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One of the grandest ancient cities of South Asian history has been hidden since time immemorial. Somewhere in the hills of Pakistan’s salt range sleeps one of the grandest ancient cities of South Asia: Singhapura.

A city once defined as a 3 mile long metropolis in the Buddhist heartland of Gandhara said to be surrounded by stupas and dragon lakes. A city whose only proper reference is found in a nearly 1300 year old text written by a traveller.

Of The Lost City of the Lion.

The ancient land of Gandhara in Pakistan’s north western portions stretching across Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and northern Punjab once formed the core of the Buddhist world and was one of the primary vehicles in the spread of Buddhism in Central and later East Asia. Thus Gandhara enjoyed extreme reverence amongst the Buddhist world and due to its vast Buddhist heritage, it witnessed a large amount of pilgrimage from Buddhists especially from East Asia

Much of what transpired in modern Pakistan in the turbulent 1st millennium CE, we know due to ancient accounts left behind by Buddhist travellers and pilgrims. Of these the Chinese traveller Xuanzang’s accounts are extremely significant who visited modern Pakistan right after the devastating Hunnic invasions in the initial half of the 7th century. In his works known as “Records of the Western Countries” Xuanzang left the ancient metropolis of Taxila in June 631 CE and embarked south east into the salt range travelling 140 miles to visit an even larger metropolis of a city state known as Singhapura – City of the Lion.

The reference to the lion in the name of the city is seen by various scholars to be a reference to Buddha. Often in Buddhist texts and Sutras links between Buddha and the lion were made.

Xuanzang describes a vast kingdom by the same name with its western border being the Indus River. The capital known as Singhapura he described as 14 li which equals 3 miles in circuit making it larger than the Sirsukh settlement of ancient Taxila which was recorded to be roughly 2 miles in circuit. He describes the city to be naturally strong due to being surrounded by steep rocks and cliffs, a characteristic still retained by the Salt Range. The climate cold and the land not very cultivated yet high in produce. The people he calls fierce who highly valued the quality of courage and the courageous.

As surprising as it is, he mentions no details of the vast city itself but rather describes the surroundings in which he describes multiple areas of importance from a Buddhist lens. Surrounding the city was the first stupa which was built by King Ashoka and was associated with spiritual wonders. Attached to it was an old monastery now abandoned, as was a characteristic of various monasteries after the catastrophic Hunnic invasions.

The second stupa too had been built by Ashoka but surprisingly was colossal reaching a height of 200 feet. Nearby were 10 water filled tanks or lakes which were secretly connected with each other. In these tanks lived dragons and fish of various kinds; The fierce tribes of the water.

Here he describes another monastery where nearby in a sacred spot live a people he describes as the “white robed heretics”. This is a reference to the followers of the Svetambara branch of Jainism. He also mentions of a temple nearby before the account of Singhapura closes forever and Xuanzang moves on with his travels.

The account of Singhapura is surprising. Not only does it lack the detail of the city but it is also very brief and obscure for such a large city and kingdom. So obscure it was that for 171 years it’s search had been alive but to no avail. Until 2014.

In 2014, two scholars from Punjab attempted to once again discover the lost city. They narrowed down 3 areas, Katas, Murti, and Sheranwala Sarkaar. The former 2 had been identified by former historians as the city but had failed to satisfy the search completely. The 3rd was a surprising entry.

Up on a mound in the salt range was located a shrine known as Sheranwala Sarkaar – Shrine of the Lion Saint. The two mounds identified near the shrine were seen to be circular and had certain dome like features which are characteristic of older stupas in Gandhara. After hefty surveys of the region and all 3 sites, the scholars were of the opinion that it is the shrine which may mark the spot of one of the 2 stupas. Excavations here and further tracing would eventually lead Pakistani archaeologists to the sleeping city of our ancestors. It would be most fortuitous if we get to witness that the discovery of the lost city of Singhapura.

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  • Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am going through troubles with your RSS. I don’t understand why I can’t join it. Is there anybody else having the same RSS problems? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!

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Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa