2012
06.06

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT TO AN ANCIENT BUDDHIST SITE OBSCURED BY THE LEGEND OF ROSTAM.

Takht-e-Rostams are numerous in Afghanistan – the “Throne of Rostam”.  Rostam, if I understand this right, is kind of the Gilgamesh of Persian legend, a hero written about in the famous 10th Century Shahnameh, or Book of the Kings by Ferdowsi (Firdausi), a Persian writer.

Takth-e-Rostam near Samangan is an unmistakable Buddhist site due to the presence of a rock-cut Stupa.  Both Mezar-e-Sharif and Samangam are safer places than Balkh and my crew was a lot more relaxed today compared to yesterday.  I was even invited to walk around the bazaar, but it did not look like anything worth exploring.  However, the main attraction near Samangam, two hills with ancient Buddhist architecture will certainly count among the highlights of this trip for me.

Just outside of town, there are rolling hills which look like nothing much.  Even as you stand right in front of them, you do not suspect much behind some holes in the mountain.  But there are five caves, four large ones and a tiny one full of litter.  Cave One is circular and has a large single niche, likely carved to house a Buddha figure and a soot-covered ceiling in which you can still make out the petals of a huge lotus flower.  Cave Two is probably the most surprising as it has several niches carved out between two corridors.  The corridor closest to the mountain face is almost at level with the niches, but the one deeper inside, going parallel is substantially lower.  Conventional wisdom has dubbed this cave the “bazaar”, but the layout makes no sense as a bazaar.  It makes little sense as anything, really.  If these were monks’ chambers, why the second, lower corridor; why no privacy, and no third wall?  No decoration has survived but many chambers here too, are blackened with soot.  Cave Three is a big square with four niches and remaining carved columns on either side and atop the niche.  The corner architecture is interesting as it is reminiscent of the early muqarnas, an architectural form that developed in Islamic architecture to bridge the transition from square to round and eventually culminated in the signature “stalactite” effect found in many mosques today.  Cave Four has a curious floor indentation thought to be a bath and Cave Five is little more than a hole in the wall full of litter.

Without the stupa hidden in the second hill, these caves may leave even more questions unanswered.  Given the proximity to the stupa, it is safe to assume that their use was connected and that the caves were likely a monastery.

The stupa is completely unique as it has not been built up, but carved down.  Stupas are ancient burial mounds which since the death of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, have become Buddhist reliquaries and monuments for meditation, often associated with Buddhist monasteries.  A devotee would enter the monument through a gate on the East and find him- (or her-) self inside the circumambulatory pradakshina path.  The devotee would surround the monument clockwise as often as desired, shielded by a high fence from the outside world.   There usually was a secondary pradakshina higher up which symbolized progress towards enlightenment.

In this case, the stupa was dug down into a 28 meters (90 feet) tall cliff.  The shielding from the outside was automatic as the devotee would find himself engulfed in a narrow shaft between two rock walls.  But of the 28 meters, only about 8 meters remain, the rest seems to have filled in over time, or perhaps were never cut out.  You enter the lower path through a cave-corridor with a heart-shaped opening.  A badly damaged and hardly visible vestige of a staircase to the North of the entrance could have been the way up, long ago.  Today, in order to get up, you climb the rock face to reach the upper rim which allows you a look down into the shaft.  You are then also at level with the harmika, or superstructure which typically tops a stupa.  An umbrella indicating the central axis of the monument would have rounded up the set.  In this stupa, an unusual niche is carved into the Northern face of the harmika.  Did it once hold a statue?  That would be unusual, too.

If you want to follow the Rostam legend, then this is his throne and he got married here to Tahmina, the daughter of the king of Samangan.

It was first under the 3rd Century BC Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and later under the 2nd Century AD mighty Kushan Empire that Buddhism was promoted as a state religion and flourished.  And it was the proximity to the Silk Road that helped to spread and support Buddhist monasteries.  The Bamiyan Buddhas were the greatest extant record of this movement and of a style which merged Greek and Indian elements into what is also known as the Gandharan style.  Perhaps, the Buddhas which once stood in these niches were of this style?  What happened to them will forever elude us.

Mubin had a migraine for the second day in a row and was unusually quiet.  No jokes today, no stories.  I did not want to bother him with any additional requests for activities and decided to enjoy my VIP hotel room instead, and watch some news for the first time in a month on my big flat-screen TV.   I am finally caught up with all my work.  My computer has tried to rescue itself from whatever is going wrong internally.  I now have an automatic alternative desktop screen, have quarantined all but the most essential files and seem to be able to limp along for hopefully the remaining days of this trip.  Only one more week…

Good night.

3 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. I must have Islamic faucets…they all turn on when turned counterclockwise. lol Well, I guess that disproves that theory.

  2. Ok…so now I had to look up why Buddhists circumambulate clockwise and I found an explanation of how archetypal the auspicious clockwise turn is: knobs, faucets etc are designed so that turning them clockwise (to the right) turns things on. Circumambulating clockwise thus evokes a very ancient level of symbolism of doing what is “right”, following a true and enlightened path.

  3. Of course when you mentioned Prudakshina and the circumambulatory path made clockwise around the Stupa, I immediately thought of the Haj and the counterclockwise path made around the Kaaba. I wonder why the different directions? I think I looked this up during our study of the Kaaba and the reason for the Muslims doing it counterclockwise had something to do with looking down from Polaris all the planets appear to orbit in a counterclockwise direction,so they felt they had to do it around the Kaaba as it was done in nature.
    That Buddhist site must have been very interesting…the caves look so inviting!!!