Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bounty of the Kushans

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Following Alexander Cunningham’s survey of 1848 and the resultant identification of a Buddhist site above the village of Jamal Garhi near Mardan, another military officer-turned-archaeologist came around in 1852 to make a cursory excavation. Though his work was inconclusive, he uncovered an array of damaged sculptures of very fine workmanship. Word was the site was periodically robbed of its reliquary, someone even removing 12 camel-loads of sculpture only a decade earlier.

The site was then mapped and most of the debris cleared to reveal a beautiful monastery constructed in large diaper masonry of stone quarried from the surrounding hills. The site, an elongated hill, offered sufficient space for the main stupa, a number of votive stupas and the various buildings of the monastery to be spread out instead of being packed close together as we see in Takht Bahi or most other Taxila monasteries.

The most remarkable find in Jamal Garhi is the circular stupa situated on high ground to the west of the main clump of edifices. The stupa is surrounded by a ring of cubicles that may have either served as shrines housing images of Buddha or prayer chambers for the devout. The superior stonework and symmetry of the stupa are notable.

Below the main shrine, the archaeologist’s team mapped a quadrangle with a number of votive stupas and shrines along three sides. To the north was a large rectangular assembly hall. The British team collected some broken statuary, surveyed and mapped the site and went their way. And the ruins of Jamal Garhi were soon forgotten.

It took more than 150 years for the site to be re-evaluated. In 2011, Dr. Zain-ul-Wahab led a team of young apprentices to Jamal Garhi, becoming the first expert to unearth, among other things, a number of coins attributed to the Kushan king Huvishka and his successor Vasudeva spanning the third decade to the close of the 2nd century CE. Wahab’s efforts lent provenance to the monastery of Jamal Garhi.

This was a time when Buddhism was spreading fast across this part of the world. The Central Asiatic Kushans, originally fire worshippers, had embraced Buddhism and followed their new faith with the customary zeal of recent converts. In fact, Huvishka’s predecessor, the great Kanishka, is commemorated to this day for his ardent pursuit of ordering some of the most monumental stupas ever to be raised in northwest India.

Dr. Wahab points out that every need of the masters and pupils of the monastery was met by the royal palace on Kanishka’s orders. Even a layperson looking at the first-class quality of stonework of the monastery buildings can infer the presence of royal intervention in terms of finances and supervision.

Kanishka’s successors emulated their illustrious forebear in promoting the faith. In the nearly 200 years of Kushan rule, the country from Peshawar through the Yusufzai plain to Taxila, Sialkot and even as far away as the middle Ganges valley mushroomed with scores of Buddhist stupas and monasteries. The small picturesque hill above the modern village of Jamal Garhi, then shaded by trees, is home to a school that overlooked fertile valleys and mountains from all sides was one among them. The monastery whose name we will perhaps never learn was as conducive a place as it could ever be to achieve nirvana.

In the year 400, Fa Hian, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, passed through Gandhara country in his quest for translations of Buddhist texts. Though his route lay through the Yusufzai plain, he does not mention a monastery corresponding with Jamal Garhi. That said, one cannot but be uplifted by his exuberance as he notes the widespread outreach and thriving state of his religion.

But the good times did not last forever. In 630, Xuanzang, another Chinese pilgrim, also travelled through the same country and lamented the downfall of Buddhism as he saw ruined stupas, deserted monasteries and silent shrines that once rang with the hum of prayer chants. Indeed, if there was any sound of worship, he noted, it was the prayers of the Jain heretics who had taken over Buddhist temples.

The Jamal Garhi monastery escaped this fate. Instead, Dr Wahab’s expedition discovered a large number of arrowheads, damaged statuary and human bones among the ruins, suggesting a cataclysmic end. Rajatarangini or Chronicle of Kings, written in about 1160, contains a dirge to the cruelty of the White Huns under Mehr Gul or Mihirakula, who went on a rampage, pillaging cities of the Indus and killing young and old alike by sword, fire and drowning. Such was the scale of their savagery that a dark cloud of crows and vultures followed the Hun army to feed on cadavers left behind.

And so, amid fire, smoke and the cries of the dying monks, the monastery of Jamal Garhi fell silent early in the 6th century. Save the occasional sound of the robber’s digging implements, only the wind soughed through its vegetation. Even today, as a protected monument, it has divulged just a few of its secrets. And this is only the beginning.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Been Gah: the 20,000 Foot Mountain

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 October 2014 at 09:52, Anonymous kanak mani dixit said...

"...the wind soughed through its vegetatio" - great evocation of an era and a departed monastery!

At 4 October 2014 at 10:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hi there, Kanak! Thanks for visiting here. And thank you for the appreciation.

At 28 December 2016 at 15:38, Blogger Sunita Dwivedi said...

Well written piece..

At 28 December 2016 at 16:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Sunita.


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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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days