Islamabad's Only Buddhist Stupa: The Ban Faqiran Site

Islamabad's Only Buddhist Stupa: The Ban Faqiran Site
Islamabad is a modern city, but its antiquity goes back to prehistoric times, about two million years before the present. Archaeologists have discovered a number of sites belonging to a number of cultures and civilisations in Islamabad, which date to the different periods of human history, from ancient to modern times. In this article, I will focus on Ban Faqiran Stupa, which belongs to the Buddhist era, and try to draw a picture of what is today Islamabad when it was inhabited by the Buddhists.

Ban Faqiran water reservoir in the foreground and mosque in the background (photograph taken in November 2021)

Ban Faqiran Stupa is situated in the southern part of the Margalla Hills, which separate Taxila and Islamabad, in the Shah Allah Ditta village. Apart from Ban Faqiran archaeological complex, two other famous archaeological sites, the Bowli and the Buddha Caves, are also located in Shah Allah Ditta village. Of these, the Buddha Caves were contemporaneous with the Stupa, whereas the architectural features of the Bowli (or stepwell) suggest it to be one of the bowlies built on the Shahrah-e-Azam (GT Road) long after the ancient Buddhist period – on the orders of 16th-century Sher Shah Suri.

Ban Faqiran got its name from a water reservoir over which the remains of an ancient mosque are found, that is located 200 meters to the west of the stupa. Ban Faqiran is a Pothohari and Hindko word meaning “the ascetics’ or monks’ pond.” In Pothohari and Hindko languages “ban” refers to the pond while “faqiran” means “of the ascetics or monks” or “belonging to ascetics or monks.”

Ban Faqiran Stupa before conservation (photograph taken in July 2018)

The Ban Faqiran archaeological complex has the remains of a stupa, water reservoir and mosque. This site, including the Buddha Caves, was first discovered by Pakistan's famous archaeologist and historian Professor Ahmed Hassan Dani and his student Azad Kakepoto at the beginning of the 21st century. Later on, Doctor Abdul Ghafoor Lone, an officer of the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums, conducted excavations at Ban Faqiran in 2015 and 2016 which resulted in the discovery of a stupa and a Mughal-period mosque.

Entering the Buddha Caves (photograph taken in November 2021)

Dr. Lone has divided the archaeological ruins of Ban Faqiran into two parts: the upper part and the lower part. The upper part contains the structure of the stupa which dates to the 2nd century AD, while the lower part has the remains of an old mosque and a water reservoir belonging to the Mughal period (before the site was excavated, some archaeologists believed that the mosque was built by Mahmud Ghaznavi).

The stupa at Ban Faqiran belongs to a flourishing period of Buddhism in the region. Architecturally speaking, this stupa is similar to several other stupas of the Gandhara region, especially Taxila. It is a square stupa measuring 10.15 x 10.15 meters with a 16.2-metres-long and 2.6-metres-wide rectangular staircase.

Water reservoir and mosque, Ban Faqiran (photograph taken in November 2021)

The monument is entirely built of limestone using semi-ashlar and diaper masonry techniques of the ancient Gandhara Civilisation. Its square base with a rectangular staircase is built of neatly cut blocks of limestone in semi-ashlar and diaper masonry, while the drum (tholobate) which sits on the base of the stupa is designed in ashlar masonry using square and rectangular blocks of Kanjor stone, which is a type of limestone found in the Margalla Hills. Based on the method of its construction, Dr. Lone argued that the Ban Faqiran Stupa was built between the 2nd and the 5th century AD.

View of the Buddha Caves near Shah Allah Ditta village of Islamabad (photograph taken in November 2021)

Ban Faqiran Stupa is one of the few Buddhist sites – and the only excavated Buddhist stupa – so far discovered in Islamabad. The most striking feature of the Ban Faqiran Stupa is its location, making it unique among the Buddhist sanctuaries located in the Taxila valley. Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, it is built in a quiet and beautiful place. It is said that Buddhist monks used to build their sanctuaries in secluded and quiet places, so that their devotional and meditational practices would not be disturbed. And this stupa is also something like that: far away from the areas which one imagines would have been frequented by the common people.

Crumbling drum of the Stupa (photograph taken in November 2021)

Overlooking a huge piece of land on both sides of the Margalla Hills, Ban Faqiran was very useful to Buddhists, suitable for worship and surveillance as well as managing agricultural matters. I believe that apart from religious purposes, the Ban Faqiran Buddhist site was also used as a post and/or camp (dera) from where the monks watched over the area and looked after the affairs of agriculture. The presence of the remains of Buddhists and a number of streams flowing from the Margalla Hills suggests that the area where the present city of Islamabad is located might have been cultivated by the Buddhists, especially during Kushan rule. As we know, the Buddhist monks were involved in agricultural activities from the time of the Kushans in Gandhara.

Semi-ashlar and diaper masonry, Ban Faqiran Stupa (photograph taken in July 2018)

Overall, it can be said with certainty that about 2,000 years ago Ban Faqiran Stupa, a religious site of the ancient Buddhist Civilisation (Gandhara) of Pakistan, was a part of the ancient city of Taxila. As the site is only recently discovered, this stupa failed to make it to the list of the Buddhist stupas of Taxila. There may be many other reasons for this, but the main reason, I believe, is not giving due consideration to the popularisation of this site at the national and international levels. In this regard, Pakistani media and the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums can play a very important role.

The government of Pakistan should take steps to protect and popularise this historically and culturally important place, and also a road should be built up to Ban Faqiran Stupa so that tourists can go there easily. This will boost tourism, and no doubt that can significantly contribute to the country’s economy.