Between 576 – 530 BCE, the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great established an empire which extended from Egypt to the Indus—the largest empire the world at that time. His successor, Darius, incorporated Gandhara, on the eastern border, as a satrapy. The city of Takshashila was its capital. Over the next millennia Takshashila became a cosmopolitan city from where great scholarship, new styles of art, and future emperors would emerge. It was a historic meeting place of the East and the West.
The university town
Takshashila was primarily a centre for learning; an inscribed ladle from the Achaemenid period indicates that this place was a retreat for monks and scholars. We do not know exactly when Takshashila first became a university town. What we know is that it is mentioned as a place of learning in the pre-Buddhist Jataka tales. In fact, Takshashila was a well-known place even before Buddha’s period. According to Ramayana, the city was founded by Bharata who named it after his son Taksha. In the Mahabharata, Janamejaya held his court in Takshashila and it was here that Vaisampayana first narrated the story of the conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Vayu Purana mentions that Takshashila in Gandhara district as well known for the consecration of Taksha, the serpent prince.
During the Buddha’s time it was a well-known place of Hindu and Buddhist learning along the Uttarapatha or Northern Route. Students—brahmin youth, princes, sons of rich merchants—traveled from the cities of the Gangetic plain to complete their advanced education. Jotipala, the son of a Brahmin priest in the court of the king of Varanasi returned after graduating in archery and military science and was appointed the commander-in-chief. Jivika, Bimbisara’s physician who cured the Buddha, studied medicine in Takshashila. Prasenajit, the king of Kosala, who too was associated with the Buddha was a Takshashila alum.
It was in this city that Panini produced one of the greatest achievements in Sanskrit grammar and Kautilya updated and taught the treatise on statecraft. Students, who were admitted at the age of 16, learned the Vedas and arts (archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy). There were schools for law, medicine and military science educating future emperors like Chandragupta Maurya.
Several accounts note that there was no single university at Takshashila. Each teacher formed his own institution, teaching as many students and subjects he liked without conforming to any centralised syllabus. If a teacher had a large number of students, he assigned one of his advanced students to teach them. Teachers did not deny education if the student was poor; those students were required to do manual work in the household. Paying students like princes were lodged in the teacher’s house and were taught during the day; non-paying ones, at night.
Trade and art
Greek historians accompanying Alexander described the place as “wealthy, prosperous and well governed”. According to Strabo, Takshashila was a large city governed by good laws. The country was heavily populated and extremely fertile. Apollonius of Tyana who visited Takshashila in 46 CE observed that the people wore cotton and had sandals made of papyrus with a leather cap. The layout of the streets and houses reminded him of Athens.
The city was strategically located at the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and India. The “Royal Highway” connecting Takshashila to Pataliputra was precursor to the Grand Trunk Road. Horses, gold, luxury textiles, precious stones—all passed through Takshashila from the Gangetic plains to the Achaemenid world and beyond. The Aramaic script came into India through this path and influenced the Kharoshthi script which was used for trade and administration. According to John Marshall, Kharoshthi was derived at Takshashila.
The trade was not one way: During the time of Xerxes, the successor of Darius, Indian soldiers served in the Achaemenid forces and some of them fought in the Battle of Thermopylae against King Leonidas of Sparta. The Indian soldiers also participated in the Battle of Plataea, a year later, in which the Greek city states defeated the Persians. Through these contacts, historians like Herodotus got some very exotic ideas of India.
Takshashila was perhaps always a melting pot of various cultures—Hindu, Buddhist, Persian and Greek. The interaction between Greek and Buddhist cultures influenced Buddhist art. It was here that the Buddha was represented in human form for the first time by artists who were not restricted by the strict Buddhist rules in India. This Gandharan style, which combined Greco-Roman style from Alexandria, Hellenistic and Indian styles, influenced not just the Indians, but also the Central Asians and the South East Asians. The rock inscriptions of Asoka were influenced by the rock edicts of Darius in Gandhara. This melting pot culture affected the education with Greek dramas and philosophy being taught along with Indian texts.
Following the rule of Artaxerxes II (404 – 359 BCE), the Achaemenid rule declined and local chiefs became independent. After a period of quiescence for three decades, the trade routes brought a new invader and Takshashila surrendered without a fight. In early 327 BCE, half of Alexander’s army marched through the Khyber pass and reached the shores of Indus. After subduing the hill tribes, Alexander and rest of the army joined them in 326 BCE at Ohind at the border of Takshashila.
After resting for 30 days, Alexander crossed the Indus into “the country of Indians” and on the other side he was met by an army in battle formation. This was highly unexpected. The king of Takshashila, Ambhi or Oomphis, had sent word that he would not oppose Alexander and would fight on his side. When it looked as if Ambhi had reneged on his promise, Alexander ordered his army to get ready.
Ambhi rode up alone towards the Greeks and he was met by Alexander who too rode up alone. Realising that what came from Alexander’s mouth was all Greek, interpreters were summoned. Ambhi explained that he had come to put both his army and the kingdom at Alexander’s disposal. He also gifted elephants, large sheep and 3000 bulls to Alexander prompting the Greek to ask Ambhi if he as into husbandry. While Ambhi surrendered meekly, his neighbour Porus gave Alexander a good fight and lost. This battle, Battle of the Hydaspes, was immortalised by Western painters like André Castaigne ,Charles Le Brun and artists in Russia. For aligning with a foreigner Ambhi is remembered as a traitor to this day.
Alexander left in 325 BCE and Greek power declined. Takshashila then became part of the Mauryan empire, under the leadership of Chandragupta Maurya, who, by some accounts, was present in Takshashila during Alexander’s invasion. We hear of Takshashila later when Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Ashoka arrived to quell a rebellion which he did successfully without creating resentment among people. In 232 BCE, after Ashoka’s death, Takshashila became independent; new coins were issued by a non-Mauryan authority. It fell under the Bactrian Greek influence till 50 BCE, Parthian and Saka influence till 60 CE and the Kushans till the end of the second century. The Kushan emperor Kanishka had a regional capital in Takshashila.
When the Chinese pilgrim Sung-Yun visited Takshashila in 520 CE, it was already under the Huns who had been ruling for two generations. Sung-Yun noted that the Huns did not believe in the law of the Buddha and were cruel and vindictive. According to him, the people of Takshashila were Brahmins who respected the law of the Buddha. When Fa Hian visited in the fifth century there were numerous monasteries and stupas. When Xuanzang visited in the 7th century, Takshashila’s monasteries had become ruins and the royal family had become extinct. With the loss of royal patronage and with the ascendency of Saivite and Vaishnavite traditions, Buddhism disappeared from Takshashila.
Soon the city also declined. The political and administrative support perished. The population migrated and the city, after a millennium, became a set of rural settlements. But the memory of the old city did not die: when Alberuni visited in the eleventh century CE, he identified the new name Marikala (today’s Margalla) with the old name Takshashila. Islamabad and Rawalpindi lie around 30 km south-east of Taxila, as the city came to be called in recent centuries.
Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, Abraham Eraly, Penguin India 2005.
Historic City of Taxila, A H Dani, Bernan Press, 1986
Chandragupta Maurya and His Times, Radha Kumud Mookerji, Motilal Banarsidass, 1960
India: A History, John Keay, Grove Press, 2001
A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, Upinder Singh, Prentice Hall, 2009
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