Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Oh, Taxila

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As Alexander of Macedonia came slowly down the massive headland whose name he pronounced Aornos and which was known to Pukhtun ancestors as Una Sar (today more famous by the name of Pir Sar, its smaller satellite), he was looking forward to the much-awaited R&R in Taxila. The thought of possessing Taxila, 'the largest [city] between the Indus and the Hydaspes (Jhelum)', through conflict was the farthest from Alexander's mind because Ambhi (Omphis for the Greeks), the king of Taxila, had already made peace with him.

To the educated upper classes, Taxila was known as Taksha Sila, while in the vernacular it was Takha Sila which was the name that went into the Greek as Taxila. Now because Sila is rock or stone in Sanskrit, it is believed that Taksha Sila or Rock of the Takkas was so named after a local tribe. Conversely, others believe the name to have meant 'Hewn Rock' from the amount of cut stone that was the construction material for Taxila buildings. Yet another theory is that the name comes from Takshaka, the serpent king of ancient legend.

Today Taxila consists of the remains of three settlements and a number of monasteries. The Taxila that Alexander visited lies just southward of the museum and is known as Bhir (mound). Here it was that Ambhi entertained the young conqueror perhaps telling him tales of how easily he would be able to overcome Paurava (Porus to the Greeks). Ambhi had designs: he nurtured long-standing hostility against this neighbouring king and because the latter was the stronger of the two, Ambhi chafed under the humiliation of his inability to settle the matter to his liking.

Night after night as they relaxed with their pre-prandial goblets of wine from Macedonia, Shiraz or the Pukhtun highlands, Ambhi would have primed Alexander for the assault across the Hydaspes River and the ease with which he was likely to overturn Raja Paurava's kingdom.

But Alexander was no sop and he may have seen through Ambhi's charade for when he reached the Hydaspes (with Ambhi in tow with five thousand of his own troops), Alexander was well prepared for a mighty struggle.

Meanwhile in Taxila, Alexander's associates were busy soaking in everything. Among those who were writing away in their diaries was the general and admiral Nearchus, Alexander's diarist and Onesicritos, the sailor for the island of Cos who followed the teachings of Diogenes. There were others too whose work has since been lost, but which forms the basis of historians such as Arrian, Stabo, Pliny the Elder and Aelian. It is from these works that we build a fascinating collage of Taxilan life.

Accustomed to the meticulous and orderly planning of their own cities, the Greeks may have found Taxila, the great seat of Vedic learning with a residential university humming with scholarly industry, lacking the outward signs of refinement that a university town should have possessed. Here the streets wound around tightly packed double-storeyed houses constructed of rough masonry thickly plastered with mud, either left plain or washed a brilliant white.

Cubicles fronting the streets served as shops behind which were residential houses whose narrow doors and slit windows looked into the street. These houses were warrens of up to twenty small chambers on the ground floor. Measuring some sixteen square metres these served as servants' quarters or utility and storage rooms and were all arranged around a central courtyard. The more affluent residences had two courtyards, the one for the family affording more privacy than the other.

Rooms on the upper floor were more spacious and that was where the master of the house dwelt with his family. A wooden balcony (that can only be conjectured upon) would have run in front. From here the lady of the house could keep a watchful eye on the team of servants toiling below.

Unlike Moen jo Daro and other Sindhu Valley sites, there were no in-house wells. Water was brought in (by the ancient equivalent of the behishti) from the picturesque Tamrah Nallah that runs between the Bhir and Sirkap ruins. Each house had its own circular soak-pit, however. About a metre across and about eight metres deep, these pits were lined either with stone or earthenware rings; others were left plain. Some are seen to have been filled with crude pottery while others were made by stacking large storage-type jars with perforated bottoms one above the other through which the sewage percolated down.

While open stone-lined drains took rain water from residential houses into the streets, there were, unlike Sindhu Valley cities, no gutters in the streets. John Marshall, who first applied the spade to Taxila, conjectured that during rains water went sluicing down the streets of ancient Taxila. That is a darn sight better than having it stand around for days after a shower as in our cities of today.

There were rubbish bins in public squares and streets which suggest that Taxila was governed by a municipal system. Marshall unearthed one such dump that yielded animal bones and broken pottery — trash that had remained undiscovered for over twenty centuries. Who knows if this was the remains of a feast and drunken revel held by Alexander's own successors.

Alexander's soldiery would certainly have been impressed by the trade and commerce of Taxilan marts. Here were laden bullock carts from the south and east and caravans of dromedaries and even double-humped Bactrian camels from far across the northern mountains bringing in all sorts of utility and luxury items. The river port at Hund would have been crowded with sabot-shaped craft from as far south as Alor and Thatta. And the babble of languages heard in the streets of Taxila would have been truly amazing: here would have been heard archaic forms of Sindhi, Pukhtu, Persian and its Central Asiatic derivatives, Kashmiri and eastern Indian dialects.

Nearchus records that the sun-bronzed Punjabi dressed in 'an under-garment of cotton which reaches below the knee halfway down to the ankles, and also an upper garment which they throw partly over their shoulders, and partly twist in folds around their heads.' This, we are told, was embroidered with gold thread and studded with precious stones. Their shoes, made of white leather, were elaborately trimmed in coloured threads and had thick soles to make the wearer seem the taller.

Upper-class men were adorned with ivory earrings and wore their beards either the whitest of white or in such rakish colours as bright red, purple, or green. As they went about town, they were shielded from the harsh sun (Alexander was in Taxila in April-May) under a parasol borne by an attendant.

Since Alexander and his companions were dealing only with the upper classes, we get no representation of common folks. We also hear nothing of women, save in the practice of indigent fathers presenting their marriageable daughters for two boxers to contend over. The winner of the bout took the maiden. The silence over upper-class women indicates that segregation was the norm.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 12 March 2015 at 18:56, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Very interesting account on the life in ancient Taksha sila.

At 13 March 2015 at 12:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Brahmanyan.

At 19 March 2015 at 10:05, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Taxila in Spring 2300 yrs ago would have been a sight to behold - It wouldn't have been as hot and I am sure the Greeks would have been captivated by the ambiance. Even now the tranquility of Taxila can seep inside you.

At 19 March 2015 at 18:12, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

So true, Rehan. It does actually seep inside a thinking soul. I imagine people walking with me talking in Greek, Persian, Punjabi, the Scythian language, the Parthihan dialect of Persian and what else.


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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

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