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Exploring the Khyber Pass: A Journey through History and Heritage

September 22, 2023


On August 1, 2022, Dr. Abdul Samad, Director of Archaeology & Museums, KP, led a field trip to Khyber Pass. The trip took two hours. We drove through communities that resembled those in Thailand’s far north, close to the Thai-Burmese border. The absence of as many trees as in Thailand is the only distinction. High earthen walls enclose small communities in mountain villages. Some are homes to wealthy individuals connected to the local ethnic communities and are generally self-governing. Their homes feature long, tall walls along the road and resemble military bases more than mansions.

Historical Significance of the Khyber Pass

The pass, alongside the British army-built railway from Jamrud to Landi Kotal, was formerly utilized as a caravan route close to the Afghan border. In 2468 BE, the railway was made operational; it is currently abandoned. The Pass crosses 94 bridges, 34 mountain tunnels, and drainage structures along the way, indicating a well-organized transportation infrastructure. The Pass connects Jamrud’s north to Torkham, making traveling through the Khyber easier.

The Khyber Pass has a long history of imperialism, including Persian, Greek, Mughal, Afghan, and British. It is a strategically important territory in world politics. It serves as Jambudvipa’s entryway to the outside world, opening to China and Europe in the West.

Darius, the Great of Persia, led his soldiers through the Khyber Pass in the fifth century BC (44BE), captured the territory around the Kabul River, and extended his rule to the Indus Valley. The same thing was done by Alexander the Great. Under Ashoka’s rule, Buddhism grew strongly in the Khyber region in the third Buddhist century. The Maurya army also used the Khyber Pass to expand their dominance into the Kabul River region from Maajjhima-desa in Jambudvipa (Magadha janapada). Additionally, Buddhism was transmitted by this Pass. The Kafir Kot (Citadel of the Kafirs), Sphola Stupa (Khyber Top), and Stupa near Ali Masjid are stupa remains that serve as proof.

We stopped and paid respects to the Sphola Stupa, presently protected by the Pakistani army. The general public cannot access it. We wouldn’t be let there if it weren’t for a business trip. We were greeted by members of the army, police, local administration, and KP Archaeology, who informed us that “MV Arayawangso was the first monk to visit the Khyber Top.”

Visit to Sphola Stupa

We observed the ardent rehabilitation work on the sizable stupa, located atop a little hill and easily accessible by automobile because the railroad line is no longer in use. This stupa can be found if you go to the Khyber Pass. Dr. Samad stated that great effort is being made to restore it to its original Sanchi shape, indicating that it was constructed during the Ashoka era. The anticipated completion date is 2564 B.E. or three years. There are two more years to go. Based on the population’s progress and enthusiasm, this is likely.

I’d like to help with the Khyber Top (Sphola Stupa) repair. I invited the disciples who came with me to contribute 100,000 Baht (600,000 Pakistani Rupees) to the refurbishment of the stupa and to support the building of a statue of the Gandharan Buddha seated in meditation. According to the original design of the KP museum, the Buddha will be positioned on a platform in front of the stupa. At the Sphola stupa, we offered homage to the Triple Gem and prayed for the renovation’s success. May the stupa continue to serve as an essential reminder of the advanced culture in the Khyber.

The talk was summarised as follows:

The Afridi Tribe is responsible for maintaining the Buddhist shrine known as Sphola or Shopla Stupa in Khyber Pass, which is under the overall control of the Pakistani government. It is around 25 kilometers from Jamrud, on a high rock platform with layers of rocks supporting the stupa’s base and facing a valley with a mountain in the background.

The Ashoka and Kushan eras could be connected to the stupa. The Peshawar Museum today has priceless sculptures from the Sphola stupa and treasures from the Gandharan Buddhist tradition. The Shopla Stupa, the sole Buddhist structure in the Khyber Pass, should be maintained and rebuilt for its spiritual significance along this ancient path.

We appreciate KP Archaeological Museum’s excavation and restoration efforts and the fact that they saved the site from merely becoming a military roadblock as in the past. We halted at Michni Check post, a military topographical evaluation building in a prime location, after traveling 20 minutes from Sphola. The Afridis tribe’s chief welcomed us in the traditional Pashtun manner. I was given a tribal leader’s cap as an honor because I was the first official Buddhist monk to travel there. 

They wanted to put it on me, but the Thai followers told them I couldn’t wear it since I’m a monk. Instead, a ceremony was held to give me the hat. I accepted it as usual and was grateful for their respect and politeness. They gave me a pair of binoculars to view the scenery of the Khyber Pass as soon as we arrived at the building for topographic assessment. Their officers spoke on the history of the Khyber Pass, its significance as a symbol of various civilizations, and its connections to the Silk Road and religion.

Sphola Stupa’s Cultural and Historical Significance

To honor the Sphola Stupa, MV Arayawango made a second trip to Khyber Pass. This one is the only Maha-Stupa from King Ashoka’s time still standing in Khyber Pass. It signifies the expansion of Buddhism into this region and demonstrates the connection between the Kabul Basin and Central Asia during the third Buddhist century.

This voyage aimed to carry out a significant religious duty for the welfare of humankind. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province’s Archaeology and Museum Division has permitted MV Arayawangso to do this activity himself on top of the stupa. As a result, images of the Most Venerable chanting the Paritta, meditating, and dispersing merit on top of the enormous stupa are visible.

There was yet another noteworthy occasion. Most Venerable performed an alms circuit of the stupa after descending. Alms were primarily provided as Pashtun food by a group of Thai devotees of Buddhism led by Mr. Abdul Samad, Director of the Archaeological and Museum, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Following that, MV bestowed his blessings by reciting the Anumodhanarambha-gatha at the stupa for everyone’s benefit and happiness and to demonstrate that “religious activities can be undertaken at any location throughout the land of Buddhist Civilization.

It is more than just a location where tourists can visit to learn about old Buddhist art. This demonstrates that Buddhists worldwide can practice their religion at any Buddhist place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Sincere gratitude is hereby expressed to the relevant Government of Pakistan officials, particularly to Dr. Abdul Samad, Director of the Archaeology and Museum of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and to the entire staff, including the police officers who have overseen security at all locations where the MV Arayawangso has traveled.

Acknowledgment and Gratitude

The sphola stupa, which lies 40 kilometers from Peshawar on the road through the Khyber Agency, is a stone mound supported by a tiered base on a steep rocky ledge. The stupa’s dome rests on a three-tiered base made of stones. According to legend, this stupa was built in the second century, at the end of the Kushan Empire. According to specific sources, it was created sometime between the third and fifth centuries. This is the most comprehensive Buddhist monument on the renowned Khyber Pass, serving as a reminder of the relationship between Buddhism and the great Kushan Empire.

Despite not always mentioning it by name, British military personnel have marked the site of the Sphola Stupa. Since the early half of the 19th century, they have referred to the enormous edifice in their reports Gerard first made G.P. This allusion. French General Claude Auguste Court also made several archaeological discoveries while the Sikhs controlled Punjab, visiting the Buddhist sites Takht-i-Bhai, Kashmir Smast, Banamari, and Shahbaz Garhi. 

He noted that Jalalabad and areas close to the Khyber Pass held most of the ancient ruins found along the Khyber Pass. The latter are known as Pishboulak and are located on the Safid-koh mountain range’s northern flank. According to James Fergusson, Pishboulak is the Khyber equivalent of the Shpola Stupa. After visiting these locations in 1837 with his companion Mr. Gonsalves, Captain Alexander the Great Burnes of the Bombay Army drew the stupa’s initial sketch and sent it to Mr. James Prinsep, the Asiatic Society of Bengal’s secretary at the time, along with a letter explaining that the stupa was situated close to “Lal Baig Kagarhi” in the past and had not yet been opened by treasure hunters.

Architectural Details of Sphola Stupa

A few years later, William Simson mentioned the Shpola Stupa to the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. In his major book on the History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, James Ferguson studied the layout and specifics of the architecture. The first formal visit to Shpola Stupa after the Frontier Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India was established was made in 1916 to examine its structure, create its plan and sectional drawings, and take photographs of the remaining ruins.


The stupa is set atop a plinth anchored by a sizable retaining wall. The plinth has moldings and is constructed in three gradually receding layers. The uppermost layer is divided into bays surrounded by Corinthian capital-styled pilasters. The cylindrical drum that supports the stupa’s dome is embellished with a modillion cornice. The stupa’s dome is 30.4 meters in diameter and 13.7 meters high. On the northern side are the stairs going to the base’s summit.

The Shpola Stupa’s general layout and the size and quality of its construction are strikingly similar to those of the stupas in the Taxila Valley. It appears to have roots in the same era—the third to fourth century CE.

Questions and Answers

Q1. What is the main focus of this narrative, and what is the key theme?

Ans. The narrative focuses on a journey through the Khyber Pass and its historical and cultural significance. The key theme is the preservation of Buddhist heritage in the region.

Q2. Who led the field trip to the Khyber Pass, and what is the significance of the landscape along the route?

Ans. Dr. Abdul Samad, Director of Archaeology & Museums, KP, led the trip. The landscape resembles communities in Thailand’s far north, except for fewer trees.

Q3. Why is the Khyber Pass historically significant, and which civilizations have influenced it?

Ans. The Khyber Pass has been influenced by Persian, Greek, Mughal, Afghan, and British civilizations. It is strategically important and serves as an entryway to Jambudvipa, connecting to China and Europe.

Q4. What historical figures are associated with the Khyber Pass?

Ans. Figures like Darius, Alexander the Great, and Ashoka have connections to the Khyber Pass.

Q5. Can you describe the Sphola Stupa and its significance?

Ans. The Sphola Stupa is a stone mound with a tiered base. It is significant for its historical and Buddhist connections.

Q6. Why is access to the Sphola Stupa restricted, and what restoration efforts are being made?

Ans. Access is restricted due to its protection by the Pakistani army. Restoration efforts aim to restore it to its original shape, likely from the Ashoka era.

Q7. What is the author’s commitment regarding the Sphola Stupa, and what role do the author’s disciples play?

Ans. The author is committed to supporting the stupa’s restoration and the building of a Gandharan Buddha statue. The author’s disciples have contributed financially to this cause.

Q8. Why is the Sphola Stupa culturally and historically significant?

Ans. It is culturally and historically significant due to its connection to the Ashoka and Kushan eras and its role in Buddhism. The Peshawar Museum preserves artifacts from the stupa.

Q9. What role does the Afridi Tribe play in maintaining the Sphola Stupa?

Ans. The Afridi Tribe is responsible for maintaining the stupa, which is under the overall control of the Pakistani government.

Q10. How does the Sphola Stupa’s architecture compare to other regional stupas?

Ans. Its architecture shares similarities with stupas in the Taxila Valley, likely from the same era – the third to fourth century CE.

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