Zoroastrians of Gandhara

February 11, 2024

Exploring the enigmatic Jandial Temple and beyond

Zoroastrians of Gandhara


n the way to Khanpur, the road connects Grand Trunk Road to Julian Buddhist Monastery by passing through ancient wonders of Taxila. Jandial retains its name in the locals’ memory as the first village of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, its most well-known site in the world, a Zoroastrian temple, remains distant from both local publicity and historical consciousness.

The sites of the ancient past scattered in Taxila today find their place in narratives of religious tourism and in showcasing Pakistan’s civilisational past, but they do not significantly contribute to academic literature. In the articulations of Pakistan’s civilisational past, particularly the Gandhara Civilisation, the involvement of irrelevant institutions and literature has hindered the lay person’s ability to imagine their past and conduct studies that go beyond themes of security and strategic affairs.

This “unnecessary institutionalised intellectual ownership” of the Gandhara civilisation have fostered a culture that discourages young historians, scholars, and researchers who are working on its history and seeking to construct the details of its heyday.

The world heritage list notes that the temple’s celebration hardly attracts local historians to document its past, aside from its contested identity as either a Greek or a Zoroastrian temple. Tourists and travellers visiting the site seem least interested in such inquiries, yet it was once a place of worship for Zoroastrians where Buddhism thrived.

The Zoroastrian fire temple site at ancient Taxila, situated on the southeastern edge of Gandhara, has long been believed to be a Greek temple in one of the most important cities of Gandhara. Taxila’s modern name is the Greek form of the Indian name Taksha-Shila. Beyond names, there are evident architectural influences of Greek architecture. The Jandial temple shows Graeco-Roman Mediterranean influences.

The temple’s religious identity remains unknown and contested despite increased interest in these archaeological sites in recent years. The Zoroastrian population at Jandial could be considered a part of the Gandhara satrapy under different Zoroastrian rulers, possibly during the Achaemenid Empire, when many Zoroastrians may have settled in Gandhara.

One of the primary arguments for examining the presence of Zoroastrians in Taxila is based on Strabo’s account. Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian who visited Taxila in the 1st Century CE, mentioned exposing the dead to vultures, which many archaeologists and local researchers consider a Zoroastrian practice. However, ‘sky burial’ was not exclusive to Zoroastrianism. It was practiced in some parts of China at that time.

Early archaeological examinations by Marshall suggested that the Zoroastrian temple was built in a Greek style. However, Saif-ur Rehman Dar challenged this position, arguing that it was a Greco-Bactrian temple built by the Greeks. The question remains: How could a Greek temple be a Zoroastrian fire temple?

Zoroastrians of Gandhara

Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek philosopher and religious leader hailing from Tyana in Cappadocia, Roman Anatolia, embarked on extensive travels and teaching across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. During his visit to India, he is reported to have visited the Jandial temple. Philostratus records this encounter:

“And they saw a temple, in front of the wall, which was not far short of 100 feet in size, made of (porphyry) stone covered with stucco, and there was constructed within it a shrine, somewhat small as compared with the great size of the temple which is surrounded with columns, and deserving of notice. For bronze tablets were nailed into each of its walls on which were engraved the exploits of Porus and Alexander”.

– Philostratus’ The Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

Apollonius’s visit to India is described in Book II of Life of Apollonius of Tyana, particularly the visit to the city of Taxila, described in Chapters 20 to 24. He describes constructions of the Greek type in Taxila, probably referring to Sirkap:

“Taxila, they tell us, is about as big as Nineveh, and was fortified fairly well after the manner of Greek cities. I have already described the way in which the city is walled, but they say that it was divided up into narrow streets in the same irregular manner as in Athens, and that the houses were built in such a way that if you looked at them from outside they had only one story, while if you went into one of them, you at once found subterranean chambers extending as far below the level of the earth as did the chambers above. ”

– Book II :23 The Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

The temple is 158 feet long and 85 feet wide. It consists of an open entrance hall leading to the closed chamber and a surrounding corridor. At the entrance, there are signs of four mighty sandstone columns. The massiveness of the columns suggests a stone roof similar to the rest of the structure. Three different types of stones have been used in the construction of the temple.

Zoroastrians of Gandhara

Early archaeological examinations by Marshall suggest that the Zoroastrian temple was built in Greek style. However, Saif-ur Rehman Dar hallenged this position, arguing it was a Greco-Bactrian temple built by the Greeks. The question remains: How could a Greek temple be a Zoroastrian Fire temple?

Peter Stewart’s Gandharan Art and the Classical World mentions that Gandhara was an important part of the Kushan Empire, which extended across Central Asia and northern India at its height. It was connected to other parts of this realm. It also appears to have been well connected to more distant regions of the ancient world through trade, religion and diplomatic contacts. The Kushan rulers’ religion seems to have been mainly Shaivite and Zoroastrian, but they also patronised Buddhism.

Archaeologists have excavated the windows, which is also unusual for a Greek temple. A convincing explanation is that they did not serve to let in light but oxygen for the sacred fire. For many scholars, this is one argument for the thesis that the temple was dedicated to Ahura Mazda. The spread of Buddhism under the Kushans coincides with dramatic developments in Buddhist doctrine, art and literature, developments that are characteristic of northern Buddhism exclusively and in which Zoroastrian Bactrians, Zoroastrian Scythians/ Sakas and Zoroastrian Parthians must certainly have participated. It is noteworthy that, in the Old Khotanese Suvarabh sottamas tra, the name r of the Indian goddess of fortune is either taken up as such or translated by the Zoroastrian name andr -mat –; compare Avestan speñtá ár-maiti, the “auspicious flow of thoughts/ meditation” and the guardian of the good earth (Emmerick, 2002, pp. 7-9 concerning earlier literature). A few magic texts and a collection of sacred formulas against demons are extremely similar to Vi-dæv-dát (Vendidad) in the Avestan lore. Among other influences are the rise of the Mah y na school of Buddhism and the Scythian style of Buddhist art known as Gandharan.

In Mah y na Buddhism, the historical Buddha kyamuni is regarded as only one of many Buddhas, and hence, less as an almost unattainable ideal. The idea of the Boði-sattvas in the Mah y na supplanted the ideal of the Saöshyánts (future saviours) among the Zoroastrians (q.v.; Rosenfield, pp. 227ff). In the Mah y nist conception of the Boði-sattvas, Amit bha and Ava­lokite vara, the Zoroastrian influence has been detected (de Mallmann, pp. 85-95). The Kushan period dates the most famous example of Buddhist rock-hewn architecture among Iranians, the colossal rock-hewn Buddhas, 35 and 53 m tall, at B m án in Afghani­stan (Beal, I, pp. 49-53) and seem to have been first mentioned in the west by Thomas Hyde in a.d. 1700 (Hyde, p. 132). Kushan influence is known to have spread northward into Chorasmia and Sogdiana, but it seems doubtful whether these regions were ever under Kushan rule, and there is not much evidence of Buddhism in these regions in the Kushan period. The study of Parthian and Scythian Buddhism offers a glimpse into Pre-Sasanid Zoroastrianism and its influences on Buddhism.

Today, the Jandial Zoroastrian temple stands as a remnant of the Zoroastrian past. Many other archaeological sites in the region also have Zoroastrian connections. For instance, a statue depicting the first Meditation of Siddhartha under the rose apple tree on the pedestal, accompanied by a fire altar, indicates Zoroastrian worshipers dating back to the 2nd CE. Excavations from Seri Bahlol and Takht-i Bahi in the Mardan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa serve as fine examples of the influences of Zoroastrianism on Buddhism.

Zoroastrians of Gandhara

During the long 19th Century, the Parsi population of India scattered to various regions across the country, establishing new homes away from Gujarat. Despite being adherents of Zoroastrianism and forming a new sense of belonging in these lands, they did not lay historical or political claims to the sites of Zoroastrian connections in Gandhara. John R Hinnells discusses in his book The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration that, at the end of colonial rule in India, the Parsi conscience did not view the establishment of an Islamic state, Pakistan, as a matter of concern due to the communal memory of the suffering of Zoroastrians in Islamic Iran. However, it was not a matter of celebration either.

A counter-historical argument to John R Hinnells’s perspective could be constructed based on Pakistan’s historical connections to Zoroastrianism, particularly in regions that remained under the influence and rule of successive Zoroastrian dynasties. The Jandial site stands as a notable example of Pakistan‘s Zoroastrian past.

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

Zoroastrians of Gandhara