Rapid urbanisation of the area and the plunder of the sites have taken a toll. Taxila is also ignored on the tourist map largely because of the country’s security situation. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Islamabad: A cluster of buildings, covered with lush green weed, in the Pakistani city of Taxila is the treasure trove of a lost civilisation that once thrived in the country’s north-western region around the 7th century BC.

Flanked by River Haro on the one side and Margalla Hills on the other, Taxila is a vast serial site that includes a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of four early colony sites. “It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia,” according to Unesco.

With so much to show the world, Taxila is ignored on the tourist map largely because of the country’s security situation, lack of tourism promotion, and privation of facilities in the city.

From the famous Grand Trunk (GT) Road, a small and poorly metalled road leads to Taxila Museum and the archaeological sites. The picturesque lush green natural landscape has changed dramatically over the last 25 years.

Unplanned houses, hand carts, shops and vendors’ stalls are the modern hallmarks of the area, instead of its previous relaxing and enjoyable natural beauty. The rapid urbanisation of the area and the plunder of the sites has cost the sites dearly and yet nobody pays attention to it.

The results are obvious. The Global Heritage Fund has identified Taxila as one of 12 sites worldwide that are “On the Verge” of irreparable loss and damage. The fund’s 2010 report attributes this irreparable loss to insufficient management, development pressure, looting, and war and conflict as primary threats.

Moving along the dusty and crowded Grand Trunk (GT) Road from Islamabad to Taxila, the monument of Brigadier general John Nicholson, a famous military figure of the British Empire, greets a visitor. The monument is located on the Margalla Hills — the gateway to Taxila.

The sighting of Nicholson’s monument takes the visitor instantaneously to the days of British Colonial Raj. The time when teams of archaeologists were digging around the town of Taxila in search of the lost civilisations. The finding has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

“It’s the marvel Pakistan got from the British Colonial Raj and yet it has not properly promoted as a tourist destination,” said Javed Iqbal, an archaeologist. Taxila is one of the three top Pakistani archology sites including the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro — two of the main cities that comprise the Indus Valley Civilisation, he said.

Sir John Marshall, the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928, began the excavations at Taxila that continued for the next twenty years. In 1918, Marshall laid the foundation stone of the Taxila Museum to preserve the precious findings.

The museum is built in the middle of the archaeological site and has a rich collection of relics, artefacts, stupas, and stone and stucco sculptures from different Buddhist monasteries, Gandhara Art and the Kushana period. The Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from the Vedic period (1500-500 BC) as a centre of Greco-Buddhism, Bactrian Zoroastrianism and Animism.

Ahmad Alamgir, another archaeologist and historian, who met me at the museum said that only one significant development had been carried out by the government of Pakistan in almost a century.

“Sir Marshall actually could not complete the original plan of the museum when he had to leave for England. After the creation of Pakistan, the government of Pakistan constructed the northern gallery of the museum in 1998 … and that’s it,” he said.

The museum has a number of galleries in which findings from the surrounding sites have been presented subject wise. There are lines of wall and table showcases in the galleries and a complete stupa, from the Buddhist monastery of Mohra Moradu, stands in the middle of the main hall of the museum.

A vast collection of stucco heads of Buddha showing different faces and styles is the main attraction for tourists. The big Buddha heads are typically Gandharan in style, according to the archaeologists.

City of Cut Stone

The historic town of Taxila, originally Takaśilā in Sanskrit  (meaning City of Cut Stone) is located around 35km from Islamabad just off the famous Grand Trunk Road. The city is still famous of its artisans, who keep their ancestors’ profession alive, by making stone sculptures, murals and panels.

They also produce flower pots, planters, fountains, garden ornaments, balusters, pillars and railings, and fire places.  Taxila, according to historians, thrived from 518BC to 600AD. In 326BC Alexander the Great and his armies encountered charging elephants in battle against Hindu king Porus.

Before fighting the battle, Alexander marched through the city and was greeted by King Ambhi. In 300BC Taxila was conquered by the Mauryan Empire under Chandragupta Maurya that disintegrated the Bactrian Greeks, the successors of Alexander, in 190BC. Ashoka, the legendary king of India, ruled Taxila as governor
under his father Bindusara’s rule. The city, which is a part of Rawalpindi district, is now a main industrial town of Pakistan with heavy machine factories and industrial complex, stoneware and pottery.