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About the place
I can imagine the astonishment of the French officer when he came across the remains of the ancient Buddhist monastery of Takht-i- Bahi (1836), located in what is now the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. We were equally surprised when the ruins of the monastery revealed before our eyes. None of us had heard of this place before we came here. It reminded me of Machu Picchu in Peru - the same sight, the same feeling, and almost the same level of preservation of the remains. Of course, this place is not as big as Machu Picchu and has nothing to do with it, but it looked just as magical and imposing. This monastery was considered one of the most important for Buddhism.
In the 7th and 6th centuries, the Huns from Central Asia invaded the Gandar (present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) and destroyed everything except Takht-i-Bahi and a few other Buddhist sites. The monastery was built high in the mountains, which may have played a role in its preservation. The site is near the fortified town of Sahr-i-Bahlol (UNESCO since 1980), whose citizens probably provided the monks with food and all other necessities of life. This was probably no easy task. From the parking lot, we had to climb up for about half an hour. It's not that steep and rugged, but still, one has to be fit enough to climb. Nowadays, there is a paved path that makes the place more accessible.
Archaeologists believe the monastery was founded in the 1st century. Although it survived the invasions, its decline began around the 7th century as Buddhist influence waned and donations dwindled.
Excavations in the area began in 1907 when hundreds of statues, sculptures and other artefacts were discovered. Many of them are now in London British Museum. Today, the central courtyard, many stupas, cells where the monks meditated, service rooms and covered walkways are almost entirely preserved, virtually untouched by time.
We walked through the cobbled lanes between the ancient ruins. A group of Pakistani tourists took noisy selfies or ran between the walls.
The stunning archaeological site was first identified in the travel records of the Chinese monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (602 - 64), who travelled through India searching for Buddhist texts. He was later joined 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. He published a description of the remains and provided a floor plan of the monastery and a stupa located on the central spur. According to his report, the stupa was apparently looted but still provided in situ relief panels on the base.
Takht-i-Bahi is located close to Mardan, the second-largest city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the provincial headquarters, Peshawar. You can reach the place by bus or by car from Islamabad (about 3 hours drive). From there you would need to take a taxi to the parking lot next to the ruins. It is almost half an hour drive from Mardan. However, the best way to travel in the province is with a local guide and transportation. You can visit Takht-i-Bahi on a day trip from Islamabad. It was Ok for us to see both Peshawar and the ruins on the same day, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to have two days for both places. You could overnight in Mardan or travel back to Islamabad, which might feel like a bit too much time spent in the car.
Digital downloads and prints available
Reference: W. Rienjang, 'Takht-i-Bahi Monastic Complex«, Gandhara Connections website, http://www.carc.ox.ac.uk/GandharaConnections/otherResources.htm
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