Taxila > Its origin and history.

Taxila: Definition and origin

by Muhammad Bin Naveed
When it comes to ancient history, Pakistan contains its fair share of treasures one of the prominent of these being the ancient metropolis of Taxila. It is a city of the Gandharan age which flourished up to 500 CE as a hub of Buddhism, a centre of learning, and as a meeting point of neighbouring cultures.


The Taxila archaeological site is located in the province of Punjab, Pakistan, about 30km north of the Capital Territory of Islamabad. It lies off the famous and historical Grand Trunk Road. The modern archaeological region of Taxila is composed of 18 sites of significant cultural value which have been inducted as a whole into the UNESCO world heritage umbrella in 1980 CE and include some of the most famous Gandhara sites and monuments including the Dharmarajika Stupa, Jaulian Monastery, the temple at Jandial and the urban centers of Sirkap and Sirsukh.
The region is of particular interest when one looks at its ancient role as being a waypoint for the movement of caravans and even today it still holds the same function as in the 6th century BCE.This continuing function of the site as a waypoint tells us about the urban pattern of ancient Taxila (being more or less unchanged since antiquity) and how that effects development and the spread of crafts, settlements and markets as well as an institutional framework which develops as a result of the need to manage the surrounding population.
The region around Taxila includes some of the most famous Gandhara sites and monuments.
Although the region fell out of favor with the increase in sea trade in later times, the preceding centuries of occupation meant that a massive amount of archaeological data still remains in the region which was slowly and gradually unearthed from the British era down to the present day.

Pre-History of Taxila

The beginnings of human occupation in the area can be traced back to the microlithic hunters of the period before 3500 BCE, most importantly at three important caves discovered in 1964 CE by Elden Johnson of the University of Minnesota at Bhamala, Mohra Moradu and Khanpur. Particularly at the Khanpur cave, 9 feet 7 inches of cultural deposit was found dating from 900 CE all the way back to the stone age.
Early agricultural communities developed around 3500-2700 BCE as is evidenced from the small mound of Saraikala ("small" being relative as it is 1000 feet east to west and 2000 feet north to south) excavated by Ahmad Hasan Dani, a pioneering archaeologist of Pakistan. This site contains evidence of stone, bone and handmade pottery. The stone objects include microliths, axes and maceheads along with paralel sided blades, side and end scrapers, and assymetrical flakes and arrowheads. Ground stone tools are also found such as chisels as well as saddle querns, grinders and pounders for daily use. Bone tools belonging to five categories are found including awls, perforators, spatulas, points and pressure flakes. Pottery is the third industry with the earliest examples being almost all handmade and divided into four subcategories.
The Bronze Age begins in the region around 2700-2100 BCE and is also evidenced at Saraikala with no break between the end of the neolithic to the Bronze age deposits. There is even a transitional period between the two ages which includes mixed implements of neolithic and bronze age varieties.


The city of Taxila, known in antiquity as Takhshashila (meaning Serpent Hill), was a renowned site of Buddhist Gandhara especially after Ashoka's rule and in the 1st century CE Kushan era. The name Taxila is a Greek approximation of the original name. In Aramaic the city is known as Naggaruda, the City of Cut Stones. Chu-cha-shi-lo is the Chinese name given to the region. In Sanskrit, it is known as Takshasila, Takkasila or Takhashila and was also told to be the land of the Takhshas-a serpent race who could change their form at will to mingle with humans.
The ancient city was revered as having one of the world's first universities and flourished during the 1st to 5th centuries CE as part of the civilization of Gandhara under various rulers. A variety of subjects were taught there, including mathematics, sciences, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, politics, literature and military sciences.
According to mythology Taxila is said to have been founded by the son of the brother of the legendary hero Rama, and stood on a hill that commanded the river Tamra Nala, a tributary of the Indus. It is held to have been an important cultural centre since inception, and the Mahabharata was reported to have first been recited here. The site of the first city at Taxila is known now as the Bhir Mound.
Situated on "The Royal Highway" (as termed by the Greek Megasthenes) It was connected to Pataliputra (modern day Patna) in the north eastern reaches of the Mauryan Empire, western Asia (through Bactria), across the Indus River at Hund and through Kashmir with Central Asia by way of Srinagar, leading down to Haripur. This allowed a steady influx of people from all over the Asiatic regions into the area in the form of traders, settlers, merchants, preachers and invaders.

Political control

Taxila and the region of Gandhara witnessed the rule of several major powers of antiquity as listed here:
  • Achaemenids (~600-400 BCE)
  • Greeks (~326-324 BCE),
  • Mauryans (~324-185 BCE),
  • Indo-Greeks (~250-190 BCE),
  • Scythians (~2nd century to 1st  century BCE),
  • Parthians (~1st century BC to 1st century CE),
  • Kushans (~1st to 5th  century CE),
  • White Huns (~5th century CE)
  • Hindu Shahi (~9th to 10th century CE).
This was followed by Muslim conquests by which time we come to the medieval period of Indian History.

Achaemenids & alexander

The region of Taxila was a major center of the Gandhara region in the north western part of ancient India. Darius I added it to the Achaemenid Empire but his occupation of it did not last long. It was known to be a tributary state of the Achaemenids (known as a satrapy) and later paid tributes and inferred hospitality to Alexander the Great who eventually conquered it (along with the rest of the Achaemenian empire).
Alexander is said to have crossed through the area of what is called Gandhara to enter into Punjab proper (as indeed this region is still used today for the same function) and he was offered alliance by the ruler of Taxila Ombhi, against the king Porus, who was a constant source of agitation for Taxila and its surrounding regions. What happened after this at the Battle of Hydaspes is (quite literally) ancient history. Nonetheless, Alexander's stay here was short and he went south via the Indus River and crossed over what is today Balochistan on the return journey.
Alexander left sizeable populations of Greeks in every region he conquered and Gandhara was no exception, with craftsmen, soldiers and other followers encouraged to inter-marry and blend with the locals and bring to them the fruits of Greek civilization. When Alexander died in June 323 BCE, his occupying Greek force, desperate to return home, started the journey back regardless of the orders to stay in the region and this left a large vaccuum in the already thinly spread Greek occupation force in Gandhara. Nonetheless, enough Greek centers were created in the region to affect its history for centuries to come.
mauryan rule
By 316 BCE, King Chandragupta of Magadha (321-297 BCE) moved in and conquered the Indus Valley, thereby annexing Taxila and naming it a provincial capital of his newly formed Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara, who was succeeded by his son Ashoka (who had previously remained a governor of Taxila for some time). Ashoka famously propagated the spread of Buddhism, and created a grand monastery to the east of the river Tamra at Taxila. This is the Dharmarajika Monastery, famous for its stupa, and it is said Ashoka buried several relics of Buddha there. However the Mauryan empire disintegrated after Ashoka's death and Taxila was again up for grabs.

indo greeks

In 184 BCE, the Greeks (who had remained strong in Bactria, modern North Afghanistan), invaded Gandhara again under king Demetrius and it was he who built a new city on the opposite bank of the river from Bhir Mound. This new incarnation of Taxila is known as Sirkap (meaning 'severed head') and it was built according to the Hippodamaean plan following a gridiron pattern.
The Kingdom of Demetrius consisted of Gandhara, Arachosia (modern day Kandahar in Afghanistan), the Punjab, and a part of the Ganges Valley. It was a multi-ethnic society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrians and Western Iranians lived together. Evidence of this is found all over 2nd century BCE Taxila, such as a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Jandial, directly north of Sirkap.


The gradual takeover of the Punjab by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia began around 110 BCE. These tribes had been accustomed to invading northern territories such as those in Bactia, but had been kept back by the Achaemenids in the past. They had settled in Drangiana, modern day Sistan in Iran and invaded Punjab, infiltrating through the southern Indus Valley, eventually taking over Taxila.
In the first quarter of the 1st century CE, the Parthians moved in and began taking over the Greek Petty Kingdoms in Gandhara and Punjab. Gondophares, a Parthian leader who lived at Taxila is told to have been baptised by the apostle Thomas, not a wholly impossible claim since the city already hosted a number of religious faiths and might have accomodated a fledgling Christian one.


In 80 CE, the Kushans wrested control of Taxila from the Scytho-Parthians. The main city was again refounded at another site and the new name Sirsukh given to it. It resembled a large military base, with a wall 5 km long and no less than 6 metres thick. It now became a hub of Buddhist activity, and hosted pilgrims from Central Asia and China. The Kushana era is the high point of Gandhara art, architecture and culture.
The Kushan rule has been considered a golden age in the history of this region. The Kushans were a tribe that migrated to Gandhara around the first century CE from Central Asia and Afghanistan. The tribe selected Peshawar as its seat of power and later expanded east into the heartland of India to establish the Kushan Empire, which lasted until the 3rd century CE.
The Greek philosopher Appolonius of Tyana also visited the city and compared its size to that of Nineveh in Assyria. A description of Taxila (probably Sirsukh) can be found in the Life of Appolonius of Tyana by the author Philostratus:
I have already described the way in which the city is walled, but they say that it was divided up into narrow streets in the same irregular manner as in Athens, and that the houses were built in such a way that if you look at them from outside they had only one storey, while if you went into one of them, you at once found subterranean chambers extending as far below the level of the earth as did the chambers above. [Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 2.23;  tr.F.C. Conybeare]
The area was badly damaged when the White Huns or Hephthalites invaded ancient India in the 5th century CE, and never recovered its former status.

Gandharan art & architecture

Much has been said about the art of this region which when initially discovered was so strikingly similar to the art of the classical era of Europe that it was immediately termed Indo-Roman or Indo-Greek. The prolific nature of the sculptural and relief work and the density of architectural endeavors (both of which were done in an unmistakably classical style) left no doubt in the minds of the early researchers of their European roots. However, as time progressed and in-depth studies were done on the art and architecture of the region, it was found that although the outward form was no doubt influenced from afar, the details and subtelties of the art had nothing to do with and had no precedent in the west and were a solely local development.
Extracted from the website: Ancient History Encyclopedia under Creative Commons License.