Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Monastery of the Fount

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The decades between 1840 and 1870 were frenetically busy for archaeologists across the Indian subcontinent. The Yusufzai plain, spreading between Peshawar in the west, the barrier of Malakand Pass in the north and Indus River in the east, had shortly before been discovered to be the epicentre of what became known as Gandhara art. Inevitably, archaeologists were drawn to this fertile area where virtually every hill abounded with ancient ruins.

North of Mardan town, on the highroad to the Malakand Pass, east of the tiny village of Takht Bahi rose an isolated hill with a crest peppered with stonework peeking out of accumulated earth washed down from the surrounding slopes and overgrown vegetation. The first archaeologists, engaged in only a cursory examination, concluded that this was a site of an ancient Buddhist monastery. The little that the team saw was misunderstood. The circular bases of the domes above the shrines were taken to be pedestals of stupas and other buildings construed to have served as grain silos. But no mistake was made about the quadrangular stupa court with its surrounding arrangement of chapels.

The striking feature here was the architectural diversity: monks’ cells were single or double-storeyed, doorways topped by trefoil arches or horizontal lintels, Corinthian pillars crowned by acanthus leaves and shattered bits of fine sculptures.

We know that late in the 1st century CE, Khyber-Pakthunkhwa and northern Punjab fell under the sway of the Central Asiatic Kushans. As zealous new converts, the Kushan kings were liberal patrons of their religion and its clergy. In the nearly two centuries of support, the palace catered to every need of the monasteries in the kingdom. Liberal bequests of cash and precious metals set the worship houses virtually ablaze with the glow of gold. With its gilded bits of statuary and shrine walls, Takht Bahi validates this view better than any other site.

Among the chapels on the outer periphery of the stupa court, there are 29 roofless shrines, which would have towered some 10 metres in height with their once domed roofs. All the shrines look inward to the stupa and based on the colossal proportions of broken heads, feet and hands in plaster found strewn in the vicinity are believed to have housed gigantic statues of Buddha.

The diaper masonry employed here comprises of large, unevenly dressed blocks of locally quarried schist. Stability was achieved by tightly packing the interstices between the blocks with pieces of stone laid horizontally. The whole was plastered inside and out with a course mortar. Surely, the inside walls and perhaps also the outside ones were decorated with the occupants’ own artistry in reverence to Buddha.

An inscription found among the ruins of Takht Bahi connects it with Gondophares, the Parthian king of Taxila. The year on this inscription is 103 of the Samvat Era corresponding with 46 CE, the heyday of Gondophares’ unchallenged rule over northern Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Although this Parthian king followed the Zoroastrian faith, we know from his interaction with a visiting Greek writer that religious tolerance was the norm in his kingdom. It is therefore likely that Gondophares may have given a donation to Takht Bahi.

Dedicated sometime in the 1st century BCE, the monastery has been viewed by some as an original fire temple. The inference seems doubtful. What we do know for certain is that with the advent of the Kushans in the late 1st century CE, Takht Bahi served as a Buddhist sanctuary liberally endowed by believing kings. Over the next six centuries, the monastery grew in size and importance with buildings added within the confined space of the complex as well as on adjacent hillsides.

Despite their importance as Buddhist schools, Takht Bahi and its neighbouring complex of Jamal Garhi strangely eluded the three Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who travelled in this region in the years 400, 520 and 630 CE in their quest for the original versions of Buddhist texts. For an equally peculiar reason, Takht Bahi also missed the pernicious eye of the marauding Huns.

But like all good things the halcyon days came to an end in the 7th century when the monastery lost royal patronage. In any event, Hinduism was on the ascent and there may have been few to keep the flame of Buddhist learning alight. Starved of funds and religious fervour imperative for its survival, Takht Bahi was abandoned.

In the 1970s, an inscription was discovered in the possession of some men of Takht Bahi village who had found it from the ruins of the monastery. In the Kharoshthi script of that far off time, the inscription refers to the Udakabhadra monastery of the prospering dharma where a certain Siva, son of Iphano, established something that the broken inscription keeps secret from us.

This seems a clear reference to Takht Bahi for the compound word Udakabhadra translates into Auspicious Water, which may well be a reference to a nearby freshwater spring or the two water tanks, remnants of which have been found within the complex. Indeed, allusion to the source of water reverberates even today in the word Bahi, meaning stepped well in Pashto.

Even today, Takht Bahi or Udakabhadra has yet to concede all its secrets. And much more awaits learning as exploration of the site continues intermittently.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 8 September 2014 at 13:11, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Ihsan H. Nadiem in 1977 deciphered a piece of Kharoshthi inscription on green schist from the the western hillock:
Udakabhadre Dharma Vadha havi (viha) re Bha (bhi?) khuna Sibena Iphano-putrena iha".
"Here in Udakabhadra (holy water) at the Dharma-Vadha (the great religious) monastery (was established) by the bhiku Siva, son of Iphano".


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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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