A Walk Through Karachi's Buddhist Past

A Walk Through Karachi's Buddhist Past
There are a great variety of stupa images in the Khirthar mountain range in Sindh, where multi-storey and tower-like stupa in rock art are numerous in the valleys of Seeta, Mazarani, Chhanhar, Keharji, Radh, Buri, Kurbi, Makhi, Sallari, Gaj, and Nali. It is likely that these stupa images spread from north of the valleys of Khirthar and Budo to the valleys of Sindh-Kohistan in the valleys of Mol, Thado and Gidran Waro Gharoto in Karachi and Baran in Jamshoro. Buddhists were the majority in pre-Islamic Sindh. They inhabited the valleys of Sindh-Kohistan, and left behind a large number of stupas both in rock art and the physical structures which are now in ruins. The best surviving Buddhist stupa is located in Shaheed Benazirabad (formerly Nawabshah) and is called Thull Mir Rukan. The tower-like stupa (called Thull in Sindhi language) resembles various stupa images in the rock art of Sindh.

A stupa image at Thado Dam

Like other districts of Sindh, among various motifs, the stupa is a recurrent theme in the rock art of Karachi. Likewise, during my explorations in Karachi and other districts in Sindh, I found many depictions in rock art in Karachi. The majority of rock art sites are located in Gadap taluka. I discovered many stupa images in rock art of Gadap in Karachi and a few in Jamshoro district. A majority of stupa drawings are found at Lahut Tar rock-art site which is located in Mol valley in the district of Karachi. There are 10 stupa images at this site that are engraved on the boulders. One of the boulders which faces west and overlooks the Tar (pond) contains most of the stupa images. It is here that shepherds bring their herds for water. Water accumulates near this huge boulder which contains rock carvings. A large stupa image is engraved near a similarly depicted labyrinth on this boulder.

This stupa rests on a rectangular platform with a rectangular storey showing a tower that terminates at the top in the form of a circular dome topped by harmika, a finial and undecorated streamer. This is one of the finest stupa images found in the Karachi district. Some of the stupa drawings in Gaj alley in Dadu district are also finely engraved with decorative streamers which is a distinctive feature of the Gaj valley stupas. As compared to the Gaj valley stupas, the stupas at Lahut Tar in Mol valley did not have any decoration on the flag. Below this stupa are engravings of the Bactrian camel. Just before this Bactrian camel is a small stupa image that rests on a broad square platform with a single storey topped by a harmika. The harmika of the stupa rests on a circular dome (anda).

A large stupa image at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

The harmika of the stupa is surmounted with a finial. Between this small and large stupa, which is the largest amongst all others on the boulder, there is an anthropomorphic figure, probably a monk which is shown adoring the stupa. I have documented similar types of drawings of stupas with monks at many rock art sites in Gaj valley. A similar type of stupa with adoration by a monk has also been reported from Chilas by Dani. A large stupa is surrounded by other drawings of small stupas and anthropomorphic figures. There are actually three anthropomorphic figures, possibly monks, adoring the stupas. This stupa is one of the largest so far discovered in Karachi and it rests on a rectangular podium. The large anda (dome) of the stupa rests on two square storeys.

The dome is surmounted with harmika and streamer and finial. Just above this stupa is another small stupa. This stupa is shown resting on a broad square platform from which rises a tower terminating at the top in the form of a circular dome surmounted by a finial. There are several such small stupa images on this boulder which are now badly weathered. Some have been vandalized as shepherds have written names over them virtually making it impossible to recognize its architecture. On the right side of this large stupa is another small stupa, the style of this stupa is different from others as it is a tower-like stupa with a tower resting on a square platform. The tower of a stupa is surmounted with a trident-shaped finial.

Closer view of a large stupa image at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

Apart from these stupas which are engraved close to each other, there are three other stupas which are engraved left to the large stupa. The first stupa rests on a rectangular platform with a tower standing on its platform terminating at the top in the form of anda (dome) topped by harmika, finial and streamers. The tower of the second stupa is shown standing on a square platform. The tower of the stupa is superimposed with a dome and small finial. The third stupa depiction is totally different from so far discussed stupa images at the Lahut Tar rock-art site. This is a tower-like stupa with three storeys resting on a square platform. The top storey is surmounted with a finial. Another stupa which is engraved at a lower level of the boulder, which sometimes is submerged by hill stream water, is four storey structure topped by a circular anda, harmika and a finial.

Two stupa depictions are found on another boulder which is noted for hand, foot and animal tract petroglyphs. The first appears to be an unfinished stupa with only a single storey or the platform which artists made. Another is interesting stupa drawings looking more like a triangular-shaped stupa terminating at the top in the form of a small dome (anda). The second seems to be an incomplete structure by some artists as this is also close to the stupa image, therefore one can say that this was also an incomplete stupa image by the artist who only made a single storey and left it unfinished with the marks of the second storey clearly visible in the drawing. The stupa depictions at Lahut Tar rock-art sites provide valuable information about the bygone Buddhist community who was once inhabited Karachi and the Sindh-Kohistan region of Sindh.

Drawing of a large stupa at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

Like the Lahut Tar rock art site, there are also a group of stupa depictions at the Thado Dam rock-art site, but unfortunately, the majority of these stupa drawings are badly weathered. This is also an open-air rock art site, thus exposed to vagaries of weather which has left its marks not only on stupa depictions but also on other motifs at the Thado Dam rock-art site. Thado is one of the important hill streams in Sindh-Kohistan. There are eleven stupa images at the Thado Dam rock-art site which are badly weathered. There are five stupa depictions on one of the panels at Thado Dam rock-art site. The first stupa which is most magnificent is a three-storey building resting on a rectangular platform. The anda of the stupa is surmounted with harmika and finial. This stupa is flanked by other smaller stupas. The first on the right is oval-shaped with visible finial surmounting the upper storey of the stupa. This is a double-storey stupa with a finial at the top. On the left is a two-storey triangular-shaped stupa topped by harmika and finial. These stupa representations are very interesting which also tell a lot about the period in which these depictions were engraved at the Thado Dam rock-art site. Below this group of three stupa depictions is another stupa which is different from all three groups of stupas. This is a single-story stupa without any topping. On the right of these three groups of stupa images is another stupa engraving which is very similar to the one which is a three-story stupa with anda and a finial. This one I call the magnificent stupa, which is also flanked by two smaller stupa images. This stupa has been vandalised by shepherds. A closer look at this depiction shows the architecture of the stupa which appears to be a three-story structure. The anda of the stupa rests on a drum.

Labyrinth and Stupa images at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

Tower-like stupa at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

The dome of the stupa is surmounted with a finial. Apart from the five stupas on this panel, there is another rock panel which has a tower-like stupa with a finial. It is a four storey tower-like stupa. Close to this stupa depiction are four stupa drawings which are now badly weathered and vandalized and they are beyond recognition but contours show that these were also tower-like stupas. Another panel which is south of three group of stupa images contains the largest amongst all stupa representations at the the Thado Dam rock-art site. This is a two-storey stupa. The lower storey is square and the upper is triangle-shaped with a hemispherical dome surmounted with a finial. This is also unique stupa image. While looking at this stupa representation, I recall several such stupa representations which are also unique in terms of its style or architecture in many of the rock-art sites in Chilas, Thalpan and other rock art sites in the Diamer district which were reported by many rock art scholars.

Drawing of a stupa at Thado Dam

There are also a few other rock-art sites in Karachi which also represent Buddhist stupa. Gidran Waro Gharoto is one such site where there are few stupa depictions. Amongst these stupa depictions, one is most remarkable. All of the stupas are tower-like in style here. There are 6 such tower-like stupa depictions at this rock art site.

Drawing of Labyrinth and Stupa drawings at Lahut Tar

Based on comparative and stylistical analysis, I classify stupas of the Karachi district in three categories: 1) multi-storey stupa with dome, 2) tower-like stupa with and without dome, 3) oval-shaped, triangle-shaped and tower-like stupa with trident shaped toppings. The first categories of multi-storey stupa with dome or anda emerged in the 3rd to 5th centuries, as we have seen similar stupas in some valleys of Khirthar with Gupta Brahmi inscriptions.

The second category of stupas – with a dome or without one – was engraved during the 6th and 7th centuries AD. The third category of stupa also emerged in the 7th and continued up to the 9th century when the Buddhist community became a minority and many of them converted to Islam. The tower-like stupa with trident-shaped toppings is numerous in the valleys of Khirthar and Bado Ranges. These types of stupas have also been reported from other parts of Pakistan, particularly from Gilgit-Baltistan. Some have also been reported from the Swat valley.


The author is an anthropologist. He tweets as @Kalhorozulfiqar. Excerpts have been taken from the author’s book The Rock Art of Karachi published in 2020. All photos are by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar