When Pakistani government chose to shift capital from the bustling port city of Karachi to the north of Rawalpindi, where the Potohar plateau rises to Margalla Hills, little did they realize that they are establishing a direct territorial link to the capital of an ancient civilization, Takshasila, i.e., the hill capital of the Kingdom of Gandhara. Situated at the pivotal junction of trade routes of South Asia and Central Asia in the lush green valleys of Margalla, Taxila city grew from the 8th Century BCE to 5th century AD, to become a prominent centre of ancient civilizations, with a diverse range of ruling dynasties, including Persian, Greek and Indian cultural stock. With purpose-built lecture halls and residential quarters, Taxila was the site for one of the earliest universities in the world, which made the conquering armies of Alexander in the 4th century BCE wonder in disbelief, as they had not seen the likes of it in their own centre of civilization, the ancient Greece of Plato and Aristotle.
What apparently separates Taxila from Islamabad is Margalla Hills, a hill range part of the lesser Himalaya, whose very name recorded in Persian chronicles as Mar-i-qilla, Mar (serpent) Qila (fort) plays into Takshasila the hill capital of Takshas. Pakistani archaeologist, Ahmad Hassan Dani ponder over the historical relationship between the two capitals in the following words; “When Taxila on the western side of the hill was the capital, Islamabad on the eastern side was the suburb; now with Islamabad the capital, Taxila is the suburb”. The Greek planner of Islamabad, Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis might have recognized the historicity of the site that he was given for the new capital in the 1960s, but sadly Islamabad has been largely planned and built without being conscious to its ancient and medieval cultural heritage. The city’s bosses of today continue to bulldoze the multiple layers of historic landscape, eliminating the traces of the past civilizations to make room for the expanding residential needs of the one of the fastest growing cities of Pakistan.
One of the forgotten historic towns of Islamabad is Shah Allah Ditta, situated in a small picturesque valley in the northwest of the capital, bordering sector D-12. Downgraded as a village during British land settlement in the 19th century, it extends into the Margalla Hills National Park. The Margalla Hill Road, or what British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, credited to have discovered the ruins of Taxila had called “the old road to Rawalpindi” winds through the Shah Allah Ditta and crosses the Margalla Hills to reach Taxila and Kashmir. At the outskirts of the Shah Allah Ditta, there is a site known in local history as Sadhu da Bagh, (the Garden of Saint), which was part of a much larger historic and cultural landscape, given its strategic location as the halting point of an ancient caravan route. For centuries a stone laden road, now paved and expanded, passing through the Sadhu da Bagh had served as a mountain passage for camel caravans and travellers to pass through the Margalla Hills to reach Taxila and to Kashmir. Sadu da Bagh was an expanding garden laden with fruit trees unique to the Potohar Plateau and fed by an underground spring. A lone mango tree, however, gigantic in size, choked by concrete stone perimeter wall pierced into its body, stands today as a stark reminder of man made destruction of the natural and cultural landscape.
Within the Sadhu da Bagh, there is a cave complex, where there are several caves of various depths, which bifurcates into many portions. An underground water spring, proverbially with healing properties, streams into a man-made pool. There used to be an arched gateway with steps leading down to the water and a few raised platforms like mud-terraces on both sides of the water pool. The cave complex is believed to be a prominent spiritual abode of successive generations of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Muslim dervishes over thousands of years, all of which have left their marks on the site. On the outer wall of one of these caves, there are faint signs of fresco paintings on the mud plaster. The paintings are more like drawings with the black and terracotta red paint. Based on the hard evidence of stone tools and potsherds found on the site, the archaeologists date the site to be under human use from the Middle Stone-Age Period.
The cave complex comprises of Karst landscape with Tufa rocks amid the centuries old banyan trees, whose roots and branches are dangling from the cliff like a frozen water fall. Karst developed as rock, is dissolved by water as it flows across the land surface, passes underground and later emerges at springs. The cave complex is an archive of environmental change and its Karst landscape holds a universal value as a natural heritage. The site is also rich with fossilized deposits of seashells, plants, petrified wood and early sea life (around 40 to 50 million years old) as the Margalla hills were the seabed of the ancient ocean.
After passing through the Sadu da Bagh the Margalla Hills Road reaches to the top of the hill, where there is a step-well, Losar Baoli or Kenthala Baoli, which is attributed to Sher Shah Suri. It is constructed from finely dressed limestone and laid in with immaculate care. From the medieval step-well, the Margalla Hills Road branches off in two opposite directions: one road leads to village Kenthala, and the other to Losar in Taxila. On its way, there is another site called Pakki Kund, which is side wall protection, attributed to Akbari period, and from there the road descends to Khanpur through the Garamthun and Chhoi reserve forests.
From the Sadhu da Bagh, there is a pathway leading to the north western side on the Margalla Hills and ending up in Giri Buddhist monastic complex in Taxila Valley. At almost same distance of two kilometres from Giri and Sadu da Bagh, there is a Bhuddist stupa measuring 10.15 by 26 metres, which has been excavated recently by the Department of Federal Archaeology. The stupa is dated to be from the Kushan period, between 2nd and 4th BCE. The base of the stupa is made of lime and kanjur stone, with semi ashlar and diaper masonry. Next to the stupa is a site called Ban Fakirian where there is a Mughal period mosque which is in ruins due to centuries of neglect.
Living in a city in the foothills of Margalla, and situated in the historical suburbs of Takshashila obliges us to protect the cultural repositories of the past civilizations under imminent danger of extinction. Of many places in the city, Shah Allah Ditta is a site where the archaeological and architectural signpost of the succeeding civilizations, over thousands of years of historic evolution are abundantly scattered and fast turning into unrecognizable heap of stones and brick masonry. The high value cultural sites include traveller’s inns, temples, mosques, forts, graveyards, sacred structures, pools, trees, caves, and mounds. Although it is coincidental that Islamabad is in the neighbourhood of Gandharan civilization, but if it can safeguard its cultural heritage and promote the many centres of advance learning, besides being the seat of government, perhaps it can prove to be a living successor to it today!
In this backdrop, there is a need to reopen this historical route from Islamabad to Taxila via Shah Allah Ditta through Margalla Hills. A well constructed road passing through heritage of the ancient civilization will certainly be of great interest to general tourists as well as diplomatic community and dignitaries visiting Islamabad. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) should collaborate with Ministry of Tourism and develop this road from Islamabad to Taxila and provide for arrangement of guided tours on buses, horses-back and on foot with all infrastructure of sport and pleasure. This is a soft power treasure scattered in these mountains waiting to be explored.
The writer is an anthropologist, former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus, currently working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.