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May 2021

Buddha Carving, Taxila
A Buddha carving in Taxila
(source: https://www.zameen.com/blog/exploring-taxila-history-archaeological-value-tourism.html)

Imagine the academic repute of the city where Panini, the great Indian Sanskrit Grammarian and Chanakya, the Prime Minister of the founder of the Maurya Empire were said to have taught ! Taxila lies 30 km North West of Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It was one of the most prominent cities on the Silk Road which connected China to the Western world and flourished between 1st-5th Century AD.

The city was initially discovered by Alexander Cunningham. The excavation was then undertaken by John Marshall, who was the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India at the time. He was also the person who discovered the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh. Under his command, the excavations took about twenty years, from 1913 to 1934. In 1980, Taxila was declared as UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city has found mention in many a text indicating its importance and fame – In Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila; in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila; the Chinese called it Chu-ch’a-shi-lo. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great centre of learning. Gandhara is also mentioned as a province, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian (Persian) king Darius I in the 5th century BC. Taxila, as the capital of Gandhara, was evidently under Achaemenian rule for more than a century. 

The Gandhara Region was an ancient kingdom which found mention in the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and many Vedic scriptures. They are recorded in the Avestan language of Zoroastrianism under the name Vaēkərəta. If you are familiar with the epic Mahabharata, you would remember that Shakuni was Gandharnaresh or King of Gandhara. While the geographical boundaries of the Gandhara Region may have shifted during the course of history, Taxila remained a prominent city which is over 3000 years old.

Rulers of Taxila

Due to its geographic location which was very strategic, it has changed hands many times. Its fate was determined by the invading rulers and armies from the West.

Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE and Ambhi (Omphis), the ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city and placed his resources at Alexander’s disposal. After Alexander’s death, Taxila was absorbed into the Mauryan empire founded by Chandragupta, under whom it became a provincial capital. After three generations of Mauryan rule, the city was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria. It remained under the Indo-Greeks until the early 1st century BC. They were followed by the Shakas, or Scythians, from Central Asia, and by the Parthians, whose rule lasted until the latter half of the 1st century AD.

Taxila was taken from the Parthians by the Kushans under Kujula Kadphises. The great Kushan ruler Kanishka founded Sirsukh, the third city on the site. (The second, Sirkap, dates from the Indo-Greek period.) In the 4th century AD, the Sassanian king Shapur II (309–379) seems to have conquered Taxila, as evidenced by the numerous Sassanian copper coins found there. There is little information about the Sassanian occupation. Eventually, it was sacked by Huns and never recovered from this blow.

File:Dharmarajika stupa,Taxila.jpg
The Dharmarajika Stupa
Sasha Isachenko, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Corinthian columns – a quintessential Grecian style of architecture – stand tall at the stupa.
Corinthian columns at Sirkap, a typical Grecian style of Architecture
Photo Credit : https://www.dawn.com/news/1246805
File:Taxila single dye coin.jpg
Taxile single dye coin with Goddess Lakshmi and arched-hill symbol (185-160 BC), most probably minted by Demetrius I after his invasion of Gandhara
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Famous Visitors

The Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian visited the city at about the beginning of the 5th century AD and he found a flourishing centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. He has said ‘Seven days journey from this to the east brought the travellers to the kingdom of Taxila, which means ‘the severed head ‘ in the language of China. Here, when Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he gave away his head to a man [a reference to a jataka tale], and from this circumstance the kingdom got its name.’ Another Chinese monk Xuanzang who can be credited with spreading Buddhism to China and the eastern world, visited the site in the 7th century AD and found the city ruined and desolate (after the sacking by Huns).

King Asoka was Viceroy here in the 3rd Century BC. Alexander garrisoned the city with Macedonians. Arrian, Strabo and Plutarch wrote of its beauty and its wealth. It is said that St Thomas turned up to preach the gospel here as well during the reign of Gondhophares I around 43-44 AD.

The many cities of Taxila and the Gandhara School of Art

Taxila was uniquely placed where the East and West co-existed and eventually gave birth to a new style of art. Experts have pointed out that the sculptures excavated here are quite unique with Hellenistic themes combined with Eastern motifs. This style is referred to as the Gandhara School of Art.

Ruins at Taxila clearly indicate that it participated in the formation of Harappan civilization (3100- 2500 BC). Most of the Buddhist stupas and monasteries date from the 1st to 5th century AD although the Dharmarajika Stupa was founded by Asoka in the 3rd century BC.

The ruins of Taxila consist of many different parts of the city buildings and Buddhist stupas
which are located in a large area. The main ruins of Taxila are divided into three major cities, each
belonging to a distinct time period. The oldest of these is Bhir Mound, which dates from the sixth
century BC. The second city of Taxila is located at Sirkap and was built by Greco-Bactrian kings in
the second century BC. The many private houses, stupas, and temples were laid out on the Hellenistic grid system and show the strong Western classical influence on local architecture. The third and last city of Taxila is at Sirsukh and relates to the Kushan kings.

The city is famous for its ruins and remnants of the Buddhist era, however, Jain and Hindu temples and relics have also been found here. Even a Zoroastrian Fire temple has been found near Taxila.

University of Taxila

Taxila was not a ‘University’ in the modern sense as teachers did not have membership of an institution. However, teachers taught students in smaller groups, something like a ‘gurukul’ and each of these being an institution by themselves. Taxila had privileged alumni and it attracted students and teachers from across Asia. The heir-apparent of kingdoms were usually educated along with monks at Taxila, as mentioned in the Jatakas.

The students here were taught the Vedas and the 18 shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery and hunting. In addition, there were also law school, medical school and a school of military science.

To conclude, I would like to share a small piece of information. Mortime Wheeler was appointed as an external consultant to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1944, to evaluate deficiencies in the working of ASI. He set up a field training school at Taxila to train junior archaeologists. Taxila was chosen keeping in mind the richness of the ruins. It seems that even centuries later, Taxila and learning went hand in hand.


1. https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/faxian.html

2. http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20141010-following-the-silk-road-to-the-end-of-china

3. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/cover-story/taxila/

4. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/the-class-of-taxila-how-mortimer-wheeler-mn-deshpande-set-up-first-archaeology-school/536896/

5. Charles Allen, Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor, Hachette UK, 2012

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