Through time and mystery

October 1, 2023

A journey into the hidden histories of Shah Allahditta Buddha caves

Shah Allahditta Buddha caves in Islamabad. -- Photo by Muzaffar Bukhari.
Shah Allahditta Buddha caves in Islamabad. -- Photo by Muzaffar Bukhari.


n 1882, Lahore’s Lala Deen Dayal & Sons received a commission from Lepel H Griffin to lead an extensive photographic survey of Buddhist ruins in India. During this time, DN Bali, a portrait photographer at Bali & Sons, Rawalpindi, became deeply inspired by Lala Deen Dayal’s work and the profound teachings of Buddha. Bali was so captivated by the noble teachings of Buddha that he used his profits to support the creation of an Urdu biography of Buddha, drawing on authentic sources.

Historical records indicate that there were at least four other Urdu-language essays and books on Buddhism published around the same period. Most of those were credited to S Warman. Warman also intended to produce an Urdu translation of Paul Carus’s The Gospel of Buddha. This information is highlighted in a recently published historical work titled Dust and the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India by Douglas Ober. Ober is a research associate at the University of British Columbia. The book reframes the discussion on Buddhism in India from the early 18th Century.

In the case of DN Bali, his fascination with Buddhism was cultivated during the British colonial period as he listened to stories of the latest discoveries of Buddhist sites in India. Living close to Taxila and various Buddhist sites in what was then Rawalpindi, coupled with the enigmatic allure of Shah Allahditta, contributed to his interest in this ancient faith.

The Shah Allahditta Buddha caves, nestled on the northwest edge of Islamabad in the Margalla foothills, are a testament to a hidden history. Today, the site, known as Shah Allahditta, carries a Muslim name and a deeper Buddhist identity. Even its Sadhu Ka Bagh (Mendicant’s Garden) description hints at a place steeped in multi-religious histories.

This location has recently taken on a new significance. It has become a focal point for challenging the notion of Islamabad being a city devoid of history. The road in front of the caves, connecting Bagh Sardaran to the Hazara region, is an ancient thoroughfare. A milestone in downtown Rawalpindi once marked the distance to the caves and Khanpur.

Shah Allahditta caves in Islamabad held significance for Buddhist monks until the 14th Century when Buddhism thrived in North India.

The caves have become a popular tourist attraction, often as a picturesque settings for bridal photo shoots. However, some visitors have reported hearing eerie and mysterious sounds at night. These have sometimes been attributed to supernatural entities. These are most likely the result of encounters with local wildlife, including monkeys, as urbanisation has encroached upon their habitats and forced them to seek shelter or travel during the night.

The site’s historical significance is linked to the legends of Alexander the Great. Some claim that Alexander met Raja Ambi of Taxila at this location. However, these assertions are baseless. The recent naming of the road as Alexander Road is misguided.

Similarly absurd are the attempts to assign a specific age to these naturally formed caves. They have been variously claimed to be 500 years old, 1,000 years old and 2,400 years old. Naturally formed caves do not age in these terms. Instead, the focus should be on conducting archaeological examinations on the remaining walls.

The various histories associated with these caves suggest that people like Panini, the Sanskrit philologist, and Kautilya Chanakya, the ancient scholar, may have stayed at this location. Some accounts trace the site’s history back to the Vedic period, suggesting that Lord Krishna stayed here before embarking on his journey to Katas Raj. While these historical claims would benefit from corroboration with primary sources, it’s essential to acknowledge that they cannot be summarily dismissed. It’s plausible that the site housed Buddhists and later was inhabited by Hindus and Muslim.

Characterising the caves exclusively as a Buddhist site for meditation is irresponsible. Instead, it’s more likely that these caves were used by individuals from various religious backgrounds. The name Shah Allahditta is relatively recent. It is derived from the nearby village of the same name. The village is believed to be named after Hazrat Shah Allahditta Naqvi, who is said to have spent some time in the caves. Unfortunately, no specific date is associated with his arrival in the area. The popular oral tradition suggests a connection to the Mughal period.

Some of the residents of Shah Allahditta village claim to be descendants of Hazrat Shah Allahditta. They say the village was once a thriving city. It’s worth noting that there are nine other graves near Shah Allahditta’s grave, a stark reminder of the sectarian violence that plagued the region during the last decade of the twentieth century. This tragic history has, in some ways, overshadowed the narratives of diversity and plurality associated with the caves.

The place was once called Dera Garyala Baba Bhir Das, referring to a jogi. Ismail, who operates a small restaurant next to the caves, says the last ‘owner’ of this site was Ogan Das, a Hindu who migrated to India in 1947. Since then, he says, his family has been looking after the caves.

Ismail recounts several attempts to establish a Chilla Gah (meditation site) or a mazaar (tomb) within the caves. He says his family has consistently resisted such efforts. The resistance might not have been motivated for the preservation of the caves’ original character.

Through time and mystery

Today, the site, known as Shah Allahditta, carries a Muslim name and a deeper Buddhist identity. Its Sadhu Ka Bagh (Mendicant’s Garden) description hints at a place steeped in multi-religious histories and events.

In the early 1980s, a stone crusher began operations near the caves, leading to environmental devastation and historical damage. The area known as Sadhu Ka Bagh (Mendicant’s Garden) saw some felling of the trees and the caves were damaged. After fifteen years of the activity, the stone crushing ceased. The extent of the destruction is evident on the nearby hill, where no vegetation remains.

Today, the only remaining sign of the once-thriving Sadhu Ka Bagh, said to be several centuries old, is a massive mango tree surrounded by a thick concrete floor. This serves as a stark reminder of the environmental and historical losses endured in the area.

A natural pond now, repurposed as a water reservoir managing water supply to the suburbs, through a narrow stream, has dwindled from its once-expansive size to a small walled pond. The water of this pond was once considered sacred and attracted residents and pilgrims alike. However, in recent times, its significance has diminished. Efforts have been made to reconstruct the pond to give it an ancient appearance.

The source of water for this pond is a natural spring that emerges from a tunnel beneath the ridge. It is said that it was common once for monks and jogis to take baths here. The water in the pond has a distinctive greenish-blue hue. Some exotic fishes have probably been added for decorative purposes. Local residents maintain the water channel and clean the spring annually.

Follow the road that connects the place to Khanpur and you come upon a centuries-old step-well known as Losar baoli. Although it is often attributed to Sher Shah Suri, the narrative is a generalised account of baolis related to the Suris in Pakistan. The history of baolis can be traced back to the Mauryan period when Chandra Gupta Maurya constructed many such structures. The water in Losar baoli is potable, and many restaurants use it. However, due to easy access through steps and exposure, garbage can often be seen floating in it.

The city of Islamabad was designed by the Greek planner Doxiadis. The development commenced in 1960. There was a proposal to name the new capital of Pakistan, New Taxila. In spatial terms, the Margalla hills separate Taxila and Islamabad.

Today, no public institution or road name in Islamabad connects the city to its Buddhist history. There was a proposal to call the new airport Gandhara International Airport. However, that has not happened. The architectural character of the capital city does not reflect its historical roots. Some of the worship sites have been erased. Over more than half a century of urbanisation, the city has been losing ancient architecture and landscape. Colonial occupation and land-grab patterns persist and continue to affecting the vulnerable and marginalised segments of the society. Some of the indigenous people have been displaced and the city is increasingly dominated by a single social class.

The caves have certain distinctive features including banyan prop roots and the desert sand-coloured karst landscape of tufa limestone rock known as kanjur. The swaying banyan prop roots have been compared to long hair, alternately concealing and revealing a face.

Buddhism and the banyan tree share a profound connection. The intricate network of branches in a banyan tree is an emblematic symbol of Buddhism. These roots never touch the ground, symbolising the ethereal nature of Buddhism. Pothwar’s landscape is adorned with banyan trees, revered as heritage trees. Typically, banyan trees develop robust, woody trunks, resembling a grove of trees, a symbolic representation of Buddhism.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in colonial India, there was a resurgence of Buddhism. Numerous monks embarked on journeys that contributed to what is best described as the lived Buddhist world. Scholars like Ober use the term Buddhist ecumene to denote those regions within the Indian subcontinent where Buddhism was studied, practiced, understood and encountered.

During the new wave of Buddhism in India during the British colonial period, monks did not frequently visit the Shah Allahditta caves. Nor was this a common destination for other religious communities in the Pothwar region. A route extends from the caves, passing through Sadhu ka Bagh to Ban Faqiran. Ismail says that his father first noted the presence of remnants of a stupa and a mosque in Ban Faqiran, leading to an invitation to archaeologists to explore the site. Access to Ban Faqiran is challenging and involves an hour-long hike. The stupa at Ban Faqiran is believed to date back to the period between the 2nd Century BCE and the 5th Century AD.

In the shade of these banyan prop roots, qawwali singers often perform with melodious tones reminiscent of a bygone era when Buddhist monks chanted hymns to Buddha and sang songs during their visits to caves in small groups. These qawwals infuse life into the surroundings, creating a lively atmosphere.

At the start of the the 21st Century, Fauzia Minallah embarked on a photographic survey of the caves. She captured images of the last remaining mural and documented the vanishing inscriptions. In this evolving narrative, the site came to be identified as Shah Allahditta Buddha caves.

The resurgence of interest in the site has led to a re-evaluation of its role in our understanding of the region’s civilisational past. Consequently, it has transitioned into a prominent tourist attraction and garnered increased visibility on social media platforms. However, the literature about the caves often lacks the depth of research needed to unravel their full historical significance.

Alexander of Macedonia likely never visited this site. The caves now attract people on account of their natural beauty, new restaurants and various amenities for tourists. The modern additions redefine the site but do not diminish its Buddhist heritage. Therefore, the possibility of renaming the caves to reflect their rich history remains intact.

The writer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively written on the non-Muslim history and Pakistan’s heritage.

Through time and mystery