The past is a different country

Originally published in The Friday Times. 10 Oct 2014.
The ruins of Takht-e-Bahi – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – offer a rare glimpse into Pakistan’s Budhist past. Text and pictures by Asif Nawaz.

The past is a different country



The first response you’re bound to elicit when you confide in someone your plans of visiting Takht-e-Bahi has nothing to do with the historical significance of the place.“Kabab khanay ja rahay ho?!” (Are you going to have kebabs there?) That is when you decide against explanations, and just go with, “Jee, aap kay liye laaun?” (Yes. Should I bring some for you?).

Once you’re in Mardan – haplessly without GPS and downloaded maps – you have to rely upon the local population to guide you about the whereabouts of Takht-e-Bahi’s Buddhist remains. And with a language barrier well in place, trouble is imminent. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me what a ‘Buddhist monastery’ would translate to in Urdu, let alone Pashto, so my questions about the place were peppered with words like ‘ancient city’, ‘atop a hill’, ‘heritage site’ and other fancy stuff. Most people responded with baffled expressions, until a messiah appeared and admonished me with, “Bhai, aise bolo na kay aap nay ‘khandar’ dekhnay hain!” (Why didn’t you say you want to see the ruins?)

Welcome sign

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The site is usually regarded as the most impressive and best preserved of all the Buddhist complexes throughout the Gandhara belt

The Buddhist remains of Takht-e-Bahi are located at a distance of about 15 kilometres from the city of Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and stand on a hill at an elevation of about 500 feet. The site is usually regarded as the most impressive, most detailed and best preserved of all the Buddhist complexes throughout the Gandhara belt. If it helps, Takht-e-Bahi (along with the adjoining ruins of the city of Shahr-i-Bahlol) is a UNESCO World Heritage site – among the seven such sites in Pakistan. In other words, it means that Takht-e-Bahi is entitled to just as much negligence as old Taxila or formidable Mohenjodaro.

Successfully snaking through the narrow alleyways that emerged from the main Malakand-Swat road, we reached Takht-e-Bahi’s parking area. Ample use of concrete, a Pakistani flag in motion, well-maintained lawns and a water tank serving chilled water in the extreme heat, this was possibly the best welcome I’ve received at a heritage site in this country. That too in this troubled province of mine. Who would’ve thought!

Spread over an area of about 98 acres, Takht-e-Bahi’s construction can be divided into four phases – ranging from the 1st century BCE to the 7th century AD. Many of the details about the place are shrouded in mystery. It is said to have been a Zoroastrian complex first, that later changed its character with the advent of Buddhism. The name itself is no help. The first recorded use of the term Takht-e-Bahi dates back to 1836, probably meaning ‘the good capital’; this gives little hint to its origins.

The Court of Many Stupas

A lone residence

The chapels are said to have housed impressive statues of the Buddha, which have since been shifted to the Peshawar museum

From the parking lot ascends a series of stairs that lead you to the main complex. We were told the number of these to be 300, but you can dismiss that, as we did, as the fictitious churnings of an idle mind. The first place you land into after the stairs’ voyage is the beautiful Court of Many Stupas. Dotted by thirty-five stupas, some in better condition than others, this is enclosed by about fifteen chapels on the sides. All the chapels’ roofs were found destroyed when they were first discovered, but the roofs of those along the north were later re-constructed. The chapels are said to have housed impressive statues of the Buddha, which have since been shifted – mostly to the Peshawar museum. But a significant number of objects from the site can also be found in the British Museum. To the north of this is the Monastic Complex where fifteen cells served as the houses of the monks. But since there’s a staircase hinting at a destroyed second storey too, the capacity of the place to keep monks could’ve been greater.

The Court of the Main Stupa, easily among the most important structures of the site, stands to the south of this and is reached by mounting fifteen stairs (this, I counted). Access to the Main Stupa, however, is restricted. This stupa was already destroyed when the excavations came about, and all the world has seen of it is its base. Other areas of the complex include the Monk’s house, the kitchen, underground meditation cells (access restricted), assembly hall and the Court of Three Stupas – which has no conspicuous stupas any longer, only bicycles and beds of the ruins’ guards.

A stupa stands alone

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A significant number of objects from the site can be found at the British Museum

All the structures at Takht-e-Bahi are made with local stone, mixed with lime and mud. The astounding strength of these, along with Takh-e-Bahi’s elevated location has made it survive the vagaries of time. However, since Takht-e-Bahi was actually a thriving community rather than a lone complex, the whole of the hill is marked with crumbling historical structures. These are probably residential places, and are in abundance. Built in a perfect pattern, most of these two-storeyed houses make a line through the hill. Visiting all of these demands not only sufficient time, but also the will to use the lower limbs.

Takht-e-Bahi is a well-maintained historical romance, and is a must visit for all heritage buffs. Reconstructed and renovated well, it sings to you the hymns of a bygone era. The hiking track is well-devised, providing some great views of the place. If only there could be an information office at the site, since the boards on display tell you nothing real – and there’s not much in-depth information about the magnificent site on the internet (barring a half-baked Wikipedia article).

The '300' stairs

View from the side

Three Stupa Court

Lawns at the parking lot

Explorations and excavations on this site began in 1864 and it underwent a major restoration in the 1920s. Excavations were resumed at Takht-e-Bahi, almost after a century, in 2003 – and have been quite fruitful. It was also in 2003, as the guard told me, that the site was re-done and maintained. When asked if the present government was doing anything for preserving this gem of our heritage, the guard’s knee-jerk reaction was pointing towards a building under construction, “Yeh canteen bana rahay hain na!”! (They are building this canteen).

Oh, and in case you were wondering, we had Takht-e-Bahi’s famous chappal kababs too. And coupled with the remarkable Buddhist Monastery, they make Takht-e-Bahi a wonderful visit.

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