Archaeologists from an Italian archaeological mission, working in collaboration with the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO), have found the remains of a Buddhist temple dating back 2,000 years in the ancient city of Barikot in Pakistan’s Swat region. It dates to approximately the second half of the second century BC, though, the archaeologists believe, it may be even older and date back to the third century BC, i.e., the Maurya Empire period (325-185 BC).
The discovery by the oldest Italian archaeological mission in Asia, currently headed by Professor Luca Maria Olivieri of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, gives new insights into the ancient forms of Buddhism and its spread in the Gandhara area, the Ca’ Foscari University reports .
An aerial view of the acropolis. ( Ca’ Foscari University )
Looters Provide Clue to Barikot Buddhist Temple Location
The collaboration that began in 2021 is jointly funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums KP Province (DOAM KP) and the Swat Museum. It was focused on exploring Barikot’s ancient acropolis when, as its work drew to an end in October 2021, it decided to branch out into another area located in the center of the site, according to the Ca’ Foscari University report . This particular area had recently been acquired by the Pakistani archaeological authorities and was dotted with a series of illegal excavations proving that it had been looted .
The new dig revealed what was clearly a Buddhist monument that was well preserved despite the plundering. Over 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, the cylindrical structure housing a small stupa stands atop an apsidal podium. In its front part, to the sides, are a cell, a minor stupa and the base of a massive column or pillar.
“The discovery of a great religious monument created at the time of the Indo-Greek Kingdom testifies that this was an important and ancient center for cult and pilgrimage. At that time, Swat already was a sacred land for Buddhism,” said Professor Olivieri, according to the CF news portal .
The staircase to the cell has been reconstructed thrice, the last time in the second-third century AD. At the same time that the staircase was last rebuilt, a series of anterooms rooms were constructed, which lead to an entrance that opened onto a public courtyard overlooking a road.
The oldest staircase of the structure carries an inscription on half of the back of one step written in Kharoshthi script . Palaeographic dating of the inscription indicates that it belongs to the first century AD. Coins have also been found from lower levels, along with pottery bearing legends in Kharoshthi. The monument was abandoned in the third century AD, following widespread destruction caused by an earthquake.
Dating the newly unearthed Barikot Buddhist temple was based on iconography from the Mauryan Empire (325-185 BC), which constructed the internationally famous stupa in which the relics of the first Buddha lie. (Tsui / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Dating the “New” Barikot Buddhist Temple
While results of carbon dating are awaited, the archaeologists have reason to believe that the second century BC date initially given to it can be pushed back the third century BC, which puts it firmly in the world of the Mauryan Empire. The Mauryan Empire developed in the modern-day state of Bihar in India and was the first empire to encompass most of the Indian subcontinent.
During the excavations, archaeologists discovered that the temple was built on the remains of an earlier structure with a small stupa. This structure predates the Indo-Greek period (that lasted from the second century BC to the first century AD in north and northwestern India) and was built around 150 BC , during the reign of the Indo-Greek king Menander I or of one of his early successors. Buddhist tradition has it that Menander I converted to Buddhism.
But, in December 2021, a few days before the end of the mission, it was discovered that parts of the Indo-Greek monument had been built on top of an even older structure. Pottery fragments and terracotta figurines recovered from this layer likely belong to the fourth and third centuries BC.
A view of the Swat Valley and Barikot hill in the background between two higher ridges in remote Pakistan. ( Ca’ Foscari University )
Ancient Greek and Latin texts mention the city of Bazira or Vajrasthana that was besieged by Alexander the Great. Bazira is modern Barikot, and the site’s stratigraphy coupled with carbon dating have revealed that the city was indeed in existence during Alexander the Great’s campaign of 327 BC.
Bazira was an important center for managing the agricultural surplus of the Swat Valley, which was considerable for the region. Given its microclimate, grain could be harvested twice a year in the Swat region. It, therefore, served as a “breadbasket” for Alexander in his push towards India.
Barikot ruins panorama. (Fazal.Khaliq / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Barikot’s Bustling and Prosperous “Street of Temples”
Apart from the Buddhist monument, the mission also discovered a Shahi temple, a small necropolis and a street axis stretching from the city gates to the city center. The Buddhist temple discovered in 2021 and another two discovered earlier stood alongside the road on either side. This gives rise to the speculation that the ancient road might have been a “street of temples” along the main road that connected the acropolis with the outskirts of the city.
The archaeologists hope to add to the prolific yield of the 2021 season with equally rich finds in the 2022 season. One area they will focus on is to find the road that crossed the inhabited area as well as a series of temple structures that they believe are even more important than the ones so far discovered. Another important project that is already ongoing is to study Swat’s paleoclimate.
Top image: An aerial view of the newly discovered BC Buddhist temple found in the Barikok ruins of Pakistan. Source: Ca’ Foscari University
By Sahir Pandey