Buddhist monastery of Gandhara

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Buddhist monastery of Gandhara

Magnificent monastery

By Prof Fidaullah Sehrai


Buddhist monastery of Gandhara

The most beautiful Buddhist monastery of Gandhara stands 500 feet above the ground on a hill behind the town of Takht-i-Bahi, nine miles north of Mardan city. It was first mentioned in 1836 by General Court, a French officer during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time. Lieutenants Lumsden and Stokes partially explored it in 1852. Dr H.W. Bellew, Assistant Surgeon Corps of Guides Mardan, examined it in 1864. General Maclagan sent sappers to it and a large number of sculptures were recovered in 1869-70. Dr Leitner received some sculptures from the guides’ men in 1870. Sergeant Wilcher excavated it with a company of sappers and miners in 1871. Lt Crompton of the Royal Engineers directed explorations by sappers in about 1872. Maj-Gen Sir Alexander Cunningham, Director-General Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), revisited it in 1873. These British army officers posted in Mardan excavated many sites in the district as amateur archaeologists. The Mardan district was the richest area for archaeological explorations and excavations at the time.

Dr D.B. Spooner, curator of the Peshawar Museum, was the first archaeologist to excavate Takht-i-Bahi systematically in January 1907 as instructed by Sir John Marshall. He continued his work till 1911. Later on, Mr Hargreaves, another curator of the Peshawar Museum, excavated the site in 1910-11. He resumed work in 1912-13. Later on, he became the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India. Side by side with the excavation the conservation of the site was also done from 1907 to 1929. Necessary repairs were carried out at several places.


Diaper masonry was used in the construction of the monastery. Wooden pillars and beams were used to construct ceilings and double storeys. Big halls were left uncovered.

Walled monasteries originated in Gandhara which protected the monks from invaders. Stones were quarried, cut and dressed at hilltops. Sculptures were also carved at the site to decorate monasteries and stupas. Spring water was supplied to the workers and monks at the site of the construction. There are many periods of constructions and extensions in the monastery of Takht-i-Bahi. They started from the 1st century BC and ended in the seventh century AD. The group of buildings exposed after the systematic archaeological excavations are (1) The court of Many Stupas (2) The Monastery (3) The Main Stupa (4) The Assembly Hall (5) The Low-Level Chamber (6) The Courtyard (7) The Court of Three Stupas (8) The Wall of Colossi and (9) The Secular Buildings.

The Court of Many Stupas contains 35 votive stupas donated by rich pilgrims. They are surrounded by lofty walls 30-ft tall on the three sides in which the colossal Buddha images in stucco were installed in their chapels. The stupas in the court were embellished with the stucco (lime plaster) and the narrative reliefs in stones were fixed to them with iron nails and hooks.

The monastery buried in earth was exposed in 1907-08 and it reappeared with its past grandeur. A very small number of sculptures was recovered from it because it used to be a residential area. However, a broken emaciated Siddhartha in three parts was recovered which is more beautiful than the one exhibited in the Lahore Museum’s Fasting Buddha from artistic and anatomical points of view. The Takht-i-Bahi Siddhartha is one display in the Peshawar Museum. There is a water tank in the monastery which was filled with water from nearby spring. A door leads to the kitchen and refectory. The monastery was a double-storey building. Its upper floor was built of wooden pillars, beams and rafters.

The Main Stupa is in the south, which can be reached by climbing 15 steps. There are a number of chapels around it on three sides in which life size statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were installed. It had double circumambulation paths; one on the ground floor and the other on the plinth.

The unroofed Assembly Hall in the monastery is surround by lofty walls 30ft high. Fortnightly and emergency meetings were held in it in which all the monks participated. They used to sit on their own wooden stools on the floor and recite the scriptures in chorus.

The low-level chambers to the south of the Assembly Hall contain 10 cells, five on either side. They were places of extreme meditation, asceticism and seclusion. The monks could come out through the doorways to the adjacent courtyard to relax and enjoy the sunshine. It’s enclosed by tall walls and not covered.

The Court of the Three Stupas to the west were externally coated with stucco. There are traces of the Buddha image on them. The most beautiful sculptures in stucco was that of Panchika, the god of wealth and his consort Harti, the goddess of fertility, which do not exist now.

The Wall of Colossi supported the tall standing Buddhas in stucco whose height was about 16ft. The secular buildings stand scattered on the hill. They’re two storeyed in which the monks, visitors and pilgrims lived. We can see their bare walls now.

Dr Spooner in his excavation discovered stone fragments alone numbering 477 specimens and around a dozen large sculptures. He classified them as archaic elements in Gandhara art. To the second category belonged foreign elements. The third category contained the sculptures which narrate the life of the Buddha. The fourth category of sculptures contained fragments that appeared to have been related to the more directly devotional cult of Buddhism. This category included Buddha and Bodhisattva images. Then there were sculptures which did not fall into the above categories. The majority of the stucco sculptures were the heads and a few legendary scenes. An unfinished Buddha confirms that the stone sculptures were carved at the site for the installation in chapels of the monastery of Takht-i-Bahi.

The whole monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahi fulfilled the criterion of Unesco. Therefore, it’s enlisted as a world heritage monument.

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