Most entomologists are more prone to thinking of the Harlequin butterfly when they hear the word “Taxila”, but there is certainly an aptness to this other signification of the term when you consider what Taxila the location is to Pakistan’s tourist sites. This archaeological site has long gained renown for being one of the most fascinating of the country’s many offerings to tourists, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with no fewer than 18 locations, and is definitely something of a butterfly amidst Pakistan’s historic places, it being so well-known to travellers.
The more correct name for the city that once stood here is Takshashila, and there are yet debates about how exactly it got that name,with theories ranging from it having been taken from the local word for “carpenter” to the appellation being derived from one of its former rulers. There is no firm consensus on this yet, as is often the case for cities this old: documents indicate that the place already existed as early as 500BCE. What is generally acknowledged and universally accepted, though, is that it held some of the most prominent higher-learning instructors during its time, taking in students from all over what is now known as India and Pakistan, with people coming to study with its teachers even from as far as present-day Varanasi. Both princes and relative paupers were taught here, with the instructors scorning tuition payments: in Taxila, knowledge was held to be for all.
There is a museum dedicated to storing the artefacts found here, so it may be wise to visit that first of all if you really want to see the minutiae and appreciate the details before heading over to the dig sites themselves. From ancient coins to Hellenic gold sculptures (those familiar with Alexander the Great’s conquests should remember that one king of Taxila, Taxiles, actually surrendered to him), you shall find no dearth of fascinating and centuries-old items here.
Now as for the sites themselves, there are so many of them that it may take well over a day to fully appreciate each one. The Sirkap and Jaulian sites tend to draw a lot of attention, in particular, probably because they are fairly well-preserved. The former has definite hints of Greek influence (Demetrius I, the Greek Bactrian king was its ruler, after all), while the latter holds a Buddhist stupa as well as monastery. The stupa has certainly seen better days: it has suffered significant damage. But the monastery is still in remarkably fine shape, with even the walls separating rooms still distinct and many of the other rooms of the complex yet discernible from each other.
Taxila has even more to offer to the history-loving traveller, and most of it cannot be expressed in words alone: there is nothing quite like going to an archaeological site and feeling the ancient dust and stones for yourself. Fortunately for tourists, getting to Taxila is easy, as it is located in Rawalpindi (the district). From the capital, it is a mere 32km away, and international travellers can actually touch down at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport outside Islamabad, then head right on to it.