I’m in Islamabad for a couple of days vacation, before moving on for some work related travel around Dhaka, Bangladesh. This trip had been in planning for months, so I’m not sure why logistics and such were so last minute – but nothing about this trip has gone smoothly. But I did make it and have a couple of days before my next flight.
Leading up to the trip, there were a few comments made by various people around me which indicated a mistaken understanding that Pakistan is very much an Arab country and inextricably tied not only religiously, but also culturally with the Middle East. While this is true to some extent, my usual response is to over-exagerate the fact that Pakistan and India are the same country and peoples (which isn’t to diminish the myriad of differences, especially from 1947 and since. . .) It is more to clarify that Pakistan is very much a part of the SubContinent, along with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and, in some geography books, Nepal and Bhutan.
This was reinforced by my visit yesterday to Taxila, the archaeological site just northwest of Islamabad, in the Punjab. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the Taxila valley includes a number of different settlements dating from the 500’s BCE. It was annexed into the Persian Achaemenid Empire which extended west as far as Thrace and Macedon. Alexander the Great comes through and conquers in the 3rd century BCE. That about ends the direct ruling leadership from the west for some time. The Mauryan Empire from eastern India takes over northwestern India (which is present day Pakistan, of course.) The advisor to the founder of the Mauryan empire resided and taught in the Taxila valley which became a center for Buddhist teaching during this time. Not only is it believed that the Mahayana branch of Buddhism was shaped in the valley, but at the valley’s height as a center for Hindu education, it exerted some intellectual guidance and direction to other centers of education on the subcontinent. Some report it was one of the earliest Universities in the world, though the structure was that of distinct master/student relationships and thus would not be recognizable within that definition. Each teacher created their own structure and curriculum, though there were some shared customs and expectations.
There was continued interaction with the west, even as the leadership and culture was decidedly eastern facing. St. Thomas the Apostle came through town (believed to be about 46 AD.)
Sir John Marshall excavated the site during British colonial rule over a period of years in the 1910’s. There remains much to be excavated and are some digs underway around the area. The remains of the city Sirkap have been partly excavated and include a sundial, both Buddhist and Hindu places of worship, and Ashoka’s palace. It is surrounded by wheat fields and the tour guides walk the fields after plowing and once the rains come to find coins, including Greek coins with Alexander the Great’s head, and beads and other fragments from the previous time. The guides mentioned that they had decent tourism which dropped off about 12 years ago, about the time of conflict started in neighboring Afghanistan. Weather, weeds, and lack of tourist resources are all taking their toll on what has been unearthed. What remains covered is probably safe for the time being. The ruins largely represent many Buddhist stupas and monasteries. Most of the statues in the below photos are missing their heads . . . well their heads were taken at the time of excavation to the British Museum in London. There are a few in the Taxila Museum, but much was taken out of the country. The following images are of the Taxila Museum, Dharmarajika Stupa and Monastery (believed to have contained relics of Buddha himself), the city of Sirkap and the palace of Ashoka, and Mohra Moradu Stupa and Monastery, which still draws Buddhist faithful (and includes an area of significance for Qadri sufis.)
This site definitely demonstrates the important role and connection which the land and people of what is present day Pakistan had with the people, culture, and civilizations to the east, even while offering a transit point for the West and Central Asia.