The Wonders of Pakistan

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Pakistan can be divided between the sweltering sub-tropical south around Karachi, and the cooler north at the foothills of the Himalayas, centred today around Islamabad, the new capital laid out in the 1960s. We went to the north, an area which has always been a melting pot: here, settlers and invaders would sweep down, both from the North and Central Asia, and from the West, bringing new ideas, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Attention tends to focus on the Gandhara civilisation, which corresponds in time to the Greek and Roman empires in the West (namely, 500 BC onwards), and produced some of the earliest Buddhist sculptures in the world, in a three – dimensional format that rivalled the Romans.

Our journey began in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, from where we visited Taxila, the ‘Rome’ of the Gandhara empire. We then travelled west to Peshawar, at the entrance of the Khyber Pass. Today Peshawar is the seat of Pakistan’s foremost university archaeology department. It is led by the indefatigable Professor Ihsan Ali, who is also Director of Archaeology in the North West Frontier Province, and who unceasingly facilitated and smoothed our passage throughout the region. Next, we journeyed up into the mountains, towards the Hindu Kush, to visit Swat, thence back to Peshawar and Islamabad. From there, we went east to the great Moghal city of Lahore, today Pakistan’s second largest city (after subtropical Karachi in the south), which lies almost on the border with India. From Lahore, we then travelled south to the site of Harappa – the other great city of the Indus Valley civilisation – second only to the mighty site of Mohenjodaro in the extreme south. Thereafter, we returned to Islamabad – which is a new city, designed from scratch as the capital of Pakistan by President Ayub Khan in the 1960s, adjacent to the old town of Rawalpindi. Islamabad is marked by wide avenues, green spaces bursting with blossoming trees, and is still very much an underoccupied area – in great contrast to all other cities of Pakistan.

The Indus Valley Civilisation

Harappa is the dustiest site I have ever visited and therein lies its great secret. It is located in the plain of the River Ravi, a tributary of the Chenab, one of the five rivers of the Punjab, – and there is no stone anywhere within a hundred miles, – all stone on the site is imported. This meant that all building had to be done in brick – at first mudbrick, baked in the sun. But then the occupants learnt how to produce kilnfired bricks and it is these bricks, very modern in appearance, that are one of the great characteristics of the Indus Valley civilisation. Indeed the bricks are so modern looking and endurable, that when the Lahore to Multan railway was being built by British engineers in the 1880s, they used Harappa as a convenient quarry.

The Indus Valley civilisation did not spring from nowhere but was preceded by a lively early Neolithic phase, known collectively as the Kot Diji period – phases of which have been discovered in a number of recent excavations, and at a major new site of the Kot Diji period that is being excavated in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which we hope to report on in a future issue.

At Harappa itself one could not avoid feeling that the city centre, as it were, remains to be discovered – even though extensive areas have already been uncovered. For example, there is an expansive area known as the granaries, though to my mind, these are almost certainly not granaries – one suspects that the original excavators may have seen granaries in Roman forts in Britain, and there could have been a resemblance, but these are much bigger. We then saw some ‘workmen’s quarters’, and a large trench that Wheeler excavated to elucidate the stratigraphy, plus various areas of town-houses.

The arrival of the Aryans

In the history of Pakistan, the Indus Valley civilisation is followed by the arrival of the Aryans – bringing with them the Indo-European languages and the Rig Veda, the ancient Sanskrit saga, that paints a fascinating picture of the early Hindu religion. How far is there any archaeological trace of these Aryan invaders? When we were in Islamabad, we met with Professor Dani, the “Mortimer Wheeler” of Pakistani archaeology, a ruddy-faced octogenarian, who claimed to be of pure Kashmiri blood for 7000 years. He began his excavations with Wheeler at Taxila, and had memories of the story of how Wheeler met his second wife. But his proudest claim was that he had discovered, the first capital of Gandhara, Pushkalavati (Charsadda).

The Rise and Fall of Gandhara

Gandharan art is one of the great art styles of the world. It is, in effect, the first great art style of the Buddhist religion. Buddha lived, and founded his religion, 1000 miles to the east in the Ganges Valley at dates disputed between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. However, soon after Buddha’s death, Buddhism spread westwards, and was taken up enthusiastically in Gandhara.

Gandhara began as the most easterly province of the Persian Empire – though archaeologists point out that little if anything of Persian influence is to be found in Gandhara.

We saw two large Buddhist sites under excavation both of which exhibited the essential layout of a Buddhist monastery. A Buddhist monastery has two main parts: there is the stupa – a word which apparently should be translated as ‘barrow’, for it is essentially a burial mound. But it is very different from the European burial mounds in that there is a rectangular or occasionally circular base then a drum, and the whole surmounted by a spike with three circular (or later, square) superstructures that tend to look a little like millstones. Unfortunately, every grave robber believes that at the heart of every stupa is a golden Buddha: the fact that such a golden Buddha has never been found does not deter them from sectioning stupas or tunnelling into them. The central stupa is normally the grave of some eminent holy man though occasionally they may contain relics of Buddha himself, though the remains of Buddha are as widespread as those of Christ and his apostles. This means that the big stupas are often surrounded by little stupas – there is sometimes a veritable crop of little stupas.

Adjacent to the stupas, often some distance away, is the monastery. These can sometimes be described almost in Christian terms as a cloister surrounded by cells where the monks lived. However, these cloisters normally appear to have been water features – water tanks often of considerable depth often with an ablution area (reminding us of the later Muslim practices). Then, in addition there were more cells for the use of the pilgrims.

We saw two of these stupas/monastic complexes under excavation. The first was Jinnan Wali Dheri, or the romantically named ‘Mound of the Djinns’, where the stupas were still being excavated. But the monastic site adjacent had already been excavated and revealed exactly how the monastery must have worked. We then visited Badal Pur, or ‘Cloud City’. This was again a monastic site well on its way to being fully excavated, though the large stupa had not yet been touched by the archaeologists despite a deep scar revealing the ravages of the treasure-hunters.


After Taxila, we moved on to Peshawar, today a thriving city and capital of the NWFP, – the North West Frontier Provinces, an area parts of which bear only a fairly nominal allegiance to the central government of Pakistan. Peshawar, the capital, lies at the entrance to the Khyber Pass as attested by a huge fort built originally by the Sikhs and then taken over by first the British, and now the Pakistani, army.

At Aziz Dehri we saw another large monastery under excavation. In retrospect it was rather surprising to see so many Buddhist sites being excavated but we were told that although the archaeological politicians were devout Muslims, they were nevertheless very keen to see the Buddhist heritage being uncovered in this way as it forms one of the most impressive aspects of Pakistan’s archaeological heritage. It is one of the ironies of partition that, while some of the best Muslim sites – such as the Taj Mahal – are in India, some of the best early Buddhist sites are in Pakistan (defined and created as a Muslim country in 1947). Here again there was a stupa area with two larger stupas, surrounded by numerous satellites and a large and chaotic monastic area, with, it seems, very adequate accommodation for pilgrims. Our guide, Zahir, also the field director of the site, thought that the site’s main stupa remains underground, perhaps beneath an adjacent field. However, one of the most interesting aspects was when we visited the finds processing area when both Nadia and I leapt with enthusiasm on the animal bones – there, among the animal bones, were some cow bones complete with signs of butchering – interesting for a Buddhist society, where today the cow is a sacred animal, we thought.

And then we went on to Hund, on the banks of the mighty River Indus. This is best known today as the site of a British fort, the interior now occupied by a chaotic Pakistani village. However, to the historian, this is best known as the place where Alexander crossed the Indus. This was the furthest point of his eastern ventures. He had led his men thousands of miles from home, but here they rebelled and said they wanted to go home. Alexander sulked for three days and eventually was defeated for the first time in his life by his own men. Having crossed the river and having vanquished the local chief he then set out by boat down the Indus to the sea. Then along the coast back to Persia where he eventually perished after an all-night drinking bout.


We also drove to the delightful and delightfully named Swat (pronounced Swaat). This meant climbing a high mountain pass and ending up in a fertile area which was distinctly cool: we needed our anoraks and had electric fires in our rooms at night. In the distance, not far off, was the snowcapped Hindu Kush. Today Swat is a tribal area owing only spasmodic allegiance to the government of Pakistan, but archaeologically, it is very rich. Buddhism arrived there somewhat later than in Peshawar, but it lasted longer and became more mystic – it was here that Tantric Buddhism developed which was to form the basis of Tibetan Buddhism and art.

On our way back we saw the largest monastery of all – Takht-i-Bahi, a World Heritage Site. This was hidden away in a side-valley and is not visible from the central plain, and thus it was bypassed by the later invaders. Some of the towering monastic structures had been in danger of collapsing and these have been securely propped up – this was due to the fact that the adjacent hill was being mined for minerals, although this has now been stopped. It was an interesting monastery, set on the hillside on several different levels. The main stupa was on a platform all of its own, in solitary splendour; the subsidiary stupas were placed in a separate lower courtyard, in a very chaotic jumble. There was also a set of meditation cells, where the monks could go and meditate in the dark – or were they just cellars? The monastery appears to have been surrounded by an expansive township, parts of which are being excavated on the adjacent hillsides: one excavation in particular, currently in progress by the central government, appeared to be revealing the rather larger set of rooms that may have been the accommodation for the head monk.

Islam, the Moghals – and the British

The Gandharan civilisation – represented in its final and most splendid form by the Kushan dynasty – came to a dramatic end in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the demise hastened on by the attacks of the White Huns from the East, though the main collapse was more likely to have been internal. There followed the slow advance of Islam, slowly in the 7th century, but reaching its climax in 998 AD. Gradually the Indian subcontinent blossomed, and by the middle centuries of the second millennium, it had become one of the most populous, and indeed richest countries in the world. The fruits, however, were to be reaped by others, first and most dramatically by the Moghals from central Asia, and then by the British, who rather unsportingly, came in, not the proper way, from the north, but slipped in sideways from the sea.

A magnificent attempt to elucidate these centuries is taking place in Peshawar city itself, on a site known as Gor Khuttree. Gor Khuttree lies in the centre of the city at one of its highest points, and it was here that the Moghals laid out a grand caravanserai, with cells round the side for the weary traveller. When the Sikhs came they tore down the mosque at one side, and replaced it by a temple to Shiva, with a shrine dedicated to the bull Nandi beside it. One of the gates was turned into the governor’s residence, with a fine view down the main street of the town. The British, more prosaically, used it as government offices, the finest relic of our Imperial past being a splendid red fire engine, once the pride and joy of the fire station.

In one corner of Gor Khuttree a huge deep excavation is taking place, already down 8.5m, with a long way still to go. We will be reporting on this in detail later, but just to tantalise you, we offer a picture (above) of the main section from the British, through the Sikhs, and the Durranis, back at present to the 4th century BC with substantial stratigraphy hopefully still to come, back perhaps even to the Indus Civilisation at the bottom.

Lahore Fort

There is more Moghal splendour in the city itself. We saw the great Badshahi mosque in the light of the evening moon – it is said that 10,000 people can assemble in the great courtyard, where there is also the tomb of the great Pakistani poet/philosopher Iqbal (1873 – 1938). And then there is Lahore fort, the citadel of the ancient city, the walls built by the Moghal emperor Akbar in the 1560s. Again, Jahangir is to the fore, but many of the great Moghal emperors contributed buildings.

It was fascinating to compare Moghals and British in Pakistan: Undoubtedly the Moghals made the grander monuments – temples and courts and gardens: the British legacy tends to be railway bridges, museums and forts – the later mostly still occupied by the Pakistani army. UNESCO clearly favours the Moghals, whose monuments are everywhere being restored and whose history is being forgotten. It would be fascinating to compare the rule of the Moghals with the rule of the British – archaeologically – to see how the life in the ordinary villages compared during these periods.

And so we returned to Britain, the heady mix of ancient cultures, the hospitality of all those we met on our way, and bright smiles of the children who surrounded us in hordes on every excursion, still strong in our minds. We look forward to reporting more on the rich archaeology in Pakistan in the future.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 16. Click here to subscribe

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