Pakistan’s Department of Archeology and Museums (DoAM) has announced that it plans to start conservation work on the Shah Allah Ditta caves, just north of Islamabad. The conservation plans have been drafted by Pakistan’s Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, National History and Literary Heritage, and the DoAM.
Though overshadowed by other, more prominent Buddhist sites in Pakistan, the 2,500-year-old Buddhist caves near Shah Allah Ditta village, at foot of the Margalla Hills—part of the Himalayan foothills—combined with the region’s pleasant climate, lush green surroundings, and historic importance, attract hundreds of visitors each weekend.
The centuries-old murals of the caves and the road leading to Shah Allah Ditta village, however, are crumbling away under the region’s harsh weather conditions and unregulated tourist and research activities, and require immediate conservation and maintenance efforts to be preserved.
According to Abdul Azeem, director of archeology at the DoAM, archeological experts will start conservation efforts within a week, after the required funds are released. He noted that encroachments at the site had already been removed by the relevant authorities.
In June last year, the executive committee of the Archaeology and Literary Heritage Endowment Fund approved Rs3.6 million (US$27,000) for the preservation and promotion of the site, but to date little effort to preserve the caves and their ancient murals has been made.* In a recent meeting, the executive committee stressed the necessity of the conservation effort and asked for it to be completed within a given timeframe.
The archeological team has already collected the necessary data regarding the historical site, and will commence its work under the supervision of a three-member committee including archeological expert Abdul Ghafoor Lone and site supervisor Arshad Khan, who will oversee the project and properly collect and document any relics discovered at the site.
The caves, known locally as Sadhu ka Bagh, are located next to the shrine and tomb of Shah Allah Ditta, a Mughal-era dervish. The caves contain 2,400-year-old Buddhist murals that can still be seen on the walls, as well as Buddhist relics dated to the eighth century. According to archaeologists, the caves and the natural platform-like formations surrounding them were used for meditation by Buddhist monks, Hindu sadhus, and Muslim ascetics during the Mughal period.
From a distance, it seems as if the caves are hidden behind ancient trees that cover their entrances with leafy vines and function as their natural guardians. However, the exposed façades of the caves are in a decrepit state, having endured harsh weather conditions for many centuries, and later unregulated tourism. The weather and tourism have also had an effect on the murals inside the caves, which are said to be crumbling off the walls and in need of immediate attention.
According to researchers, the nearby Shah Allah Ditta village (itself 700 years old) once lay on a trade route between Kabul to the Gandharan city of Taxila used by Alexander the Great and Sher Shah Suri, the founder of the Suri empire, and later by Mughal rulers and other emperors as a route between Afghanistan and India.
Preservation efforts at the Shah Allah Ditta caves might be part of a larger focus on the preservation and development of ancient sites in Pakistan. For instance, on 8 January, Pakistan’s minister for National History and Literary Heritage Shafqat Mehmood mentioned that the government planned to establish a heritage fund for the upkeep and preservation of archeological and cultural sites across the country. Seperately, the embassy of the Republic of Korea recently adonated US$50,000-worth of state-of-the-art equipment for the conservation and preservation of Buddhist artifacts in the country.**
* Shah Allah Ditta Buddhist Caves in Pakistan in Need of Preservation (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Korea Extends Support for Pakistan’s Efforts to Preserve Buddhist Heritage (Buddhistdoor Global)
Conservation work of Shah Allah Ditta Caves to begin next week (The News International)
Ministry to preserve history of Shah Allah Ditta caves (The Express Tribune)
National history ministry devises strategy to preserve Shah Allah Ditta caves (ARY News)