Taxila, the capital of the great Gandhara civilisation, was also known as the ‘city of artisans’ after its craftsmen who produced the rich, glorious and distinct Gandhara art.
Even today, artisans are seen carving serene Buddha busts and replicas or other artefacts of the period in the Dhabian village, situated along the equally historic Dharma nullah flowing through the ancient land.
They inherited the skill of hewing the hard black stone found in the area into beautiful objects. Tourists visiting the Taxila archeological sites admire their dexterous handiwork.
There is something in the air of Dharma’s open space that inspires the artisans and touches the spirituality of the followers of Buddha among the tourists.
Dharma nullah emerges into the northern part of Taxila Valley from the Margalla spur and seems to bathe the land in serenity. Dharma means religion and nullah stands for stream, water channel.
Visitors to Dhabian are astonished to see local artisans working entirely from memory.
Still their small hammers and chisels do not falter at any angle or curve and produce perfect replicas of centuries-old creations.
Besides carving Buddha period artefacts and figurines, the artisans are also famous for producing langris (mortar and pestle), gravestones, flower pots and decorative pieces from hard stone. Produce of the small Dhabian village has a clientele not only among domestic tourists and the Islamabad-based diplomatic community but is also exported.
Taxila’s Gandhara art is world famous and still in demand, yet Dhabian’s traditional trade in replicas is on the decline. And its artisans have turned their attention to using Taxila black stone for producing new items.
In his book on ancient Taxila, the renowned archaeologist Ahmad Hasan Dani writes: “The art presents a heterogeneous social picture of the time – a medley of foreign immigrants, Greek, Scythian, Parthian, Kushan, Huns and Turk, all intermixed with the local populace in the mundane affairs of the world.
Above all the primary aim of the art is not to extol the kings or their ministers but to adore Buddha, his whole life from birth to death and the preaching that he delivered to mankind moral ways of life and for salvation.”
Dhabian artists are carrying on the tradition at their open work place near Dharma nullah. They first refine the stone with chisel and hammer, draw the desired sketch on this stone and then carve the same. Finishing touches are given by sandpaper.
Though the craftsmen of Taxila, especially stone chiselers, may be turning modern, they continue to use ancient iconography and decorative motives depicted in architectural friezes of Gandhara and ancient Taxila civilisation.
Some Taxila sculptors and stone carvers excel in one particular skill - the ability to create better-than-original artefacts. Others, however, stick to the age-old traditions in the face of adversity and often resistance from the local community.
Rashid Mehmood, a native of village Dhabian, has been devotedly carving Buddha for almost a decade.
“It feels the water of Dharma nullah is running in our body like blood. We get inspiration from the sacred water gushing by our work place,” he told Dawn.
To him the spiritual and religious reverence that Buddhism attaches with the stream is penetrating and inspirational.
Ilyas Khan’s family has been in the stone carving art for more than two centuries. He says he has passed age-old expertise to two generations, including his three younger brothers.
He too feels transported to past centuries while working by the Dharma stream, with visions of monks carving Buddha figures for spreading the sage’s teachings across the globe.
Another artist of the area, Amin Khan, also had similar claims to make.
“Our hands - and the chisel and hammer they hold - move as if spiritually guided when we sit there carving Buddha images. Some hidden power is at work there,” said Amin.
The Taxila stone the artisans work on is limestone that is hard, durable and best suited for embellishing buildings.
According to Prof Dr Mohammad Ashraf Khan, a former director of the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisation (TIAC), Taxila was named “the city of stones” as no brick was used in the construction of any stupa or monastery of the Buddhist period in the area.
Abdul Nasir Khan, curator Taxila Museum, says ancient Taxila was also known as Taka (cut) Shaila (stone) ‘City of cut stones’.
“Stone chiseling is a hard job, and the art of carving black stone into mortars was introduced during the second century in the Bhir Mound-era, a century before the Greeks came here,” he said.
One of his predecessors, Abdul Ghafoor, said the art of stone carving appeared in the region in the 1st century BC, developed further in the 1st century AD, flourished till 5th century and lingered on till 8th century.
From Gandhara culture to Madhura art, he said, Taxila’s sculptors had been producing historical stonework. Present day artisans of Taxila inherited the art from their forefathers and are keeping it alive.
“That’s a great service on their part,” he added.
Malik Tahir who trades in what the Taxila artisans produce says it is in demand both at home and abroad.
But the businessman feels the centuries-old craft of Taxila and its creators face a bleak future due to decline in tourist trade in Taxila because of security concerns, unjust laws and fleecing by the national and international smugglers.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017