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Pakistan’s alternate history: how Taxila and the Margalla Hills were named after a Serpent King

Pakistan’s alternate history: how Taxila and the Margalla Hills were named after a Serpent King

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The lush green hills around Islamabad hide many ancient wonders, like the cave of Bari Imam where the sufi saint is said to have been visited by Jinns, Fairies and wild animals while he lived there for 12 years. Legend as has it that Bari Imam turned a deviant snake into a rock, which is still present in the cave. But the history of this hilly region dates back even further than the time of the sufi saint Bari Imam, and actually has links to a great serpent king from Buddhist and Hindu lore.

NAGAS - Central Asian Dragon Assn.
A Nagaraja carving in a temple

The ancient name of Taxila used to be Takshasila, and it is generally reported to be a Sanskrit word meaning the city of cut stone. However, few know that there is another origin story of the name of this ancient city involving a mighty serpent king. Takshaka is a nagaraja (serpent king) mentioned in both Buddhist and Hindu lore. In Chinese and Japanese mythology Takshaka is one of 8 great dragon kings. These dragons were believed to be flying serpents with great elemental powers. In Buddhist mythology these dragons assembled to hear the Buddha’s reveal the Lotus sutra, and are said to be the guardians of the Buddha. These dragons were originally referred to nagarajas in the South Asian region before buddhist monks spread Buddhism and its legends out to East Asia where they became the eight great dragon kings (八大龍王, Hachi Ryuu-ou).

As the Amazon burns, the Mahabharata episode of Khandava forest fire serves up an important reminder
The burning of Khandava forest

In Hindu mythology, Takshaka was the king (nagaraja) of the Naga people, a race of supernatural half serpent and half human beings. The story of the serpent king Takshaka is narrated in the Mahabharata, where it is said that the Naga people were driven out of their kingdom in the Khandava forest after, the heroes of the Mahabharata, Krishna and Arjun burnt down the forest at the behest of the fire god Agni. Takashaka was not present when his people were burnt and driven out of the forest, thus in order to avenge his people he took the form of a poisonous snake and bit Arjun’s grandson, the King Prakshit and killed him. Takshaka and his half human and half snake subject had established another stronghold at modern day Taxila, which took its name from its serpent king and was called Takshasila.

Astika asking Janamejaya to stop the burning of the serpents

The story of the serpent king continues in the Mahabharata, when the King Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, waged war against Takashaka at Takshasila in retaliation for his father’s killing. Takashaka lost the war to Janamejaya, but he and his people were spared after the intervention of a learned sage, Astika. Takshashila was considered a place of great religious and historical significance by both Hindus and Buddhists, because, it was the seat of Vedic learning, as the strategist, Chanakya who later helped consolidate the empire of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, was a senior teacher there. Takshasila is also of great importance in Buddhist tradition as it is believed that the Mahāyāna sect of Buddhism took shape there.

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The story of the Serpent King Takshaka is believed to be one of theories behind the ancient name of Taxila. The legend of the serpent king also spread to the surrounding areas and likely influenced the name of the Margalla Hills. The Pashto and Persian words for snake are ‘Mar’, and scholar Al-Biruni reported that the area of the Margalla Hills used to be known as Mar-i-Qilla which in Persian means the fortress of serpents. Over time this name is believed to have been corrupted into being pronounced as Margalla.

Margalla Hills - Virily

The sinuously winding shape of the hills and the local wildlife, which includes snakes, also probably contributed to the serpent related name of the hills. The little known history of this area is a testament to the extraordinary variety of civilisations that once inhabited Pakistan.

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