Takht-i-Bahi, a Buddhist monastic complex built in the 1st century BC, is still a pilgrimage site for Buddhist monks today.
Takht-i-Bahi, meaning Spring Throne, is the site of a Buddhist monastic complex located approximately 16 km northwest of Mardan city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was constructed upon the hilltops of a mountain range. The complex consists of many buildings which are located at various heights above the ground, anywhere between 36 to 152 meters high.
The ruins of Takht-i-Bahi are dated to the 1st century BC and are still exceptionally well preserved. A nearby mound contains the ruins of an ancient town known as Sahr-i-Bahlol. A modern village of the same name now occupies the mound. Both these sites are wonderful examples of the Buddhist structures of that era and for that very reason they were jointly declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980. Even now, Buddhist monks from the Far East travel to Pakistan to discover their spiritual heritage.
The Takht-i-Bahi complex was built in four phases over a span of nearly 800 years. Generous kings and rich patrons provided the funds necessary to build, expand and enrich the monastery, while a devout populace provided food for the monks and nuns.
Takht-i-Bahi started out as a small, double-story monastery with an adjacent courtyard that contained many stupas. The walls of the courtyard had niches where statues of the Buddha were placed. The monastery contained small residential cells that could house up to 34 monks. A kitchen and a dinning hall were also built in the same phase. Its construction began in the 1st century BC during Indo-Parthian rule. An inscription referring to Gondophares, the famous Indo-Parthian king, is said to have been found in this monastery and is dated to the year 46 AD. This inscription was helpful in establishing a rough date for the foundation of Takht-I-Bahi. King Kanishka of the Kushan Dynasty ruled this region in the 2nd century AD and was a great patron of Buddhism. During his reign the first phase of Takht-i-Bahi was completed.
With Buddhism patronized by the elite and devoutly followed by the populace, Takht-i-Bahi, like other monasteries of the time, flourished. The ancient town of Sahr-i-Bahlol was linked with Takht-i-Bahi by a direct path. The people of this town would bring food and offerings to the monks, nuns and students who resided there.
Although Buddhism remained dominant in this area after Kanishka’s death for a while, continuous invasions led to itsgradual decline. In particular the Huns from Central Asia (450 AD) massacred the Buddhist population of this area and destroyed numerous monasteries and stupas. As to whether the Huns spared Takht-i-Bahi or not, historians disagree. But considering that no other Buddhist monastery in Pakistan is so well preserved as Takht-i-Bahi, it seems that it was spared, most likely due to its location high up on top of a hill.
Despite the invaders, Takht-i-Bahi continued to expand. Additional courtyards with stupas, an assembly hall used for monthly meetings, and chambers for meditation were all added over time. Buddhist monks continued to live there till the 7th century AD. But by then Buddhism was losing ground to Hinduism and eventually the charitable donations that provided for Takht-i-Bahi’s upkeep stopped coming and the monks deserted it.
The site was systematically excavated in 1907. Many of the sculptures discovered there are now on display in Lahore and Peshawar museumsas well as around the world. With the help of UNESCO, restoration work has started at Takht-I-Bahi.
The early years of the monastery correspond with the emergence of the Gandharan art style. The underlying concept of this art form was to depict the Buddha as a god. This was a new art form since statues or images of the Buddha are not found in the Indian subcontinent before this time. The sculptures found at Takht-i-Bahi clearly show the evolution of Gandharan art over the centuries.
Many of the sculptures are individual images of the Buddha, either standing or seated. One such image is now displayed in the British Museum. The Buddha is standing serenely and his right hand, now lost, is raised in a gesture of reassurance.
Other sculptures show scenes from the life of Buddha. The Birth of Buddha, a very important sculpture found in Takht-i-Bahi, is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sehrai, Fidaullah. A Guide to Takht-i-Bahi. Peshawar: F. Sehrai, 1982.
“Birth of the Buddha [Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara, probably Takht-i-Bahi)]” (1987.417.1) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000—.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1987.417.1. (October 2006)