Peshawar and the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

Professor Sayed Amjad Hussain writes of the rich, multilayered past of his beloved city in this second installment

Peshawar and the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World
In the first five centuries of the Common Era, Peshawar was the capital of a vast Buddhist Gandhara Empire that encompassed present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, large swaths of western India and southern China. In the first century Emperor Kanishka built a magnificent Stupa just outside the present day Gunj Gate. According to the historians and travelers who had seen the structure, it was at least 500 feet (152 meters) tall. The 10th-century Iranian scholar and polymath Abu Rehan el-Beruni wrote about the structure, though he never visited the area. At the time it was the tallest structure in whole of India and China. By the 9th century it had crumbled to the ground and through the centuries got covered by the cumulative dust and debris of time.

The place was called ‘Shah Ji Ki Dherian’ (The mounds of Shah Ji). In 1908 the Archeological Survey of India, under the supervision of Dr. David Brainard Spooner, excavated the site. He not only confirmed the presence of a Stupa at the site, he also recovered a small brass casket containing a small quartz bottle containing three bone fragments. According to historic accounts, Kanishka had buried the relics of Lord Buddha below the platform of the Stupa. The casket is in the Peshawar museum and the bone fragments were gifted by the British India government to Burma, where they are housed in a temple in Mandalay.

Artist’s rendition of Kanishka’s Stupa, that stood just outside the eastern city wall by Gunj Gate in the second century. From its size it was the tallest structure in India and China at the time. Sketch by Kim Seidel based on archaeological data and historic accounts

Kanishka’s Stupa was, by any criterion, the 8th wonder of the ancient world. The site, however, is now totally covered over by the urban sprawl. There is a small public park in the vicinity and all efforts to mark the site as a significant historic landmark have failed.

From a glorious past to an ignominious present

We are good at erecting monuments to the marginal and superficial deeds of our equally shallow and superfluous leaders. Every street and square in Peshawar, as elsewhere in the country, bears sign boards and marble tablets flaunting the generosity and kindness of our leaders for having the street paved or the gutters repaired. The streets are rutted and full of potholes and the gutters are perpetually clogged. Anyone with a speck of pride or dignity would never lend his name (always a man) to a work that lasts much shorter than his equally short term in office.

Chowk Yadgar is another sore point. In the past twenty-five years the main city square has been designed and redesigned, built and rebuilt to improve its looks and to facilitate the traffic flow. God knows how much public money was spent and pilfered in the process of erasing old mistakes and committing new ones. Today the square is a sad testament to an ill-conceived and harebrained adventure in rearranging the face of the city. Ditto for the Grand Trunk Road and Gorkhatree. Ditto, also, for the roundabouts, traffic lights, and fountains.

Chowk Yadgaar circa 1930

According to historic accounts, Kanishka had buried the relics of Lord Buddha below the platform of the Stupa. The casket is in the Peshawar museum

Prince Charles took the British architects to task for designing buildings that do not conform to the old historic architecture of London. People took note of his outcry and the trend to build glass and steel monstrosities ebbed. Prince Charles does not have any legal authority but he used his moral authority to influence the mindset.

With the notable exception of a few conservationists and concerned government officials, there has not been any protest against changing the cityscape. The same authorities that would not tolerate any infringement of the housing code in Hayatabad, look the other way when it comes to the walled city and its surroundings.

A depiction of the conversion of brigand Angulimala to the way of the Buddha - Shah ji ke dheri, Walled City of Peshawar

My poet friend Irshad Siddiqi lamented about the Pipal tree and Chowk Yadgar in his poem Yaadon ki Barrat. Written in small behr in the style of Akhtar Sherani, Irshad asks:

Wo pital kaat ke phaink dia

Be-pipal mandi kaisi hai?

Wo chowk ke jo taraajhua

Kia ooski yaadin baqi Hain?

And another diehard Peshawari, the late Johar Mir, screamed in pain when he looked at the transformation of his beloved city:

Makanoon mein dukanain bunn gai hain

Sare bazaar ruswaa ho gia hai

Hui hai roshni itni ziada

Gharoon mein ghupp andehra ho gia hai

‘Paris of the Pathans’ and Piccadilly of Central Asia

Peshawar was called ‘Paris of the Pathans’ and its fabled Kissa Khani Bazaar the Piccadilly of Central Asia by the celebrated American traveler and writer, Lowell Thomas. Today, save for the elitist suburbs, the city is becoming more like a backwater Timbuktu.

It is really strange and paradoxical that despite Peshawar being the capital of the province, successive governments paid very little attention to the city. General Fazle Haq, the military governor under Zia-ul-Haq, spent much effort and money on development projects in the province including an asphalt road from Peshawar to his native Mardan. A few years after his governorship, when he was in the political wilderness days, I spent a delightful evening with him. During the conversation I brought up his tenure as governor and whether he had any regrets. He said he has only one regret: that he did not do much for Peshawar. He compared his relative neglect of Peshawar to the efforts of General Ghulam Jilani in making Lahore a beautiful city. It was refreshing to hear General Fazle Haq’s mea culpa.

Afghan commisionarate building, in Peshawar's Walled City

Kabul Gate of the Walled City of Peshawar, during the British Raj era

A word of advice to future administrators: Let us not reinvent a model city as a prototype Dubai

There was however one governor who did much for Peshawar, that has left an inedible mark on the city. Retired General Iftikhar Hussain Shah served as governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa between 2000 and 2005. He got rid of encroachments – including encroachments by the police and army. He developed public gardens in the middle of the city in Gorkhatree citadel and courted local people who knew the culture and the history of the city.

Whenever I visited him, we would end up talking about the history of the city. He spared the archeological excavations in Gorkhatree Citadel when the proponents of the public park insisted the site should be reclaimed for extension of the garden. The excavation pit preserves the history of the city going back a few millennia before the Common Era. He was perhaps the only governor who was given a warm send-off by the local population of Peshawar.

Now some positive things about Peshawar. The previous Tehrik-e-Insaaf government paid some attention to the old city and made an attractive pedestrian mall, called Heritage Trail, from Clock Tower to the Gorkhatree Citadel. It is beautiful. So are the glass and steel plazas that line all major roads and a few post-independence buildings. But a few patches of kimkhab do not alter the looks of a tattered garment.

From the author's collection: Peshawar, circa second century CE - showing the famous Pipal tree (to the right), Gorkhatree Hill (to the left) and the Bara River in the foreground. Present-day Peshawar has no resemblance to the city of yore. The upper part of Kanishka’s Stupa is visible in the middle of the painting. Oil painting by Kim Seidel

Now there are apologists and those who have in one way or another contributed to the blight and the runaway expansion of the city. They give a litany of reasons as to why we cannot do any better. They point to the relative lack of education in our people, a diminished sense of civic responsibility and civic pride, and a heightened desire to make money by any means. They consider the people totally unworthy of being entrusted with public policy. To all that and countless other reasons given by such people, I say a loud, “Nonsense.”

Peshawar is one of the oldest continuously living cities in Asia. Let us embrace and showcase its glorious past and try to connect it with the present.

A word of advice to future administrators: Let us not reinvent a model city as a prototype Dubai. Let’s accept the fact that Peshawar has 3,000 years of rich history.

A dyed-in-wool Peshawari, Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is the author of five Urdu and two English books about the history, culture and linguistic legacy of the walled city of Peshawar. He is an emeritus Professor of cardiovascular surgery and an emeritus Professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, Ohio, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Blade of Toledo and daily Aaj of Peshawar

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: