The Indian subcontinent was home to some of the oldest civilizations. As history tells us, the vast fertile plains fed by numerous rivers gave way for the earliest examples of planned settlements. Moreover, the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism also stemmed out of them. Centuries later, archaeologists delved deep into these settlements dating back to the 5th century BC. In the process, they discovered well-planned ancient cities. One such lost city situated in present-day Pakistan is Taxila.
Taxila is located in the Rawalpindi district of Pakistan’s province of Punjab. A few kilometres northwest of Islamabad, its strategic location gave it a place on the historic silk route that connected China to the West.
History of Taxila and its Abandonment
Ancient literature refers to Taxila as cited in Indian, Greco-Roman, and Chinese Buddhist accounts. In Urdu, its name translates to the City of Cut Stone. According to the Indian legend of Ramayana, the city gained its christening from its first ruler Taksha, the son of Bharata. It is further known to be the first place where Mahabharata got recited. Afterwards, Buddhist literature referred to the city as the capital of the Gandhara kingdom and a great centre of learning. Around the time Alexander the Great invaded India, the rule shifted to the Greek disposition. Accounts from his time described Taxila as wealthy, prosperous, and well-governed.
Over a decade later, the city became part of the Mauryan empire, then the Shakas, the Parthians, and eventually the Kushan rulers by the 5th century CE. It was then that Taxila flourished as a centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. Hence, it came to be known as one of the earliest universities around the world.
However, the grandeur and international fame of Taxila did not last long. Its pivotal proximity to central Asia made it vulnerable. Frequent attacks and invasions from the North and the West became common. Shortly after the epitome of its prospering civilization, the city neared its destruction. While the Greeks, Kushans, and several other rulers had left their marks on Taxila through devastating conquests, it was the Huns who were responsible for the final blow. They completely decimated the city to the ground.
Following this, Taxila never fully recovered. For centuries, it stayed in ruins. There were no able patrons or kings left to build it back to its affluence. The city entered into a period of oblivion from all subsequent records and accounts.
The father of Indian archaeology, Sir Alexander Cunningham, takes credit for discovering the lost city. He began excavations in 1863. Almost a decade later, he identified the local site of Saraikela with ancient Taxila. Sir John Hubert Marshall followed him to continue the work over the next 20 years. He accomplished the complete exposure of the historic city with all its monuments. The remains date back as old as the Neolithic age.
In addition, ramparts from different cities illustrate the development of Taxila over a long time. Rulers from several parts of Asia and Europe influenced its growth and development. Of these, the Greek, Persian, and Buddhist ascendancy were the most dominant.
Architecture, Structural Remains, and the Integrity
Taxila, a vast site, has the remains of four early settlements. It is a conglomeration of Buddhist monasteries, stupas, temples, mosques, palaces, and fortresses from different periods. These structures correspond to the ruling empires and the dominant faith during their reign. Moreover, some sites also mark celebrated events in the history of the city.
For instance, the notable Bhir Mound marks the triumphant entry of Alexander the Great. The settlements behold their character through stone walls, foundations, and streets. These formed one of the earliest examples of urbanization within the subcontinent. Au contraire, Saraikala, the first identified site, led to evidence of Neolithic, Bronze age, and Iron age occupations.
Alternatively, another indicator of the period of origin is the type of masonry used in the structures. While rubble masonry is present in the oldest parts of the building, the variation in the material gives traces of the successive settlements. The site also demonstrates its participation in the Harappan civilization through remarkable stone tool technology and ceramic arts. The fortifications and palace areas indicate inscriptions, columns in Corinthian order, and distinctive entrances. On top, one can locate other antiquities such as pottery, terracotta, bronze, copper, and iron objects, and coins from different periods within the same area.
Protection and Management of Taxila
Taxila came to be known as one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Indian subcontinent. The unique nature of this site lies in its indication of successive urbanization through more than five centuries. Such instances of evolution and the elements found within the site boundary express the outstanding universal value of Taxila. The parliament of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan passed an Antiquities Act in 1975. It declared the city as protected antiquity. Since then, the Governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have gained complete administrative and financial authority. The control of the 18 heritage sites falling within the geographical extents was divided between them, respectively.
In 1980, UNESCO inscribed Taxila under the World Heritage List under cultural criteria. The role of the responsible authorities is to sustain the outstanding universal value of the colossal valley. The sites have specific management committees that prepare, approve, and implement all their activities.
Present Condition and the Future Scope
In the present day, Taxila is part of the seven tehsils in the Rawalpindi district. The city had a population of over 1.5 lakhs in the late nineties. It spread over the undulating Pothohar Plateau of Punjab. Heavy machine factories, cement factories, and cottage industries producing stoneware, pottery, and footwear dominate this area. Taxila retains its character as a centre for learning through its esteemed universities, such as the University of Engineering and Technology (UET).
The Taxila Museum showcases the remains from mainly the Gandhara civilization. Hence, the city has a booming tourism sector as the demand for services and hospitality progresses.
The heritage complex of Taxila remains authentic in terms of its form and design. The conservation plans take into account the original traditions, techniques, materials, and settings. Therefore, by combining international standards of heritage conservation with scientific approaches, the lost city maintains its integrity and authenticity. Further studies include impact assessment of the newer activities. However, the thousands of families who have come to call Taxila their home; work hard to maintain the original traditions and culture. Bolstering the ties between planning, development, and heritage institutions can revive the ancient city of Taxila to its most diverse and significant form.
- Centre, UNESCO, 2021. Taxila. [online] Whc.unesco.org. Available at: <https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/139/> [Accessed 3 July 2021].
- Puri, B.N., 2021. Taxila | ancient city, Pakistan. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/place/Taxila> [Accessed 3 July 2021].
- History Pak. 2021. Taxila – History Pak. [online] Available at: <https://historypak.com/taxila/> [Accessed 3 July 2021].
- News, E., 2021. Unknown facts about ‘World’s First University’: Takshashila. [online] Indiatvnews.com. Available at: <https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/unknown-facts-about-world-s-first-university-takshashila-36305.html/page/3> [Accessed 3 July 2021].