Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Oh, Pushkalavati!

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The most beautiful lowlands anywhere in the Land of the Pakhtuns are, without doubt, those around the present day district of Charsadda: great stands of shisham and poplar; the occasional pipal and sometimes a wide-spreading banyan above endless stretches of sugar cane fields provide welcome shade in the humid July heat. Through this virtual sea of green several tributaries of the Swat and the Kabul rivers meander to provide the land its picture postcard beauty. Muddy and languid, they are a fine contrast to intemperate Punjabi rivers during the monsoons.
We left the Peshawar-Charsadda highway five kilometres outside the latter and turned north on a dirt track leading into this picturesque country to the village of Sheikhan Dheri: Mound of the Sheikhs. Professor Farid Khan of the Department of Archeology, charged with irrepressible energy despite his fifty odd years, was at the wheel and as we went across one of the streams he pointed out the large mound that loomed to our right. That, he said, was Bala Hissar, the Peukelaotis of Alexander’s historians.
Anticipating stiff resistance upon entering India in the spring of 326 BC, Alexander divided his army. While he led one division to subjugate Swat, he ordered the other to come down on the Land of Gandaritis with its capital city of Pushkalavati (Peukelaotis to the Greeks). Astes, the chief, or according to Arrian’s Anabasis, ‘one of the chiefs,’ submitted. Subsequently, however, he revolted and fled to an unnamed city. The Greeks together with their mercenaries, twenty thousand strong, followed and laid siege. When the garrison eventually capitulated, Astes was slain and the fortified city was laid waste. Surely the chief must have sought refuge in the safety of his capital which was none other than the city of Pushkalavati – the high, rain eroded mound, shimmering in the heat, that is known today as Bala Hissar: the Lofty Citadel.

Just over a hundred years after Alexander’s death India became a conglomerate of independent principalities under the Bactrian Greeks and if there were any half-hearted attempts to rebuild Pushkalavati they were soon abandoned. Perhaps under Menander (2nd century BC) the new Pushkalavati was established five hundred metres to the north, on the other side of the languid Sambur. More than anything else this move took place because the Greeks, accustomed as they were, to geometrical order in their cities, could not agree with Indian city planning.

History forgot the capital city of Astes and for more than two millenniums it remained covered by the dust of time until the first spade was struck in 1902 by John Marshall. But it was not until 1958 when Mortimer Wheeler established the unbroken Gandharan cultural sequence of this site from the 6th century to the 1st century BC. Finally, it was Dr Ahmed Hassan Dani who excavated on neighbouring Sheikhan Dheri in 1963 and discovered evidence of this city flourishing until the 4th century AD. His excavations also brought to light the connection between this site and the neighbouring Bala Hissar.

Dr Dani’s investigations revealed three distinct phases at Sheikhan Dheri: Bactrian Greek at the lowest level, followed by Scytho-Parthian, and finally, Kushan on top. The lowest level revealed copper coins of Agathocles and Appolodotus (2nd century BC), while the topmost level revealed those of Vasudeva I (mid 2nd century AD). The hoard of cultural material uncovered during this dig included four hundred and seventy-five coins interspersed through the three levels of the site. More than anything else these coins give a very accurate dating of the change from one culture to the other. According to Dr Dani the investigation shows that the succession from Greek to Scytho-Parthian was not accompanied by any great destruction. But when the Kushans arrived, the city was first destroyed and then rebuilt by the king Wima Kadphises.

The Greeks, great builders that they were, laid out properly aligned streets with houses and public buildings in neat order that was inherited by the Scytho-Parthians. Almost three centuries later the Kushans, because of a lack of it, cannibalised their predecessors’ building material but faithfully retained the earlier plan of Pushkalavati. The city rose to eminence among the great cities of India, enjoying trade and cultural links with distant counterparts. In an Amravati style sculpture discovered among the ruins archaeologists find proof of her links with Mathura (Uttar Pradesh, India). Surely that would not have been the limit of her contacts. Surely her fame was known even further away. But then came the end; and not as a result of some sanguinary battle.

Sometime in the 1st century AD increased rainfall seems to have caused recurrent flooding in the nearby streams. The city steadily shrank in size; its quality of life decayed as is evident from the rubbish discovered by Dani two thousand years after it had been dumped in the streets never to be collected. Stripped of its upper classes who must have been the first to migrate, the great city was left in the hands of the plebeian section of society. The standard of construction deteriorated and one hundred years of annual flooding restricted the decreased population to the highest point of the mound that was the detritus of over four centuries. Pushkalavati had started its slow slide into oblivion.

When the great Chinese traveller and collector of Buddhist holy books, Hiuen Tsiang, visited the city in about AD 631 there were several Buddhist temples – albeit in a state of decay and neglect because of a waning of Buddhism and a resurgence of Hinduism. It was a far cry from the Pushkalavati laid out by Menander, King of the Bactrian Greeks. Sometime after the pilgrim’s visit perdition became its lot, until centuries later a group of Muslims occupied the high mound and left behind a few graves as reminders of their brief and now completely forgotten occupation of Pushkalavati.

Dr Dani’s most intriguing find was what he called the ‘House of Naradakha,’ a Buddhist teacher. The name was written in the Kharoshti script on the base of a pedestal upon which must have rested a relic casket with Buddha’s remains. Built in the beginning of the Kushan period, the house was a classic example of ancient vernacular architecture with its central courtyard and rooms on three sides and a foyer affording entrance from the street. With the death of the teacher it changed character from being a residence to a small temple dedicated to its deceased master, the teacher. Subsequently, in the following two hundred years, it was twice destroyed by fire and rebuilt. With each rebuilding its sanctity grew. It was from this house that Dani found the most spectacular Gandharan sculptures – reminders of Naradakha’s piety and of the sculptors’ finesse. Sadly, however, it was the discovery of such priceless pieces of heritage that was to lead to the destruction of this site.

In 1963 Dr Dani standing on the Mound of the Sheikhs could see the ‘majestic heights of Bala Hissar.’ Then there were just a handful of houses; today Bala Hissar is obstructed by the mud and stone buildings of a village of over six thousand souls. As more and more antique dealers from the old quarter of Peshawar city came to know of this fabulous site they purchased large tracts of land on it in order to carry out illegal excavations. Professor Farid Khan who supervises the current session of digging hustled me through the dusty streets of the village to show me how much of the ancient mound was occupied. For the smugglers a piece of land on the mound was like a gold mine, he said.

The crude, unscientific methods of digging employed by the smugglers heavily disturb the site, not to mention the ‘treasures’ that they manage to unearth. Whatever they find ends up in the bazaars around Mahabat Khan’s mosque in the old quarter of Peshawar. Earlier these illegal excavations were carried out with impunity, but with the beginning of Professor Khan’s work the smugglers have become somewhat discreet. Now they have high enclosing walls and steel gates to keep out the prying eyes of men like the professor, while the digging goes on undisturbed in the back.

For the ‘pious’ but illiterate Muslims of the village the smugglers have just the right line: ‘With all its buried statues this is unclean land which renders your prayers unacceptable to Allah. You sell us the land and we cleanse it for you.’ But this does not mean that the villagers have not caught on to the trick themselves. One man, a school master, who owns a plot measuring about one thousand square yards adjacent to Professor Khan’s dig, demands Rs 90,000/- for it. Others have simply bought themselves a pick and shovel and are busily hacking away at the ground. In a corner on the west side of the mound Professor Khan showed me an area ravaged as though by some terrible earthquake. The deep haphazard pits and trenches showed where the smugglers had been hard at work before he arrived. Here, among the rubble, he pointed out a large, round piece of masonry which he believed to be the base of a pillar presumably from a temple. The site was so heavily disturbed that it would be very difficult if not impossible to piece together any chronology, said the professor.

Professor Farid Khan says Sheikhan Dheri is the richest site in all of Southeast Asia giving an unbroken chronology of four periods from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD. Sadly, less than one percent of the mound has been scientifically excavated; the rest is a victim of the greed of smugglers and antique dealers. But vested with no powers to put a stop to this pillage, much less evict illegal squatters from the protected site, the professor watches with impotent frustration as the smugglers cleanse the impure mound of Pushkalavati. In another two thousand years the habitation of Sheikhan Dheri will surely have long been gone. Will an archaeologist putting his spade to the wind-swept mound that will then mark the long lost splendour of Pushkalavati be able to discover the greed, the rapaciousness that marked the decay of Pakistani society in the last decade of the 20th century? Will there be any proof left in the dust of how misguided vandals abused the name of religion to plunder a priceless heritage for a few coins? If there is; our descendents will certainly hang their heads in shame for our insensibility to what really belonged to them.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 2 September 2015 at 02:39, Blogger Khan said...

An excellent read, very well written.

At 3 September 2015 at 10:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much.


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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

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Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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