IN THE SILENCE OF THE MOUNTAINS.
Takht-e- Bahi literally means 'a spring (or reservoir) on a (flat) terrace'. The name is derived from a spring on top of a ridge that nourished the monastic settlement below. The ruins of the Buddhist monastery at Takht-e-Bahi are considered among the best preserved this side of the Indus. Constructed with material gouged out of the hills, they blend in pleasingly with their surroundings. Although its history is shrouded in darkness, some scholars believe the Huns of Central Asia destroyed the monastery. Mihiragula the Hun, is credited with having slain two-thirds of the inhabitants, and destroying sixteen hundred stupas and monasteries in Ghandhara. The survivors took to the mountains of Malakand, Bajaur, Swat and Buner. Here Buddhism lingered on until 7-8 Century AD
Although mentioned by General Court, a French Officer in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836, serious excavation of the site began under Dr. D. B. Spooner, Curator of Peshawar Museum, in 1907-8. The excavations continued for twenty-two years. It was under the great Kushan Emperor, Kanishka, who ruled from his capital, Pataliputra or Porushpura (modern Peshawar), that Mahayana Buddhism flourished in Gandhara (Peshawar valley); eventually spreading to Central Asia and the Far East. Gandhara was the Buddhist's Second Holy Land, as many places here are associated with the Buddha's previous births and miracles. Legend speaks of his various appearance, as the obedient son who supported his blind parents near Pushkalavati (Charsadda); when he gave his eyes in charity at the mound of Bala Hissar near Charsadda; when he converted Hariti, the mother of the demons, at the village of Rajar; achieving enlightenment under the 'pipal' tree at Pipal Mandi, Peshawar City; converting Apalala, the Naga king of Uddiyana (Swat district) who used to cause floods in the River Suvastu (River Swat); appearing as a great fish in the River Sindhu (Indus) to feed the people of Hund and appearing at Shahbaz Garhi in his last birth, as the charitable prince Visvantara.
Always having been fascinated by ancient history, I recently managed to visit the ruins. It has taken me all these years to cover the eighty kilometers from Peshawar because women in the Frontier do not go traipsing around alone; and no one was keen enough to chaperone me. Anyway, one fine morning we set off on the main G.T. Road. Turning off on to the Mardan/Mingora Road near Nowshera, we finally arrived at Takht-e-Bahi. An STDC board pointed out the way, and we found ourselves on a pot-holed lane. Gradually, the looming hills drew closer. Parking the car at the foothills, under the shadows of the ruins we silently looked around. The majestic surroundings discouraged small talk.
Forming three sides of an oblong square, to the south of the hills of Takht-e-Bahi is the highest ridge; while to the north lie the Baizai plains. The hills stuck me as an outstretched hand, holding the main ruins in the center of its palm, the 'fingers' were dotted by smaller ruins. The brooding hills, shrouded in silence, were desolate. There was not a single tree; not a blade of grass, to give them a semblance of life.
Shaking myself free of their mesmerizing grip, I made my way up. The path rose fast and steeply. Partly from breathlessness, and partly from a desire to look around, I stopped frequently. Below, as far as the eye could see, lay a panoramic view. The Peshawar valley, and the Chitral and Malakand mountains are said to be visible on a clear day. Yet, the mist that morning added to the mysterious enchantment.
The protective walls that once surrounded the ruins are no more. There is nothing to protect; except the gaping, empty chambers, and the sighing breeze. To the right, beyond the path, are the remains of monastic cells. On a farther ridge to the left more ruins were visible. Between the two, a chasm has been gouged by centuries of rain. Archaeologists are not sure of the exact chronology of the monastery, as it was continually enlarged upon. The first period is believed to start from the first century BC, to the second century AD The second period from the third to fourth century A.D.; the third, from the fourth to fifth century A.D.; and the fourth, from the sixth to seventh century A.D.
The entrance used now is through what used to be the back door. We entered directly into 'The Courtyard of Many Stupas', (thirty-five stupas, to be exact). An architectural anomaly, stupas are unenterable buildings. They were built either to enshrine relics or as commemorations. The 'Courtyard-of-many-Stupas' is surrounded by niches that once housed statutes of the Buddha. One statue is still there, but I am sure it is not an original. Paved paths separate the stupas in the courtyard. Bisecting the courtyard from north to south, one path leads to the 'Court-of-the-Monastery' on one side, and the 'Main Stupa' on the other. A short flight of five steps leads to the monastic quadrangle; the main stupa lies at a greater height than both the other courtyards. Deciding to go to the Main Stupa first, I found that it is no more. Only the base is visible, with a flight of steps leading up to it. Shrines that open towards the courtyard of the main stupa cluster around three sides of it. Standing here are the only superstructures, besides the vaulted passages underground, that have survived time and treasure seekers.
Next we visited the monastic quadrangle. About fifteen cells line three sides of the quadrangle. A tiny window, high enough not to distract the monks, was the only source of light and air; and a couple of niches that must have held a lamp or books. To the southeast of the courtyard is a water tank; and an entrance to the east leads to a small court which is believed to be the kitchen. To the north of the kitchen complex are two entrances. One of them leads to the upper storey, and the other leads outside the Monastery. The only door on the south wall leads to the refectory. As in most of the other places I have visited, there was no available information about the history or other details about the ruins. STDC should consider setting up a shop selling plaster copies of statuettes found at Takht-e-Bahi, and booklets with information about the history of the place. A small 'museum' beyond the assembly hall was locked; the guard opened it for us, making very sure we were alive to his magnanimity. The 'museum' housed some sculptures and a few substandard booklets for sale, at exorbitant prices. They did not tempt us.
What really fascinated me were the underground meditation cells. Bending almost double to enter one, I found that it was not as small as it seemed. Sitting there in the dark, I wondered how long the monks remained here, deep in metaphysical meditation. One of my bangles broke as I pressed myself against the far wall. I was glad to leave it there, forever wrapped in the past. Some later archaeologist might find it one day and wonder how it came to be there. Emerging from the meditation cell, I decided to leave the monastery. I was too overwhelmed, too engulfed by the past. I plan to return one day, one visit to the ruins that lie in the silence of the mountains is not enough.
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