Taxila

The ancient settlement of Taxila in the western outskirts of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of South Asia, and for good reason. There is a modern town with the archaeological sites scattered nearby.

Jaulian Buddha statue

Taxila originally Takshashila meaning the hill capital of the Takshakas, a bronze age (3rd and 2nd millennium BCE) tribe was one of the main cities of the ancient Kingdom of Gandhara, which existed from roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE and included much of what are now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. What makes Taxila unique and fascinating is the mainly Buddhist art and architecture of the Gandharan period, though there are also a few attractions that date from earlier or later periods.

Taxila is easily the most important Buddhist site in Pakistan; it was a centre of learning from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE with many large monasteries and one of the earliest universities in the world. The city attracted monks, nuns, pilgrims and students from across Asia; even today it attracts Buddhist pilgrims from as far as Southeast Asia and Japan. However, it was never exclusively a Buddhist city; there is a Jain temple among the ruins and the Hindu scholar Pāṇini who wrote the definitive grammar of Vedic Sanskrit was certainly a Gandharan and quite likely worked in Taxila.

There is also much to interest modern non-Buddhists; almost anyone with an interest in archaeology, history, art or architecture will find the place fascinating. It was occupied by various empires and was a regional or national capital for many dynasties over the centuries. Persians, Greeks, Central Asians and Hindus have all left their marks on the area.

Understand

Taxila was an important city in Alexander's time, 4th century BCE

Taxila is on several trade routes which have been important since ancient times. It was one of the main centers from which Buddhism spread along the Silk Road, most notably to China and Mongolia. The main trade routes were:

Later those roads became parts of the Grand Trunk Road running all the way from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh to Kabul, Afghanistan. This was built by various Indian kings before the British arrived, was important through the British Raj, and is still a major road in four countries. Today Taxila is just off the Grand Trunk Road.
via Kabul to Bactria as mentioned above
via what is now the Karakoram Highway toward Kashgar, in the region shown as Sakae on the upper right of the map
via Srinagar and Ladakh to Khotan, east of Kashgar

All these routes remained in use into modern times though the separation of India and Pakistan reduced trade on some routes, the pass north of Ladakh is not much used today, and recent troubles in Afghanistan have greatly reduced trade there. Today the region around Taxila remains well-connected to anywhere in Pakistan by road and rail, and the Karakoram Highway is an important trade route.

Excavations

British army engineer Alexander Cunningham excavated the area and discovered the ruins of an ancient city in the mid-19th century, and the renowned archaeologist John Marshall — who was at time the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India and was also behind the discovery of once-thriving ancient city of Mohenjo-daro — carried out excavations at Taxila over a period of twenty years between 1913 and 1934.

There is archeological evidence of early settlement in the area first by prehistoric neolithic people and later by the Indus Valley Civilization around 2000 BCE, but not of a city in those time periods. Taxila is mentioned as a city in the Hindu epic poem the Mahabarata, which describes events around 1000 BCE.

Guides

Around the archeological sites, self-deputized tour guides may offer to show you around. Frequently their English is not very good and they don't really tell you anything you can't read from the signs, then strongly imply that they want a tip. If you want some local color, go ahead, but otherwise tell them "no thanks" immediately. You may be approached by numerous "guides" at each site. In addition, people selling trinkets like small statues and allegedly old coins may come up to you.

The main excavated ruins are all from Taxila's glory days, after 600 BCE. They are divided into three major cities, each of which belongs to a distinct time period:

  1. The oldest area is Bhir Mound. Bhir and the nearby Hathial mound date from the 6th century BCE when the Persian king Darius took Taxila, and belong to the Achaemenid Empire or First Persian Empire.
  2. The second city is Sirkap, which was built by the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius in the 2nd century BCE.
  3. The third and last city is Sirsukh, which was founded by the Kushan king Kanishka after 80 CE.

Later Taxila gradually waned in importance, and the town was eventually destroyed by nomadic Hun tribesmen in the 5th century CE.

For a more detailed history, see the Guide to Historic Taxila online at the Pakistani government's national heritage site.

Get in

Mohra Muradu
Dharmarajika stupa

Pakistan's longest highway N-5, which runs between the southern city of Karachi and the northwestern city of Peshawar, also passes by Taxila, making the town easily accessible from anywhere in Pakistan. The nearest major cities are Rawalpindi and Islamabad, both of which are less than 50km away, and it is quite feasible to base yourself in either and visit Taxila on one or more day trips. See those city articles for more information.

If you hire a taxi from Rawalpindi or Islamabad, make sure the taxi driver is familiar with the locations of sites in Taxila; otherwise, be prepared to hire a local taxi driver from Taxila who knows the sites well.

Air-conditioned buses mostly bound for major cities such as Peshawar and Abbottabad can drop you at Taxila but charge full fare, whereas non-aircondioned buses and vans leave at intervals of no more than an hour from Rawalpindi. May not be very comfortable but cheap. Buses from Rawalpindi usally leave from Pir Wadhai and Saddar otherwise you can always take transport moving towards Taxila on the Grand Trunk Road.

Taxila railway junction near the museum building serves the town. Two daily trains, both non-airconditioned, make brief stops at the railway station. Awam Express runs between Karachi and Peshawar while the Hazara Express runs between Karachi and the scenic town of Havelian. Both are economy-only trains without air conditioning which make a lot of stops at stations along the route, so the can be journey uncomfortably long. Both trains leave from Karachi early in the morning around 6 and reach Taxila around noon the next day. An economy class seat on either train can cost less than Rs 1,500.

If you are travelling from southern Pakistan, particularly Karachi, a better option is to first travel to Rawalpindi on an air-conditioned train and then travel to Taxila either by road or train. A quick train journey from Rawalpindi is not a bad idea as well.

Get around

Ruins and structures of archaeological sites are spread over a vast area of 20 to 25 km2 scattered around the modern town of Taxila, but most of the main ones are close to town around the museum building - within 2km - which is your first stop when starting a tour of Taxila and is likely the last one when you finish the tour. Taxila has a good network of paved roads, and most of the sites are easily accessible by road.

Taxis, auto rickshaws and tangas (horse-drawn carriages) can be easily hailed near the museum. Tangas and auto rickshaws are convenient for getting from one site to another, keeping in mind the long distances between the sites which make walking difficult and time-consuming. Most of the sites are off the main road and are properly marked, so even if you're in your own car, you won't have a problem in locating the sites. A GPS device can make things even easier. From a vehicle, most of the sites can be seen with in couple of hours; if you're walking, it could perhaps be done in one very hectic day. A taxi can be hired for as high as Rs 2,000 to see most of sites whereas a rickshaw can cost around Rs 1,000.

See

The Kingdom of Gandara had its own unique style of art, and many of the best examples are at Taxila.

In its heyday the region was predominantly Buddhist; for a time in the 3rd century BCE it was part of the Empire of Ashoka, India's greatest Buddhist king. However, it was also very strongly influenced by the Greek culture of Alexander and his Graeco-Bactrian successors who also ruled the area at various times. The best-known art objects are Buddhist statues and rock carvings, with Greek influences often clearly visible in the style.

World Heritage Sites

Entry ticket

Tickets can be purchased at the museum building. You can use the same ticket to see most of the sites. For foreigners, it is Rs 200 and for locals, Rs 50. Taxila is near the border of two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, so to get access to sites such as Jaulian which are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you may have to purchase a separate ticket for entry.

Votive Stupa at Mohra Muradu site

There are some three dozen large and small sites which include stupas, monasteries, and other ancient buildings spread out over a wide area. The UNESCO World Heritage listing for Taxila includes 18 of these and assigns a unique identification number to each. The 18 are:

Others

Taxila Museum

While Taxila is the main source for Gandharan artifacts and the Taxila Museum has a fine collection, it is not the only such collection. In Pakistan, both the National Museum in Karachi and the Lahore Museum have much Gandharan art. In Kipling's novel Kim the Tibetan Lama comes to Lahore mainly to see the Gandharan sculpture in the museum there. Outside Pakistan, India's National Museum in Delhi and the British Museum in London both have some Gandharan art.

The huge Buddhist statues at Bamiyan were another famous example of Gandharan art. However, Taliban considered them idolatrous and un-Islamic, so they destroyed them almost completely.

Nicholson's Obelisk

Buy

Sirsukh

The unique souvenirs of Taxila are mirrored objects; the "disco cat" is the most popular. This is a plaster statue of a cat or panther, covered in small square pieces of mirror, much like a disco ball. They make a great conversation piece or gift. Sizes range from 1 foot to 3 feet and prices from Rs 500 for a small one to Rs 2,500. Among other popular souvenirs are statues of Buddha, artifacts, coins, trinkets, pots and many replicas.

You'll find locals and many shacks selling these souvenirs outside the museum, along the highway and outside of various sites. There are plenty of shops lined up on Taxila Rd where you can buy many kinds of souvenirs as well. Post cards, photographs and books on Taxila can also be purchased both from the gift store and local sellers. Taxila is also known for good quality but low-priced mortars and pestles.

Eat and drink

A view of Sirkap city ruins
Bhir Mound

As Taxila is quite a large town, modern eateries are plentiful and basic Pakistani food can be found anywhere in town, mostly concentrated on Khanpur Rd, near the railway station and outside the museum building. There are also plenty of roadside dhabas on main G.T. Rd, Khanpur Rd and near archeological sites, serving street food from fish to kebabs. A few recommendations are:

A few other establishments that serve basic but hygienic Pakistani food are Sherazi Restaurant, Dream Land, Krispo fast food, all on Khanpur Rd, or Hang In, Kabli Hotel and Valley Food scattered along the National Highway within the town limits.

As in other Pakistani cities, any decent restaurant will be happy to serve you good chai, juice or coffee.

Sleep

Given that Taxila is close to the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, where there are a plenty of options to stay, there are few lodging facilities in Taxila as majority of visitors visit Taxila as a day trip. But for those who decide to stay, here are some recommendations:

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, January 11, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.