Monday, 23 April 2018

T for Takshashila

Takshashila is famous for being the first and earliest form of University in India. The city flourished as a seat of learning and trade and commerce under the early dynasties of rulers, but also declined rapidly and was ruined way too soon. Takshashila thus can be regarded as one of the earliest ancient cities of India.

Mythological origins and etymology of Takshashila

The Ramayana tells us that Bharata, brother of Lord Rama founded two cities in the Uttarapath (North corridor) region, viz., Pushkalavati and Takshashila, and installed his two sons Pushkala and Taksha to rule over them respectively. In Sanskrit, Takshashila is derived from ‘Taksha’ and ‘shila’ (rock), describing the foundation rock laid by Bharat’s son Taksha for the city. In later Pali (Buddhist) language the city is called ‘Takkasila’ while the Greeks referred to it as ‘Taxila’, the name which has stuck to the city over the millennia down to the modern age. The Ramayana describes Takshashila as a magnificent city famous for its wealth and grandeur.

The Mahabharata refers to Takshashila as the place famous for two incidents. First, the Kuru kingdom’s heir and grandson of Arjuna, Parikshit was enthroned at Takshashila. Second, it was at Takshashila that sage Vaisampayan (Rishi Ved Vyas’s pupil) recited the story of the Mahabharata to the later Kuru king Janmejaya, when was performing the snake-sacrifice. This was one of the first recitals of the Mahabharata and its audience included Ugrashravas, a travelling bard, who later disseminated the story to other people.

The Buddhist Jataka tales, especially the Takshashila Jataka, refer to the city as the capital of the Gandhara kingdom and describes it as a great seat of learning. It refers to many Buddhist monks being educated there and the glory of Buddhism in the region at that time.

History of Takshashila

The earliest history of Takshashila can be traced to around 3360 BC, based on the findings excavated in the region. However it is believed that the place was abandoned after the decline of the Indus valley civilization. The first major settlement at Takshashila commenced around 1000 BC. The region came within the eastern fringes of the Achaemenid and Hellenistic Empires, when they attacked the Indus valley region and held control over it for a few centuries. The Achaemenid rulers, King Daruis I and King Xerexes stationed their generals in the area who were tasked with exploring the Indus valley area.

Alexander the Great was able to take control of Takshashila in 326 BC without a fight. The city was meekly surrendered to him by King Ambhi (Greek: Omphis). The Greeks describe Takshashila as “wealthy, prosperous and well-governed”.

The city passed on to the Mauryan Empire when Chandragupta Maurya took control of it in 317 BC. His guide and advisor, Kautilya, is said to have taught at the Takshashila University and provided education to Chandragupta during which he spotted the spark in him worthy enough to form and rule an empire. Chandragupta Maurya made Takshashila into a regional capital and frontier town. During the Maurya period, Takshashila came to be located on the ‘Royal Highway’ which connected the Maurayan capital Pataliputra (modern day Patna) to Purushapura (Peshawar), Pushkalavati (Gandhara) and onwards towards Central Asia via Kashmir, Bactria and Kapisa (Kabul region). This important location of Takshashila thus also made it an important centre for trade and commerce. During the time of Ashoka, Takshashila was turned into a great centre for Buddhist learning and a spring-board to spread Buddhism in the North-west region and beyond into Persia and Greece.

The next few centuries, the Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians and Indo-Parthians ruled over Takshashila and the region (in that order), until in the 1st century AD, the Kushanas took over the city. In the words of the Greek philosopher Apollonius who visited Takshashila around that time, the city was “fortified and well laid out. It was governed by King Kadphises…” (said to be the founder of the Kushana Empire). The later powerful Kushana king, Kanishka, further glorified Takshashila by adding more Buddhist stupas and architecture to the place. He also patronised the Takshashila University and revived it.

By the 4th century AD, when the Gupta Empire held sway over entire Northern India, Takshashila was a city famous for its trade links. Trades in silk, sandalwood, horses, silverware, pearls and spices made it an oft visited city by travellers from Central Asia. Takshashila also featured prominently in the Classical Sanskrit literature which was at its zenith at the time, being referred to as both a centre of culture and learning as well as a militarised frontier town. The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien visited Takshashila in 400 and describes the university in eloquent words.

Takshashila University

Though Takshashila is referred to as one of the earliest and ancient universities, the education system in Takshashila was quite far from that of a university. There were teachers in many disciplines, ranging across spirituality, medicine, economics, literature, mathematics, astronomy and the different sciences. The students used to come from different countries far and wide and would stay at the teachers’ quarters till their studies were completed. There was no formal system of examination and the teacher would decide when a student was ready and had indeed understood the subject to his satisfaction. There were no formal education degrees conferred on the pass-outs of Takshashila either, as the knowledge gained was considered to be the reward in itself. Takshashila had an immense effect on Hindu culture and Sanskrit language from the ancient times.

Takshashila was famed for its eminent teachers and students. The foremost among them was Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, the eminent strategist who composed the Arthashastra in Takshashila. The famous Ayurvedic healer, Charaka studied and perfected his skills in Takshashila. He also started teaching the science of medicine there at a later period. Another notable student-teacher of medicine at Takshashila was Jivaka, the court physician of King Bimbisara of Magadha, who had treated the Buddha in Pataliputra. The Kosala king, Prasenajit who patronised the Buddha at Sravasti during his time, was also a noteworthy student of Takshashila. Panini, the grammarian and expert of rhetoric, who codified the rules of Sanskrit grammar and language was a part of the community at Takshashila.

Decline of Takshashila

During the latter part of the Gupta period (450 AD), Takshashila fell in between the three-way war between the Persians, the Kidarites and the White Huns of western Gandhara. In the ensuing war in 470 AD, the White Huns swept over the Gandhara region including the city of Takshashila. Their barbaric warfare destroyed most of the Buddhist monasteries and stupas in the city and caused extensive damage to the living settlements thus completely disrupting the functioning of the university. By 540 AD, the Huns had completely taken over the region and were ruling in Takshashila, continuing sporadic devastation and damage. It was a blow from which the city could never recover.

On the religious front, Vaishavism and Shaivism the important cults of Hinduism, began their resurgence after almost thousand years of Buddhist dominance. The ruling Huns took to Shaivism and began to promote the religion in the area, thus causing the Buddhist remnants of Takshashila to rapidly fall in decline. Hieuen Tsang, the much travelled Chinese monk who visited Takshashila in 630 AD, wrote that, “most of the Buddhist sangharamas lay ruined and desolate and only a few monks remained there. The city had become a dependency of the Kashmir kingdom with local rulers fighting for its control…”

Though Takshashila fell into decline and was completely ruined with subsequent disuse, it was around this time (7th century) that during some attacks on the city, some Brahmin priest-cum-scholars escaped and fled to the nearby Kamboja kingdom capital at Kabul. This refugee-delegation of Brahmins was led by a jat-Brahmin named Kallar who was well received and appointed as a minister in the Turki-Shahi court of Kabul. Kallar after sometime effected a successful coup against the ruling Turki-Shahi king and overthrew him to take the throne of Kabul for himself, thus establishing the Brahmin Hindu-Shahi dynasty of Kabul, one that he and his descendants ruled successfully for 300 years until Mahmud of Ghazni defeated and conquered them in the early 11th century.

The Hindu-Shahis of Kabul brought Takshashila and the entire region of Gandhara under their control during their reign, but by then Takshashila had been completely ruined and no efforts of revival were undertaken. Takshashila remained only in folklore, history and memories.

The Ruins of Takshashila

The lost city of Takshashila were not discovered until 1863-64, when Alexander Cunningham, the founder and first Director-General of the Archaeological Society of India, mapped its location based on the notes left behind by the Chinese scholars Fa Hien and Hieuen Tsang. Among the major ruins at the site of Takshashila are the Dharmarajika Stupa, which houses the mortal remains (fragments of bones) of the Buddha; and the Jaulian mahavihara (site of the ancient Takshashila University).

It is believed that the Dharmarajika Stupa was first built on a grand scale by Emperor Ashoka, as a refurbishment of an earlier modest stupa housing Buddha’s mortal remains. However, the stupa was damaged during later wars and was rebuilt to its current state by the Kushana king Kanishka in 2nd century AD.

The major sites of the ruins of Takshashila have been identified about 35 kms north-west of present-day Rawalpindi in Pakistan. It is accessible for visitors more easily from Islamabad by the direct motorway to Taxila. The site has now been named as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and also houses the Taxila Museum. Buddhist organisations in Thailand and Sri Lanka have been working together with the Archaeological department of Pakistan to revive and maintain the Buddhist relics and ruins in Takshashila.

Takshashila’s ruins today feature as an important stop on the Buddhism pilgrimage circuit, which is famous as follows: Lumbini/Kapilavastu (place of Buddha’s birth), Bodh Gaya (place of Buddha’s enlightenment), Sarnath (place where Buddha preached the first sermon - thus the founding of Buddhism), Sravasti (place where Buddha performed miracles), and Taxila (place where Buddha’s mortal remains are held).


Photo: Ruins of the Dharmarajika Stupa in ancient Takshashila.

Photo credit and source: Sasha Isachenko, Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘T’.


  1. Am surprised to know the connection of Mahabharata with Taxila. Very well-researched article. Many unknown things come to the surface. Well done, Sayan.
    -Sayanti from

    1. Thank u Sayanti for reading my post and ur appreciation of it ! I am happy that my post could fetch you new information !

  2. Most of us are familiar with Takshashila through history books but your angle of description is really unique. I come here everyday to learn something new and I am never disappointed with your thorough research.

    1. Thank you Sonia for your inspiring and appreciative comment ! I am delighted that you are enjoying my posts so much and they are able to offer you new information :)


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