Monday, September 01, 2003

Pakistan: Taxila

There’s nothing like spending a hot Labor Day in Taxila, Pakistan.

Taxila is a town about 40 minutes west of Islamabad, and it has several sites of archaeological interest and a nice museum. I went with my good friends Mel, Kaki, and Dennis.

We found the place easily enough and parked in the visitor’s lot. I popped in to get a map, and the tourist information guy told me that the museum wasn’t open. Turns out that it is closed the first Monday of the month. We all thought that this was hilarious.

All wasn’t lost, though, because there were about 7 sites that were open.

Near the museum, there was a guy with a horse cart who was giving us the hard sell to tour the sites with his horse. There was no way the four of us were going to fit in there with the driver, so we turned him down. He was surely puzzled, though, because by Pakistani standards the single-seat horse cart probably had a 10-person capacity.

We set off with our map, unguided.

A little ways down the road, things started looking up. We came to a row of shops. In Taxila, there are 3 main specialties – mortars and pestles, grave settings, and mirrored things. I’m sure you already know what a mortar and pestle is, so that doesn’t need any explanation. In Pakistani grave yards, the grave is covered with 2 or 3 decoratively carved pieces of stone. There is also usually a headstone. They were making all these things here. The mirrored things looked like disco balls, and they were in fact selling disco balls. In addition to mirrored balls of various sizes, there were also vases and statues of cats and things with tiny mirrors all over them.

The mortars and pestles were made out of locally quarried granite and marble. All along the roads, there were men, young and old, hammering on large chunks of rock with chisels and hammers. Once they got them down to the right shape, other men would take them and polish them up on machines. It was very interesting – and noisy and dusty. And the prices could not be beat. I didn’t even bargain because the prices were so low. The same pieces I bought would have cost 1,000% more in Islamabad (no joke), even considering the tourist mark-up that I’m sure the vendors included in Taxila.

I bought multiple mortars and pestles – one to use, others to collect dust. I also got a cool mini disco ball. No disco cheetah, though. My companions bought some souvenirs as well.

After our bit of shopping, we figured we should probably look at some ruins since we had driven all the way out there for that purpose.

We chose to start with the furthest site, which was supposed to be one of the best. It took us a while to reach the site, which means that it would have taken us a very long time to get there in that horse cart.

Anyway, this site, called the Jaulian Site, featured the ruins of a Buddhist monastery that was used between the 2nd and 5th Centuries A.D. We drove up and then started hiking up to the site. There was a canal full of water along the way, and a bunch of little boys were swimming in it. It looked like a good idea because we were all roasting in the sweltering heat. By the time we got to the site, everyone’s shirt was soaked. Just outside the site's entrance, there were two guys sitting around waiting for customers. One was selling tickets (Adult admission – about 8 cents), and the other was the tour guide.

The ruins were very cool. All around there were stupas, which are carved memorials or mounds of earth that hold relics (ashes and other remains). One was supposed to hold some of the Buddha’s ashes, but in general the stupas were for the remains of the monks that lived there.

Back in the day, the monastery was sacked by the “ruthless white Huns” (the Chinese) and burned. So some of the artifacts were destroyed then, some were ruined during excavation by the British, some were stolen, and some were removed and put in the Taxila Museum. Still, there were many cool things left to see. Buddha in the teaching pose, the praying pose, the starving pose, the healing pose, the humble pose, the relaxation pose… They all started to look the same to me, so I just nodded as the guide continued explaining.

In addition to the stupas, the living areas were still in tact. The monastery was two stories and housed 28 students and one teacher. We saw the bathroom, the kitchen, the dining room, the pool that was used to collect rain, the study room, the scullery, and probably other stuff I can’t recall.

In the background were some great mountains. Men were hard at work up there under little grass thatched lean-tos, hammering chunks of stone out of the mountain. These would eventually become more mortars and pestles. The area has been quarried now for thousands of years.

Before long, Mel was about to die from the heat, so Kaki pulled out a bottle of water from her backpack. During the hand-off, the bottle slipped and started spilling out on the dirt. They scrambled for it, and about half the water was gone before they recovered the bottle. It was comical watching the precious water flow into the dirt - like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

On the way back to the car, the hucksters descended on us. There were 5 guys trying to sell us “authentic” artifacts from the sites. They had little statues and coins and things. We all knew that they were fake. That didn’t mean the things weren’t worth buying, though. One huckster had a statue of starving Buddha that I wanted. I expressed interest, and the bargaining commenced. It went something like this (converted to U.S. dollars):

Me: How much for the skeleton?
Huckster 1: Starving Buddha? Best price for you, sir. $5.25.
Me: I’ll give you $1.75.
Huckster 1: $3.50. This is very nice piece.
Me: No thanks.
Huckster 1: $2.60.
Me: $1.75.
Huckster 2: Take this one for $1.75.
Huckster 1: OK, sir, $1.75.

And I got starving Buddha from Number 1. When Number 2 came in with his offer, it was for a fat Buddha, which wasn’t what I wanted.

Kaki told one of the hucksters that she wasn’t interested in genuine artifacts, so the guy told her he also had replicas. Also had replicas – good one. Mel, meanwhile, tried to get rid of the hucksters by telling them that he wanted a large Buddha, which they didn't have on hand. Too bad for him, though, they scurried off and quickly returned with an assortment of larger Buddhas. Oddly enough, they didn’t have exactly what he wanted, so he still didn’t buy.

After that, we all loaded in the car and set off for another site. We never made it, though. My friends all voted to forego any more touring until the temperature cooled a bit. Since we were coming back to see the museum another day anyway, it didn’t make that much difference to me.