There was once a time many centuries ago, when a great and powerful empire flourished with its capital located, just a few miles from what is now Islamabad. This was Takshila or Taxila as we know it during our time. Connecting the various settlements and towns in this beautiful valley was a road, parts of which were probably roughly paved with stones, while the rest was a dirt track, little used after dark for fear of being waylaid by criminals. This ancient ‘road’ now connects the Grand Trunk Road with Haripur City. It is metaled and bustling with traffic at all hours of the day or night. Midway on this route is the new town of Khanpur, the old one having been submerged by the waters of Khanpur Dam built upon the Haro River. The lake formed by the dam is clear and sweet as mountain streams are liable to be. It teems with ‘cold water’ fish which, though full of fish bones is undoubtedly the best tasting food, when fried.

Driving to Khanpur Lake, one passes through, what is without reservation the best fruit and vegetable producing area in the country. Fed by waters from the Haro River and numerous natural springs, the oranges, loquats and lychees are eagerly sought, as are seasonal vegetables such as okra, bitter gourd, tomatoes, green peas and cabbages. Above all, travelling along this road is nothing short of ecstasy for history lovers like myself.

A couple of kilometers from the turning on the Grand Trunk Road lies the Taxila Museum, with its treasure trove of Buddhist relics from various excavation sites. These relics showcase the extinct glory of a vanished empire, its Buddhist heritage and rich culture. The first small excavation site lies right across the Museum, but neglect has all but obliterated it. From here to a point short of the Haro River Bridge downstream of the dam spillway, archaeological digs dot the area. Two of these sites i.e. Sirkup and Julian are most intriguing in my reckoning.

The Sirkup site is dominated by the palace of the great Empire Builder King Ashoka, remains of which were uncovered on the summit of a hill overlooking the city. Only a part of this ancient ‘metropolis’ have been excavated, exposing rectangular blocks of structures, a broad central avenue leading to the palace and side streets laid out in perfect alignment. Every time I walk down the central avenue, my imagination runs rampant and I suddenly feel as if I am surrounded by a throng of people going about their daily chores, dressed in flowing colourful robes. Bullock carts and an occasional horse drawn chariot flash by, carrying what must be nobility or citizens of high status. On one occasion I was suddenly jerked out of my reverie by the arrival of ‘the guide’. This individual would have been a hit in any western standup show. His description of the remains and their historical significance in English was rib splitting. My repeated requests urging him to convert his narrative into Urdu or his local dialect were ignored, much to my amusement. It was after almost an hour of cajoling (that included threats) I was left to carry out my wanderings in peace, amidst the ghosts of a lost civilization.

A few kilometers past this city, a narrow strip of asphalt leads to a steep hill covered with wild olive trees known locally as ‘kahu’. On top of this hill lies the Julian Monastery. The highlight of these ruins is a statue of Lord Buddha. Legend has it that anyone inserting the index finger in the navel of the stone figure and making a wish will get his or her desire fulfilled. That is perhaps the reason that this particular navel has now become a gaping hole, by the millions of fingers that must have been inserted in it.

Traversing a passage and some steps on the left of this statue, is a large square shaped courtyard surrounded by small rectangular structures. These were once rooms that accommodated the monks inhabiting the monastery. This entire complex was ravaged and destroyed by hordes of pillaging Huns that swept across areas of the subcontinent. As I stood on top of the steps leading down into the courtyard, I could visualize groups of monks lining the monastery walls staring at the rising columns of smoke from burning settlements, drawing nearer and nearer, until flashing steel and fire destroyed years of work and toil. Suddenly, I caught a movement to my right, as if the corner of a saffron robe had disappeared round a corner of the stone wall. I walked to the spot, but saw nothing. I have still not been able to decide that what I had seen was merely a figment of my fertile imagination, or were the spirits of the monks still going about their business unable to make the transition into the nether world.

 

The writer is a historian.