2007
12.22

4-Buddhist Shards at Tahkt-i-Bahri

SYNOPSIS:  HOW EID AND A UNESCO SITE CLASH.  A VISIT OF AN AFGHAN REFUGEE FAMILY IN PESHAWAR.  BEING TREATED LIKE MEN…

For several hours we road in our 4×4 towards Peshawar, crossing a couple of the five rivers this region is known for.  Since this was the Eid holiday, entire families were out everywhere riding in boats, strolling along the road, or relaxing in modest amusement parks we spotted from the highway.  The landscape was pleasant and fertile.  Green fields stretched for miles dotted by some shrubs and trees.

Takt-i-Bahi, a Buddhist site from the 2nd to 5th Century should have been nearly deserted, just as Taxila was only two days earlier.  But the parking lot at the site was suspiciously crowded with dozens of tuk-tuks (as those colorful three-wheeled electric mini cars are known), motor bikes, and cars.  Loud music filled the valley coming from atop the site.  Takt-i-Bahi is perched on a hill and as we climbed it the music became louder and occasional small groups of men of all ages passed us or came walking down.  What was going on?

As we turned the corner into the main 5th century monastic courtyard, there was no more doubt over what was going on:  Throngs of young men were dancing and singing to the tune of a boom-box elevated onto the shoulders of one of the dancers.  The party came to an abrupt halt as some of the boys spotted us:  Two middle-aged foreign ladies and two men accompanying them!  As surprised as we were to find these locals partying here, they must have been equally surprised to encounter actual visitors to this ancient site which to them was nothing more than a conveniently elevated and remote party-parlor!  The shock was definitely mutual.

Even our local guide gasped for air.  As an archaeologist he fully understood the implication of a party of this magnitude – we estimated at least 300 men spread out across the site.  The men were dancing atop of walls and roofs of monastic cells obviously oblivious of the threat they posed to this invaluable UNESCO protected monument.  It got better!

Now we became the main attraction!  As we continued to survey the site, we dragged a tail of men behind us giggling and chatting and closing in on us!  Were we safe?  Was my camera of interest?  Were our valuables a target?  So far, the situation developed in good fun.  But out of nowhere, a uniformed police officer appeared and made it his business to walk next to Nicola and myself.  Just in case, I guess.  Just as a deterrent.  This was a relief.

And a gate-keeper appeared as well, ready to open some doors for us behind which small-scale archaeological artifacts were kept for safe-keeping.  As we tried to observe the objects, the crowd peeked through the fence breaking out into cheers whenever we turned around paying attention to them.  It was better to pretend they were not there.

I took a few close-up shots but my heart sank when I realized the full extent of this party.  It would be nearly impossible for me to take any overview shots of this site without dozens of locals crowding the picture; useless for classroom use.  What a mess!

But we walked on only to discover more horrendous violations of this site:   In a corner a father-son team had set up shop to grill!   Piles of wood had been stacked up and were in the process of being burned to provide tasty-smelling shish kebobs!  In another corner some entrepreneurs were selling drinks.  Hundreds of liter-bottles of Pepsi and Pop were stacked up ready for consumption.  And were hundreds of people drink pop, dozens of people will have to pee…  And so they did, into convenient corners of the monument.  It was simply appalling!

And don’t forget, all this time we were trailing a train of curious onlookers.  That, in fact, had cleared some of the rest of the site and eventually allowed me to take some pictures of the site.  The most curious moment came when Nicola and I had our photos taken by Shabir, our driver.  As we faced him, the cheering crowd behind him faced us – the scene was just too, too funny.   Sooner than expected, we left the site.   How bizarre!

Upon arrival in Peshawar, we checked into a charming court-yard hotel with wonderful green hanging plants transforming the multi-storied building into a jungle-like forest.

For the evening, a special treat was on the itinerary:  A visit of an Afghan family for dinner.  This was a rich family which had fled Afghanistan about a decade earlier.  They were friends with Shabir and eager to welcome us into their home.  They had built a mansion for their extended family which consisted of nearly 30 people.  At least five couples, parents and their various children.  We were invited into a large open room with pillows arranged along the walls.  At least ten men were sitting there, drinking tea and eating snacks.   As we sat down with them to eat and drink a splendid feast which had been spread out on a dining cloth on the floor we noticed the absence of the women and children.  Where were they?

In the back of the house, of course.  They would come out only after the men had eaten and eat the leftovers!  We were appalled and asked if we could meet the women and talk to them.  The men seemed surprised that we were even interested but allowed us to enter the women’s quarters.  Only one of the many women in the back spoke English.  She had studied medicine and could have become a doctor if it had not been for her marriage to one of the well-off man of this household.  Now she was a proud mother of a one-year old son.  Her plans to become a doctor were not only on hold, but over, she told us.  She no longer needed (or wanted?!) to work.  None of the women allowed us to photograph them.  But I was able to take a picture of her curiously draped baby.  Arms and legs were covered and the baby was wrapped in one big chunk, like a mummy, as was customary for the night.

We returned to the men and after another hour of chat and tea were released into the night with lots of good wishes and the hope that we would return some day for another visit.

On the way back to Islamabad we passed another type of refugee camp.  More of the sort I would have pictured:  Single-storied crammed quarters raised hastily of sun-dried mud-bricks to house thousands and thousands of impoverished Afghan immigrants who had fled their homeland.  Quite a contrast to the marble villa we had just visited.

Good night.

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