Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Bhamala Stupa, the Ever Serene Monastery and a Volkswagen Camper

So we were sitting at Romano's place discussing the launching of Ali Akbar Khan's book, Rawul Pindee, The Raj Years, when Romano talked of the discovery of the largest Budhha Statue at the Bhamala Stupa. Both our ears cocked up, especially since I hadn't been to Bhamala in quite some time as the last plan to Bhamala with Hermes (the God of Traveling and Writing, i.e., Salman Rashid) was diverted to Pharwala.

Even though I wanted to show-off my discovery of the short-cut over the Margalla Hills, we decided to go via the Taxila-Khan Pur route, especially since Romano agreed to bring his VW Camper.  So setting off at 9 am on a lovely Sunday morning, we were at the Khan Pur Lake by 10:15 am. The Water in the turquoise lake was at the highest I had ever seen.

Just at the end of the Lake, there was the blue Department of Archaeology sign board with BHAMALA written on it (BTW the sign board has been badly mauled by some passing vehicle and needs a sharp eye to be spotted) and the narrow shingle road took off to the right. The ruined monastery is 6 km from the turn-off.

Fortunately the last 2 Kms have been cemented and drive is actually not that bad. The scenic route along the way is breath taking, I might add.

 So we decided to go slow, absorbing all the beauty as we went along, reaching Bhamala by 11 am, the site being named after the village it is next to. The village is actually pronounced as Pumbahlaa (پمبہالہ) which has been Urduized into Bhamala, or should I say Arabized.

A stone stairway leads you up to the flat site with the Stupa looking like an Aztec / Mayan Pyramid.

Situated on an elongated hill above the right bank of the Haro River where the valley is only a couple of hundred metres wide, Bhamala is as secluded as it can get. On three sides the hills loom high, only to the southwest is the view open where the narrow valley looks into what was once a large depression containing a few villages but now lies submerged under the placid blue waters of Khanpur Dam.
If it has a unique setting among the other Taxilan monasteries, Bhamala also has one distinctive feature of archaeological interest: its main stupa is built upon a cruciform base as opposed to the circular stupas in the other monasteries. Long before John Marshall struck the first spade to uncover its secrets in 1931, this stupa had already been dug into and somewhat damaged by treasure hunters. A reminder of that act of vandalism is the cleft running clear across the body of the structure.

The area immediately around the stupa base is paved with terra-cotta tiles which is another one of its unique features. Arrayed around the main stupa and just outside this paved area is a number of smaller votive stupas. 

 To the east, the monastery itself sits behind its high wall with a gate facing the main stupa. Like the other monasteries, the monks’ rooms run around the wall that forms the perimeter and look inward to the courtyard. The standard feature of the central water tank is missing here, perhaps because of the nearness to the Haro just below the hill.

Romano met these kids from a nearby village who had come to spend the day at Bhamala and was soon playing with them, while I managed a few snaps.

So then we proceeded to the find of the century here at Bhamala. In March 2015, a team of Archaeologists from the Hazara University found the largest known statue of the Budhha from the Gandhara civilization, at 14-meter (46 feet) long. It rests on a 15-meter (49 feet) platform, and portrays a scene known as Maha Pari Nirvana, said to be the moment Buddha’s consciousness left his body and he died.
Access to this chamber is given through three openings at regular intervals, while the chamber is made of stone in semi-ashlar masonry.

Now as you can see the head is missing and there is extensive damage to the statue in the middle; apparently the enthusiastic students of the Hazara University were a big too trigger-happy or perhaps it was the grave robbers. I heard from someone at the site that it was Professor Dr Mark Kenoyer, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, who pointed out that this was in fact a Maha Pari Nirvana statue. You can see the wrinkles of the clothes as they were carved in the rock.

They have dated the artifacts to the 3rd Century CE and believe it has Kashmiri influence, since the cruciform Stupas have not been seen elsewhere. Recently they have also discovered terracotta artifacts, stucco sculptures, architectural elements, copper coins, iron nails, door sittings, pottery and 14 coins from the Kushan era.

Anyhow, the only good thing I could see was the shed they had made over the priceless statue, which may keep it preserved for future generations.

The best part of coming to Bhamala is the serenity and the feeling of peace which this mound exudes. You can literally hear the Silence !

In the words of Salman Rashid, Bhamala fell in the early years of the 6th century CE to the savage Central Asiatic Huns under their leader Mehr Gul (Mihirakula). It is not for nothing that the epic Rajatarangini – Chronicles of Kings [of Kashmir] written 1160, tells us that this barbarian was a killer of ‘three crore’ people. He had, so we are told, no pity either for women or children or the elderly and that his progress across the country was marked by a dark cloud of crows and vultures keen to feed on the corpses the savages left behind.

One morning as the monks from Bhamala were preparing to set out on their alms-seeking trip to the streets of Taxila, they would have seen the dark cloud of birds and heard the din of the advancing army. Some may have stayed to try and defend what they and so many generations before them had held dear to their souls. Others would have fled into the hills. But not one who stayed lived to tell the tale of what transpired. When the smoke finally cleared, the monastery had been completely sacked. A silence descended upon its ruined walls and structures; a silence that was broken fifteen hundred years later when John Marshall's team struck the first spade to reveal the ashes left behind by the Huns.
We were pleasantly surprised to see a bus of College Girls from Haripur that had come all the way up to Bhamala for a field trip. As we talked to the girls, we saw hope in their eyes, though most were busy taking selfies.

So after spending a good couple of hours, absorbing the placid aura of the site, we decided to head back to the Camper, parked just below the Stupa mound at the Bhamala Village

The Village Bhamala

And on the way back, we were pleasantly accosted by these partridges on the road, taking a dust bath.

P.S. This blog was written at the express request of my friend, Krish

An added benefit of the trip was the incredible selfies galore :)