Chanakya taught here, Macedonian conqueror Alexander and Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya lived here, and Ashoka was the Viceroy here before he ascended the throne of the Mauryan Empire in Pataliputra. Over 2,500 years ago Taxila, 35 km from present-day Islamabad in Pakistan, was a major urban centre and place of learning.
The key to understanding the story of Taxila is its geography. Taxila was located just off the great trade route known as the Grand Trunk Road (Uttarapatha) and connected the Indian subcontinent with Central and Western Asia. This put the city at the centre of East-West trade and cultural exchanges. It also turned Taxila into a place where knowledge was absorbed and from which it emanated, for centuries.
Taxila was also the capital of Gandhara, one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (‘great republics’) that dominated northern and central India in the 6th BCE. Large and prosperous, they were the first urban cities after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization.
Stretching across this tract of land was a ridge of hills, of which the western termination is called Hathial. And in the valley of Hathial, within 5.6 km of each other, lie the remains of three distinct cities – Bhir, Sirkap and Sirsukh. These cities reveal the pattern of urban evolution on the Indian subcontinent through more than five centuries.
The earliest settlement in Hathial is that of Taxila, the pottery shards found here dating it to as early as 3000 BCE to 500 BCE. Bhir was the earliest fortified city of Taxila and was founded around the 6th BCE. Sirkap was founded around the 2nd BCE by Greco-Bactrian kings, and Sirsukh around the 1st CE by the Kushanas.
The ruins of these cities and the artefacts found here, along with literary references help us piece together the history of Taxila.
History of Taxila
The name of the city originally was ‘Takkasila’, which is ‘Takshashila’ in Sanskrit. However, Greek writers transcribed it as ‘Taxila’, and this became the name that Europeans used ever since Macedonian conqueror Alexander invaded the subcontinent in the 4th BCE.
In the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the city is mentioned in connection with the great snake sacrifice of King Janmajeya, who had conquered it. According to the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, the city was founded by Bharata, the younger brother of Ram. According to the text, the city was named after Bharata’s son Taksha, its first ruler. Owing to its strategic location, Taxila changed hands many times over the centuries, with many powerful empires vying for its control – Persian, Mauryan, Indo-Greek, Scythian (Saka), Parthian (Pahlava) and the Kushanas.
In 516 BCE, Persian King Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire embarked on a campaign to conquer Central Asia and captured the territory of Gandhara. However, not much is known about Taxila during this time, except that it was a well-developed city involved in regional commerce.
The known history of Taxila starts from when Alexander descended upon the city in 327 BCE. After he defeated Persian ruler Darius III, he moved eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. The then ruler of Taxila, King Ambhi extended his hand of friendship to the Macedonian conqueror. Ambhi gifted Alexander hordes of elephants, bulls and sheep. In return, Alexander gifted Persian robes, silver and gold vessels and horses.
Alexander halted in Taxila for some weeks, preparing for his attack on King Porus. Men who had accompanied Alexander on his expedition wrote of Taxila that the city was wealthy, populous and well-governed. They also wrote that polygamy and Sati (the practice of self-immolation by widows) were in vogue; that girls too poor to be wedded were offered up for sale in the market, and that bodies of the dead were thrown to vultures.
In 303 BCE, Taxila was taken by Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire. His grandson, Ashoka later also served as Viceroy of Taxila, before he became king. It was during his time that Buddhism spread in the region. Soon after Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire began to break up and Taxila asserted its independence, only to fall to Indo-Greek invaders from Bactria, a region in Central Asia.
The Indo-Greeks built a new capital, Sirkap, on the opposite bank of the Indus river from Taxila. Heliodorus, an ambassador of Indo-Greek king Antialcidas (c. 120 BCE) from Taxila installed a pillar in Besnagar (Madhya Pradesh), declaring himself a devotee of Vishnu. He spells the name of the city in Brahmi as ‘Takhkhasila’. The Indo-Greeks ruled Taxila only for little more than a century before they were overthrown, and Taxila swept away by invading hoards barbarians from the West. These were the Sakas (Indo-Scythians), and they arrived here probably in 80 BCE.
The Sakas were followed by the Pahlavas (Indo-Parthians) around 20 BCE. Gondophares, the founder of the Pahlava dynasty, belonged to the royal family of Iran. He made Taxila the capital of his Empire. Under him, a number of Pahlava monuments were constructed in the region. Remnants of one such interesting monument, a Zoroastrian fire temple, have been found at Jandial, near Taxila. Interestingly, it is believed that it was around this time that St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, visited Gondophares in his court in Taxila.
Around 70 CE, Taxila was captured from the Parthians by Kujula Kadphises, founder of the Kushana Empire. His grandson, the great Kushana ruler Kanishka later founded Sirsukh, the most recent of the ancient settlements at Taxila. In the 4th CE, the Gupta Empire occupied the territories in Eastern Gandhara, establishing a military post at Taxila.
Each of these dynasties left an impression on the architecture and art of Taxila, which is known as the Gandhara School of Art today. There were stupas, monasteries, palaces, houses and markets built all over. The city also became known for its trade and products like silk, sandalwood, horses, cotton, silverware, pearls, and spices were traded there. There was a constant exchange of goods between Magadha (the easternmost Mahajanapada) and Gandhara (the westernmost Mahajanapada), tariff-free. Besides being a provincial capital, Taxila also evolved as a centre of learning.
University of Taxila
It is widely known that, in ancient times, there was a prestigious university at Taxila. The Buddhist Jatakas identify it as a major centre for learning. Some accounts even call it the earliest university in the world. But there are also critics who do not consider the educational set-up at Taxila a ‘university’ in the modern sense but more a ‘gurukul’. This was because the teachers living there may not have had official membership of particular colleges, and there did not seem to have existed purpose-built lecture halls, residential quarters and library buildings in Taxila, in contrast with the later Nalanda University in Eastern India.
But formal university or not, Taxila boasts of privileged alumni and it attracted students and teachers from across Asia. We find students flocking to Taxila from cities like Benares, Rajagriha, Mithila and Ujjain. Personalities like Panini (the grammarian who codified the rules that would define classical Sanskrit), Chanakya (Chandragupta Maurya’s advisor and author of Arthashastra) and Charaka (a contributor to Ayurveda and the compiler of medical treatise Charaka Samhita) were associated with the University of Taxila. King Prasenajit of Kosala, a contemporary of the Buddha, and Jivaka, the court doctor of Rajagriha, were also educated here. The heir-apparent of kingdoms were usually educated along with monks at Taxila, as mentioned in the Jatakas.
The students here were taught the ancient and the most-revered scriptures, and the 18 shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery and hunting. In addition, there were also law school, medical school and a school of military science.
In the 5th CE, the city was visited by Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian, who described it as a bustling place with many monasteries. But when Xuanzang, another monk, visited Taxila in the 7th CE, he found the city ruined and desolate. Between the visits by these two monks and travellers, Gandhara and Punjab had been invaded by the Huns, a nomadic tribe from Central Asia. They used swords and fire to destroy the fabric of Taxila, which caused widespread devastation from which the city would never recover. The once glorious city of Taxila, which attracted people from all over with its wealth and opportunities, sank into significance.
Excavations at Taxila
Renowned archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham rediscovered the ruins of Taxila in the mid-19th century and the site was first excavated by John Marshall, who worked there for over 22 years from 1913. The digs revealed many new facets to the city. The Taxila excavation report was much awaited as nowhere else in the Indian subcontinent had such a large area ever been excavated at any one site. The insights into town-planning, construction methods, raw material, spatial distribution and relationships between temples and homes were of paramount importance. They provided one of the earliest documented evidence of urbanisation in the Indian subcontinent and dated to between 800 BCE and 525 BCE.
Under the Bhir mound were found thousands of punch-marked coins – the first currency of ancient India. Given that this is the earliest reference to coins, it is believed that coinage spread from here south and soon the punch-marked coins were produced in many other Mahajanapadas of Northern and Central India.
The structures at Sirkap revealed a grid-like plan, which is generally characteristic of Greek cities. Numerous Hellenistic artifacts were found, in particular, coins of Greco-Bactrian kings, and stone palettes representing Greek mythological scenes. In Sirsukh, circular bastions are present in the wall at small distances, for defence. These bastions contain holes for archers who could shoot arrows at the enemy outside.
In addition to the ruins of the three cities, there are many standalone monuments scattered around Taxila. These include the Dharmarajika, Kunala and Bhallar stupas; Jaulian and Mohra Moradu monasteries; and the Jandial and Pippala temples. Thousands of artefacts were also found within these spaces. Interestingly, Marshall also notes in his report that Taxila had a thriving Jain community, with more than 500 Jain chaityas, or prayer hall.
The Dharmarajika Stupa is a circular structure with a circle of small chapels around it. A silver scroll inscription in Kharosthi and a small gold casket containing some bone relics of the Buddha were found in one of the chapels. The inscription refers to the enshrinement of the relics by a Bactrian named Ursaka from the town of Noacha in the year 136 BCE, for the bestowal of health on “the great King, Supreme King of Kings, the Son of Heaven, the Kushana” (probably Vima Kadphises, son of the Kushana conqueror Kujala). The site also contained several statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings who help others attain enlightenment.
Taxila was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, and since then has become one of the most significant and most-visited heritage sites in Pakistan.
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