The relics of the imposing Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and Sahr-i-Bahlol are two major Buddhist sites 5 kilometres apart from each other. Both important sites are located in Mardan city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has once remained a major city of Gandhara civilization. Both sites date from the same era – early 1st century – and made up to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan in 1980.
Takht-i-Bahi: Brief overview
Takht-i-Bahi is a combination of two Persian words Takht & Bahi where Takht means “top” or “throne” while Bahi stands for “spring” or “water”. According to locals, the term refers to two springs on a nearby hill and thus symbolizing a “high spring”. The other yet credible notion is the term referring to as Throne of Origin which is a context widely used.
The Takht-i-Bahi grand monastery is situated on the flank of about 36.6 meters to 152.4 meters high hills. It is about 2 km east of Takht-e-Bahi bazaar on Mardan-Swat road. The main monastic complex is about 60 meters above the surrounding plains. There are a number of ruins stretching on the mountain around the main complex which can all be viewed from the top.
The scenic view from the top of the crest behind Takht-i-Bahi archaeological relics makes the hike up the worth of visit. One can see, across the plains, as far as Peshawar on one side and the Malakand Pass and the beautiful hills of Swat on the other. Sometimes fog covers the region in winters making it is even impossible to sight even the nearby Takht-i-Bahi bazaar and Mardan city.
The monastery of Takht-i-Bahi was first discovered by European Lieutenants Lumsden and Stokes in 1852. The remains, however, were mentioned in 1836 by General Court, the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Later in 1871, Sergeant Wilcher found numerous sculptures from the site depicting life stories of Buddha. For detailed information excavation was carried out in 1911 to 1913. However, the outcome never turned to be as expected due to lack of proper recording. The site underwent major restoration in 1920.
Historically the monastery was in continuous use from 1st century B.C. to 7th century A.D. Archaeologist divide the history of the complex into four distinct periods.
It was believed that the monastic complex was founded in 1st century B.C. The basis serving as proof are the inscriptions found bearing the name of Gondophares (20-46 A.D.). The place then fell under the first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Likewise, in the second century, it came under Kushan king Kanishka, the Parthian and then again, the Kushan Kings.
Similarly, the second period which largely is believed as the creation of the Stupa Court and Assembly hall period is during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.
The third period is associated with the later Kushan dynasty as well as the Kidara Kushana rulers occurred during the 4th and 5th centuries.
The last construction period relates to the creation of the Trantic complex in 6th and 7th centuries which was overseen by invading Hun rulers.
Two different notions prevail regarding the destruction and abolishing of the site. According to historians White Huns of Central Asia destroyed the site along with other Gandhara sites. But according to the other account, one of the kings destroyed 1600 Stupas and monasteries and killed about two-thirds of Gandhara population. Thus, it was abandoned.
The remains comprise of four main areas of the complex which are:
- The main “Stupa Court” is a cluster of Stupas around a central courtyard.
- The monastic chambers comprising of individual cells around a courtyard.
- A temple complex consisting of several Stupas
- The dark cells with low openings in the basement constructed for meditation
It is also believed that a number of other double-storey structures which may have served as residence or assembly halls also exist in the main complex as well as in the surroundings. The structure is all built with grey colored limestone in mud mortar. The reputation of this splendid complex, indeed, is based on its state of preservation and its prime location. Its location, hence, made it invincible from successful invasions.
The second component is the neighboring city remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol. It is also pronounced as Seri Bahlol or Sehri Behlol. The ruins at Sahr-i-Bahlol are the remains of a small fortified town from Kushan period. The mound is about 9 meters high surrounded by a stone fortified wall. It was constructed around 3,000 years ago covering 9.7 hectares. The wall has damaged at several places.
The site contains remains of Buddha which have not properly been excavated. The local people, however, carried out illegal excavations to erect their own properties by building houses. As a result of excavations, people are said to have found antiques such as statues, coins, jewellery, and utensils. The covered site is surrounded by fertile fields. The site is now in danger of extinction due to continuous constructions.
The name Seri Bahlol refers to the combination of two Hindi words Sehir, Sheri, or Sri. and Bahlol. “Sheri or Sri” means Sir and “Bahlol” the name of a prominent political and religious leader of the area. On the contrary, another account explains Sahri-i-Bahlol as the city of Bahlol.
Mardan city is about 80 kilometers from the main Peshawar city and can be reached in an hour and a half. It is about 150 kilometers from Islamabad and takes some 2.5 hours to reach. A day excursion from both cities is possible and both sites can be explored.
Takht-i-Bahi monastery, with a guarding view of the city, is situated on the crest of a small hill about 16 kilometers northwest of main Mardan city. The other component is the remains of the walled city of Sahr-i-Bahlol located to the left side of Mardan-Swat road about 12 kilometres from main Mardan city.