Bhir, Sirkāp & Sirsukh: A Note on Taxila It’s Sites and It’s Archaeology

Dharmarajika Stupa, Sirkāp
Ruins of Sirkāp

That Taxila was very famous can be deduced from the fact that it is mentioned in several languages: in Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila, which may be interpreted as ‘prince of the serpent tribe’; in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila, which the Romans rendered as Taxilla; the Chinese called it Chu-ch’a-shi-lo. The ruins are some 30 kilometres northwest of modern Islamabad. 

The town commanded the Indian ‘royal road’ (Uttarâpatha; more or less the modern Grand Trunk Road), which connected Gandhara (the valley of the river Cophen, modern Kabul) in the west to the kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges valley in the east. Another important route was the Indus River from Kashmir in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. To fully understand the importance of Taxila, it must be noted that the Khunjerab pass between Kashmir and Xinjiang -the current Karakorum highroad- could already be crossed in Antiquity; therefore, Taxila was connected with the Silk road between Babylonia in the far west and China in the far east. 

Taxila was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC – according to legend by a son of the brother of the Rama. The first town was situated on a hill that commanded the river Tamra Nala, a tributary of the Indus. It was an important cultural centre and it is said that the Mahabharata was first recited at Taxila. This site is currently called the Bhir mound. The residential area was in the east; the western part of the town seems to have had a ceremonial function. If the ‘Pillared hall’ was indeed a sanctuary, as is maintained by several archaeologists, it is the oldest known Hindu shrine.

Taxila was the capital of a kingdom that was added to the Achaemenid empire under king Darius I , but the Persian occupation did not last long. There are no archaeological traces of the presence of western armies in the Punjab, although a claim that the Persians built something at Taxila was made in 2002.

When the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great occupied Gandara and the Punjab in 326, the Indian kingdoms had already regained their independence. King Ambhi of Taxila, who is called Taxiles (‘the man from Taxila’) and Omphis in the Greek sources, had invited Alexander in 329, because he needed support against king Porus (Indian: Puru) of Pauravas, a state that was situated in the eastern Punjab. 

Alexander did what he had been asked to do, defeating Porus on the banks of the river Hydaspes (modern Jhelum), and then unexpectedly allied himself with Porus. He forced Ambhi and Porus to reconcile and left behind an occupation force of Macedonian and Greek veterans under a satrap named Philip. Thus for sometime Taxila became a part of the Greek empire.

In 316, king Chandragupta of Magadha (321-297) could conquer the Indus valley. Taxila lost its independence and became a provincial capital. 

Chandragupta was succeeded by Bindusara. His son Ashoka was for some time governor of Taxila until 269, when he succeeded his father. Ashoka became famous for his religious policy: he stimulated Buddhism wherever possible. At Taxila, the existing monastery, which was situated on the other bank of the river, was abandoned. Two new monasteries were built to the east. The Dharmarajika monastery, where Ashoka buried several relics of Buddha, is still famous for its stupa.

In 184, the Greeks, who had maintained a kingdom in Bactria, invaded Gandara and the Punjab again. From now on, there was a Greek king living in Taxila. His name was Demetrius. The town was rebuilt on the plains on the other bank. This second Taxila, called the Sirkap (‘severed head’), was built according to the Hippodamaean plan, that is: according to Greek fashion, like a gridiron. The largest sanctuary, called ‘apsidal temple’, measured 70×40 meters. The Sun temple and a sanctuary known as ‘shrine of the double-headed eagles’ are near the apsidal temple.

In ca. 80 CE, the Yuezhi nomads or Kushans took over the area. Again, Taxila was re-founded, this time even further to the north. This third town is known as the Sirsukh. It must have looked like a large military base. The wall is 5 kilometres long and no less than 6 meters thick. From now on, Taxila was visited by Buddhist pilgrims from countries as far afield as Central Asia and China. There were many sanctuaries and monasteries in the neighborhood.

Another visitor was a Greek philosopher named Apollonius of Tyana. A description of Taxila can be found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by the Greek author Philostratus. In section 2.20 he writes that the town is as big as Nineveh and was fortified like the Greek cities.

“While Apollonius was engaged in this conversation, messengers and an interpreter presented themselves from the king, to say that the king would make him his guest for three days, because the laws did not allow of strangers residing in the city for a longer time; and accordingly they conducted him into the palace. 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 look at them from outside they had only one storey, 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.”

[Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 2.23;tr.F.C. Conybeare]

The city was badly damaged when the Huns invaded the Punjab in the fifth century, and never recovered.

The main ruins of Taxila include four major cities, each belonging to a distinct time period, at three different sites. The earliest settlement at Taxila is found in the Hathial section, which yielded pottery shards that date from as early as the late 2nd millennium BCE to the 6th century BCE. The Bhir Mound ruins at the site date from the 6th century BCE, and are adjacent to Hathial. The ruins of Sirkap date to the 2nd century BCE, and were built by the region’s Greco-Bactrian kings who ruled in the region following Alexander the Great’s invasion of the region in 326 BCE. The third and most recent settlement is that of Sirsukh, which was built by rulers of the Kushan empire, who ruled from nearby Purushapura (modern Peshawar)

The main sites at Taxila today are:

• Bhir mound, the oldest part, probably belonging to the Achaemenid period; 

• Sirkap, a Buddhist city, founded by Greeks from Bactria; together with the Zoroastrian shrine at Jandial; 

• Sirsukh, a large square fortress founded by the Yuezhi nomads or Kushans, to which the Buddhists added monasteries like 

• Jaulian and Mohra Moradu

Bhir Mound:

The oldest part is Bhir, which consists of several building phases:  

1. The oldest stratum, usually dated to the sixth and fifth centuries BCE; 

2. The fourth century, in which raja Ambhi entertained Alexander the Great in 326; 

3. The stratum of the Mauryan empire, third century 

4. And the uppermost stratum, which is everything after the Mauryan period. 

The division between the first and second strata is a bit artificial. Even worse, the common identification of the oldest part of the city with the presence of the Achaemenid king Darius the Great in India in ca. 518 BCE is not based on archaeological finds. In his own texts, Darius claims to have conquered the Indus country, but until now, there is no archaeological confirmation. It would help if we found a Persian coin or cuneiform tablet.

In 316, king Chandragupta of Magadha (321-297) conquered the Punjab. Taxila lost its independence and became a provincial capital. Yet, the city remained important as center of administration, education and trade. During the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka, Buddhism became important and the first monks settled in Taxila. They built the stupa called Dharmarajika, ‘the tomb of the real law lord’, i.e., the Buddha, because Ashoka had sent relics to several places in his empire. At the same time, Taxila was rebuilt.

There is some continuity from the oldest to the youngest levels. The main street has been found on the same place in every stratum. The rest of the town changed considerably in the course of the centuries. It consisted of irregular, zig-zag, small streets and housing blocks made of bricks, stones and timber. There was a temple (‘the pillared hall’) and it is said that in the palace, the Mahabharata was recited for the very first time.

About 3 acres of mostly Mauryan remains have been unearthed in the middle of the Bhir mound: it is an irregular plan with four streets, 5 lanes and associated house blocks.

One street was 6.6m wide and the rest 2.7 – 5m in width. The houses are in the chatuhśala plan: open courtyards surrounded by rooms. Most of the houses appear to have been multi-storeyed: in one case the ground floor had 15 to 20 rooms.


The second city at Taxila is called Sirkap, which means ‘severed head’ and is the name of a mythological demon that is said to have lived on this site. It devoured human flesh and was killed by the hero Rasalu. Sirkap was founded by the Bactrian king Demetrius, who conquered this region in the 180’s BCE, and rebuild by king Menander.

Demetrius considered himself a Greek and built the city on the Hippodamaean plan, that is: like a gridiron [a structure consisting of parallel bars]. The ruins are younger than, but similar to, those of Olynthus in Macedonia and Halos in Thessaly. Taxila’s sanctuaries reflect the multicultural nature of the kingdom, which consisted not only of the Punjab, but also of Gandhara, (i.e., the valley of the Kabul and Swat), Arachosia, and a part of the Ganges valley. Greek religious practices, Zoroastrian cults, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism are all known from second-century Taxila. (For example, there was a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Jandial, north of Sirkap, which looks just like a Greek temple.)

Archaeologists have identified seven strata: 

1. A suburb of Bhir mound; sixth-third century BC; 

2. The first, Demetrian phase of the Greek city, early second century; 

3. The second, Menandrian phase of the Greek city, late second century; 

4. The first phase of the Saka period, beginning ca. 90 BCE; 

5. The second phase of the Saka period 

6. The last phase of the Saka period, until an earthquake in ca. 30 AD (picture, center); 

7. The Parthian period. 

The modern visitor essentially sees the sixth phase and its reconstruction by the Parthian king Gondophares. The excavated area is large: about 1200 meters long and 400 wide. The wall that surrounded the city, built in phase 5, had a height of 6-10 meters, was 5-7 meters wide, and almost 4,800 meters long. This picture shows the northern gate.

The enclosing stone walls of Sirkap (to the north-east of the Bhir mound) are made from coursed rubble masonry, which is characteristic for the Greek and Saca periods and are 5 Km long, 4.5 to 6.5 metres wide and 6 to 9 metres high. It wass strengthened by berms and rectangular bastions. The only gateway which has been excavated is the northern gateway. Immediately behind the gate was, as one could have expected, a guard room.

For a length of about 600 metres, the Indo-Parthian level of the city has been excavated revealing a grid-plan with house blocks interspersed by Stupas and temples. 

The main road of Sirkap also has a number of shops along it. 

The private houses were constructed of rubble masonry covered with lime or mud plaster. Usually, they had a small court, a second floor and a flat roof. One house covered 2160 sq.metres. After the earthquake, in the Parthian period, many were rebuilt with stronger walls and deeper foundations. The palace has been inferred in the South east extremity of the excavated remains.

A Greek visitor, whose description of Taxila was included in the Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, says that the houses gave the impression of having one story, but had in fact basement rooms. This visitor may indeed have been the neo-pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana; at least Philostratus believed that the subject of his vie romancée had visited the Punjab, and much information appears to be correct. That the palace of Taxila was small, that there was a Sun temple, that there was a temple in front of the walls (Jandial), and that the streets were as small as those of Athens – it has all shown to be correct.


After 80 AD, the Punjab, which had been conquered by Macedonians, Greeks, Sacae, and Parthians, was taken over by theYuezhi nomads or Kushans, a tribe that had once lived in northern China. Their king Kanishka abandoned the part of Taxila known as Sirkap, and founded the third city -in a green and lush valley- Sirsukh. It was to become famous for its fortifications, which is a masonry rampart wall with bastions.

It is almost 5 kilometres long and is nowhere less than 6 metres thick. It circumvenes an irregular square of 1350 x 990 meters. The walls are made of rough rubble and faced with the heavy diaper masonry masonry that is characteristic for this period. The semi-circular bastions, which probably had second and third stories, had loopholes inside the wall, at floor level.

The inner part of this citadel was not really investigated by archaeologists. It is low-lying and abundantly irrigated land, where ruins are buried inaccessibly deep.

There were several contemporary Buddhist monasteries (e.g., Jaulian and Mohra Moradu) in the neighborhood.

Sirsukh was left when the White Huns invaded the Punjab at the end of the fifth century.

Since 1980 Taxila and it’s various settlements have been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. The site was initially identified by Sir Alexander Cunningham and was excavated by Sir John Marshall.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi