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It was the spring of 2012, students flooded in and out of classrooms hunting teachers for assistance with exam preperations and coursework. The ‘curious’ lot, as one of our professor’s aptly put it, was busy taking on extra courses for the last semester of high school.
That was when I opted for the art history course and fell in love with it instantly. The romance was short lived – the course only lasted two months. But during those two months, we travelled from Egypt to Mesopotamia, from ancient Greece to the sub-continent, and basically everything in between.
It was the course, the animated talks about ancient civilizations and the long hours of research and sifting through reading materials that first prompted me to travel and discover them for myself. My travels took me to the sacred sites at Taxila – a lost land and age, forever reminiscent of a burgeoning cultural heritage.
The real journey
Sirkap is Taxila’s second major city. Stretching for miles, tall green grass grows between the rubble that once marked a five kilometre long fortification wall with a tall acropolis along the defence lines.
The Jain Temple is a sanctuary built around a stupa, perhaps for pilgrims of that time. It now lies buried under grass and dirt, with rubble walls outlining its silhouette.
Sirkap’s picturesque beauty and its lush green grass contrasts with piles of rubble that narrate the story of the once mighty city of Takshashila, With a history of constant invasion, Taxila was finally decimated by the Hun Empire. The only relics of that age are the artefacts excavated from the Bhir mound, Sirkap and other sites.
The influence of Greek architecture is most evident in the Shrine of the Double Headed Eagle. Four Corinthian columns stand tall and proud on the stupa, with fierce eagle heads staring at us.
My travel companions, two Australian and three Pakistani tourists (including myself) had to dodge artefact ‘dealers’ who possessed, whether fake or authentic coins, pottery, mini-sculptures and other small crafts at various stages. Those who enjoy collecting souvenirs, however, will be spoiled for choice.
The city’s symmetrical pattern was born of the Greek Hellenistic period. We were in awe at the prowess and intelligence of the world’s earliest known architects. Apollonius (44 AD) drew a parallel between Sirkap’s planning with that of Athens during his travels and added that it was the size of Nineveh, Assyria’s conspicuous capital.
And it is not only the architectural finesse of these places of worship that is bewitching. My companions and I were stunned by the Sun temple – one of the most ingenious creations of its time. Inhabitants of Sirkap could tell the time by shadows that the sun dial would cast at the temple.
“These are Buddha’s footprints,” explained the tour guide with a pronounced reverence and respect as we approached the end of the settlement. “It’s sacred – this place, everything about it,” he added with a nostalgic smile.
With the abolition of the Ministry of Tourism in 2011 under the 18th amendment, Sirkap ruins have been wholly abandoned by the provincial government responsible for the site. Sirkap, like Taxila’s other sites, has suffered from neglect by the government which is still facing administrative difficulties, following the shift of federal ministries to provincial control.
It is heart breaking to think that a part of the world cultural heritage – a heritage shared by all peoples of the world – is left abandoned and forgotten. Whether it is unkempt grass, delayed salaries for tour guides or lack of conservation/preservation efforts, Taxila ruins’ ruin, in every sense of the word, is a serious blow to tourism in Pakistan.