Grass pushes through the stones in places where the Sphola Stupa’s dome has been effaced by time and plunderers. The archaeological site, found along the route of the “Iron Horse” or the Khyber Pass train, has slowly become a neglected relic of a history sidelined.
The stupa is a 2nd century Buddhist monument in Zarai village near Jamrud. It is a reminder of the great Kushana Empire and Buddhism nexus which is often depicted in Gandhara artefacts. In fact, Gandhara sculptures were excavated at this very stupa and are now housed in the museum in Peshawar.
Buddhism once flourished in the Gandhara civilisation. During this time, a number of monasteries, stupas and other institutions were set up around the region – few have been preserved in all their glory.
Even in the provincial capital, almost every such symbol of the past has crumbled away.
Sphola Stupa is possibly the only such monument left in the Khyber Pass area. But instead of being treated as a conservation site, it is has been turned into a Frontier Constabulary (FC) check post – the height provides a useful vantage point to the troops.
Tower of power
Built of stones, it towers 50 feet above Khyber Road and the now-broken railway track, and runs roughly sixty feet in circumference.
Though most of the stupa is structurally intact, sans protection or restoration, the vagaries of time has left it poorly.
“Most of the damage to it has been at the hands of treasure seekers,” writes Tipu Muhammad Khan in his history book. The entire site of and around Sphola Stupa has been pillaged for what are surely priceless artefacts. Climate has also played its role in eroding chunks of the building.
However, the archaeology department has never taken notice or any steps to restore it.
“It (the stupa) is situated on a spot where the entire area can easily be observed,” writes Major (retd) Muhammad Nawaz Khan in his book on Khyber. “Due to its position, Aurangzeb erected a tower near it to help keep a watchful eye on the surroundings.”
Its strategic location, according to Nawaz, has been a bane for the Buddhist monument. To gain advantage in fights, tribesmen constructed trenches or checkpoints atop of the stupa and around it, causing some of the structure to fall apart, shares the major.
When the tribesmen were constructing ditches nearby, they found many invaluable relics. Since then, hunters never stopped digging for more riches – till the FC took control and built their own check posts, smack on top of Sphola Stupa.
Other stupas in the region have fared better, writes Nawaz, but those are in Mankyala Tope or Shingardara.
For the region, Sphola Stupa is more than just a Buddhist site. It is witness to kings, wars, loves and lives of the region. Unfortunately, there is no one watching as the monument falls apart.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2014.