Exploring the Magnificent Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and Sahr-i-Bahlol Ruins in Gandhara, Pakistan
In the heart of Mardan city, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, lie two historical treasures: the Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and the Sahr-i-Bahlol ruins. Both structures, dating back to the early 1st century, are situated merely 5 kilometers apart and have earned the prestigious title of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan, a recognition bestowed upon them in 1980.
Takht-i-Bahi: An Overview
Unraveling the Name
The name Takht-i-Bahi is a fusion of two Persian words, “Takht,” signifying “top” or “throne,” and “Bahi,” translating to “spring” or “water.” This nomenclature paints a vivid picture of a monastic complex perched atop a hill, overlooking a meandering stream. Another interpretation suggests that it could mean the “Throne of Origin.”
The grandeur of the Takht-i-Bahi monastery sprawls across three interconnected spurs on a hill, rising from 36.6 meters to 152.4 meters in height. The primary structures grace the central spur, commanding a panoramic view of Mardan’s plains, accessible via a staircase boasting around 300 steps. Within this complex, you’ll find the main lower stupa court, the upper south stupa court, a Grid Monastery, an assembly hall, covered stepped passageways leading to dimly lit meditation cells, and various secular buildings. Additionally, scattered around the main complex, spread over 4 kilometers, are several units, potentially serving as residential areas or assembly halls, all visible from the hill’s summit.
A Scenic Retreat
The journey to the top of the Takht-i-Bahi archaeological relics hill rewards visitors with a breathtaking view. One can gaze across the plains, with Peshawar visible on one side and the Malakand Pass and Swat’s picturesque hills on the other. During winter, a thick blanket of fog sometimes envelops the region, shrouding even the nearby Takht-i-Bahi bazaar and Mardan City in an ethereal veil.
Discovery and Historical Significance
In 1836, the site’s existence was first noted by General Court, a French officer in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Dr. Henry Walter Bellew, a British medical officer born in India, explored it in 1864, leading to a series of excavations. Harold Hargreaves conducted further research from 1910 to 1911.
The travel records of Chinese monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (602-64) also allude to this archaeological marvel. The site’s relics were mentioned for the first time in 1836 by the General Court.
Dr. H.W. Bellew’s visit in 1864 resulted in a report detailing the remains and a stupa on the central spur. He also described sculptural fragments, possibly parts of large-scale sculptures. Subsequent excavations in 1871, reported by F.H. Wilcher, unearthed a total of 165 sculptural fragments, primarily depicting seated Buddhas and standing bodhisattvas. Unfortunately, the outcome of the 1911-1913 excavation was less fruitful due to inadequate record-keeping. In 1920, the site underwent significant restoration.
Historically, the monastery thrived for 800 years, from the 1st century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. Archaeologists divide its history into four distinct periods:
- Foundation in the 1st century B.C., evidenced by inscriptions bearing the name of Gondophares (20-46 A.D.).
- Influence of Kushan kings, such as Kujula Kadphises and Kanishka, in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
- Development of the Stupa Court and Assembly Hall in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
- Construction of the Trantic complex with dark cells in the 6th and 7th centuries, overseen by invading Hun rulers.
Architecture of Takht-i-Bahi
The remains of the complex encompass four main areas:
- The central “Stupa Court,” features a cluster of Stupas surrounding a central courtyard.
- Monastic chambers, comprising individual cells arranged around a courtyard.
- A temple complex, housing several Stupas.
- Dark cells in the basement, designed exclusively for meditation.
The entire structure is constructed using indigenous dressed and semi-dressed stone blocks, set in grey-colored limestone, adhering to Gandhara patterns. The site’s enduring reputation is founded on its remarkable preservation and strategic location, rendering it impervious to hostile incursions.
Notably, stone sculptures from the site were relocated to the Peshawar Museum, while the stone inscription of Gondophares now resides in the Lahore Museum.
Sahr-i-Bahlol: An Adjacent Enigma
The second component of this historical tapestry is the Sahr-i-Bahlol ruins. Also referred to as Seri Bahlol or Sehr-i-Behlol, these ruins belong to a small fortified town from the Kushan period. A mound, approximately 9 meters high, is enclosed by a stone fortification wall. This wall, erected about 3,000 years ago, spans 9.7 hectares but has suffered damage at several points.
The site holds remnants of Buddha that have not been adequately excavated. Regrettably, illegal excavations by local residents have led to the discovery of antiques such as statues, coins, jewelry, and utensils. Surrounded by fertile fields, this site now faces the threat of extinction due to ongoing construction.
Access to These Treasures
Takht-e-Bahi Monastery is located about 2 kilometers east of Takht-e-Bahi bazaar on the Mardan-Swat road, and approximately 15 kilometers north of Mardan city. Mardan itself is situated roughly 70 kilometers from Peshawar and can be reached within an hour and a half. The journey from Islamabad, spanning approximately 150 kilometers, takes around 2.5 hours. Both sites are suitable for a day excursion.
- 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 monastery remains open on holidays unless high-profile delegations are visiting or special instructions from higher authorities dictate otherwise.
- For locals: Rs. 20
- Foreign tourists: Rs. 500
All vehicle types: Rs. 50
Applicable only to DSLR cameras: Rs. 500
Explore the rich history and architectural splendor of Takht-i-Bahi and Sahr-i-Bahlol, where the past comes to life amidst the enchanting landscapes of Gandhara, Pakistan.