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Heritage. Taxila - The cradle of Gandhara art

by Laurence Gourret


Traces of several ancient civilizations of the north Indus basin have survived in present-day Pakistan at Taxila, a site that was included on the World Heritage List in 1980

The archaeological site of Taxila, which lies in a well-irrigated, fertile valley forty kilometres from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, bears the traces of uninterrupted human occupation extending back 6,000 years. It emerged onto the arena of history during the second millennium B.C., when the snake-worshipping Takka people chose it as the site for their city, Takshasila (in Sanskrit, “hill of Takshaka”, the serpent-prince). Its rapid development in the course of the following millennium was due to its exceptionally advantageous geographical situation at the junction of three great trade routes linking the Indian subcontinent with central and western Asia, and to the introduction of iron-working techniques in the Gandhara region, of which it became the capital.

In the sixth century B.C., Gandhara was absorbed into the Persian empire of the Achaemenids. The city drew great economic and cul tural benefit from this contact with the West, among other advances developing a system for transcribing vernacular Sanskrit, later replaced by the Brahmi script. Next, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire marked the beginning of Hellenistic influence on the city, which was to give rise to an original art, that of Gandhara.

There were four decisive phases in Taxila’s development: the Indian dynasty of the Maurya (c. 321-189 B.C.), the Greeks of Bactria (189-50 B.C.), the Parthians (50 B.C.-60 A.D.), and domination by the powerful Central Asian Kushan dynasty (until c. 230 A.D.). Thereafter the city’s political decline, as a result of dynastic quarrels, led on to its economic and cultural decline, which was precipitated by the incursions of the Huns in the fifth century.

Taxila, which was excavated by British archaeologists in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, contains the vestiges of three successive towns and many small monastic sites, bearing witness to the refined nature of the city’s spiritual and cultural life during its halcyon days.


Meditating Buddha, a stone sculpture in the Jaulian monastery (Gandhara art, 2nd century A.D.). [© Laurence Gourret, Paris]

THE FIRST CITY: BHIR

Bhir was the first urban community on the Taxila site (sixth to second centuries B.C.). When Alexander the Great arrived there in 326 B.C., he found the main street badly paved and unprepossessing and the architecture rudimentary, the houses built of stones bonded with mud, the roofs flat and the walls vividly painted but without windows on to the street. The town had a central refuse tip and a network of open drains, but no wells. The inhabitants drew water straight from the river, which was where they washed themselves and did their laundry.

In the third century B.C., Asoka, the grandson of Chan-dragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty, converted to Buddhism. He built the great stupa of Dharmarajika, placing therein the relics of the Buddha in a golden casket. Vandals many times mutilated the sacred edifice as they vainly searched for this casket. Over the years, the stupa was enlarged by the addition of large numbers of other religious structures (small votive stupas, chapels, etc.).


Cattle graze among archaeological remains on the Taxila site. [M. Serrailler © Rapho, Paris]

FURTHER READING:

Taxila, by Ahmad Hasan Dani, UNESCO/The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, Paris/Tokyo, 1986

“Taxila: ancient university centre of the Orient”, by Syed Ashfaq Naqvi, UNESCO Courier, October 1972

This monument was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 30 A.D., but it was rebuilt and its imposing mass (15 metres high and 50 in diameter) was shored up by several retaining walls, which resemble the spokes radiating out from the hub of a wheel and thus recall the dharma-cakra (the wheel of law), from which the site complex takes its name.

The surrounding wall of the stupa, embellished with painted and gilded statues of the Buddha, dates from early in the second century A.D. Further north, all that remains are the ruins of a monastery that had a hundred monks’ cells. It was completely sacked by the Huns in 455 A.D.

THE PARTHIAN CITY: SIRKAP

Sirkap (second century B. C. to first century A.D.), the second town on the Taxila site, is half an hour’s walk north from the site of Bhir. Excavations have brought to light the city walls, dating from various periods, including those built by the Parthians in the first century A.D., which were six metres thick, had tall bastions and were in places nine metres in height.

When Saint Thomas, who brought the Gospel to India, visited the Parthian king Gondophares in 47 A.D., he found a nourishing town where caravans from China, India and the distant western lands all met. Unlike Bhir, Sirkap was built according to a plan, with streets regularly laid out along two perpendicular north-south and east-west axes. Scattered among its huge, rectangular dwelling-houses, in the oriental style, with rooms arranged around an open central courtyard, were Jain stupas, Buddhist altars and private chapels. Like Bhir, Sirkap had neither wells nor mains drainage. The main thoroughfare was lined by a large number of open-fronted shops with wooden stalls. Numerous Greek-inspired objects have been excavated, including a silver head of Dionysos and a cornelian seal with representations of Eros and Psyche.

One particularly remarkable stupa, known as the shrine of the double-headed eagle (first century A.D.), provides a perfect illustration of the fusion of Indian and Greek styles: pilasters with Corinthian capitals, recesses decorated in a manner inspired by Greek architecture, and Bengali-style roofs. A similar cross-fertilization of cultures is evident in the sculpted representation of the Buddha and bodhisattvas at the foot of the votive stupas. The way in which the robes hang, the smiles and the facial features, executed in accordance with the standards of the Hellenistic school, are combined with the traditional meditative poses of Buddhist art.

On the Jandial site, near the northern gate, are the ruins of two temples built by the Bactrian Greeks. Pillaged by the Scythians in the second century A.D., they disappeared in the earthquake of 30 A.D.

THE KUSHAN CITY: SIRSUKH

Sirsukh (first to fifth centuries A.D.), the last of the three fortified towns on the Taxila site, was the regional capital of the Kushan, who originally came from Central Asia and brought to Taxila their own ideas of town-building and their own construction methods. We have less information about the life of the inhabitants than in the case of Sirkap since few excavations have been carried out here. It nevertheless appears that Gandhara art ben-e fitted considerably from the contributions made by the Kushan, who encouraged local sculptors and promoted the development of Buddhist monasteries.

Taxila’s decline, resulting from internal dynastic dissension, began at the end of the second century A.D. The town seems to have escaped the Sassanid invasions, although Sassanid influence may be discerned, particularly in the coinage. The preponderant influence thereafter was Indian. The Brahmi script came into use, Hindu divinities like Shiva and Vishnu made their appearance in local statuary art, and the influence of classical Gupta art made itself felt in that of Gandhara. Taxila’s economic and cultural ruin was, however, largely due to the Huns, who swept into Gandhara in the middle of the fifth century.

MONASTERIES

Taxila also became an influential centre of Buddhism. It was said to be here that the Buddha, emaciated by the long practice of asceticism, beheaded himself, as a symbolic gesture denoting the renunciation even of thinking, in order to attain illumination. Students came from all over northern India to follow the many courses of study on offer, which in addition to Mahayana Buddhism included the teaching of the Vedas, military science, medicine, law, political economy, astronomy, mathematics, the arts and letters. Among the students was the celebrated Indian grammarian Panini (c. 400 B.C.).

As well as the sites of the three fortified towns, Taxila contains those of many Buddhist monastic establishments which testify to its religious significance. Scattered about beyond the walls of the three towns but always built near to a spring, most of them date back to the Kushan and post-Kushan periods.

Dharmarajika is undoubtedly the most important of them, but mention should also be made of the monasteries of Khader Mohra and Akhauri, which, with two others, form the four corners of a vast quadrilateral with sides measuring between 400 and 500 metres. Probably erected in the Kushan period, these builldings show signs of a certain evolution in monastic architecture. In three of them, the stupa is separate from the monks’ cells, which are arranged around a central courtyard, while two of them have neither a refectory nor commons.

Kalwan (“the caves”), the largest of the Buddhist sites at Taxila, also dates from the Kushan period. It comprises three groups of cells, each built around a cloister, and a central stupa encircled by smaller stupas and by numerous shrines decorated, in particular, with clay and stucco statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. The floors of the living quarters were of rammed earth, while the courtyards were generally cobbled with stones from the river-bed. The roofs were made of rough, clay-covered beams. Water was drawn from an enormous well nearly four metres in diameter, with a stone lining almost a metre thick at the mouth.


Meditating Buddha (2nd century A.D.). It forms part of a series of reliefs adorning the base of a stupa at the Jaulian monastery. [© Laurence Gourret, Paris]

Among the many other monasteries, Mohra Moradu has some of the finest examples of stucco statuary, and Jaulian, built on a hilltop, is one of the best preserved in Taxila. Excavations conducted here by Sir John Marshall in 1912 uncovered various buildings such as the commons, refectory, kitchens and storerooms. The monastery probably catered for many pilgrims and travellers, which would explain its many outbuildings and the fact that it had three entrances. One of these opened on to the southern slope of the hill, where the wells providing the monastery with water were sunk, while the eastern entrance gave access to the living quarters proper. The northern entrance opened directly into the lower courtyard in which stood stupas decorated around the base with many statues of the Buddha. At the feet of these statues was a stucco frieze depicting allegorical scenes from his life and showing him surrounded by bodhisattvas, lions and elephants. In the central courtyard stands the dome - originally gilded - of the great stupa, more than 20 metres high and surrounded by a score of votive stupas, all of whose bases are richly decorated with animals, bodhisattvas and columns in the form of human figures. At the base of the main stupa is a “healing Buddha” which has a hole where the navel should be: for centuries, believers, while praying to be healed, put their fingers in this hole.


The main street of Sirkap, a city on the site of Taxila founded by the Parthians in the 2nd century B.C. [M. Serrailler © Rapho, Paris]