Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Perch of the Queen

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The Yusufzai plain in Mardan District was once rich with stories of Raja Vara. Inevitably, most ancient ruins in this district abounding with Gandhara sculpture were attributed to this mythical raja. So when archaeologist Alexander Cunningham visited the area in the 1860s in search of sites connected with Alexander’s campaigns, he was told the legend of Raja Vara and his rock climbing queen.


Vara’s ruined castle high up on an elongated hill above Naogram village was remarkable for the large, upright and smooth-sided rock rearing nearly eight metres above the hill’s northern extremity. This, the queen is said to have ascended daily to survey her husband’s territory. And so the complex of ruined buildings was Rani Gut or the Queen’s Rock in Pashto.

Driven by his focus on Alexander, Cunningham sought to prove that this hilltop ruin was Aornos, where Pakhtun tribes took refuge after their defeat at Ora. He concluded that Aornos was a mispronunciation of Vara, as was the practice of the Greeks. Cunningham was so fixated with his namesake that he disregarded all classical descriptions of the size and physical condition of Aornos. Nevertheless, though this initial survey did not entail excavation, based on a few finds, none of which were Greek, Cunningham correctly dated the existing ruins to the 2nd century CE. A century was to pass before Japanese archaeologists came around to carry out a full investigation.


Meanwhile, Raja Vara and his rock climbing queen were forgotten – no tales being extant today – but local robbers had taken to removing the reliquary for sale in the markets of Peshawar. Despite this illegal activity, the Japanese were able to recover a sizeable cache of artifacts in order to piece together a remarkable story of the development of Rani Gut under pious Kushan kings.

At the time of the preliminary survey of 1962, the site was thickly overgrown with wild vegetation and the ruins covered with debris and layers of earth accumulated over centuries. As bits and pieces of stonework were visible among the ruins, the Japanese archaeologists did not take long to resolve that this was yet another Buddhist monastery. When detailed excavation began in 1983, there were, unsurprisingly, no tales of Raja Vara to be gleaned. But there was a clear chronology of the development and decay of Rani Gut.

Excavation in the main stupa sitting in a plain area to the southeast of the elongated hill revealed a core stupa with eight copper coins in its base. We know that when stupas were dedicated to hold relics either of Buddha or other renowned teachers of the faith, valuable offerings were placed underneath. The eight coins found in the base of the core stupa are issues of the Kushan king Vima Kadphises who reigned in the early decades of the 2nd century CE until 144 CE.

These coins show that the main Rani Gut stupa was established during Kadphises’ reign. Interestingly, a copper coin of the last Scythian king Azes II (35 BCE-12 BCE), was also found among buildings affiliated with the main stupa. Azes, who ruled from Balkh in Afghanistan, was revered during his lifetime and his name continued to appear on coins a quarter century after his death. The coin found at Rani Gut indicates that the hilltop was occupied a century before the main stupa was ordered during the reign of Kadphises. Alternately, it could simply mean that Azes issues were still current in the 2nd century CE.

Through the reigns of the great Kanishka, son and successor of Kadphises and patron of Buddhism, and his kin, Rani Gut continued to thrive. Within 100 years of the raising of the main stupa, another somewhat smaller shrine was constructed on the southwest side of the hill. Along with it sprouted ancillary buildings, votive stupas, monastic and residential cells for prelates and pupils all around the complex, making Rani Gut a busy Buddhist centre.

This continued until late in the 6th century CE, when Rani Gut’s fortunes started to ebb. Though this decline is generally attributed to the onslaught of the White Huns beginning about the year 510, one Japanese expert postulates that these fire-worshipping invaders did not destroy Buddhist monasteries. Rani Gut gives no evidence of destruction by fire and may have been spared. But we know from later writers and from 6th century ruins that arson and violence was indeed the way of the Huns.

Buddhist religious fervour was to continue unabated through the turmoil, as we learn from Sung Yun, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who travelled here about the year 519. The tide clearly changed by 631, when Xuanzang, the most celebrated Chinese pilgrim, passed through the Buddhist lands of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan and sadly recounted the demise of his religion and the vast number of ruinous Buddhist monasteries and schools.

Subsequent to the defeat of the Huns in 528, the Hindu rulers of Kashmir began to exert influence west of the Indus. Sometime late in this century Rani Gut appears to have been abandoned temporarily. When it was reoccupied, it continued in use until the 12th century. By this time, large scale conversion to Islam may have led to its final decay.


Rani Gut has yet to divulge all its secrets. But since the last Japanese excavation ended more than 15 years ago, no new work has been undertaken. And the vast quantum of reliquary unearthed from this site is nowhere on display and reposes instead in crates in the store rooms of the Department of Archaeology.

Previous: The Very EdenBesting the NileTreasure ForsakenRendering in Dressed Stone - TaxilaCompass ConverseTown with Seven LivesRiches beyond MeasureAncient Emporium of SindhMonastery of the Fount, Bounty of the Kushans

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My Books

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