Forgotten history

January 30, 2022

The Buddha Caves, also known as Shah Allah Ditta Caves, have a unique position in the Gandhara Civilisation

Forgotten history

Islamabad was originally meant to be named New Taxila, says Prof Dr Sajid Awan, director of the Institute of Historical and Cultural Research at the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU). Prof Awan tells The News on Sunday it was Gen Ayub Khan who named the city Islamabad instead.

New Taxila could have been at the heart of a tourist corridor from Taxila to Murree.

The region is the birthplace of the Gandhara civilisation. Buddha Caves, known locally as Shah Allah Ditta Caves in Islamabad occupy a unique position in the complex.

The age of these caves has not been determined precisely. Some archeologists have estimated that the Buddhist murals and relics in these caves are about 2,400 years old.

“Diplomats and foreign dignitaries frequent this place. I try to host them and give them a touch of Pakistani hospitality,” Syed Zeeshan Naqvi, a former deputy mayor of Islamabad and custodian of these caves, tells TNS.

Lack of worship places for Buddhists in Islamabad has only increased the importance of these caves. Unfortunately, unregulated housing on the Margalla Hills hampers access to these caves.

Posh residential sectors, D-12 and D-13, have been carved out at the foot of the Margalla Hills on the land that was previously known as Mauza Sri Sarral after a Hindu saint. A dilapidated one-lane road from these sectors winds its course through the hills towards the caves.

“This is the road Sher Shah Suri travelled by. Earlier, Alexander too had used this route to invade the Punjab,” says Prof Awan.

There are many shops and huge houses along the road which is quite narrow in some places.

Forgotten history

True age of these caves has not been determined. Some archeologists have estimated that the Buddhist murals and relics in these caves are about 2,400 years old.

Water from untapped fresh water streams flows over some sections of the road. The view of the hills is getting continuously altered by stone crushers, construction and cutting of trees cut. Only a few old banyan trees survive. The picture does not look too good. Walking through the threshold, one notices a fresh water pond, perfectly built with stones. A signboard put up close to it reads that the water is not meant for washing clothes. Approaching this signboard, one finds oneself dwarfed by the huge limestone rocks all around.

Looking up, one realises that two caves lead to other smaller caves some of which are joined through the rocks. Locals say the trees around this place are of immense historical significance. The caves were home once to Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics. They came later to be identified with Shah Allah Ditta, a Mughal-era dervish.

About half a kilometre away, there is a huge hotel with a number of terraces, overlooking the caves. A part of the hotel consists of a stable where horses are bred. Its keeper complains that successive governments have ignored equestrian sports that had been a local tradition and very popular.

One notices some farmhouses. Khyber Pukhtunkwa lies three/four kilometres down the road. The boundary between Islamabad and KP is barely noticeable.

The Bari Imam caves on Margalla Hills also have some Buddhist relics. Taxila, the cradle of Gandhara civilisation and Buddhist rule, lies on the other side of Margalla Hills. Prof Awan says that the new Islamabad airport should have been named Gandhara Airport. “It would have been easier for international travellers to remember the name. Artefacts and motifs from the Gandhara civilisation should have been on display at the airport. Guided tours to sites like the Shah Allah Ditta caves should have been facilitated.” He points out that Taxila was home to the first university in the world.

The embassies of Japan and South Korea have in the past facilitated Gandhara civilisation exhibitions in Taxila and Islamabad. Some of the international visitors to these exhibitions have said that they were happy to see these historic places but sad to observe their decay.

The writer teaches   development support   communication at the   International Islamic   University, Islamabad.  

Twitter:  @HassanShehzadZ,  Email:

Forgotten history