At the foothills of the Margallas on the north-western side of Islamabad, the historic caves are believed to be around 2,400 years old with some Buddhist murals and relics engraved on them that date back to the 8th century as identified by archaeologists.
At the culmination of the posh D-12 Sector of the federal capital, the limits of Shah Allah Ditta village start and one cannot ignore the stark lifestyle difference between the residents of Islamabad and dwellers of its suburbs.
One has to drive past the village to reach the place where a huge banyan tree is hovering over the caves that are dug deep into the mountains. On one side of the caves, a freshwater spring is flowing while on the other side a restaurant is established by some local landlord.
Archaeologists believe that initially the caves were carved out by the Buddhist monks who meditated in the secluded places in the wilderness as a large Buddhist settlement existed across the mountains at Taxila.
Later on, with the domination of the Hindu civilization in the region, the sadhus (Hindu ascetics) took control of the caves and the footprints of their presence here were also found.
After the establishment of Mughal rule in the subcontinent, a Sufi saint, Shah Allah Ditta, came and settled in the area.
His preaching led to the conversion of the local Hindus and people of other religions to Islam. This is the reason the village was named after Shah Allah Ditta.
The village is said to have been established sometime in the second half of the 15th century by Mughal Emperor Akbar and is located near the road built by Sher Shah Suri.
There are remains of an old water well in the middle of the village, believed to have been dug following the orders of Emperor Akbar, for the people coming and going to Kabul.
It is believed that most of the invaders used the relatively lower-altitude mountain tracks for entering the plains of the Punjab and the passages were part of the historic Silk Route.
Tales from another time
An old man, in his late 80s, introducing himself as Malik Rab Nawaz, informed Bol News that he had heard tales of the Hindu worshippers living in these caves by his grandfather.
There are many Buddhist stupas in and around Taxila, some of which are very much revered by the Buddhist community, archaeologists say. Foreign Buddhist monks even in modern times used to visit these places as part of their religious rituals but over the past few years, first due to the poor law and order situation and now due to the Corona pandemic, no foreign visitors are seen here.
The Potohar region is famous for Buddhist heritage, and there were traces of a Buddhist university in Taxila during ancient times called Takshashila. The Brahman philosopher and strategist Chanakya used to teach Chandragupta Maura here in 324 BC.
Climbing up the mountains from the side of the caves leads to a well called the Losar Baoli and a mosque built by Shahabuddin Ghori. But now there is only a stone-pitched platform which once could have been the courtyard of the mosque while the main structure of mosque does not exist anymore.
Perhaps traditionally or due to extreme poverty, some people still live in the caves in some parts of Khanpur and the Taxila area. In the mountains, surrounding these areas, some people have dug caves and are either living there or keeping their animals in the caves.
Interestingly, Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad had also dug a cave in his farmhouse near the Fatehjang area.
The residents of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad visit the caves but most of them come here for picnic and have little knowhow of the historic significance of the place.
The locals living in and around the area raised the importance of the conservation of the centuries-old caves which are of great archaeological value but there seems negligible attention from the authorities concerned.
Although the Capital Development Authority in 2010 had approved a plan for the preservation of the 2,400-year-old caves, no significant steps were seen for the preservation of the archaeological site. The plan envisages conservation of the Buddhist caves as well as the adjacent garden known as Sadhu Ka Bagh.