Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Taxila: The Cradle of Gandhara Art

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Taxila: The Cradle of Gandhara Art

Article excerpt

Traces of several ancient civilizations of the north Indus basin have survived in present-day Pakistan at Taxila, a site that was included on the World Heritage List in 1980

The archaeological site of Taxila, which lies in a well-irrigated, fertile valley forty kilometres from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, bears the traces of uninterrupted human occupation extending back 6,000 years. It emerged onto the arena of history during the second millennium B.C., when the snake-worshipping Takka people chose it as the site for their city, Takshasila (in Sanskrit, "hill of Takshaka", the serpent-prince). Its rapid development in the course of the following millennium was due to its exceptionally advantageous geographical situation at the junction of three great trade routes linking the Indian subcontinent with central and western Asia, and to the introduction of iron-working techniques in the Gandhara region, of which it became the capital.

In the sixth century B.C., Gandhara was absorbed into the Persian empire of the Achaemenids. The city drew great economic and cultural benefit from this contact with the West, among other advances developing a system for transcribing vernacular Sanskrit, later replaced by the Brahmi script. Next, Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian empire marked the beginning of Hellenistic influence on the city, which was to give rise to an original art, that of Gandhara.

There were four decisive phases in Taxila's development: the Indian dynasty of the Maurya (c. 321-189 B.C.), the Greeks of Bactria (189-50 B.C.), the Parthians (50 B.C.-60 A.D.), and domination by the powerful Central Asian Kushan dynasty (until c. 230 A.D.). Thereafter the city's political decline, as a result of dynastic quarrels, led on to its economic and cultural decline, which was precipitated by the incursions of the Huns in the fifth century.

Taxila, which was excavated by British archaeologists in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, contains the vestiges of three successive towns and many small monastic sites, bearing witness to the refined nature of the city's spiritual and cultural life during its halcyon days.

THE FIRST CITY: BHIR

Bhir was the first urban community on the Taxila site (sixth to second centuries B.C.). When Alexander the Great arrived there in 326 B.C., he found the main street badly paved and unprepossessing and the architecture rudimentary, the houses built of stones bonded with mud, the roofs flat and the walls vividly painted but without windows on to the street. The town had a central refuse tip and a network of open drains, but no wells. The inhabitants drew water straight from the river, which was where they washed themselves and did their laundry.

In the third century B.C., Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty, converted to Buddhism. He built the great stupa of Dharmarajika, placing therein the relics of the Buddha in a golden casket. Vandals many times mutilated the sacred edifice as they vainly searched for this casket. Over the years, the stupa was enlarged by the addition of large numbers of other religious structures (small votive stupas, chapels, etc.).

This monument was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 30 A.D., but it was rebuilt and its imposing mass (15 metres high and 50 in diameter) was shored up by several retaining walls, which resemble the spokes radiating out from the hub of a wheel and thus recall the dharma-cakra (the wheel of law), from which the site complex takes its name.

The surrounding wall of the stupa, embellished with painted and gilded statues of the Buddha, dates from early in the second century A.D. Further north, all that remains are the ruins of a monastery that had a hundred monks' cells. It was completely sacked by the Huns in 455 A.D.

THE PARTHIAN CITY: SIRKAP

Sirkap (second century B.C. to first century A. …

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