The relics of the imposing Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and the ruins at the fortified city of Sahr-i-Bahlol are two major components located in the heart of Gandhara called the Mardan city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. Both structures date from the early 1st century and are situated 5 kilometers from each other. Takht-i-Bahi and Sahr-i-Bahlol were declared the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan in 1980.
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”. Thus the term refers to a monastic complex built atop a hill adjacent to a stream. The other yet credible notion is the term referred to as Throne of Origin which is a context widely used.
The Takht-i-Bahi grand monastery rests on three connected spurs on a hill of about 36.6 meters to 152.4 meters high. The main structures lie on the central spur overlooking the plains of Mardan, about 60 meters above the surrounding plains, and are accessible through a series of stairs containing around 300 steps. The main structure consists of a main lower stupa court, the upper south stupa court, a Grid Monastery, an assembly hall, covered stepped passageways leading to the dark meditation cells, and other secular buildings. Several units that may have been used as residential areas or assembly halls were built on the spurs around the main complex spread over 4 km and 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 while the Malakand Pass and the beautiful hills of Swat on the other. Sometimes heavy fog wraps the entire region in winter making it impossible to sight even the nearby Takht-i-Bahi bazaar and Mardan city.
In modern times, the first to mention the site, in 1836, was a French officer in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) named General Court. It was explored by the Indian-born British medical officer Dr. Henry Walter Bellew in 1864 as part of an archaeological survey, leading to a series of excavations, and from 1910–11, Harold Hargreaves conducted research on the site.
The travel records of the Chinese monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (602-64), who toured in search of Buddhist texts, indicate the identification of this impressive archaeological site (said to have contained the biggest and the most spectacular main stupa that may already have been damaged). The relics, however, were mentioned in 1836 for the first time by the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) named General Court.
Dr. H.W. Bellew visited Takht-i-Bāhī monastery in 1864 and published a report of the remains and a stupa that lies on the central spur besides providing a basic plan of the monastery. He also described sculptural fragments made of blue schist in the stupa court, some of which, he believed, may have been parts of large-scale sculptures. Soon after, in 1871, F.H. Wilcher reported finding a total of 165 sculptural fragments. His brief descriptions of all the sculptural finds are mostly related to seated Buddhas and standing bodhisattvas. For detailed information excavation was carried out from 1911 to 1913. However, the outcome never turned out to be as expected due to a lack of proper recording. The site underwent a major restoration in 1920.
Historically the monastery was in continuous use for 800 years from the 1st century B.C. to the 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 the 1st century B.C. The basis serving as proof are the inscriptions found bearing the name of Gondophares (20-46 A.D.). It later fell under the first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Likewise, in the second century, it came under the 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 containing dark cells in the 6th and 7th centuries which was overseen by invading Hun rulers.
Two different notions prevail regarding the destruction 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 the Gandhara population. Thus, it was abandoned.
The remains comprise 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 were built solely for meditation
It is also believed that several other double-story structures which may have served as residences or assembly halls also exist in the main complex as well as in the surroundings. The structure is all built using indigenous dressed and semi-dressed stone blocks set in grey-colored limestone in mud mortar in Gandhara patterns. The reputation of this splendid complex, indeed, is based on its state of preservation and its prime location. Its location, hence, made it invincible to successful invasions.
The stone sculptures were removed to the Peshawar Museum and the stone inscription of the Gondophares is preserved in the Lahore Museum.
The second component is the neighboring city remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol. It is also pronounced as Seri Bahlol or Sehr-i-Behlol. The ruins at Sahr-i-Bahlol are the remains of a small fortified town from the 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 is gradually damaged in several places.
The site contains remains of Buddha that have not properly been excavated. The local people, however, carried out illegal excavations to own the property by building houses. As a result of excavations, people are said to have found antiques such as statues, coins, jewelry, and utensils. The covered site is surrounded by fertile fields. The site is now in danger of extinction due to continuous construction.
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” is the name of a prominent political and religious leader in the area. On the contrary, another account explains Sahri-i-Bahlol as the city of Bahlol.
Takht-e-Bahi Monastery is about 2 km east of Takht-e-Bahi bazaar on Mardan-Swat road and about 15km north of Mardan city. The Mardan city itself is about 70 kilometers from the main Peshawar city and can be reached in an hour and a half. Mardan 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.
Summer: (1st April – 30th September) 08:00 am to 06:30 pm
Winters: (1st October – 31st March) 09:00 am to 04:30 pm
The monetary remains open on holidays except during the visits of high-profile delegations or on special instructions of higher authorities
For locals: Rs. 20
Foreign tourist: Rs. 500.
Parking charges: Rs. 50
Photography charges by DSLR camera only: Rs. 500