Shahbaz Ghari: Travelling Back in Time

Some ancient places that may not have stood the ravages of times but they still define our history and the process of societal evolution in this part of the world we call home. Quiet village Shahbaz Ghari (some time called Shahbaz Ghara) at the foot of Karamar Mountain in Mardan division is one such place. Hospitable people with rich culture and colourful traditions, oblivious of historic past of the place, live in the village. Shahbaz Ghari has been one of the important transit stations for all invaders and conquerors who came from the north. Every force regrouped here before crossing mighty Indus at the crossing point near Hund.

The Karamar Mountain near the village is full of historical evidences and signs. One of the busy ancient trade routes of the ancient times — Peshawar, Charsadda (Pushkalavati), Hund (Udabhandpura) — the capital during the Hindu Shahi dynasty, onwards to the plains – passed through Lotus Valley. There is also a natural pass through the mountain that is known as Gailey-Kandao. It connects Sudam Valley and Buner. Karamar rises to a height of 3480 feet above the sea. Many relics of Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas and monasteries are found standing near natural water sources in the Karamar. The excavations were first executed in the area by the British in 1871-72. Many of its Gandhara sculptures and ruins of the Hindu past have been taken away.

A small rustic village Shahbaz Garhi was known as Po-lo-Sha or Varshapura in the past. This was once an important city of Gandhara. As per the legged the name Shahbaz Garhi has been derived from the saint Sakhi Shahbaz Kalander. Alexander and most other invaders from the north had camped in the village before crossing the River Indus on their way to South Asia. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller, visited Shahbaz Garhi in 620 AD. He considered that it was here that the Buddha was born as Prince Wessentara. It was during his travel here that he saw a statue in blue stone of the Hindu goddess Parvati, the wife of god Shiva, on the Karamar. At the foot of the hill there was a temple of the god himself, to whom Pashupatas and Ashsmeared devotees paid their respects. The temple of Shiva and image of Parvati have vanished but the village still survives to remind visitors the story of the rise and fall of Hinduism and Buddhism in Gandhara, the ancient name of Peshawar Valley.

To this miraculous natural statue of the goddess, a huge number of people used to come from all over India to pay tribute. Though the locals think the figure was self-wrought. Down below the Karamar there still exits the village where once stood the temple of the Hindu god Shiva. The temple was mentioned by Hieun Tsang in the works. His account is very helpful if one is to understand the religious history of Gandhara, before the advent of divine of Islam. He has mentioned the temples, stupas and monasteries where Hinduism and Buddhism were practised.

Gandhara was not wholly Buddhist, as presumed by some historians, mostly those who downplay the peaceful coexistence of both communities of the past. Liberal religious policies of King Asoka and Kaniskha gave Buddhism a status of state religion as it was the religion of the majority. Hinduism survived but was the religion of minority. Hinduism re-appeared again to become the majority religion after the decline of Buddhism and survived till the arrival of Mehmood of Ghazna.

About 70 kilometres from Peshawar, Shahbaz Garhi has been identified as an important city on the main highway. Hieun Tsiang referred it as a fortified city. The inscriptions here refer to a golden house buried beneath the hills. It was the seat of one of the most celebrated of the Buddhists Jatakas according to which in one of his previous births Buddha gave his wife and children in charity here. In 1881, Garrick visited the site and noted a ruined temple and a monastery, with cells for the accommodation of monks. He also saw a broken statue of the Buddha with traces of gold, which was excavated by the sappers.

Saddanta Jataka, the tale of the six-tusked elephant is associated with the Karamar Mountain. Romantic folklore — Yousaf Khan and Sher Bano — is also linked with the Karamar Mountain. The Pushto film of the same name has been set in the rugged environment of Karamar where longings of the lovers are said to echo in the area even now.

Buddhist monastery at Chanaka Dheri near Shahbaz Garhi consists of a rectangular tank, the foundations of a circular stupa, and the main complex consisting of two rows of three stupas each, plus a row of monastic cells on the side of the tank and royal stone-carved edicts of the great Mauryan King Asoka (2nd century BC) in Kharoshti script of Gandhara, inscribed on two large boulders, on the edge of a hill south of the village.

The sites at Shahbaz Garhi (and Hund — Swabi) have a unique importance from the archaeological point of view. At present they are facing total neglect despite the fact that The University of Peshawar – the only one in country to award master’s degree in Archaeology – is playing important role in excavation, conservation, and preservation of archaeological assets in the valley besides involving academia and intelligentsia in the process. Still like many more important sites in the country, it is neither being maintained as tourists’ attraction nor as a historical monument.

The challenge that faces the historical tapestry of the North Western Frontier Province now is how to use the advantages of its unique archaeological wealth – that spans from the Stone Age to the Muslim era — while ensuring that the resources are conserved for future generation. Like any resource they must be conserved wisely keeping in view the parameters of conservation and precautionary principles — for once gone, they cannot be replaced with any thing.

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