It was with a sense of awe that I journeyed through the vast Gandhara, to the quiet and forsaken abode of the Buddha where mystery still wraps its ruins.

Made up of the present-day north-western Pakistan and eastern and north-eastern Afghanistan, the green valleys of the Indus, the Kabul rivers and their tributaries, while also lying along the pleasant foothills of the Hindu Kush ranges, these ruins of the ancient monasteries have presented astonishing statuary art, paintings, rare manuscripts and inscriptions from their depths.

A peep into the heritage sites and museums of Pakistan and Afghanistan gives an idea of the beauty of Gandhara’s architectural wealth. The rare Buddha colossi, bejewelled bodhisattvas and intricately carved Jataka stories on stair risers at Gandharan sites — now reposing in the museums of Kabul, Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore — make up just a fraction of the incredible art discovered here during archaeological excavations.

Sadly, most ancient sites of Gandhara that once bustled with life and vigour, forming the hub of art, history and culture, have now become objects of human greed. Encroached and built over, they are fast becoming a thing of the past. Hundreds of Buddhist sites in this wondrous region have been crumbling into mounds over which village settlements have come up. Illegal mining and trafficking of precious antiquities at the hands of unscrupulous miners, traders and builders have also been responsible for the destruction and death of the historical sites.

In Afghanistan, the impending destruction facing the 2,000-year-old Buddhist city of Mes Aynak around the Baba Wali mountains at the hands of the Chinese mining company MCC is of great concern. The contract involves extraction of the world’s largest copper reserves in large open-cast mines, posing an environmental threat with possibility of extinction of the heritage site and historical and religious treasures buried in the mountains.

Bamiyan in the Bamiyan Valley and Kakrak and Foladi sites in the Kakrak and Foladi valleys respectively, speak of the glory of ancient Afghanistan. Even today, a visitor to these valleys can savour the remnants of paintings, stucco sculptures, intricate ceiling and wall art, and the gigantic silhouette of ‘Lokottara’ in the honeycomb of rock-cut shrines and monastic cells. However, the dark empty niches of the Buddha colossi, standing like gigantic black pillars against the backdrop of the snow-laden Hindu Kush, remind one of the most sordid and gruesome event in the history of Buddhist heritage, when the giant Buddhas were blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban.

The splendid decoration of the caves of the Buddha colossi and the soffit of its vault are fortunately still alive, but only in the records of the Bamiyan Information Bureau and Archaeological Survey of India's [ASI] publication Bamiyan: Challenge to World Heritage.

Empty caves of Bamiyan in Afghanistan

The renowned Naubahar of Balkh, the ‘Little Rajgriha’ of Xuanzang, and one of the most splendid monasteries of the Buddhist world have not been seen in recent times. I was only a few kilometres from Balkh at Mazar-i-Sharif when a massive blast blew up the road to the site. However, another Naubahar in the neighbouring city of Aibak, Samangan, 118 kilometres from Mazar, was my focus. Here, the famous Top-e-Rustam and Takht-i-Rustam (stupa and the monastery, respectively) have been well preserved with an immense rock-cut stupa, pradakshinapatha, exotic pillared galleries, decorated shrines and ablution kunds.

Monastery of Takht-i-Rustam at Aibak, Samangan, Afghanistan

Colossal Buddhas, bodhisattvas, rare coins and paintings recovered from several Buddhist cities in and around Kabul, and displayed at the National Museum of Afghanistan, are a scholar’s delight. The antiquities were unearthed during excavations in the 19th-20th century at the monastic site of Sarai Khuja, Paitava, Shotorak , Goldarrah, Tepe Maranjan,Tepe Narenj, Shewaki Stupa and monastery, Tope Darra or the Valley of Stupas near Istalif, and the Stupa at Tapa Iskandar.

Some of the most beautiful and well preserved monasteries of Asia are located in Pakistan, in and near Taxila and at Mardan in the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions.

At Manikyala village on GT Road, which is not far from Rawalpindi, the 200-feet-high stupa looms over the skyline even from a distance of several kilometres. The importance of the stupa can be gauged from its size, the carved stone decorations that cover its hemisphere, and the flight of steps that lead to the pradakshinapatha at the base of the drum.

The giant Stupa of Manikyala on GT Road, near Rawalpindi

Perched on the top of the hills and home to rare Buddha images and superbly embellished stupas, Jaulian, Pipplan, Mohra Moradu and Dharmarajika are some of the most beautiful and well-preserved monastic sites at Taxila, and are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The monuments are dated to the Kushan period between the 1st and the 2nd centuries CE. Dharmarajika Stupa is considered one of the earliest Buddhist monuments at Taxila built, around the 3rd century BCE, during the reign of the Mauryan emperor, Asoka.

Author at the UNESCO Heritage Site of Jaulian in Taxila, Pakistan

The most well-preserved monastery yet seen on the Asian Silk Road is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Takht-i-Bahi, dating back to the 1st-2nd century CE. The site has many peculiarities and seems to be the main monastic location of Gandhara, where a large multitude of scholars and monks resided. The underground chamber with separate meditational cells is evidence that very senior monks and scholars lived here.

However, the same cannot be said about other monastic sites. At Jamalgarhi in Mardan, the focus of the establishment is the circular stupa, of which only the circular base remains. One can barely trace the eroded pilasters, niches and missing figures. A ring of roofless chapels that were erected to hold standing images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas lie empty, as their images have been pilfered.

At Peshawar the renowned Kanishka Stupa is lost in a maze of graves and all efforts to find it have failed. At the Hissara village in Charsadda, which was once part of the expansive site of Pushkalavati — the 6th-century BCE capital of Gandhara — the ancient fortress has now turned into layers of glistening yellow earth. Within the ruins, one can trace the entrance towers, galleries and guard quarters. Marvellous pieces of statuary art recovered from mounds around Hissara are now housed at the Peshawar Museum.

The crumbling site of ancient Pushkalavati, Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

At Sahri Bahlol, the high mounds of the renowned monastic establishment has been totally occupied and encroached upon by villagers. At the remote but historic village of Sikri across the Kalpani stream, no trace remains of its Buddhist history. A severely damaged stupa found there has been restored and put on display at the Lahore Museum.

It is heartening to note that the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul, and the Department of Archaeology and Museums of Pakistan are carrying out new excavations and conservation in their respective regions and taking steps to prevent illegal mining of Buddhist treasures.

Afghan, Japanese and French archaeologists and conservators are at Bamiyan taking special care of cave paintings, while also conducting further research and explorations. Marvellous statuary art has been recovered during new excavations at Mes Aynak and Tepe Narenj near Kabul.

Similarly, excavations at the historic villages of Sawal Dher in Mardan, Mian Khan in Katlang, and Koi Tangey Kandaray have revealed Buddhist antiquities from the 2nd-3rd century BC. Recently, Pakistan unveiled the remains of a 1,700-year-old, 48-feet-long Sleeping Buddha dated 3rd century CE at Haripur. According to Dr Abdul Samad, director of the Archaeology and Museums Department, it is the world’s oldest Sleeping Buddha.

As a thousand more Buddhas wait to be dug out from buried monasteries of Gandhara, the essential task before the world now, is to protect and preserve the forgotten cities and their treasures.

— Featured image: The monastery of Takht-i-Bahi in Mardan, Pakistan

Sunita Dwivedi is a Silk Road traveller and author based in Delhi. She has published four volumes on Asia’s Buddhist heritage. Her latest book, Buddha in Gandhara, is available online and in bookstores.