Piplan: a hidden jewel of ancient Taxila

Published January 21, 2018
Piplan, an ancient Buddhist monastic complex near Taxila, is on the Unesco World Heritage List and has been declared a ‘protected antiquity’ by the Pakistani government.  — Photos by the writer
Piplan, an ancient Buddhist monastic complex near Taxila, is on the Unesco World Heritage List and has been declared a ‘protected antiquity’ by the Pakistani government. — Photos by the writer

Piplan, the ancient Buddhist monastic establishment in Taxila that was named for the thick peepal trees of the area, is a Buddhist archaeological jewel located in a calm valley that has stayed hidden from local and foreign tourists and the public, despite its unique landscape.

The ancient site lies at the foot of the hills between Mohra Maradu and Julian, the ancient Taxila university. According to Dr Mohammad Ashraf, the former director of the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisation, the site was excavated in 1923-24, under Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Department of Archaeology and Museums Deputy Director Abdul Ghafour Lone said that later, study papers had revealed that archaeologists during the excavation had found the site belonged to two different periods.

A well-preserved votive stupa built of ashlar diaper masonry in Piplan.
A well-preserved votive stupa built of ashlar diaper masonry in Piplan.

Studies conducted by the archaeologists found that to the east is a courtyard of a monastery dating back to the late Partian or early Kushan times. It consists of an open quadrangle in the centre, with a range of cells on all four sides. Mr Lone added that in the middle of the courtyard is the basement of a square stupa.

Former archaeology department deputy director Bahadur Khan explained that the early monastery, which was constructed of diaper masonry, fell to ruin before the 5th century, and a second monastery was later constructed on the western side.

Stairs made in the traditional Buddhist style to the Piplan monastery.
Stairs made in the traditional Buddhist style to the Piplan monastery.

Mr Khan said that according to the research, the second monastery was constructed from heavy, semi-ashlar masonry, and was exceptionally well-preserved. The ruins of the second monastery revealed that it comprised a court of cells on the north side, with a hall of assembly, kitchen and refectory to the south and a converted stupa to the east.

The cells were built on two storeys, and as per the traditional Gandharan style of architecture, consisted of an open quadrangle with cells for monks on all four sides and a pillared veranda.

A small stupa built from heavy semi-ashlar masonry.
A small stupa built from heavy semi-ashlar masonry.

According to Mr Lone, a now dilapidated stupa in a cell was discovered in the southeast corner of the monastery. The floor of the stupa and the cell in which it stands is around 2ft below the rest of the monastery, leaving little doubt among the archaeologists and researchers that the stupa was originally built in one of the cells of the earlier, Kushan-era monastery and then incorporated into the later one.

A still intact 8ft high stupa stands in a chamber of the monastery. It was tradition to build a memorial stupa inside a cell after the prinirvana (death of a venerable monk). This stupa rises to three diminishing tires, the topmost surmounted by a dome and originally crowned by an umbrella, decorated with lotus rosettes and images of Buddha, while at the base of the dome is a series of seated Buddhas. However, due to a lack of preservation and conservation, the stupa is in shambles.

Wild flowers bloom around the Piplan Buddhist monastic complex near Taxila. — Photos by the writer
Wild flowers bloom around the Piplan Buddhist monastic complex near Taxila. — Photos by the writer

According to Mr Lone, only one excavation was carried out by British archaeologists before partition, which recovered 26 coins featuring Azes, Kadphises, Kanishka, Vasudeva and Indo-Sasanian rulers. He said the study had revealed that by the end of the 5th century, the Buddhist site met the same fate as its contemporary monastic settlements in the region, resulting in gradual decay due to human and natural agents.

Piplan has been added to the Unesco World Heritage List of the convention concerning the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage, while the Pakistani government has declared the site a ‘protected antiquity’ under the 1975 antiquities act.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2018

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