Manthal Buddha Rock: A Glimpse into the Golden Era of Buddhism
The Manthal Buddha Rock in Skardu stands as a timeless testament to the 9th-century Buddha relief carved into the natural expanse of a massive granite boulder. The rock is nestled on the outskirts of Manthal village with a commanding view of Skardu town. This site holds profound significance as a relic of Buddhism in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan. As a renowned tourist attraction and an iconic archaeological treasure, it offers a window into the opulent history of the region. Interestingly, the world remained unaware of the Manthal Buddha Rock until the early 20th century. Jane E. Duncan, a British traveler, documented its existence. This remarkable site is just one among several captivating and enigmatic petroglyphs awaiting discovery in the region.
Unveiling the Historical Canvas
Before the arrival of Buddhism in the 4th century, Baltistan was steeped in Shamanism. It was the monks from northern India who ventured into the region. They established monasteries during the reign of the Palolashahi kingdom. Buddhism continued to flourish even after the Tibetan conquest of the area in the second quarter of the 8th century. This period, spanning from the 8th to the 10th centuries, is often referred to as the “Golden Era of Buddhism” in the Upper Indus Valley.
During this era, Buddhism held sway, leaving its indelible mark on the landscape. Carvings of Buddha adorned numerous rock surfaces throughout Gilgit-Baltistan. These migrants from Gandhara, on their journey through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan, etched various images The images include stupas, depictions of Buddha, and expressions of their experiences. Some even left behind texts in the Kharoshti language on the rocks.
Several notable Buddha carvings, such as the Manthal Buddha Rock in Skardu, as well as carvings of stupas and Buddhist reliefs in Shigar and Khaplu in Baltistan, Karga Buddha and the Hanzal Stupa in Gilgit, and rock carvings near Hunza on the Karakoram Highway, serve as remnants of the Buddhist presence during this flourishing period.
During these times, the region stood as the epicenter of Buddhism, with Islam yet to make its presence felt. Though centuries have passed, and Buddhists have vanished from the region, their legacy endures through these rock carvings and petroglyphs. Regrettably, this rich heritage has been largely ignored and nearly forgotten.
Transformation and Transition
The 14th century witnessed a transformation in the region with the arrival of Ali Hamadani and his followers from Iran. This marked the gradual decline of Buddhism, and its places of worship fell into disrepair. The local populace embraced Islam. By the 15th century, the region had become predominantly Muslim.
Artistry Etched in Stone
The Manthal Buddha Rock, which stands proudly today, was once a site of great significance. It bears witness to a tradition that has long since vanished but still retains the essence of a heritage site.
This triangular rock, measuring 20 feet in width and 30 feet in height, is adorned with intricate sculptures and inscriptions from the period of Buddhist reign in the region. The front face boasts a skillful carving of a meditating Buddha, surrounded by 20 Bodhisattvas and two future Buddhas standing on either side. In accordance with Buddhist tradition, the assembly of Buddhas, from the past to the future, is depicted on the Manthal Rock. The name referred to as ‘Mandal,’ from which the village’s name, Manthal, derives.
At the apex of the Buddha rock, you’ll find a distinctive black coloring. The four-inch-high and wide hole directly above the meditating Buddha’s head was used as a fireplace, hence the blackened surroundings. A local myth suggests that visitors toss pebbles into this hollow space, believing that success will grant them a wish to come true. The Tibetan script on the rock, although incomplete and challenging to decipher. It remains a puzzle to even the most seasoned experts.
It is also believed that there was once a platform for religious ceremonies on the eastern side of the rock. Additionally, the area behind the rock was designated for medical facilities provided by the Lamas. However, the original platform no longer exists, likely washed away by time.
Finding Manthal Buddha Rock
Manthal Buddha Rock is located approximately 3 kilometers from Satpara Road, which leads to Satpara Lake in Skardu. Skardu is accessible by road from Islamabad, a journey that takes about 24 hours along the Karakoram Highway. Alternatively, one can opt to fly to Gilgit and continue the journey to Skardu by road, with the travel time expected to reduce once the ongoing Gilgit-Skardu road construction is completed, potentially taking around 3 to 4 hours instead of the current 7 hours, depending on road conditions.
The Manthal Buddha Rock stands as a bridge to a bygone era, offering a glimpse into the rich history of Buddhism in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. As an enduring symbol of this heritage, it beckons travelers and historians alike to explore its mysteries and appreciate the profound impact of Buddhism on this picturesque corner of the world.