The Treasures of Takht-i-Bahi

Posted on April 25, 2007
Filed Under >Darwaish, Culture & Heritage, History, Travel
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By Darwaish

As many readers rightly guessed, the picture in the last ATP Quiz was of Takht-i-Bahi, a Buddhist monastery dating back to 1st to 7th century AD.

Takht means “throne” and bahi, “water” or “spring” in Persian/Urdu. The monastic complex was called Takht-i-Bahi because it was built atop a hill and also adjacent to a stream. Located 80 kilometers from Peshawar and 16 kilometers northwest of the city of Mardan, Takht-I-Bahi was unearthed in early 20th century and in 1980 it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list as the largest Buddhist remains in Gandhara, along with the Sahr-i-Bahlol urban remains that date back to the same period, located about a kilometer south.

I have been there in 2003 and it is surprisingly well maintained and thankfully safe despite what the Taliban did across the border. Researchers believe that the monastery of Takht-i-Bahi was first mentioned by General Court, the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836 and it is the most impressive and complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan. Takht-i-Bahi consists of numerous chapels and stupas sticking to the high, rocky spurs. Just for reader’s information, a stupa is a Buddhist mound like structure and usually has a square base, a hemispherical dome, a conical spire, a crescent moon and a circular disc. Stupas were erected over the remains of Buddha, his disciples and other saints. They also hold objects traditionally associated with Buddha.

The complex of Takht-i-Bhai is impressively situated on a rocky spur (hill) some 300-500 feet above the Peshawar plain. From the top of the hill behind monastery, one can look down across the plains as far as Peshawar on one side and up to the Malakand Pass and the hills of Swat on the other and towards north is the Hindu Kush. This site has produced fragmentary sculptures in stone and stucco (a material made of an aggregate, a binder, and water which is applied wet, and hardens when it dries) that indicate the highly developed sculptural sense of their creators.

But the most remarkable feature is the design and arrangement of the range of small shrines, which surrounds the main stupa-court. The main stupa court at Takht-i-Bhai contained subsidiary stupas but was lined on three sides with larger and smaller image chapels with significant parts of their superstructure still intact. Much of the friezes and statuary was removed between 1907 and 1913, some of which can be seen on site and in museums in Pakistan.

The Vinaya text (a word in PÄÂ?li as well as in Sanskrit, with literal meaning ‘humility’) which is the textual framework for the Buddhist monastic community, or sangha, throws light on the architecture of the monastery. The village is built on the ruins of the ancient town, the foundation walls of which are still in a tolerably good formation. As a proof, that it was in the past occupied by the Buddhists and Hindu races, coins of those periods are still found at the site, the monks constructed it for their convenience. Spring water was supplied to them on hilltops; living quarters for ventilators for light and alcoves for oil lamps were made in the walls. From the description of Song Yun, a Chinese pilgrim, it appears that it was on one of the four great cities lying along the important commercial route to India. It was a well-fortified town with four gates outside the northern one, on the mound known as Chajaka Dehri which was a magnificent temple containing beautiful stone images covered in gold leaves. Not far from the rocky defile of Khaperdra did Ashoka build the eastern gate of the town outside of which existed a stupa and a sangharama.

The group of buildings unearthed after archeological excavations at Takht-i-Bahi may include; the court of many Stupas, the monastery, the main stupa, the assembly hall, the low-level chambers, the courtyard, the court of three stupas, the wall of colossi and the secular building. In 1871, Sergeant Wilcher found innumerable sculptures at Takht-i-Bahi. Some depicted stories from the life of Buddha, while others more devotional in nature included the Buddha and Bodhisattava.

The Court of Stupas is surrounded on three sides by open alcoves or chapels. The excavators were of the view that originally they contained single plaster statues of Buddha either sitting or standing, dedicated in memory of holy men or donated by rich pilgrims. The monastery on the north was probably a double storied structure consisting of an open court, ringed with cells, kitchens and a refectory. Walking further, you will come across the monastery court which was a residential area and as such a small number of sculptures were recovered. However, a beautiful emaciated Siddhartha in three parts was discovered. Likewise the other courts with Buddha’s images in stucco are equally interesting and they were used either for meditation, meetings or storage.

Regarding the current condition of this majestic site, although it is in good shape today, archeologists are warning that the site is in danger of collapse if an earthquake hits the region. The structure has been damaged by the quarrying operations, blasting activities and shock waves in the 90’s. Some walls at the ruins have been affected by rainwater, which began accumulating after passages in the ruins were paved as part of a maintenance project. The provincial archeology department has only five engineers to look after 74 ruins in the province, which is not enough to keep them all in proper repair. Although the Government of Pakistan has taken a number of steps to protect the ruins (including buying the quarrying company in 2002 to stop blasting and shock waves nearby) but much more needs to be done otherwise we will only find Takht-I-Bahi in history and archeology books.

Sources: Checkout this wonderful Heritage Tour link (you need to have QuickTime installed) that gives a 360-degree view of the Buddhist monastery. Google Earth also presents an interesting view of this truly majestic site. More information available here, here and here.

46 responses to “The Treasures of Takht-i-Bahi”

  1. Adil Khan says:

    Takht-i-Bahi is a case study in my M.S research. It could have been a source of cultural tourism but the state authorities seems to be lacking interest and resources or both. Among the different threats, it is equally exposed to the dangers of visitors mismanagement. The site needs to be well preserved in its original shape which needs stakeholder engagement and Disaster Resilient cultural heritage management framework.

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