Islamabad: On the road to Khanpur lie the Shah Allah Ditta caves, a heritage almost forgotten and on the brink of being devoured by commercial expansion that has taken over our country this past decade in the form of housing schemes.

These historic caves, located at the base of Margalla hills contain relics of the Buddhist era, dating back to the 8th century, surrounded by trees with amulets tied to them, and ancient burnt clay lamps, or “diyas” as we call them.

I may not be a native to the Potohar region, but I have been living in Islamabad for 7 years; and never until recently had I ever heard of these caves. Majority of the Islamabad residents are unaware of their existence, or their historic significance.

A marker close to the caves marks the location where Alexander arrived and met Raja Ambi, the King of Taxila. It is believed by archeologists that the road leading to the top of the mountain, next to the caves, marks the exact path followed by Sher Shah Suri during his visit to the region. Also found close to the caves, is a well and a mosque, built by Shahbudin Ghouri.

But this place, once occupied by meditating Buddhist monks, and at other times witness to great historic events, has now been occupied by shady men and drug peddlers, who have made the historic caves their permanent abode. Graffiti and smog from their fires lines the rock walls that were once adorned by Buddhist paintings; and trash and cigarette butts adorn the rocky floor.

Encroachment & Commercialization Devouring our heritage
On a recent visit to the location, I was shocked to find one of the Caves blocked by a coarse wooden door, with a chain and a lock blocking access. On this door was a printed paper, identifying the site as “Dera Garyala Café;” with a rate list of the items the café is supposed to be selling there.

It is almost impossible to believe that this atrocity against such an important historical site could have been authorized by any government agency, and is surely an act of encroachment.

The lack of maintenance efforts is not only disturbing, what’s even more troubling is that this site is not listed anywhere as site that needs preservation. Encroachment and modernization are eating away at this historic site at an unprecedented pace. Even though the CDA is trying to develop the area around the Caves into a tourist attraction, the actual site is fading away. We need to understand and emphasize that commercialism will not save our heritage; that turning the historic Saidpur village into a posh dining spot was not the right thing to do; and that Shah Allah Ditta caves should not be treated as another Saidpur. Authorities need to ensure that the importance of this historic site is realized, and preservations efforts are made to ensure its survival. Other, this amazing natural and historic site will be lost to housing societies and expensive restaurants, and eventually, will fade from our memories as well.