Getting into ancient Buddhist relics of Islamabad

Ancient Buddhist relics in Islamabad

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan

Visiting historical sites makes a passion with all those who evince keen interest in knowing about ancient culture, traditions and religious practices, and bear a burning desire to visit ancient historical sites of religious and cultural significance.

On 29 Jan 2023, with the same desire and intention, but after a bit of procrastination, I visited ancient Buddhist caves located at the foot of Margalla Hills – about half an hour drive from the famous D-Chowk, Islamabad. 
These caves with centuries old history are located at the extreme end of a village called Shah Allah Ditta village right at the foot of Margalla hills. These caves are reported to be 2500 years old and contain traces of human existence from ancient times and are believed to have remained a meditation site for Buddhist monks and later on worship place of Hindu sadhus till partition of India in 1947. 
These caves hold a great historical and archaeological significance. A few hundred yards away from these caves and adjacent to an Imam Bargah, there is a small dome-shaped shrine believed to be of Shah Allah Ditta. According to reports, for the first time, Buddhists from Sindh visited this historic site last year to perform their religious rites. 
After reaching the extreme end of sector D-12, Islamabad with under-construction houses on the left side of the main road, we took a U turn to the right ( U-Turn – a cliché commonly used these days in political context and associated with certain political figures) and after driving about 200 meters on the main road, we took diversion towards the left and drove on a narrow bumpy road and reached the village called Shah Allah Ditta village named after a sufi saint of Mughal era carrying the same name. 
The village is believed to be 700 years old and was reportedly used as a route from Kabul to Taxila by Alexander and Sher Shah Suri. Mughal rulers are also said to have passed through this village while travelling from Afghanistan to India, although, the authenticity of which is yet to be established. After a ten minutes rocky drive on the narrow road passing through the village, finally we managed to reach the caves. 
The burnt and blackened roofs and walls of the centuries old caves with Buddha’s fainted images/murals hardly discernible to the naked eyes and the adjoining tract of land known as ‘Sadhu Ka Bagh’ (Sadhu’s Garden) tell a sad story of official neglect and present a dismal look to the visitors. The blackened walls and roofs of the caves are indicatory to the fact that the Buddhist monks and Hindu sadhus have used these caves not only for mediation/worship but have used them as a living place too burning fire inside for cooking and also for warming during winters as it ordinarily happens in rural dwellings of villagers in remote areas. 
According to the caretaker of the caves Ismail Abbasi, besides these caves, there is a centuries old masjid called ‘Ban Faqiran masjid’ almost razed to the ground with only ruins visible. The masjid was reportedly built during the rule of Ghori dynasty by Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori, yet according to some other version, it was built during Mughal era. Currently, it has fallen into ruins, and no conservation and restoration efforts undertaken. 
Another historic relic is Buddha’s stupa believed to be more than 2000 years old again called ‘Ban Faqiran stupa’ conserved and rehabilitated to a great extent. Both these relics are located at a steep hill west of Buddhist caves with a narrow dilapidated footpath leading to them thus making it quite daunting and exhausting for the visitors to reach. Behind these relics there swells a forest-clad steep hill overlooking the capital.
As told by the caretaker of the caves, this historical site which includes the caves, the masjid and the stupa is spread over a vast tract of hilly patch of 800 kanals most of which has been sold out at a throwaway price after several abortive attempts were made by the land mafia to grab the land. Presently this historical site according to the caretaker, is spread over 200 kanals after the rest of the land was sold out. 
The steep ascent of the hill and narrow zigzag path leading to the masjid and stupa make it extremely hard for the visitors to reach these two historic relics. According to the caretaker of the caves, renowned archaeologist and historian Prof Ahmad Hassan Dani visited these sites twice. He is believed to be the first archaeologist to have discovered these historical sites. 
Unfortunately, this important archaeological site and potential tourist destination hitherto unknown to many, remains neglected and hidden from domestic as well foreign tourists due to sheer apathetic attitude of the government and the concerned department. With a little attention by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Archaeology, this important historical site could be transformed into a tourist destination thus fetching a handsome income to the government kitty. There is a need to rehabilitate and restore these historical sites/relics to their pristine condition, and improve and preserve them for the posterity.

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