Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Rendering in Dressed Stone - Taxila

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When Alexander of Macedonia tarried here, his historians sang Taxila as a city “most considerable between the Indus and the Hydaspes [Jhelum]”. But when it fell into decay sometime in the 11th century, it completely passed from human memory.

In the 1850s, Alexander Cunningham, well-versed in classical and early medieval texts, searching for the lost city, arrived at the site of a series of mounds that he believed could be Taxila. While the city’s name was forgotten, its much-storied glory refused to exit the collective consciousness: the locals still knew the hillocks as Dheri Shahan or Mound of Kings.

The pageant that was Taxila began at Sarai Kala, once an outlying village of Dheri Shahan near the Grand Trunk Road that is now part of the urban sprawl of modern-day Taxila. Here a settlement thrived by the side of a small perennial stream as early as 3100 BCE. Around 1000 BCE, this community moved north, for reasons yet unknown, to the banks of the rivulet of Tamrah. The city they founded here was called Takshasila after the dressed stone that was its basic building material. While the educated may have called the city by this name, the common man traversing its ancient streets pronounced it as Takhasila. And so, when Alexander led his legions past the gates of the walled city in the spring of 326 BCE, the name was Hellenized and preserved in his histories as Taxila.

The first city of Taxila is today known as Bhir, meaning mound in Punjabi. Only partially excavated, we discover a wall of unbaked bricks reinforced with timber surrounding a rather haphazard clump of habitation with narrow, winding streets. The regular layout of the Indus civilization cities appears to have undergone a transformation since the Aryan invasion a millennium earlier. Used to establishing camp around the chief’s tent, the newcomers altered the concept of town layout on the grid.

As early as the 8th century BCE, possibly even before, Taxila was home to a celebrated residential university, the first of its kind in the entire subcontinent. Vyasa, the purported author of Mahabharata, studied here, followed 200 years later in 550 BCE by the celebrated physician Jivaka. Some 100 years farther on, Panini toiled at the same university for academic excellence before he went on to develop the principles of Sanskrit grammar.

We know that Bhir was the place where Alexander spent a fortnight or thereabout. From his chroniclers, we get the most detailed eye witness account of daily life. This was a city enriched by trade from Central Asia as well as all corners of the subcontinent and populated by fashionable men who dyed their hair and beards purple, red or blue and wore thick-soled shoes to appear taller. Here people could leave their houses unlocked and unattended without fear of burglary and conduct business on word of honour without as much as a single case of fraud.

With the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty around the end of the 3rd century BCE, Taxila fell to the Bactrian Greeks whose ancestors had served in Alexander’s army. Finding the 1000 year-old city too congested, the Greeks founded another on a low plateau across the blue braid of the Tamrah. The new city was based on a neat grid: what the ancient Indus civilization had practiced more than 4000 earlier and the Aryans later forced into oblivion was taught anew to the people of the subcontinent. This Greek influence marked the beginning of Gandhara art in sculpture, architecture and jewellery.

As the working class remained at Bhir, the upper classes moved to the Taxila of grids and angular blocks of buildings known today as Sirkap. Over the next 250 years, Taxila fell and rose from the Greeks to the Scythians and eventually the Parthians, even as earthquakes flattened it at least twice, the second time in 19 CE. Whatever the calamity, those who lived here, whether Greek, Scythian or Parthian, dutifully rebuilt the city, its ruined monuments raised as good as they had once stood.

This was the age of Taxilan glory. Its streets, adorned with Hellenic architecture, resounded to the babble of archaic Pashto and Punjabi, interspersed with Greek, Scythian, Avestan and other eastern Indian tongues. Its university hummed with scholarly energy. During the evenings, traders and travellers from afar sojourning in the city’s taverns and inns engaged students in learned discourse and ancient tradition of free and erudite dialogue as a source of knowledge continued to thrive. In its temples, fire worshippers, Buddhists, Jains and the followers of the Vedas practiced freely without fear of persecution. If ever there was a cosmopolitan city it was Taxila.

In the beginning of the Common Era, the city came under the control of the Kushans. Once again, the old quarter was abandoned. The new Taxila that the Kushans laid out on a typically fortified rectangular plan is today known as Sirsukh. The end began 500 hundred years later with the coming of the Huns in the early years of the 6th century. In a frenzy of murder and arson, they left behind a smouldering ruin of the city and its many monasteries. Taxila never regained its glory.

The name of Taxila was heard for the last time in 631 by Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim who passed through the city as it slid into oblivion. When Abu Rehan al Beruni, the eminent Central Asian scholar arrived here, he heard the city referred to as Babar Khana or House of the Tiger. Even as the original name was lost, the tradition that Buddha had here revived a starving tigress with his own blood was vaguely remembered and commemorated in the name.

Nearly eight centuries later, the original name of the city was restored by archaeologist Cunningham. But for the common people, Taxila only means ruins. They call it Tuskla and to this day believe it is a high-sounding name for a fallen city.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 April 2014 at 16:29, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Good Article ,Having lot of information

At 1 April 2014 at 21:54, Blogger KAMAL BANERJEE said...

Amazing story...

At 2 April 2014 at 05:17, Blogger Unknown said...

What a history this land has witnessed!!

At 2 April 2014 at 13:06, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar, Kamal and Amardeep.

At 23 April 2014 at 16:15, Anonymous harbans khakh said...

Wonderful write up! We Punjabis need to wake up to our history and go beyond the petty-mindedness introduced by constricted minds!

At 24 April 2014 at 09:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Harbans! Thank you. We indeed need to wake up and view out heritage as common to recreate the lost bond.


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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

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

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