 9:45 AM,
Salman Sahib, I'm reaching out to you again after almost nine years since your lectures at NCA in 2005. I'd like to use this text as reading material for my students, on their visit to Taxila, if you permit.
Thanks and regards.
At August 29, 2014 at 10:27 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
You are welcome to use the material. But may I suggest you get a copy of the book from Sang e Meel and pass it around your students.
Links to this post: